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4 Simpsons Controversies That Didn't End in Lawsuits

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If you're a typical 21st century citizen, you've surely thought about suing The Simpsons for something. Maybe you're Tracy Ullman and you want some of the money you helped to spawn ("I breast-fed those little devils.")

Maybe you're a Russian father who sued a TV network for showing The Simpsons (and Family Guy)—you thought the shows were "morally degenerate" and were responsible for your son calling his mother a "toad."

Or maybe you're the Fox News Channel, threatening a suit after the show satirized your news crawls. Of course, if you're Fox News, you deny Matt Groening's claim about the threat, though Groening notes, "But now Fox has a new rule that we can't do those little fake news crawls on the bottom of the screen in a cartoon because it might confuse the viewers into thinking it's real news."

But it can't all be about money and lawsuits (especially since The Simpsons seems to win every time). So here are four Simpsons controversies that weren't settled in a courtroom (R.I.P., Mr. Hutz).

1. "I will not defame New Orleans"

Bart's Blackboard

Scholar Jonathan Gray argues that The Simpsons uses "hyper-stereotypes," which could get them in trouble. Not surprisingly, they've had to apologize a few times for perceived defamation. Some in Australia objected to "Bart vs. Australia" and many New Orleans residents did not like the first song in "Oh, Streetcar!"—the send-up of A Streetcar Named Desire—which indicated that the city was "home of pirates, drunks and whores . . . [and] tacky, overpriced souvenir stores." The writer, Jeff Martin, explained that the song was a parody of the opening number in Sweeney Todd, which paints London in a bad light. This particular problem resulted in an apology via chalkboard gag—"I will not defame New Orleans."

Brazil's rancor over being portrayed as home to thieves, kidnappers, and diseased monkeys in "Blame it on Lisa" did not rate the same mea culpa. The official tourism bureau almost sued, claiming that the episode would hurt tourism and undermine their $18 million dollar advertising campaign.

Perhaps the threat of a lawsuit is what led to producer James Brooks' strange apology: "We apologize to the lovely city and people of Rio de Janeiro, and if that doesn't settle the issue, Homer Simpson offers to take on the President of Brazil on Fox's Celebrity Boxing."

The Simpsons continued to agitate Brazil in later seasons, referring again to monkey infestations, indicating that a monkey was the head of tourism there, and calling Brazil "the most disgusting" place the family had ever visited.

2. The Simpsons: We've made some...changes

20th Century Fox Television

We watch the Super Bowl for the ads, and we watch The Simpsons for the Super Bowl ad parodies, right? In "Sunday, Cruddy Sunday," we see a scene familiar from an old ZZ Top video—sexy women coming out to do their job at a full-service gas station in the desert. The camera zooms onto one woman's cleavage, revealing her crucifix necklace. Cue voiceover: "The Catholic Church: We've made some . . . changes." Complaints (some organized) ensued, leading to the removal of "Catholic" in reruns of the show. The Catholic League noted in their 1999 Report on Anti-Catholicism: "One of the TV shows that used to bother [us], "˜The Simpsons,' no longer does."

3. The Simpsons vs. George H.W. Bush

20th Century Fox Television

The Simpsons has made fun of all recent Presidents (from Nixon on) and has taken a few shots at some of the famous and forgotten ones who came before, but they have a special relationship with Bush Sr. Surprisingly, this began with Barbara, who in a 1990 interview with People, said The Simpsons was "the dumbest thing [she] had ever seen." The writers at the show had Marge send off a letter defending her family (and implying that certainly Washington had some dumber people/things to see). Mrs. Bush wrote a prompt, polite response.

The next year, 1991, the Bushes were featured in "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington." Barbara gave a private tour of her bathroom and George moved decisively to remove a corrupt congressman when he learned through the pipeline that "a little girl [was] losing faith in democracy."

The real controversy began January 27th, 1992, when Bush declared to a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters: "We are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons." The Simpsons quickly wrote and animated a new sequence for "Stark Raving Dad," which would be rerun three days later. Bart and his family watch the clip of Bush's speech and Bart replies, "Hey, we're just like the Waltons. We're praying for an end of the depression, too."

