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The history and conflict behind the creation of The Simpsons

"Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk" is one of the many episodes Sam Simon worked on in the first three seasons of the show. According to writer Al Jean, he contributed the famous "Land of Chocolate" joke.
"Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk" is one of the many episodes Sam Simon worked on in the first three seasons of the show. According to writer Al Jean, he contributed the famous "Land of Chocolate" joke.
20th Century Fox
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For years, there's been a rumor around "Flaming Moe's," a third-season episode of The Simpsons.

In "Flaming Moe's," Homer Simpson invents an amazing cocktail called the Flaming Homer. He gives the recipe to his bartender friend, Moe, who immediately begins mass-producing the drink under the moniker Flaming Moe. This leads to immense commercial success for Moe, as well as a surfeit of Cheers parodies. Indeed, if you know this episode, it's probably as "the one with the elaborate parody of the Cheers theme song."

But Moe's success also leads to Homer feeling iced out, never credited for the drink he invented and gave to his friend. In the end, Homer's bitterness gets the better of both men. He gives away the secret ingredient (cough syrup), so that neither man may profit. By episode's end, the two have reconciled, Moe's Tavern is back to being the gloomiest bar on TV (for the time), and all is well.

On Sunday, Sam Simon, one of The Simpsons' co-developers, died after a long battle with cancer. Simon was the least well known of the three men who turned a series of animated shorts into perhaps the most beloved show on television. He served as the earliest showrunner for The Simpsons and was still a vital presence on the show's staff when "Flaming Moe's" was crafted.

Said Ken Levine, who cowrote a season-two episode of The Simpsons, in 2011: "I’m here to tell you, the real creative force behind The Simpsons was Sam Simon. The tone, the storytelling, the level of humor — that was all developed on Sam’s watch."

Which brings us to the rumor.

An episode written in code

Sam Simon

Sam Simon. (Joe Corrigan/Getty Images)

The rumor is this: "Flaming Moe's" is an elaborate, barely veiled story of the massive success of Simpsons creator Matt Groening, which came at the expense of Simon, the series' original showrunner and a producer and writer in seasons three and four. (He left at the end of the fourth.)

Simon is Homer, closed out of the origin story of the program, even though he and James L. Brooks were the ones to help turn Groening's characters into an actual TV series. Groening is Moe — a good person, maybe, but someone who gets too much credit.

Heck, look at this Fox promotional package from early in the series. Simon doesn't even appear.

There was no love lost between Simon and Groening over the years. A 2001 retrospective of the show (at that point about to begin its 13th season) by the New York Times' A.O. Scott featured a lengthy section in which several writers for the show — including Groening and Simon — discussed who was the series' true auteur and whether Simon's contributions had been unfairly scrubbed from the history books.

Thus, the "Flaming Moe's" rumors found fertile ground. This being the internet, every little tidbit about the episode was pulled apart and endlessly dissected. Was this really Simon lashing out at a show he felt he didn't get enough credit for?

Sam Simon addresses the rumors

Podcast host Guy Evans asked Simon point blank about the rumors in a 2013 episode, and Simon was about as forthcoming as he's ever been. "That may be true," he said, with a sly tone that suggested the "may" was only in the sentence for politeness' sake.

Earlier in the podcast, Simon also pointed to his general unhappiness with the credit he did (or didn't receive) for The Simpsons' success at the time he left the show: "I used to feel I didn't get enough credit and was underpaid, and now I get too much credit and am wildly overpaid."

His remarks point to how significantly his reputation has shifted since he left the show. For fans of the program looking for reasons it eventually entered a long decline, Simon's departure has long served as an explanation. And Simon, as a co-developer of the show, continued to receive residual checks from one of the most successful TV shows of all time right up until his death. He poured much of that money into charitable work through his Sam Simon Foundation.

But when The Simpsons began, Groening was the cartoonist who had dreamed up the characters in the first place, Brooks was the Oscar- and Emmy-winning genius behind Terms of Endearment and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Simon was a guy who had written for Taxi and Cheers. It's easy to see why he could feel overlooked.

And yet he shouldn't have been. Levine, above, points to his belief that Simon built the foundation upon which The Simpsons now rests. In Scott's New York Times piece, longtime Simpsons writer Jon Vitti, there in the early days, says, "If you leave out Sam Simon, you're telling the managed version. He was the guy we wrote for."

Even if Simon's name remains less well known than Groening's or Brooks', it's still a fact that he contributed several terrific scripts to Taxi, Cheers, and The Simpsons, three of the funniest TV shows ever made. And his "second tier" of shows contains venerable programs like The Drew Carey Show. The man knew from funny, and he knew how to write. And in his post-Simpsons career, he pursued varied interests, including becoming the manager of a boxer and doing extensive charitable work. Indeed, by the end of his life, he had given much of his Simpsons fortune away.

So why all the conflict? Why all the rumors?

A series formed in conflict

Simon himself would be the first to admit he was often hard to work with. "There's some perception that I'm difficult, and I think that's fair," Simon said on the podcast, after explaining how the pressure of running a show tended to make him "prickly." He also said in the podcast that he hadn't spoken to Groening or Brooks in years and that he hadn't watched The Simpsons after leaving the program.

"People you work with, they aren't necessarily your friends. You don't have to read anything into that," Simon said on the podcast.

The conflict that drove the development of The Simpsons was real, and it was integral to what made the show one of the best in TV history. Now that The Simpsons is one of the most important TV shows ever made, it's easy to forget that at the time of its creation, it was far from a sure thing. Simon, in fact, used to argue that the show would only last one season. (He says it was because he wanted the writers just to focus on making the best episodes possible; Groening took it as a denigration of an outsider cartoonist's one big shot in TV.)

By the time "Flaming Moe's" aired, it was becoming increasingly clear that The Simpsons was going to run a long, long time. And because Groening had been the guy who first sketched the characters and came up with their names and personalities, he was always going to have the "created by" credit that would elevate him to a "first among equals" status in public perception.

His characters, however, were created for a series of animated shorts that aired during The Tracey Ullman Show. When it came time to blow them out into a TV show, Groening, who had no experience in actually writing television, needed help. Thus, Brooks and Simon helped him "develop" the series, fleshing it out from the initial bare-bones concept to the full show we know today.

We know Groening drew those initial cartoons. We know Brooks had a ton of experience creating great TV and movies. Thus, they become easier to latch on to as creative forces in public perception.

And yet the impulse to suggest Simon was the one who gave the program its early "heart" (as many partisans have) is also misguided, ignoring that Brooks is well known for his facility with bittersweet comedy, or that Groening was known for filling his comic strips and later series, Futurama, with deep pathos.

More likely, the show emerged out of some peculiar alchemy generated by the three creators. If nothing else, Sam Simon's legacy (beyond his charitable work) should be that he helped create one of the best TV shows ever made. Sometimes, the best art is forged in conflict. The Simpsons needn't be an exception to that notion.