Debuting in 1987 as a series of shorts on a fledgling network’s first variety show, The Simpsons evolved into one of the American culture’s most influential and important pieces of commercial art. The long-running show continues to push the envelope in new episodes while remaining a benchmark of comedy in the 21st century. What few fans realize is how close the show came to never escaping its original format. Here’s how an oft-forgotten series of shorts — Dr. N!Godatu — almost killed The Simpsons before the show ever fully left The Tracey Ullman Show and the impact that would have had on the way pop culture has evolved today.
Dr. N!Godatu, The Simpsons Sister Shorts, Explained
As explained in Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons, the origins of The Simpsons were far more unassuming than one would expect. They came to be partly as a result of Director/Producer James L. Brooks becoming impressed with British comedian Tracey Ullman, ultimately working with her to develop a variety show for the then-burgeoning Fox Network. The Tracey Ullman Show became the second original primetime series for the channel, running for four seasons and becoming the first show on the network to win a Primetime Emmy. Two series of interstitial cartoon shorts were developed that could break up the show’s sketches and musical segments.
One of them was the original version of The Simpsons. Created by Matt Groening, the segments became popular with the viewing audience and creatives at Fox. Brooks helped foster the expansion of the series, even convincing Fox to elevate the shorts to a half-hour format and green-light the first twelve episodes of the show. However, The Simpsons shorts were only used every other episode alternating air-time with Dr. N!Godatu in The Tracey Ullman Show’s first season. Created by M. K. Brown, a veteran cartoonist whose work has been featured in National Lampoon, Playboy and The New Yorker, Dr. N!Godatu debuted with The Tracey Ullman Show’s first episode, and it was featured throughout the rest of the season.
The shorts focused on the titular Dr. N!Godatu (played by Jule Payne), a therapist who often spoke directly to the audience about her career, love life and the eccentricities that defined her. The shorts even shared some cast mates with The Simpsons, casting Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner and Nancy Cartwright in recurring roles.
Eight “episodes” of Dr. N!Godatu were produced, but only six were aired.
Initially, it was believed the more prestigious and artistic Dr. N!Godatu would become The Tracey Ullman Show’s only animated segments in Season 2, as opposed to the Groening creation. However, the response to subversive sitcom segments was far greater than the more idiosyncratic styling of Dr. N!Godatu. By the second season of the variety show, Dr. N!Godatu’s office was closed for good and The Simpsons received a more consistent place within the regular runtime.
The World Would Be Different If Dr. N!Godatu Killed The Simpsons
The Simpsons remains one of the most important shows in television history, with pop culture in the 21st century still affected by the show’s impact and the other pieces of art it influenced. The popularity of The Simpsons elevated Fox’s standing in the television landscape, expanding into a media empire. Without the success of The Simpsons to validate the work that goes into producing a primetime animated series, it’s unlikely shows like Family Guy, Beavis and Butt-Head or Bob’s Burgers would have been green-lit. There would have also been no Simpsons movies, and the numerous comedies that have cited The Simpsons as an influence might not have ever been made.
The entertainment landscape would look very different without The Simpsons becoming one of TV’s biggest successes. If Dr. N!Godatu continued in its place, it might have prevented all that impact. Dr. N!Godatu had solid shorts lead by a unique individual. However, The Simpsons proved to be more broadly focused and flexible, capable of touching on potentially countless subjects that the more focused Dr. N!Godatu would naturally have more trouble tackling. The Simpsons grew into one of the most iconic pieces of modern animation, and while it’s a shame it had to kill Brown’s creation to get to that point, it’s worth remembering Dr. N!Godatu.