When The Simpsons started, there was an easy shorthand for describing Lisa Simpson: The girl Bart.

Huh?  Lisa the animal rights activist? Lisa the soulful saxophonist? Lisa the future President of the United States?  Yep, that Lisa. In fact, according to longtime Simpsons scribe Mike Reiss, the first line ever written for Lisa was “Let’s go throw rocks at the swans.”

That all changed with “Moaning Lisa,” an episode partway through the first season, and in fact “the first Simpsons episode to focus almost entirely on the least popular of all Simpsons.”

It all started with James L. Brooks, the Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter who also served as a Simpsons producer.  He approached the creative team with an idea he wanted to pitch:

Lisa is sad.

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The details? No one can help Lisa break out of her depression. Then she meets a funky Obi-Wan Kenobi in Bleeding Gums Murphy.  

Brooks pitched a storyline where Bleeding Gums would use the blues to teach Lisa that it’s okay to be sad, and that realization somehow cheers her up. “It didn’t sound like a lot of fun, and it certainly didn’t seem like a great use of animation,” says Reiss. “No one had much faith in the idea at the time.”

“Jim’s been trying to do this story since Taxi,” Simpsons writer Sam Simon told the staff. “Nobody would let him.”

Or would they?  Reiss thought The Simpsons had created something unprecedented until he caught a rerun of Brooks’s old Mary Tyler Moore Show. The plot of that one?  Murray is sad. “The episode even ends with Mary giving pretty much the same inspiring speech that Marge gives Lisa.”

But the writers took on the story without knowledge of Murray’s dilemma, creating the Simpsons’ least funny and most emotionally rich episode to date.  “When we got to The Simpsons, we wanted to do more emotional stories, like stories about Lisa,” says writer Al Jean, who co-wrote “Moaning Lisa” with Reiss. “We wanted to show we could do those kinds of things, too” (while maintaining some Simpsons-style sarcasm).

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“It’s incredibly rare to see a television comedy take depression seriously, especially if the comedy is animated,” wrote the A.V. Club.  “But The Simpsons allows Lisa’s malaise to linger realistically even if the ultimate antidote to Lisa’s existential crisis felt a little hacky.”

The episode changed everything for Lisa, who went from being a bratty Bart wannabe to the leftist, jazz-loving vegetarian we know and love today.  It’s fair to say that “Moaning Lisa” basically created the character bible for the following thirty-some seasons. And that’s why it was so devastating for Yeardley Smith, the voice behind Lisa, when the writers brought back Bleeding Gums a few seasons later.

"When he died on the show, I just thought, 'Wow,'" says Smith. "It was the ultimate blow of, 'Let's give Lisa something, and 22 minutes later, we'll take it away.' I just thought, 'Oh, how do you do that to my girl?' Because they had such a wonderful bond. And (Bleeding Gums) taught her so much, and he did it with such compassion and generosity. I was very sad about that."

Spoken like a true Lisa.

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