The 5 Essential ‘Simpsons’ Tracey Ullman Shorts

The 5 Essential ‘Simpsons’ Tracey Ullman Shorts

When it comes to must-watch Simpsons material, rarely do the original shorts from The Tracey Ullman Show come to mind. For the unaware, The Simpsons, currently entering its 467th season on Fox, started as a series of shorts on the sketch comedy series that ran from 1987 to 1989. The shorts usually lasted between 60 and 90 seconds and, at least in their first year or so, were split up by individual gags throughout an Ullman Show episode. But even those with a passing knowledge of the shorts may not know that 48(!) of them were produced before The Simpsons started their run as the longest scripted primetime show in television history.

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Perhaps even more surprising is that none of the shorts — aside from 12 included on a series VHS tapes in 1997 and a few random clips in a handful of episodes — have ever been officially released. Although Matt Groening announced in 2006 that they would finally see the light of day, nothing came of it. He doesn’t seem to hold them in that high of regard either, stating that the quality of the then relatively new mobile video format was “crummy enough to do those primitive episodes the justice they deserve.” 

So, if even The Simpsons creator doesn’t care for them, are any of the Tracey Ullman Show shorts any good?

Historically speaking, absolutely. The fact is, when watching them, you’re witnessing The Simpsons in its total infancy. There were no rules, no writing staff (apart from Groening himself) and a handful of animators and voice actors trying to bring Groening’s world to life. People compare the shorts to what the show is now and react much like Troy McClure did when seeing one on “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular.”

But it’s important to note that there was nothing like them on primetime television in 1987, and that it took a few years for the show to reach the heights it was destined for. All of which is to say, if you don’t have the time (or fortitude) to make it through all 48 shorts — which, totally understandable — here are the five that you absolutely should check out… 

‘Good Night’

First Aired: April 19, 1987

This was the first short to air. As Homer puts Bart to bed, Bart asks, “Dad, what is the mind? Is it just a system of impulses, or is it something tangible?” (I always thought it interesting that Bart’s first line ever reflects a much more intelligent character than he’d become.) Homer responds with a dad joke, “Relax. What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Nevermind.”

Meanwhile, Marge inadvertently plants nightmarish thoughts of bedbugs and a crib free-falling from a treetop in Lisa’s and Maggie’s heads when tucking them in. This leads to the kids collectively running to sleep in their parents’ bed. Overall, it’s a charming piece of business, and a sweet debut for the family. 

Animation for “Good Night” began on March 23, 1987, less than a month before it ran. Veteran animation director David Silverman, who helped animate all the Tracey Ullman shorts and still works on the show to this day, recalled on Twitter, “We thought we were making a deadline, not history.”

As for the rest of the first season, the shorts are hit-or-miss, mainly because Groening and the animation staff were pumping out material as quickly as possible to hit those aforementioned deadlines. Wes Archer, the legendary animation director who worked on the shorts early in his career, told VICE in 2022, “We had one week to animate it. Very low budget. There was no art director. A lot of it was just kind of drawing out stuff and seeing what sticks.”

‘The Funeral’

First Aired: October 4, 1987

Nine episodes in, this short was the audience’s first foray outside of the Simpson home — seeing the family attend the funeral of Old Uncle Hubert Simpson. True to character, Bart is excited to see a dead body but promptly faints when spotting the corpse in the open casket. He then causes a scene when he tries to rush the slow-moving pallbearers along. Although Bart is the only child we witness acting poorly, Homer and Marge declare, “This is absolutely the last funeral we ever take you kids to.”

“The Funeral” features the first jump in animation quality. As Archer explained to VICE, “As (Groening’s) drawings got sloppier and sloppier, he kept saying, ‘You guys draw better than me. Draw the way, you know, you want it to look.’” Though still rough and off-model, the characters are at least a step closer to resembling their more recognizable selves. Meanwhile, the family finally leaving the house and engaging with outsiders is a breath of fresh air, especially since it’s topped off with the dark humor of a funeral setting.

‘The Pagans’

First Aired: February 14, 1988

The Simpsons are on their way to church, but the kids proclaim that they’re pagans to get out of going. Homer gets a flat tire, and the kids run off, fully committing to their idea of a pagan lifestyle by scantily cladding themselves in leaves. After Homer gives chase, they ironically find sanctuary at the church.

This one is a blast and left me wanting to see more of the kids’ pagan adventures. There are several significant steps forward here, too — both in animation and overall character development. It features the first Archer twister mouth, a favorite of Simpsons fans. Bart also calls Homer by his first name (instead of “dad”), while Homer unleashes, “Why those little!” for the first time when the kids reveal their pagan selves. It debuts Homer’s animation run-cycle as well, which would be modeled and re-used often in the series.

“During the second year, we kind of arrived at a more consistent look,” Archer told VICE. When discussing the second season, production assistant Joe Russo II added, “I remember hearing people calling Fox to find out at what point during The Tracey Ullman Show the Simpsons (were) going to be on so they could tune in during that time only. And that’s when I think people started to realize there’s something going on here that’s bigger than maybe we understand.”


First Aired: March 19, 1989

The plot is simple enough: Homer forces Bart to take a bath, leading to him fantasizing about being an oceanographer and flooding the bathroom. Most fans have probably seen this short, as it was one of the five featured prominently in the aforementioned “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular.”

The characters are really on model here and could easily pass as animation from the series’ first season. Silverman even revealed on Twitter that they “started working on the series the following month” after this aired. The story flows well, and it’s remarkable that it was produced by the same two animators who worked on the first short, showcasing how much Silverman and Archer grew as animators over just a couple of years.  

‘Maggie in Peril: Chapter One’ and ‘Maggie in Peril: The Thrilling Conclusion’

First Aired: April 30, 1989 and May 7, 1989

This two-parter was essentially a remake of the fourth short, “Babysitting Maggie,” where Bart and Lisa ignore their sister while babysitting, leading to her getting into mischief. However, instead of falling down the stairs and getting electrocuted around the house, this time the youngest Simpson sets off for a day on the town.

Although this isn’t the first Maggie-centered episode, it is her first full-fledged adventure. Because of the lack of dialogue, Groening likely wrote it as a single short, but it became so involved that Archer and Silverman had to split it into two installments airing over consecutive weeks. Which, in hindsight, coincidentally reflects how the shorts were literally becoming too big for The Tracey Ullman Show to contain.

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