Every fall in the early days of The Simpsons, the writers’ room would become a mini sportsbook. First there was James L. Brooks’s weekly Gracie Films pick ’em pool. “Which I spent way too many hours worrying about on Sundays,” writer Jon Vitti said in an email, “when I should have been out riding my bike or taking a walk.” Sam Simon, who co–executive produced the animated series with Brooks and creator Matt Groening, introduced his underlings to the guy taking his action. “He became a de facto bookie for the rest of us,” writer Jay Kogen says. “I’m pretty sure he’s dead now.”
On Sundays, the writers watched the NFL’s afternoon games at Simon’s house with the aid of his giant, pre-DirecTV satellite dish. “When I very first got onto the show, Sam Simon asked if I was a football fan,” writer Jeff Martin says. “I said I was really much more of a baseball fan. And I could tell he thought a little less of me.”
At least once the writers took a trip to Las Vegas, where Kogen recalls one of his colleagues wagering “a small fortune” on Denver to beat San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIV. (It wasn’t the last time that the Broncos severely disappointed someone associated with the show.) “[The writers’ room] is where I learned to not give a shit about football teams,” says Kogen, a lifelong Los Angeles sports fan. “And just give a shit about the spread.”
Soon enough, betting on the NFL became the backbone of an episode of The Simpsons—one that, notably, aired just days before Super Bowl XXVI. “Lisa the Greek,” which premiered 30 years ago last month, follows the titular character as she finally makes a connection with her oafish dad through—what else?—picking winners. It sees the NFL for what it was: an entertaining and brutal spectacle designed to generate tons of money, on the books and off. The episode satirized the kind of broadcasting tropes that its own network would soon revamp, made fun of so-called gambling experts offering weekly picks, and even sent up the cheesy halftime extravaganzas that A-list performers hadn’t yet taken over.
“Lisa the Greek” plainly acknowledges what major professional leagues, their corporate sponsors, and the media often did not: that a lot of Americans gamble on sports. But beyond being hilariously clear-eyed about pro sports (the episode also correctly predicted the winner of the upcoming Super Bowl), what makes “Lisa the Greek” a true classic is its exploration of a familial relationship and how betting on the NFL might play into it.
“Honestly, the show isn’t about football,” says Kogen, who cowrote the Rich Moore–directed episode with his partner, Wallace Wolodarsky. “The show is about a father and daughter.”
Homer and Lisa could not be more different. By examining that clash—and capturing the ubiquity of sports gambling in the process—The Simpsons reached new emotional heights. “I do remember when we recorded it how painful it was, how sad Lisa Simpson was in realizing that her father really just wanted to spend time with her because she was super good at picking the winning team,” says Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa. “And I felt it in my own human heart.”
By its third season, The Simpsons had transitioned from pop culture phenomenon to the best sitcom on television. “The characters were getting more fleshed out,” says Nancy Cartwright, who voices Bart. “They were becoming more real. That’s what kept us on the air. The more the writers emphasized that, the more the public loved the show. They could relate to it.”
And as Bartmania slightly receded, Lisa’s personality fully emerged. “By Season 3, Lisa Simpson felt very much like a living, breathing, three-dimensional, red-blooded little human being,” Smith says. Back then, she adds, the character was still at her most optimistic: “She’s much more childlike, I feel like. Innocent. She lacks a kind of wryness I think that she has now.”
The writers didn’t just invent that earnestness. Smith brought it to the role. “Yeardley has a really deep soul,” Kogen says. “And that soul comes out in the character.” Adds Cartwright: “She’s not just playing an 8-year-old girl because of the sound of her voice. She backs it up with all the passion and compassion and heart.”
Lisa is both her family—and the show’s—conscience. Her moral code naturally leads to tension between her and Homer, who legendary Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder has compared to “a big talking dog.” He cares about his daughter, but he’s not equipped to understand her. “He’s really uninformed,” Smith says. “He doesn’t even know how he’s stepping in the shit.”
When The Simpsons shorts debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show, Dan Castellaneta played Homer like Walter Matthau. “Dan actually based Homer off of him,” Smith says. “And then when we went to half hour and there was so much more talking, he was like, ‘Vocally, I can’t do that.’ So he altered Homer’s voice.”
