The Simpsons is one of the most successful television programs to ever air. So far during its 28 (going on 29) seasons, the animated sitcom has earned 31 Primetime Emmy Awards, 30 Annie Awards, and a Peabody Award.
While many have argued its content has gone down in recent years, its comedy has been built upon a number of key themes and recurring elements. Outside of maybe the opening couch gag, nothing reminds you of The Simpsons more than the prank phone calls Bart would make to Moe Szyslak at Moe’s Bar.
The premise of the prank is simple. Bart would call Moe’s bar, pretending to ask for a specific person at the bar, Bart then would ask Moe to call out fictitious, pun-like/homophones names. The first one to ever occur took place in the first season, in an episode titled “Homer’s Odyssey.”
Moe: Moe’s Tavern.
Bart: Is Mr. Freely there?
Bart: Freely, first initials I. P.
Moe: Hold on, I’ll check. Uh, is I. P. Freely here? Hey, everybody! I. P. Freely! [the customers laugh] Wait a minute… Listen to me, you lousy bum. When I get a hold of you, you’re dead. I swear I’m gonna slice your heart in half!
Homer: You’ll get that punk someday, Moe.
Moe: I don’t know. He’s tough to catch. He keeps changing his name.
Ever since that episode, the calls became a key recurring gag in series. But The Simpsons didn’t create the concept, in fact, it seems they took inspiration from a well-known duo of pranksters on the east coast from back in the mid 70’s.
In a series of prank that became known as the Tube Bar prank calls, two young men, John Elmo and Jim Davidson, would call the Jersey City, New Jersey-based bar and talk to its proprietor, Louis “Red” Deutsch.
Elmo and Davidson, who later known collectively as Bum Bar Bastards, would ask Red if they could speak to various fictitiously-named customers. Just like The Simpsons, the end result would be the Tube Bar bartender calling out pun-like/homophones names, catch onto the bit, then responding with extreme hostility, shouting profanity, obscene sexual references (usually involving the caller’s mother), and threats of physical harm at the caller.
While it may seem like a coincidence, and that these things could have happened all over the US, the proof that this is what the show’s concept was based off can be found in the similarities between Moe and Red.
In Season 8 of The Simpsons, it is revealed that Moe used to be a professional boxer. Alongside being a Veteran of the first World War, Red was also a former heavyweight boxer.
But how did something that occurred in the 70’s get used as inspiration to the late 80’s sitcom? While technology was a bit more limited back then, it was still around, in the form of cassette tapes.
During calls, the Bum Bar Bastards would record the hilarious interactions on the cassette tapes, which they would later distribute throughout cassette tapes the state. Eventually, the tapes gained so much popularity that they spread throughout respective sports leagues, branching out to sports reporters and then into the larger media world.
If there was any doubt, Matt Groening himself has said he is a fan of the tapes. If you are interested in checking out the original tapes, check out their YouTube channel.