Going Nuclear

‘Simpsons’ Co-Creator Sam Simon’s Battle Over Three-Eyed Fish

How the late Sam Simon, and The Simpsons team, helped change the way Americans look at nuclear energy—and pissed off the nuclear industry in the process.

03.10.15 8:15 PM ET

Sam Simon, the nine-time Emmy-winning co-creator of The Simpsons who died Monday at age 59, had a big heart.

After being diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in 2012, Simon announced that he was donating his $100 million fortune to multiple charities including Save the Children and PETA (read their statement on his death). He also began buying up roadside zoos and circuses in order to liberate the animals.

“He gave a voice to children and endangered animals who can’t speak up for themselves,” Save the Children president Carolyn Miles said in a statement. “And he gave away his fortune so that they may have a chance at a better life.”

His former colleagues echoed these sentiments. “Sam Simon’s contribution to the spirit of sharp, well-observed comedy is incalculable,” Conan O’Brien (a one-time Simpsons writer) tweeted on Monday. “Awful to lose such a gifted & genuinely good guy.”

For all his charity and generosity, Simon also had a knack for pissing people off in the name of good comedy. He and his crew at The Simpsons had their famous streak of mischief, unexpected smarts, and effective political satire. For instance, the beloved, long-running sitcom has secretly been teaching you math over the years, and the show has had an impressive effect on politics on a global scale. There is evidence to suggest that The Simpsons help shaped public opinion on nuclear energy—a fact that brought Simon the ire of the nuclear industry.

When the animated comedy premiered nearly three decades ago, its satirical jabs weren’t particularly kind to nuclear power.

“Could Homer Simpson derail the nuclear renaissance?” The Wall Street Journal once asked. Homer, who works at Springfield’s nuclear power plant, is the most incompetent inspector fathomable. The plant is as a pervasively destructive force that produces acid rain, wrecks the planet, and (in Season Two) creates the infamous three-eyed fish Blinky. Also, Mr. Burns, the filthy-rich old man who owns the power plant, is pure evil.

“The nuclear power industry is having a meltdown over The Simpsons,” the Associated Press reported in December 1990. The U.S. Council for Energy Awareness—a fancy, euphemistic title for a nuclear industry group—sent the Simpsons producers a letter expressing their horror at watching plant workers painted as “bungling idiots.”

“I am sorry that the Simpsons have offended a lot of people in the energy industry,” Simon, an executive producer, said in a response to the group. “I agree with you that in real life Homer Simpson would not be employed at a nuclear power plant. On the other hand, he probably wouldn’t be employed anywhere.”

There were a few more exchanges between the two parties, and Simon, along with other producers and writers, later toured the San Onofre plant in San Clemente, California. The Simpsons team subsequently announced that they would tone down their ribbing of the industry starting in the third season.

Simon admitted that his show was guilty of taking “cheap shots.” But he did say that their tour of a real-life plant confirmed that the series had been both right and wrong about nuclear power. He felt The Simpsons had been fairly accurate when it came to worker conditions and lingo, but he conceded that the tour changed minds on his staff.

“I think the facts are pretty powerful that it’s a clean and safe and important source of energy,” Simon said. “While some of the [episodes] were in the works before [the tour], we really backed off that as a source of comedy. No more three-eyed fish.”

None of this was to say that The Simpsons was unilaterally disarming. Despite his call for restraint and more “responsible” caricatures of the nuclear industry, the show didn’t lose any of its bite. While Simon was issuing his nuclear mea culpa to the media, he was sure to point out that an upcoming episode would include Homer starting grace at dinner with this bit of dark humor:

“Thank you for nuclear power, which has yet to cause a single fatality… at least in this country.”