On April 19, 1987, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie made their debut during a short on The Tracey Ullman Show. Two years later, Fox gave them their own program. In the three decades since, The Simpsons has become an American institution. To celebrate the 30th birthday of the greatest set of television characters of all time, let’s look back at the stories behind the 100 best Simpsons episodes.
To compile this list, I sought feedback from both hardcore Simpsons fans and former members of the show’s creative staff. Still, it was an inherently subjective undertaking. "You could choose every other episode from the first 200 episodes for your top 100 and you wouldn’t be too far off," one Simpsons writer told me. I don’t claim to be a scientician, but I tried to be meticulous. So crack open a Duff and enjoy.
Below you’ll find numbers 50 to 41 of our top-100 ranking. Click here for the entire list.
50. "Lisa the Vegetarian"
Season 7, Episode 5
Airdate: October 15, 1995
Writer: David X. Cohen
David X. Cohen once described Simpsons writers to me as "a pack of drooling, hungry animals. We were thinking about food a disproportionate amount of the time." So it’s no surprise that one day Cohen pitched a story about Lisa giving up meat. A vegetarian and Beatles obsessive, showrunner David Mirkin approved of the concept and asked Paul and Linda McCartney to guest star. The world’s two most famous vegetarians obliged and appear in the episode, in which the sight of a cute petting zoo lamb causes Lisa to question — the agony in Yeardley Smith’s vocal performance is palpable — whether she should be eating animals.
"Lisa the Vegetarian" is full of memorable sight gags, lines, and genuine emotion. When Lisa refuses to dissect a worm and asks for a meat-free lunch, she triggers Springfield Elementary’s Independent Thought Alarm. Troy McClure narrates a chilling educational film called Meat and You: Partners in Freedom that features a little boy visiting the killing floor of a slaughterhouse. ("Right next to good jokes, I liked jokes that were very disturbing," Mirkin said in 2015. "I liked to disturb and shock as much as laugh.") Bart and Homer tease Lisa by singing "You don’t win friends with salad." In the climactic scene, she angrily drives a mower through Homer’s barbecue. Then, while meeting the McCartneys on the secret garden on the roof of the Kwik-E-Mart, Lisa has an epiphany. "I learned long ago, Lisa, to tolerate others rather than forcing my beliefs on them," fellow vegetarian Apu tells her before she apologizes to Homer. "You know, you can influence people without badgering them always."
The episode remains one of pop culture’s warmest, most realistic depictions of the decision to stop eating meat. "Vegetarians have sought me out and said how meaningful it was," Mirkin said. "It made them feel very validated."
49. "Bart Gets an Elephant"
Season 5, Episode 17
Airdate: March 31, 1994
Written by: John Swartzwelder
A zany premise — Bart wins a radio contest and chooses a gag prize of an African elephant instead of $10,000 — gives way to a hilarious, heartfelt episode. When the Simpsons realize they can’t afford to care for Stampy, they sell him to an ivory dealer named Mr. Blackheart. But before he can take the pachyderm, Stampy escapes with Bart. The two are eventually found in the Springfield Tar Pits, where Stampy saves Homer’s life. The family then decides to take the massive pet to the animal refuge. (The episode won an Environmental Media Award.)
"Bart Gets an Elephant" also contains the first use of a line that you’ve probably heard too many times. When Stampy itches himself on the side of the house, Bart says, "Look, he thinks he’s people." It popped up again on The Simpsons and later showed up on Archer.
48. "Brother From the Same Planet"
Season 4, Episode 14
Airdate: February 4, 1993
Written by: Jon Vitti
Angry at Homer for forgetting to pick him up at soccer practice, Bart tells the Bigger Brothers program that he doesn’t have a father. The organization connects Bart with Tom, a motorcycle-riding manly man played by Phil Hartman. (The part was written for Tom Cruise, who turned it down.) To get revenge on Bart, Homer becomes a Bigger Brother to a small boy named Pepi.
Meanwhile, Lisa struggles to break her addiction to teen heartthrob Corey’s hotline. (A sample call: "Here are some words that rhyme with Corey: glory, story, allegory, Montessori …") "Brother from the Same Planet" climaxes at Bigger Brothers Day at Marine World, where Homer and Tom engage in an epic fight that was inspired by a scene in The Quiet Man.