It was not until four years later that The Simpsons got the final word—in "Two Bad Neighbors," George and Barbara move in across the street to the Simpsons. While George immediately takes a liking to Ned Flanders, he dislikes Bart, whom he sees as disrespectful.

Bush: You know, in my day, little boys didn't call their elders by their first names.

Bart: Yeah, well, welcome to the 20th century, George.

The episode casts Bart as Dennis the Menace and George as cranky Mr. Wilson until Bart accidentally destroys Bush's hand-typed memoirs, in which he claims, "And since I'd achieved all my goals as President in one term, there was no need for a second."

Bush spanks Bart and won't apologize for interfering with Homer's parenting. This leads to an escalation of tension and pranks until the inevitable fistfight in the sewer. The Bushes move away after Barbara forces Bush to apologize in front of Mikhail Gorbachev (after which Homer demands an apology "for the tax hike"). Homer gets along much better with his next neighbor, Gerald Ford.

4. Bart's Doodle

At the end of the "138th Episode Spectacular," host Troy McClure gives the audience a montage of what its always wanted: "hard-core nudity!" We were disappointed to see just a collection of the familiar bare backsides of our favorite characters. Hundreds of episodes later, the show rewarded our patience and our anti-prurience by giving us a full-frontal Bart in The Simpsons Movie. This almost earned the film an R rating (instead of the PG 13) and stirred up enough controversy to generate pre-movie buzz.
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Dr. Karma Waltonen teaches writing at the University of California, Davis, where she also teaches a freshman seminar on The Simpsons. She is co-authoring a book on teaching The Simpsons. Although she's a card-carrying Simpsonologist, she also works on literature, television, film, and popular culture through the ages. If you want more of Dr. Karma, you can find her at

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Big Questions
Did Tracey Ullman Get Rich Off The Simpsons?
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If you were born after 1989, you probably only know The Simpsons as a staple of Sunday night television on Fox. But before Springfield’s most beloved family had their own network sitcom, they were just one of several recurring sketches on The Tracey Ullman Show, a variety show in which the titular comedienne portrayed a variety of characters. (The Simpsons made their debut 30 years ago, on April 19, 1987.)

Ullman’s show, which was co-created by James L. Brooks, lasted for four seasons, with the final episode airing on May 26, 1990. But six months before that, The Simpsons had already moved on. After three seasons as part of Ullman's ensemble, Brooks developed the shorts into a half-hour animated sitcom that ended up becoming the then-burgeoning Fox network’s first big hit. Today, The Simpsons holds a number of Guinness World Records, including the one for longest-running sitcom. But, considering that they began their life on her show, did Ullman get a cut of the series’ success?

The short answer is: No.

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In 1991, Ullman filed a lawsuit against 20th Century Fox alleging four counts of breach of contract. According to the Los Angeles Times, the 14-page complaint alleged that Ullman’s contract with Gracie Films (Brooks’s production company) entitled her to “five to 10 percent of the net receipts of the merchandising and other profits from products or programs based on spinoff characters, including animated characters, even if those characters were originated by others.” And since The Simpsons began on The Tracey Ullman Show, she argued that she should be entitled to those profits.

Merchandising was, of course, a key part of The Simpsons’s financial success. The trade news source Licensing Letter estimated that The Simpsons raked in about $750 million in merchandising sales in 1990—making the animated family the third most popular “characters” that year, right behind the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and New Kids on the Block. It was reported at the time that Ullman did not name Gracie Films in the suit, so as not to damage her relationship with Brooks.

More than a year later, on October 22, 1992, a Superior Court jury sided with Fox and rejected Ullman’s lawsuit, which would have netted her an estimated $2.25 million at the time. Brooks, who testified during the trial, argued that The Simpsons was created by Matt Groening, with no creative input from Ullman.

Though Ullman was reportedly out of the country at the time, her lawyer, Michael Bergman, told Variety that he was “very disappointed. I think the jury did their best, but it was a very complex case ... and the issues just got lost somewhere along the line.”

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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Agentneedlez via YouTube
11 Events Correctly Predicted by The Simpsons
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Agentneedlez via YouTube

With the inauguration of President-Elect Donald Trump looming on January 20, it’s a good time to remember that Fox’s seminal animated sitcom, The Simpsons, has had an impressive track record for predicting future events: In March 2000, the show presented an alternate reality where Trump was in the Oval Office. Take a look at 10 other times Matt Groening’s dysfunctional family peered into their crystal ball—with surprisingly accurate results.


