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 80 to 71 of our top-100 ranking. Click here for the entire list.
80. "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish"
Season 2, Episode 11
Airdate: January 24, 1991
Written by: Nell Scovell
One of the most poignant episodes to air during The Simpsons’ first few seasons, "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish" centers on what Homer thinks will be the last day of his life. After eating shoddily prepared fugu at The Happy Sumo — the master chef is busy in the backseat of his car with Mrs. Krabappel, leaving an apprentice to cut the poison-filled blowfish — Homer is told by Dr. Hibbert that he has only 22 hours to live, adding, "Sorry I kept you waiting so long."
Homer spends his final hours on earth making amends and saying goodbye. (The writers pondered having Homer recover after the first act and then dedicate his life to community theater, but went with freelancer Nell Scovell’s initial idea.) His man-to-man talk with Bart is a highlight. "I want to share something with you," he says to his son. "The three little sentences that will get you through life. Number one: Cover for me. Number two: Oh, good idea, boss. Number three: It was like that when I got here."
After Homer makes it through the day and then falls asleep while listening to a Bible on tape narrated by Larry King, Marge finds him alive. It’s obvious that Homer will survive, but the moment is still affecting. Few comedies, animated or live-action, could pull that off.
79. and 78. "Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Parts One and Two)"
Season 6, Episode 25; Season 7, Episode 1
Airdates: May 21, 1995; September 17, 1995
Written by: Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein
Conceived after Matt Groening suggested doing a version of "Who Shot J.R.?" with Mr. Burns playing the title role, this two-parter was The Simpsons’ first crack at a mystery. Clues leading to the assailant dotted the intricately plotted episodes, which Fox promoted heavily. (Both convenience store chain 7-Eleven and ’90s relic 1–800-COLLECT ran ad campaigns around "Who Shot Mr. Burns?")
Soon after Part 1 aired to end Season 6, then showrunner David Mirkin said that he called local TV stations and left fake tips about the shooter’s identity in hopes that somebody would report it. "It was the only time in Hollywood where I really needed dishonest people, and I couldn’t find any," he said in 2015. "Generally they’re all over you like a cheap suit."
The culprit turned out not to be town drunk Barney Gumble, the character Oakley and Weinstein had initially imagined having committed the crime, but rather baby Maggie, from whom Burns had taken candy. That idea, pitched by Mirkin, caused Simpsons executive producer and comedy guru James L. Brooks to laugh. "That’s why he’s Brooks," Oakley said. "He has a knack for these kind of things. It’s a Simpson. It has to be a Simpson."
77. "The Cartridge Family"
Season 9, Episode 5
Airdate: November 2, 1997
Written by: John Swartzwelder
In "The Cartridge Family," The Simpsons tackle two of America’s most divisive issues: guns and soccer. After a riot at an international football match puts Springfield on edge, Homer buys a revolver, which he doesn’t use responsibly. The message isn’t anti-firearm, then-showrunner Mike Scully said in 2014, it’s that "guns in the hands of people like Homer Simpson are bad." (The NRA didn’t see it that way and complained.)
The episode features two perfect montages. The first is a fake Continental Soccer Association commercial that includes a list of stars whose mononyms were based on the names of jai alai players on whom Scully had gambled in the ’70s. The second depicts Homer’s agony while he’s waiting to pass a background check; it’s scored to the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song "The Waiting."
76. "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie"
Season 4, Episode 6
Airdate: November 3, 1992
Written by: John Swartzwelder
For an episode at least, Bart finds out that his actions have consequences. After he misbehaves one too many times — in one hysterical scene, Bart steals Grampa’s false teeth and goes wild — Homer forbids his son from seeing the upcoming blockbuster Itchy & Scratchy movie. For once, Homer sticks to his punishment and Bart actually learns his lesson. Two sequences in "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie" have been seared into my brain: a young Homer listening to "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" instead of watching the moon landing and a parody of Steamboat Willie called Steamboat Itchy.
75. "Summer of 4 Ft. 2"
Season 7, Episode 25
Airdate: May 19, 1996
Written by: Dan Greaney
This episode is for anyone who’s ever longed to shed the baggage that comes with being yourself. Upset at the fact that her image as an overachiever has led to unpopularity, Lisa ditches her persona during a summer vacation the Simpsons spend at the Flanders’ beach house in Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport. (Writers Dan Greaney and Steve Tompkins, both from Massachusetts, assembled the name of the Cape Cod–style town.) Buoyed by new clothes and a new attitude, Lisa makes friends with the cool kids, one of whom is voiced by Christina Ricci.
As Lisa enjoys herself, Homer schemes to get his hands on some contraband for July Fourth. In one oft-quoted scene, he asks the convenience store clerk for "one of those porno magazines, large box of condoms, a bottle of Old Harper, couple of those panty shields, and some illegal fireworks … and one of those disposable enemas. No, make it two." Homer is led to a backroom and sold the M-320. "Celebrate the independence of your nation," the clerk says, "by blowing up a small part of it."
