On Feb. 20, 1992, more American homes tuned into The Simpsons than they did The Cosby Show or the Winter Olympics from Albertville, France. A foul-mouthed cartoon on a fourth-place network bested the Huxtables and the world’s best amateur athletes. Fox over NBC and CBS—its first-ever victory in prime time. New over old.
Why the shift? Well, the Olympic programming that night featured no marquee events, and Cosby was just two months away from ending its eight-season run. Meanwhile, The Simpsons, airing just its 52nd episode out of 500 (and counting), had put forth its most ambitious effort to date, an episode called “Homer at the Bat.” Months of work went into corralling nine baseball players, a cross-section of young stars and established veterans, to guest-star as members of a rec-league softball team.
Sam Simon, the co-creator of The Simpsons, originally pitched the idea, and it was put into words by John Swartzwelder, a charter member of the show’s writing staff, who would eventually pen 59 episodes, more than anyone else. On a staff full of fantasy baseball junkies, Swartzwelder was the über-geek, a fanatic who had rented out stadiums for hours at a time so he and his close friends could play ball. (Years after Swartzwelder’s departure from the show, it’s easy to see his influence endures. During the episode’s roundtable DVD commentary, the word “Swartzweldian” is used with a deference and awe usually reserved for long-dead Nobel Laureates.)
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