From its start nearly 25 years ago, The Simpsons was different. Not only was it animated, it had a Murderer’s Row of voice actors and writing talent. It was absurdly funny and more than occasionally touching. Today, the show still embraces an uncommonly wide range of comedy, from slapstick to laser-guided wordplay.
History’s longest-running American prime-time scripted TV show also has its recurring obsessions, from politics to religion to sports (Marge, watching basketball: “How come they never call traveling anymore?”). Classical music has come up again and again on the show, even from its earliest days. The second episode, from January 1990, includes a trip to the opera — Bizet‘s Carmen, performed, as a sign says, “Tonite Only in RUSSIAN.” Over the seasons, there have been references to composers, singers, instrumentalists and even, in one memorable case, the architect of an iconic concert hall.
In September, members of the cast, series creator Matt Groening and guests including Conan O’Brien and Jon Lovitz will join the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and music director Thomas Wilkins for three concerts featuring scenes from the show. For a program that honors the entire tradition of animation and film scoring, it’s fitting that they’ll be where Bugs Bunny conducted.
Thursday, a 12-day marathon of every Simpsons episode to date begins on the new Fox network FXX. All 552 shows are running in their premiere order, from 10 a.m. ET/PT Thursday to midnight Sept. 1. Here’s a guide to a few of the episodes with classical cameos — note that Aug. 28 is an especially highbrow day. (All times Eastern and Pacific.)
Thursday, Aug. 21, 10:30 a.m. “Bart the Genius” (1990)
Bart switches IQ tests with a legitimate genius. Feeling guilty about not having encouraged Bart’s brilliance, Marge buys tickets to Carmen. Bart sings along: “Toreador, oh, don’t spit on the floor. Please use the cuspidor, that’s what it’s for.” (Yet this may be only the silver medal sitcom Carmen — the gold still goes to Gilligan’s Island.)
Thursday Aug. 28, 3:30 a.m. “Margical History Tour” (2004)
In this elaborate Amadeus spoof, the shelves of the Springfield Public Library are suddenly empty. Marge fills the void by telling stories about historical figures, including Mozart, played by Bart: “Hello, Vienna! Are there any aficionados in the house?” A concert hall has entrances marked “FOPS” and “DANDIES.”
Thursday Aug. 28, 4 p.m. “The Seven-Beer Snitch” (2005)
Springfield is being mocked by rival Shelbyville; Marge’s answer is to commission a concert hall from architect Frank Gehry (designer of Disney Hall in Los Angeles, and one of Groening’s neighbors). Flanders agrees: “We could use a new HQ for the Springfield Philharmonic. They’re playing Gustav Mahler in abject squalor!” Gehry (playing himself) reads a letter from Marge, tosses it aside and then realizes the crumpled sheet is the design for the hall, exclaiming, “Frank Gehry, you’re a genius!” But in 2011, Gehry told CNN that the joke has had an exasperating afterlife, as clients ask him to wad paper: “People who have seen The Simpsons believe it.”
Thursday Aug. 28, 11:30 p.m. “The Italian Bob” (2005)
One of the lesser-known aspects of The Simpsons is the show’s strong connection to the magnificent Dr. Seuss cult film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, a comic horror musical about piano lessons. Simpsons villain Sideshow Bob Terwilliger (voiced by Kelsey Grammer) is named for the movie’s title character, and one of Mr. Burns’ songs, “See My Vest,” is a blend of “Be Our Guest” from the Disney Beauty and the Beast and the unbelievable “Dressing Song: Do-Mi-Do Duds” from Dr. T. In this episode, the Simpsons are in Rome, where Krusty is appearing in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci at the Coliseum (Homer, exasperated: “Ohhhhh, opera? They have that here too?”). Bob is on his usual murderous rampage.
Friday Aug. 29, 8:30 p.m. “The Homer of Seville” (2007)
After accidentally crashing a wake, Homer falls into an open grave. The bad news: back injury. The good news: He’s now a singer, but only when lying down. Burns recruits him for a leading role in Puccini‘s La bohème anyway. In a locker room backstage, a shirtless Placido Domingo snaps Homer with a towel and says, “Nice set, Homer. That was a hot one.” “Thanks,” Homer says. “You know, of The Three Tenors, you’re my second favorite. No, wait, I forgot about that other guy. Sorry, you’re third.”
Monday Sept. 1, 3:30 p.m. “The Kid Is All Right” (2013)
Last season included one of the show’s finest musical moments, a celebration of Walt Disney’s Depression-era output, made in the form of a couch gag (all Simpsons episodes open with the family assembling on the sofa to watch TV). “Music Ville” is based on “Music Land,” a cartoon from Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” series. Simpsons music editor Chris Ledesma has a fascinating account of the episode’s production, complete with character sketches and the original Disney cartoon.