After Season 1, Homer lost both his Oscar Madison–like gruffness and some IQ points, which helped him become even more endearing. “Dan is so brilliant at it as an actor and walking both of those paths,” Smith says. “Homer the clueless dad really doesn’t get his daughter, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t love her.”
Homer isn’t evolved enough to seek common ground, but the writers knew that Lisa is. “Who doesn’t desperately want their parents’ love, even if they feel misunderstood by their parents?” Kogen says. “Even if we see our parents as fallible, flawed creatures, we still want our parents to love us and be proud of us and to ultimately see us for who we are. That never changes. … Bart Simpson, for the most part, doesn’t care what his parents think of him, but Lisa does. Because Lisa’s more like us, the nerd writers.”
Early in “Lisa the Greek,” when Lisa asks Marge why her dad isn’t interested in anything she does, her mom asks whether she’s ever taken an interest in anything he does. “Well, we used to have burping contests,” Lisa says. “But I outgrew it.”
At that point, Lisa knows she has to be the initiator. So she asks her father whether they can watch football together. Homer agrees, but at first, he tells her not to talk and to stay on the other end of the couch. “It was one of the first times I feel like Homer was really not nice to Lisa, and in that moment she had no recourse, no retort,” Smith says. “I was like, ‘This is fucked up. It’s not OK.’ I really get my hackles up.”
The turn comes when Homer, who’s terrible at gambling, desperately asks Lisa who she thinks will win the Miami-Cincinnati game. When she correctly picks the Dolphins and wins her dad a chunk of change, he’s forced to tell Lisa (a) that he’s betting on the NFL, and (b) why he likes doing it. “You like ice cream, don’t you?” he asks. “Don’t you like ice cream even better when it’s covered with hot fudge, and mounds of whipped cream, chopped nuts, and those crumbled-up cookie things they mash up? Mmm … crumbled-up cookie things.”
“So gambling makes a good thing even better?” Lisa replies.
It’s an epiphany whose simplicity belies its nuance: about gambling’s exhilaratingly satisfying nature, its symbiotic relationship with sports, and most of all, how dangerously indulgent it can be. Like an ice cream sundae with crumbled-up cookie things, if you have too much of it, you might get sick.
In early 1992, Fox was more than a year away from buying the rights to the NFC slate. The way Smith saw it, the network was still trying to shake its fledgling status. “Even in the third season of The Simpsons,” she says, “pretty much everybody else in entertainment was saying, ‘Fox will never last. They have two shows, Married With Children and The Simpsons. When those two things are over, which will be soon, they can fuck off and we’ll take it back to three networks.’”
But while Rupert Murdoch was trying to get in on pro football, his network was counterprogramming against it. During the Super Bowl XXVI halftime show, which featured figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano gliding around the Metrodome on fake ice, Fox aired a special episode of In Living Color. It drew nearly 28.9 million viewers. “It definitely started to lead to these big extravaganzas that just took over,” says Sandy Grushow, then the president of Fox Entertainment. “The NFL realized that it could no longer program an ice skating spectacular and went out and got Michael Jackson.”
At the time, the minds behind The Simpsons weren’t too concerned with Fox’s NFL ambitions. “Murdoch had enough money to buy whatever he wants,” Kogen says. “I’m not shocked that Fox could buy the NFL contract. It was meaningless to me.” But all the writers knew was that an episode about betting on the NFL would be funny. It may be hard to fathom now, what with daily fantasy ads clogging every broadcast, but openly talking about gambling on sports on TV used to be taboo. “That is a major, major cultural shift and not one that anybody back then would’ve ever predicted,” Grushow says. “Because professional sports leagues like the NFL avoided it like the plague.”
From the very beginning of “Lisa the Greek,” the episode goes in on the prognosticators offering mediocre picks to football fans. The first scene introduces one of these alleged experts, the Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder–inspired “Smooth” Jimmy Apollo, who’s “right 52 percent of the time.” Homer also calls the “Coach’s Hotline” that offers tips, at a sloth’s pace, while charging $5 for the first minute and $2 for each additional minute. “The slow-talking run was inspired by an actual shady tip line that Sam Simon called,” writer George Meyer said in an email. “Sam was an alchemist who could turn real-life frustration into comedy gold.”
