The Simpsons is currently celebrating 30 years of delighting audiences, rearing new generations of comedy writers... and getting under the skin of Republican administrations. After the show’s Christmas-themed pilot episode, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” premiered in December 1989, weekly episodes started airing on the still-young Fox network on Jan. 14, 1990 and Springfield’s first family became overnight pop-culture sensations.
Not everyone was a fan, though. That September — a month before the launch of Season 2 — then-first lady Barbara Bush called Matt Groening’s animated series “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.” Reflecting on that harsh review three decades later, longtime Simpsons star Yeardley Smith, a.k.a. Lisa Simpson, tells Yahoo Entertainment that it remains a “proud moment” in the show’s history. “I think we wore it like a badge of honor.” (Watch our video interview above.)
As Smith proudly points out, The Simpsons staff didn’t take the first lady’s insult lying down. Instead, the show’s writing staff — led by Al Jean — issued a response to Bush in the voice of Lisa’s eternally sensible mother, Marge (voiced by Julie Kavner). “I recently read your criticism of my family,” the letter began. “I was deeply hurt. Heaven knows we’re far from perfect ... but as Dr. Seuss says, ‘a person is a person.’” The family matriarch then closed with a diplomatic plea for common ground. “I hope there is some way out of this controversy. I thought, perhaps, it would be a good start to just speak my mind.”
Smith says that she and the cast didn’t have any input into the contents of Marge’s letter, but the writers did share the first lady’s classy response with them. “How kind of you to write,” Bush wrote. “I am glad you spoke your mind; I foolishly didn't know you had one.” That mea culpa made a positive impression on Smith. “I thought, ‘Good for you, Barbara Bush,’” the actress says, laughing. “Yeah — you go, girl!”
But that exchange didn’t completely end the Bush vs. Simpson fracas. During the 1992 presidential campaign, President George H.W. Bush took another potshot at the show in a speech, saying: “We need a nation closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons.” Instead of another letter, The Simpsons crew delivered their response in the form of the 1996 episode “Two Bad Neighbors,” where the former POTUS and FLOTUS move in next door to Homer and Marge. “It was fun payback,” Smith says of that episode. “On our show, the mandate is, ‘Take no prisoners.’ [The writers] really take that to heart.”
Smith has taken that mandate to heart as well in the thirty years that she’s been voicing Lisa. Earlier this year, she issued a stern rebuke to Mike Pompeo on Twitter after the current secretary of state posted an image of Lisa in response to Nancy Pelosi tearing up a copy of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech. Pompeo took the image from the Season 3 episode “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” in which the most idealistic Simpson child comes face-to-face with political corruption and tearfully tears up her impassioned speech about what America means to her. “I might just add f*ck you @mikepompeo for co-opting my character to troll @SpeakerPelosi,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “Be a leader and fight you own fight! Oh, wait I forgot, you’re a follower.”
Not surprisingly, Smith’s “take no prisoners” response to Pompeo quickly went viral. “I honestly thought it would just go under the radar,” the actresses confesses now. “But it really kind of went around the world!” Her intention wasn’t just to clap back at another Republican political figure, though. Like the Barbara Bush letter, she hopes her tweet serves as a teachable moment. “No matter what side of the aisle you land on — whether you’re for President Trump or not — you should be upset that a little girl ... is [emotionally] destroyed that there is no fairness and democracy is dead. That should upset you. You should not use that to troll your fellow cabinet members. That was my point: do not use my character to fight your fight. Fight your own fight.”
As Simpsons-lovers know all too well, one of the show’s possible futures features President Lisa Simpson occupying an Oval Office recently vacated by President Trump, which seems like the perfect capstone to both the Bush and Pompeo feuds. It goes without saying that President Simpson has her alter ego’s vote. “I’m all for it, because she’d have a staff of 26 writers behind her to solve all the problems of the world,” says Smith, who also hosts the popular true-crime podcast Small Town Dicks. “It’s when they start saying, ‘Yeardley Smith for President’ that I’m like ‘No, no, no.’ You want little Lisa Simpson to be president. And I’ll voice her if you need me to!”
The Simpsons is currently streaming on Disney+. Small Town Dicks is available wherever you download podcasts.
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