Daniel Fierman
April 17, 1998 AT 04:00 AM EDT

While looking for an animator to create shorts for Fox’s Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, James L. Brooks found Simpsons creator Matt Groening right in front of his nose. Literally. The producer of the weekly variety hour had a Groening cartoon titled ”The Los Angeles Way of Death” hanging by his desk.

”It wasn’t long before the tail started wagging the dog,” remembers Brooks. Groening, then 33, had never animated before and originally planned to use characters from his syndicated weekly strip, Life in Hell. But Fox wanted — and got — the rights to whatever the artist produced for the show. ”I thought I had a pretty good gig drawing my weekly comic strip,” chuckles Groening. ”And who knew if this was going to pan out? I mean, it was Fox.” So 15 minutes before the follow-up meeting, he cooked up a family called the Simpsons. The characters were named after members of Groening’s family (though Bart was originally dubbed ”Matt”), and their faces were adapted from Groening’s old high school sketches. Brooks asked Ullman regulars Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner to voice Homer and Marge, and Yeardley Smith (Lisa) and Nancy Cartwright (Bart) came aboard after 10 other people auditioned.

Aired on April 19, 1987, the first short featured Marge, in animated blue-beehive form, warbling ”Rock-a-Bye Baby” to a primitively drawn Maggie, who imagined herself living out the terrifying lyrics of the lullaby. The development team was pleased, but Fox remained wary. Forty-nine more proudly simplistic shorts were broadcast over two years — ”There was lots of clobbering and falling down stairs,” winces Groening — until Fox execs finally commissioned 13 full episodes for a prospective series. A half-hour Christmas special, ”Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” aired on Dec. 17, 1989, with regular weekly episodes beginning the following January, and Simpsons mania took off. By 1990, there would be more than 70 Simpsons spin-off products and Bart T-shirts were selling at a clip of nearly a million per day. ”I put this magazine cover of Bart on my wall,” says Brooks. ”By the end of the year, the wall was covered from top to bottom, and I just looked at it and thought I guess that’s what it looks like when something catches on.” Ay, caramba, indeed.

Time Capsule: April 19, 1987

At the movies
Michael J. Fox’s yuppie farce The Secret of My Success debuts at No. 1, where it will stay for five weeks and ultimately gross more than $65 million.

On the tube
The Huxtables remain America’s favorite clan, reigning in the Nielsens for the third straight year. The appearance of the Simpson family doesn’t bode well for Cliff and company, however. In 1990, the Fox upstart moved opposite Cos, splitting viewership and ending Cosby‘s rule.

On the music charts
George Michael’s teaming with Aretha Franklin for ”I Knew You Were Waiting (for Me)” makes the top slot. It’s the first No. 1 song for Franklin since 1967’s ”Respect.”

And in the news
Already reeling from the Iran-contra scandal, President Reagan learns of a White House study that recommended nearly a third of his covert operations be scrapped.

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