When Matt Groening first conceived The Simpsons while waiting in an office lobby for a pitch meeting, he had no way to predict the series changing the entire course of television, history, and culture. Up until 1966, Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones held the record when it came to the longest-running animated show on prime time. Focused on establishing an audience for adult-focused animation, however, The Simpsons quickly gripped viewers and redefined sitcoms as we once knew them.
Paving the way for more controversial shows like South Park and Family Guy, the entire concept of a nuclear, working class family—led by a simpleton whose hobbies involved eating doughnuts and getting sloshed—opened new possibilities for family-centric premises. Be it Bob’s Burgers or Rick and Morty, each of the iconic show’s successors are reincarnations of the same, wildly-successful formula.
As The Simpsons evolved into the wise grandfather of all animated sitcoms, several fan theories have propped up over time regarding the iconic family. While every event in the world would inevitably end up being compared to the series alongside claims like “The Simpsons predicted it first,” one of the most popular speculations to date surrounds the quirky skin colour of the characters. Let’s jump right in.
Now, a quick search on Reddit and Quora for the keywords ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘yellow’ would essentially tumble you down a head-scratching rabbithole that will also ultimately help you understand the nature of both platforms.
On the former, fans have argued that yellow skin essentially represents the “white people” of the show—while other ethnicities have more human-like skin tones. In their defence, some of the characters have previously made a few broken fourth wall jokes about the same. “Sometimes, they do things like having a character call someone ‘yellow trash’ when the real phrase is ‘white trash’, but other times they use the normal ‘white’ phrasing,” a user wrote in this regard.
Given the fact that The Simpsons is essentially a satirical depiction of dysfunctional families that parodies American culture and society, these claims wildly check out. What’s more is that, considering this theory, it’s also possible The Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, and possibly Bob’s Burgers all co-exist in the same animated universe.
“When The Simpsons had their Family Guy and Futurama crossovers, the visiting characters remained their normal colours. However, when they had their The Critic crossover, Jay Sherman was coloured yellow while maintaining his normal style,” a Redditor additionally pointed out. That being said, however, we’ve barely scratched the surface of the grand scheme of things.
A second theory goes on to claim that everyone in the fictional town of Springfield has hepatitis A due to their jaundiced (yellow) skin. The same cause wildly extends to the reason why they’ve all lost an average of one finger per hand. On these terms, several fans have also stated that the communicable disease is frequently spread by infected water supplies—a comment that is also addressed on the show. Meanwhile, others believe the evil can be traced back to the town’s fast-food restaurant chain, Krusty Burger.
A third theory revolves around the nuclear industry in the Simpsons universe. “The power company is seen stuffing barrels of plutonium into trees and dumping them into rivers. Eventually, it caused genetic pigment mutations in lighter-skinned people,” one fan commented.
Finally, the last theory about The Simpsons’ iconic yellow skin involves none other than Homer. Sure, the show has followed many characters during its runtime, but it’s safe to say that Homer is the protagonist—whose eyes are leveraged to present the entire series. “It’s been studied that some alcoholics, if drunk enough and with enough brain damage, have a very slightly warped vision,” a Redditor claimed.
Combining the low-level safety inspector’s history of alcoholism with ignorance, it would make perfect sense if the yellow skin is a result of Homer’s altered vision—when, in reality, all the characters actually have human-like tones.
Meanwhile, miscellaneous claims have also thrown suspicion about Groening scribbling Homer on a piece of paper in a rush to create a new character. According to these claims, the cartoonist only had a yellow marker to colour him with at the time.
While most of the aforementioned fan theories are based on substantial evidence, Groening himself has previously confirmed the reason for the quirky choice of colours. In an interview with the BBC, the creator revealed that he wanted to make the cartoon unique—starting with a recognisable palette.
“An animator came up with the Simpsons’ yellow and as soon as she showed it to me I said: ‘This is the answer!’” he stated. “When you’re flicking through channels with your remote control, and a flash of yellow goes by, you’ll know you’re watching The Simpsons.”
In fact, if you take a look at some of the most iconic TV characters in history, you’ll notice that yellow is a popular choice of colour for cartoons. A major reason for this can be linked back to colour theory. You’re going to have to put on your thinking caps for this one, so bear with me.
Now, a TV essentially uses the red-green-blue (RGB) colour wheel rather than the standard red-yellow-blue model. With the RGB scale, yellow and blue are complementary colours. This is the reason why characters like Spongebob stand out so well against a blue background. Yellow is also the most visible colour in the entire visual spectrum because of how the cones in our eyes process light and the order in which the signals for red, green and blue light eventually reach our brains.
Additionally, the colour in question also works well from a psychological perspective. In this case, yellow is a warm colour that most often conveys joy and optimism. Think of a red or blue Spongebob crawling the depths of Bikini Bottom. Not so appealing now, eh?
The Simpsons’ first nine to ten seasons are widely regarded as the show’s “golden age.” While its later seasons have recorded a decline in critical buzz and awards, the series continues to grip generations alike. Even though Groening has been involved in other projects like Disenchantment, none of the successors seem to match the legacy of The Simpsons.
So, let me take this golden opportunity to acknowledge three ways in which the popular animated sitcom has changed the world following its conception:
“D’oh!” is probably one of the first phrases you’d think of when someone mentions Homer. In 2001, the phrase was added to the Oxford English Dictionary—making it an official word as part of the English language.
“Cromulent” and “Embiggen,” which were first used in Lisa the Iconoclast, have also since appeared on Dictionary.com, and The Guardian surprisingly brought the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” into journalistic light in a 2003 article about France’s opposition to invading Iraq. Heck, even gen Z’s obsession with “Meh” can be traced back to The Simpsons.
If you ask me, one thing that makes Friends irritable is the sitcom’s unreasonable relationship with background laughter. The Simpsons was revolutionary in the sense that, despite its sitcom tones and narratives, it never resorted to using such gags and gimmicks. This way, the show left it up to the viewers to figure out what they find humorous rather than giving them not-so-subtle cues.
Following this strategy, many animated shows of the 90s made the decision to eliminate laugh tracks altogether, and several live-action shows followed suit.
In 2014, British cultural historian Christopher Cook equated The Simpsons to the Pop Art movement, adding that the series is “one of the very first postmodern TV shows developed for mainstream US TV.”
“Someone once defined postmodernism as an ‘aesthetic of quotations’, in other words, it collages material from pre-existing works in unlikely ways,” he continued. “And the ‘glue’ that holds the assemblage together is irony, knowing where the references come from and how they have been replaced. I see a lot of that on The Simpsons.” Like I said, legendary all the way!