47. "Homer the Great"
Season 6, Episode 12
Airdate: January 8, 1995
Written by: John Swartzwelder
Homer transforms from a lonely outsider to the ultimate insider. When he learns about the Stonecutters, Springfield’s answer to the Freemasons, he’s upset that he hasn’t received an invitation to join. "Why don’t those stupid idiots let me in their crappy club for jerks?" he asks Marge before flashing back to a childhood memory of kids excluding him from the now-oft-referenced "No Homers Club."
The Stonecutters do end up letting Homer in (his father is a member, which qualifies him). As chapter leader Number One, guest star Patrick Stewart brings plenty of comedic gravitas to the proceedings. The Stonecutters’ song, "We Do" — sample lyric: "Who rigs every Oscar night? We do!" — is a Simpsons musical classic. Homer’s birthmark reveals him as the order’s Chosen One, but he squanders his status by asking (on Lisa’s suggestion) his brethren to help people instead of merely conspiratorially bro-ing out. The Stonecutters excommunicate him, but Homer learns that there’s more to life than just getting drunk and playing ping-pong.
46. "Selma’s Choice"
Season 4, Episode 13
Airdate: January 21, 1993
Written by: David M. Stern
Marge’s sarcastic, chain-smoking sisters, Patty and Selma, aren’t the most likable Simpsons characters. But occasionally their humanity peeks through. Take this episode: After Aunt Gladys’s funeral, everyone gathers to watch her video will. (Julie Kavner gamely voices five characters in the scene.) In the tape, Gladys leaves Patty and Selma her grandfather clock and implores them to start a family. (To her sister, Jackie, Gladys leaves her pet iguana that staff writer Conan O’Brien named Jub-Jub. At his urging, J.J. Abrams slipped the name into A Force Awakens.)
Touched by her aunt’s plea, Selma begins dating. It doesn’t go well. She even considers artificial insemination. (She looks through an embryo catalog containing one of the Sweathogs from Welcome Back, Kotter. "I checked," Selma said. "It’s not Horshack.") When Homer gets food poisoning (more on that later), Selma agrees to take Bart and Lisa to Duff Gardens. The trying experience — Bart raises hell while Lisa drinks the water on the "Little Land of Duff" ride and hallucinates like Hunter S. Thompson — causes her to rethink having kids. "I just couldn’t cut it today," she tells Homer, her nemesis. "All I wanted was a little version of me that I could hold in my arms." So, she adopts Jub-Jub, to whom she sings "You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)" as the credits roll.
And about Homer: He falls ill after eating a spoiled, 10-foot hoagie saved from a company picnic. The story of the sandwich, which he munches on as it decomposes, is hysterical. "The reason it’s funny is because it’s relatable," writer David M. Stern said. "You’ve been there at least once: There’s three-day-old pizza on the kitchen counter and you’re starving." Sometimes, Stern added, you just say, "Fuck it, I’m eating it anyway."
45. "Lisa’s Wedding"
Season 6, Episode 19
Airdate: March 19, 1995
Written by: Greg Daniels
Future-set sitcom episodes can be lame. This one is decidedly not. Through a fortune-teller at a Renaissance fair, Lisa sees herself as a 20-something. "The thing that I wanted to do was have you forget the present," writer Greg Daniels said. It’s 2010 and she’s about to marry Englishman Hugh Parkfield, who looks and sounds like Hugh Grant but is actually voiced by Mandy Patinkin. By then, as Marge notes, Fox gradually has "turned into a hardcore sex channel," grown-up Bart is getting into virtual bar fights, and Pepsi is sponsoring school programs.
Lisa ends up breaking off the engagement with Hugh when her disgusted fiancé suggests that she should cut her loving but uncouth family (especially Homer) out of her life. At that point, she returns to the present having learned a valuable lesson. As my friend who adores the episode put it: "I love how young Lisa realizes she shouldn’t be embarrassed of her father."
44. "I Love Lisa"
Season 4, Episode 15
Airdate: February 11, 1993
Written by: Frank Mula
Because Ralph Wiggum is such a one-note character, it’s difficult to build a story around him. But in this case, all The Simpsons needed to pull it off was one phrase. It was on a Valentine then-showrunner Al Jean received in the third grade. (It’s also on his wedding band.)