Vegas stage magicians Siegfried and Roy had spent decades performing with their stable of tigers without serious incident. In 1993, The Simpsons used stand-ins Gunter and Ernst—clear parodies of the European duo—to express the writing staff’s doubts that their track record would hold up: One of their tigers attacks them while performing in Mr. Burns's ill-fated Springfield casino. In 2003, Roy Horn was mauled by a tiger while on stage, severing an artery and leaving him with partial paralysis. Horn maintains the tiger bore him no ill will.


In a 1992 episode featuring Mr. Burns trying to sandbag competing softball teams by hiring professional baseball players, New York Yankee Don Mattingly is seen being kicked off the squad by the nuclear power czar over his long hair. (The animated Mattingly had only neat sideburns.) A month after recording his part, the real Mattingly was fined $250 by the real Yankees for refusing to cut his hair.


In 1994’s “Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song,” Principal Skinner is ousted from his seat after angering the superintendent. Unnoticed by his inspection: the fact that Lunchlady Doris prefers to prepare school lunches using giant tubs of horse parts. In 2013, several food producers in France, Sweden, and the UK were found to have distributed frozen burgers and other products that contained horse meat, an unwelcome additive they did not disclose on package labeling.


In a fall 2010 episode, Milhouse tries to impress longtime crush Lisa by contributing to a prediction sheet over who would win the Nobel Prize for Economics. His pick: Bengt Holmstrom of MIT. In 2016, Holmstrom was named a joint winner of the prize. (The episode’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Krusty the Clown, has yet to be honored by the committee.)


In a 2014 episode, Homer is petitioned by the head of an unnamed football (a.k.a. soccer) league to help foster a better image after allegations of corruption emerge; he’s quickly carried away in handcuffs. In 2015, FIFA, the world’s leading governing body of soccer, made headlines for a widespread scandal involving the arrest of seven FIFA executives for abusing their positions for financial gain.


During a 1995 rivalry with the residents of Shelbyville, Bart and his friends are puzzled by the disappearance of a lemon tree from within Springfield’s town limits. In 2013, a woman in Houston was similarly confused by the disappearance of her own lemon tree, which had been excavated from the ground and carted off. The victim, Kae Bruney, told local reporters that the thief was apparently too stupid to realize it was too late in the season to plant elsewhere.


Homer’s down-and-out half-brother, Herb, reversed his fortunes in a 1992 episode when his handheld baby-babble translating device became a sensation. In 2015, an app called the Infant Cries Translator purported to convert your child’s incoherent cries into something resembling speech. The app’s developers claim they analyzed the mewling of 100 newborns to help identify their particular diaper-related needs.


In the 1993 episode “Whacking Day,” Lisa Simpson is dismayed to see the town caught up in the annual tradition of hunting and killing overpopulated snakes. In 2013 and 2016, Florida’s Everglades region sanctioned a real whack-a-reptile contest in an attempt to curb the area’s dangerous abundance of invasive Burmese pythons. Organizers used the less-sensational name “Florida Python Challenge.”


In 2008, The New York Times declared “fryer grease has become gold” for its application as engine fuel after undergoing conversion and detailed a criminal who had siphoned nearly 2500 gallons of the stuff from a Northern California Burger King and other outlets. In 1999, Homer and Bart attempted a similar heist at the grade school’s cafeteria, before being stopped by Groundskeeper Willie.


Tri-eyed fish Blinky was pulled out of the water by Bart in a 1990 episode, a nod to the polluted environment surrounding Springfield’s nuclear power plant. In 2011, fishermen in Argentina caught a three-eyed specimen in a reservoir being fed water from a nearby nuclear power station.


Gaga's enthusiastic, airborne performance during the historic 2017 Super Bowl LI broadcast--the first game in the series' history to go into overtime--got rave reviews. It turns out she did a dry run in animation five years earlier. In a 2012 episode, Gaga (playing herself) soared over Springfield in a wire harness, much like she did in Austin's NRG Stadium. Of course, since Gaga was aware of what her cartoon counterpart did, maybe it was less a prediction and more inspiration.


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