Rolling in d'oh

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Matt Groening remembers the moment he realized that "The Simpsons" -- the Fox show he created, executive produces and has nurtured as his favorite child for 18 seasons -- had grown to become a genuine colossus of popular culture. It was a few years back, and he was stopped and searched while going through security at Los Angeles International Airport. "Suddenly, this kid walks by and shouts, 'Heah! Heah!' just like Nelson Muntz would have," Groening recalls. "It was amazing because I'm pretty sure he didn't know who I was. At least, I like to believe he didn't."

Similar incidents, no doubt, occur all the time -- Homer Simpson's classic "D'oh!" long ago entered the American lexicon of catchphrases -- and it can safely be said that TV series don't come much more iconic than "Simpsons." It's the longest-running comedy, in terms of years, in TV history, reaching its 400th-episode milestone May 20 (the Federal Communications Commission-baiting installment "You Kent Always Say What You Want," which finds newsman Kent Brockman locking horns with Ned Flanders over alleged indecency). Only one other TV comedy -- "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," with 435 episodes -- has produced more segments. Already renewed for Season 19, "Simpsons" will tie all-time series champ "Gunsmoke" if it gets renewed for a 20th, which is thought to be likely but hardly a certainty. Nonetheless, considering that it continues to be broadcast in some 75 countries, in 18 different languages, averaging more than 40 million weekly viewers and a staggering 13 billion annual impressions globally, it's hard to argue against the notion that this is the most successful franchise to hit the small screen.

The series' characters, who first appeared as crudely produced shorts on Fox's "The Tracey Ullman Show," will celebrate their 20th anniversary on television with a feature film this summer, "The Simpsons Movie," which will have a global release July 27 (see story on page S-8). It's a fitting milestone for a show that has earned 23 Emmy Awards and generated revenue in excess of $2.5 billion.

Numbers for "Simpsons," however, tell only a small part of the story. How has this longevity even happened in a medium known for inspiring fickleness and apathy in audiences? Hazarding a guess, co-creator/executive producer James L. Brooks says it's a combination of great raw material and uncommon creative freedom.

"Matt's original creation of the characters was just absolutely inspiration, which really set the stage for everything that's followed," Brooks credits. "And Fox has been so good about allowing us to be self-governing, to as much an extent as any show can be. We've really never gotten notes from the network, even if there was a ratings dip along the way. (And) we have benefited from mirroring the personality of our showrunners in not being any one rigorous style. They've varied the comedy in such a way that it's always stayed fresh."

Agrees Groening: "There's never been any one single kind of comedy we've tried to do over and over. We do everything from huge physical gags to cameo appearances by Gore Vidal. And I hear all of the stuff about the quality having slipped, but I think the show has never been smarter or better animated than it has in the last few seasons."

At the core of the never-waning "Simpsons" juggernaut is its collection of characters who, thanks to the cartoon format, neither age nor appreciably change in nature. For better or worse, they are what they were when the series premiered in December 1989 with the Christmas-themed "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire."

"When you're dealing with a live-action comedy, the writers and showrunners are obliged to have the characters learn lessons and grow emotionally," 20th Century Fox Television president Dana Walden offers. "A lot of times when that happens, the show loses its comedic (point of view).

That's one reason 'The Simpsons' has thrived for so long. That and the amazing writing, characters who were created with such care and passion, voices who got inside the characters' skin and an undercurrent of family members who truly love each other."

While Walden won't try to guess whether the show will return for a 20th season, she admits to praying for it, adding, "It's hard to imagine being at the studio if 'The Simpsons' isn't there."
Not to worry. Fox Broadcasting Co. has no plans to drop the show from its schedule in the near future, despite some ratings erosion over the course of Season 18. "In my world, it's almost unfathomable to have any conversation about the end of this show," admits Fox president of entertainment Peter Liguori. "When I sit down to talk with Matt and Jim (Brooks), it's about what to do during the next 18 years. It's not a job for these guys -- it's a calling."

Al Jean, the show's longtime executive producer/showrunner -- and a "Simpsons" fixture from the beginning -- lately has been logging double duty on both the show and impending film. Despite an exhausting workload, Jean professes to still being "excited by every show we do. And I still feel like we're as good as ever, no matter what the nostalgia crowd might believe."
What's perhaps most remarkable about the series' franchise is its sheer ubiquity.

According to Fox executives, "Simpsons" shows somewhere in the world every hour of every day. And, of course, its tie-in merchandise remains an evergreen wonder of the retail universe. Elie Dekel, Fox executive vp licensing and merchandising, notes there are 600 "Simpsons" licensees, including a group of Kenyan tribesmen making hand-carved stone sculptures of the characters that are expected to be available later this year.

"We're also contemplating approaching the performers to lend their voices to GPS systems in cars," Dekel says. "We use meticulous care and (creative) integrity in developing products for the brand, and it continues to pay off. At the retail level, we're approaching $6 billion in sales globally to date. But it remains amazingly popular for a property that's been around as long as this one has."

The first nine "Simpsons" seasons have now been released on DVD and combined have sold in excess of 12 million units, making the series' home video sales a cottage industry unto itself. And in a TV landscape where comedy isn't supposed to translate from culture to culture, "Simpsons" has proved a massive exception, maintains Fox International Television president Mark Kaner.

"These story lines and characters are so relatable that they've crossed cultural boundaries," Kaner says. "In my 30 years working in TV, I've never seen a show as bulletproof as this one. Globally, it seems to recruit a new audience of young people every three years. It remains unbelievably popular in Spain, Italy, Germany, Australia and all throughout Latin America, and we see no signs of it slowing down."

On its home turf, too, "Simpsons" remains spectacularly consistent as easily the most popular syndicated comedy of the past quarter-century. It is nothing less than "one of the strongest programs many of the stations that carry it have ever aired," Twentieth Television
president and COO Bob Cook emphasizes.

"If you look at a typical local market telecast of the show, you'll see it's head and shoulders above 'Seinfeld,' 'Everybody Loves Raymond' and 'Friends' in every key demographic," Cook continues. "None of them actually even comes close. You have to look at 'The Simpsons' as a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon."

And to think it all started so modestly: as a series of interstitials on a series with perpetually low ratings ("Tracey Ullman"), on a network that had, at the time of its premiere, been around only about a year and was found in the upper reaches of the UHF dial in a number of markets.

Even if the odds were long, "I have to say that from Day 1, I thought we would be a hit if adults gave us a chance," Groening says. "And I guess they have. It was considered such a risky move at the time to schedule an animated series. But it's even more odd now to see that
20 years later, no other network has figured out how to do it."

But will Fox continue to do it for a 20th season -- and beyond?

"If I were to bet, I'd say yes," Groening adds. "But animation requires such a staggering amount of attention to detail and time that we can't drag our heels for too long. You see, ultimately, my goal isn't just to tie 'Gunsmoke' but for everybody connected with 'The Simpsons' to be as rich and bitter as anyone in Hollywood. And, you know, so far, so good."

MORE SIMPSONS COVERAGE

Rolling in d'oh: 'The Simpsons' make history
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