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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.”

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Big Questions
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
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In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
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This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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

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What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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