Envious of Lisa’s new popularity, Bart reveals her true identity to her new friends. Initially taken aback, they end up embracing her for who she is: the girl who gets straight A’s and reads Gore Vidal.
74. "Treehouse of Horror"
Season 2, Episode 3
Airdate: October 25, 1990
Written by: John Swartzwelder, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, Sam Simon, and Edgar Allan Poe
The first "Treehouse of Horror" special illustrated how, at its best, The Simpsons managed to mix lowbrow and highbrow humor. After titillating the audience with a disclaimer by Marge — "If you have sensitive children, maybe you should tuck them into bed early tonight instead of writing us angry letters tomorrow" — the show launches into two parodies. The first is a violent send-up of horror movies like Poltergeist; the second is a spoof of the Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man." The third, improbably, is an actual reading of Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven."
The idea of executive producer Sam Simon, it featured Homer as the unnamed lead and Bart as the Raven. (James Earl Jones helps narrate.) Dropping a square peg of 19th-century American literature into the round hole of a prime-time sitcom may seem strange, but has The Simpsons ever cared about strictly adhering to convention? Nevermore.
73. "Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy"
Season 5, Episode 14
Airdate: February 17, 1994
Written by: Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein
The world of The Simpsons is chock-full of fictional products. It was time, the writers thought prior to Season 5, to put the spotlight on Malibu Stacy. The plot was inspired by a real event: Toy company Mattel took heat in 1992 when it was revealed that one of the phrases the new Teen Talk Barbie uttered was, "Math class is tough!" In the episode, Lisa is outraged to learn that the new Talking Malibu Stacy says things like, "Let’s bake some cookies for the boys!" When she asks the doll if it has anything relevant to say, it responds, "Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl!" (One girl is dismayed when her Malibu Stacy says, "My Spidey sense is tingling." That’s a reference to the real-life Barbie Liberation Organization, which in 1993 reportedly claimed to swap the voice boxes of 300 Teen Talk Barbies and G.I. Joe Talking Dukes.)
Lisa then enlists Waylon Smithers, the owner of the world’s largest Malibu Stacy collection, to help her track down the doll’s inventor, Stacy Lovell. (Bill Oakley’s wife, fellow TV writer Rachel Pulido, collected Barbie dolls. They’d met Smithers-like folks at Barbie conventions.) Forced out of her own company in 1974 for funneling profits to the Viet Cong, the Kathleen Turner–voiced Lavelle returns to help Lisa design her own doll.
Lisa Lionheart, its creator says, will "have the wisdom of Gertrude Stein and the wit of Cathy Guisewite." The doll sells well until the episode’s final scene, when a crowd of kids clamoring for a Lisa Lionheart notice a display of a new and improved Malibu Stacy — this time she comes with a hat. One girl ignores the crowd, however, and chooses a Lisa Lionheart. It’s the smallest of victories, but still one worth celebrating.
72. "Bart of Darkness"
Season 6, Episode 1
Airdate: September 4, 1994
Written by: Dan McGrath
Growing up in Brooklyn, writer Dan McGrath loved summertime. "We were the most popular family on the block because we had a pool," he said. In this episode, after much prodding of Homer by his kids during a heat wave, the Simpson family builds one of its own. Bart’s vacation is cut short, however, when he breaks his leg (Milhouse starts signing his cast, gets distracted, and writes "Milpool" before rushing off to swim). Dejected, he spends time alone in his room. At one point, Lisa finds a draft of a play Bart is writing. One of the characters is named Viceroy Fizzlebottom. "That’s exactly the kind of shit I used to write when I was 10 years old," McGrath said.
Feeling bad for her brother, Lisa gives him her telescope. Initially bored with it, his interest is piqued when he hears a high-pitched scream next door. Through the telescope lens, Bart sees Ned Flanders burying something. Convinced that Flanders has killed his wife, he investigates. The whole thing is a misunderstanding — Maude was at Bible camp "learning how to be more judgmental," the yelp was Ned’s, and he was actually burying a dead ficus — but it kept Bart busy during a crappy summer.
McGrath enjoyed working on the Rear Window homage: As a kid, he says he used to watch Hitchcock movies on TV with the sound turned down to see if he could solve the mystery without the benefit of dialogue.
71. "Bart the Murderer"
Season 3, Episode 4
Airdate: October 10, 1991
Written by: John Swartzwelder
One of the best mafia spoofs ever, the episode introduces mob boss Fat Tony, for whom Bart works as an errand boy. Voiced by actor Joe Mantegna, he looks (by design) like Paulie from Goodfellas. The character has appeared in dozens of episodes. "Who knew that Fat Tony was gonna resonate in the hearts and minds of the Simpsonites out there?" Mantegna told The A.V. Club in 2009.
Fat Tony’s crew’s nefarious reputation recently spilled over into real life. In 2014, big-haired character actor Frank Sivero sued The Simpsons for $250 million, claiming that the show used his likeness as the basis of Fat Tony’s henchman Louie.
Click here for episodes 70 to 61.
Return to The Ringer’s Top 100 ‘Simpsons’ Episodes.