When Lisa reveals herself to be an 8-year-old sharp, Homer is smitten. Soon, every Sunday is “Daddy-Daughter Day.” She’s so good at taking Moe’s money that when she coyly calls in her dad’s action as “L.S.,” he angrily says, “Just gimme the bet, Lisa.”
Homer and Lisa are unlikely partners in crime. That only adds to the fun.
“The pairing of Dan and Yeardley lent a lovely conspiratorial quality to the episode,” Meyer says, before diving into some gambling-speak. “I wish we had tied Lisa’s flair for handicapping to her contrarian streak—bettors who fade mass opinion have an edge in the NFL. But a cartoon can only do so much!”
The piles of cash that Homer wins lead to some of the biggest laughs of the episode. At the Gilded Truffle, Bart asks the waiter for his “freshest bottle of wine.” Homer buys Marge an Oscar statuette–shaped bottle of perfume called “Meryl Streep’s Versatility.” He also gifts his son a PG-rated, push-button swearing machine. When asked about that bit, Cartwright laughs and immediately repeats one of its phrases: “Kiss my butt! Kiss my butt!”
But the episode belongs to Lisa. Inevitably, Homer lets her down: When she asks him to hike Mount Springfield the week after the Super Bowl, he says he has plans to go bowling with Barney. “You just wanted me to help you gamble,” Lisa says, breaking down. “You never wanted to be with me at all!”
“The writers really tapped into that aspect of Lisa that makes her feel like she’s been around a gazillion years,” says Cartwright. “She is a worldly wise spirit. She just knows so much.”
Smith sobbed while working on the scene. “So many tears, so many actual tears,” she says. “I cried a lot as Lisa Simpson.” But that was the beauty of the show in its heyday. “We don’t shy away from the emotions,” Smith adds. “And that was one of the mandates that James L. Brooks said in early years: ‘The Simpsons, I want it to be like a live-action show that just happened to be animated.’”
Apologizing to his daughter, Homer steps in the shit again. He asks her who she thinks will win Super Bowl XXVI: Buffalo or Washington. Once again hurt, Lisa hedges. “Look Dad, I’ll tell you who’s going to win the Super Bowl if you want me to, but it will just validate my theory that you cared more about winning money than you did about me.” Then she finally makes her pick: “If I still love you, Washington. If I don’t, Buffalo.”
Homer spends the afternoon in agony, sweating through the Troy McClure pregame interview, the corny Martian-themed halftime show, the Duff Bowl, and the actual game. When an inquiring Moe’s Tavern regular asks Homer what he has riding on the game, he glumly says, “my daughter.” The guy then whistles and replies, “What a gambler.”
“To watch Dan Castellaneta play those moments where his heart is broken open, for me, it never gets old,” Smith says. “When he gets behind that microphone, he absolutely blossoms.”
In the end, Washington wins on a last-second touchdown run (in reality the score was 37-24). In the wake of Lisa’s prediction—“If I still love you, Washington”—the father and daughter make up. Initially, Smith felt that the reconciliation happened too quickly. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s clunky,’” says Smith, who then reminded herself that she was working on a sitcom with 22-minute episodes. “But of course in classic Simpsons fashion, it pays off in the end.”
Smith won an Emmy Award for her performance in “Lisa the Greek.” “If you had to ask Meryl Streep to play an 8-year-old girl, I don’t know if Meryl Streep could do it,” Kogen says. “Yeardley Smith can do it.” And while the show has regularly returned to the gridiron in the years since Fox began airing NFL games, “Lisa the Greek” is by far the best football episode in Simpsons history.
Looking back on it, “Lisa the Greek” feels like a relic. Today, instead of calling Homer’s bets in to Moe, Lisa would be helping her dad figure out how to log on to FanDuel. Sports betting is now legal in more than half of the United States, and the NFL’s betting culture has subsequently exploded. When “Lisa the Greek” aired, networks were still pretending gambling didn’t exist; now they air in-game graphics for tasty prop bets. No one knows exactly how that shift will affect the NFL’s audience long term, just that it already has and will continue to.
Homer and Lisa never bonded over picking winners again. But at the end of “Lisa the Greek,” they finally have their Daddy-Daughter Day hike. “Just that one visual of them sitting on top of Mount Springfield watching the tire fire, that’s all you need,” Smith says. “You go, ‘This is a good thing.’”
In that moment, it’s clear that they learned a lesson that some gamblers often don’t: Quit while you’re ahead.