The line? "I choo-choo-choose you." In "I Love Lisa," the title character feels bad for Ralph and gives him a Valentine’s card with that message printed on it. Naturally, the simpleton takes it to mean that Lisa wants him to be her boyfriend. She spends the rest of the episode trying to let him down gently, but fails. At the taping of Krusty’s anniversary special that they attend together — Ralph surprises Lisa with tickets that he leaves in the "tunk" of a Malibu Stacy convertible — Ralph loudly proclaims his love for Lisa, who explodes on him in front of a TV audience. "You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half," Bart says while watching a tape of the event.
Lisa attempts to apologize to Ralph at the Presidents Day pageant, but he’s busy preparing to play George Washington. (Bart plays John Wilkes Booth like the Terminator, and there’s a memorable song about the mediocre presidents.) Ralph nails the role and makes up with Lisa, who gives him a card that says "Let’s Bee Friends." For the paste eater, it’s a rare but deserved moment of glory.
43. "A Streetcar Named Marge"
Season 4, Episode 2
Airdate: October 1, 1992
Written by: Jeff Martin
Chronically underappreciated and bored, Marge stars in a local theater production of A Streetcar Named Desire. In this musical version, she plays Blanche DuBois opposite Ned Flanders’s Stanley Kowalski. There’s a problem, however. She can’t summon the rage needed to properly depict the iconic character. "Stanley is thoughtless, violent, and loud," the director, voiced by Jon Lovitz, tells her. "Marge, every second you spend with this man, he is crushing your fragile spirit. You can’t let that happen." She quickly realizes that Homer is her Stanley. Channeling the visceral resentment she sometimes has toward her doltish husband, Marge unlocks Blanche. Her performance earns praise from a humbled Homer, who acknowledges that maybe he should start acting a little less like Stanley. Also: "A Streetcar Named Marge" features a superb subplot involving Maggie’s escape from the Ayn Rand School for Tots.
42. "The Last Temptation of Homer"
Season 5, Episode 9
Airdate: December 9, 1993
Written by: Frank Mula
What makes Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as Mindy Simmons so interesting is that it’s basically an impression of Homer. A sweeter, more slobbish version of Homer, but Homer nonetheless. So when they meet at the plant — Mr. Burns hires her after his offensive hiring practices are questioned — the attraction is instant. Mindy loves doughnuts and taking naps at work. Not even the ghost of Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes can help a smitten Homer. Neither can saying, "Think unsexy thoughts" and imagining Barney dancing in a bikini to the I Dream of Jeannie theme song helps.
When Homer and Mindy attend an energy conference together in Capital City, they grow closer. In cartoon form at least, Pfeiffer and Dan Castellaneta, who plays Homer, have chemistry. After they eat at a Chinese restaurant, Homer’s fortune cookie tells him that he "will find happiness with a new love."
"Well, desserts aren’t always right," Mindy says.
"But they’re so sweet!" a weepy Homer replies.
Mindy tells Homer to look in his heart to find what he wants. They briefly kiss. Then the camera cuts to Homer and Marge in bed in his hotel room. He’s made his choice. The episode ends with him singing a version of Barry Manilow’s "Mandy" but with Marge’s name swapped in. Homer may be a lout, but he’s a loyal lout.
41. "Lisa the Iconoclast"
Season 7, Episode 16
Airdate: February 18, 1996
Written by: Jonathan Collier
As Springfield’s voice of reason, Lisa Simpson is often dismissed as a buzzkill. But like history’s most famous truth-tellers, she’s undeterred by the public trying to shout her down. That’s the case in "Lisa the Iconoclast," in which she discovers that town founder Jebediah Springfield is not a valiant hero but rather a murderous pirate named Hans Sprungfeld. As the Springfield bicentennial celebration approaches, Lisa works to expose the lie despite everyone’s objections. Her essay "Jebediah Springfield: Super Fraud" earns her an F. "This is nothing but dead-white-male-bashing from a P.C. thug," Miss Hoover says.
But when Lisa finally has enough evidence to prove her claim, she keeps quiet, deciding that since the myth has "brought out the best in everyone in this town," it’s worth preserving. The admission is heartbreaking to watch, but it’s a reminder that even the most idealistic person every so often submits to pragmatism.
In addition to Homer’s memorable turn as town crier, the episode also introduces two words, embiggen and cromulent, that have entered the dictionary. It’s proof that The Simpsons hasn’t merely changed TV. It’s changed how we talk about the world.
Click here for episodes 40 to 31.
Return to The Ringer’s 100 Best ‘Simpsons’ Episodes.