'The Simpsons' at 500: Untold Stories
As TV's most successful show hits 500, Matt Groening reveals he had no car for his first meeting with James L. Brooks, Conan O'Brien confesses he gave guest star Johnny Carson bad directions and the voice of Homer tells how he came up with 'D'oh!'
My arm shot up when they asked for volunteers to record Bob Hope's voice at his home in Toluca Lake. We were alone in his study when Mr. Hope came in. He was quite hearing-impaired at the time, and his daughter was trying to get him to say the line. He kept saying, "Huh? What is it?" Then one of his people came in and said, "Mr. Hope, I'm sorry. We just got bad news from the vet about one of your dogs." And Bob said, "Well, you better let me tell him!" And he went whistling up the stairs.
I was also there when Johnny Carson came by after he retired from The Tonight Show. He was in a room full of writers who revered him. When Johnny was leaving -- in a white Corvette -- I was outside of the recording stage and he asked, "How do I get out of here?" I kind of panicked. I said, "You go down here and you take a right." And he went, "OK, thank you." And just as his car pulled away. I thought, "Shit! It's a left!" And I kept watching. And sure enough about 45 seconds later, it comes back the other way. And I could just imagine him going, "Stupid kid." I was that stupid kid.
The Simpsons came from the old world of television: Fox was an upstart, it was just the big three networks, and The Cosby Show was still dominant. And now, 23 years later, we're living in this world of 650,000 channels and literally nine cake shows. And yet The Simpsons is still with us. It's probably the only real bridge from the old world of media into the new world of media. When I walk around, sometimes people want to talk trivia about one of the episodes I worked on 20 years ago! They want to know every detail. And I just say, "All I remember is that the muffins were stale."
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"My first day happened to be the day Conan got the call from NBC that he was getting the late-night show at 12:30, so we had just shaken hands right before he got the call. I felt a tremendous amount of pressure coming in and didn't consider myself a replacement for Conan. The writers room was so overwhelming -- I didn't go to college, and it was basically 18 Harvard graduates and me, the village idiot. My first month there, I don't think I got up the nerve to pitch a joke in the room. I remember driving home every day saying, "Tomorrow is the day I'm going to talk" and telling my wife that we shouldn't buy anything because I'm going to get fired.
I love the episode where Homer visits rock 'n' roll fantasy camp. We had Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Tom Petty and Elvis Costello in. At one point, Mick wanted to speak with me. I thought, "Oh no, this could be trouble." I went in thinking I'd be greeted by bodyguards, but it was just him in the green room. He patted the couch for me to sit next to him and pointed out the lines he liked. On the outside, I had the demeanor of a professional writer, but inside, the 12-year-old in me was saying, "Oh my God, it's Mick Jagger!"
Episode 72 was my first one, and I remember thinking at the time that it would only go a couple more years. I think the show will outlive all of us. Nothing would make me happier than some episode in the future to end with a title card that reads, "In memory of Mike Scully."
voice of Bart, Nelson
"I'd gotten a call from my agent -- at the time, I was driving a Honda Prelude -- and I remember hopping in my car, putting in a Rick James tape of "Super Freak" and driving over the hill in Burbank to the Fox lot. I'd been told it was for a "little bumper." I didn't even know what that was. Originally, they wanted me to read for Lisa, an 8-year-old middle child. I picked up the script and looked at this little monologue; there was a picture of Lisa and next to her was Bart -- the 10-year-old school-hating underachiever and proud of it. And that just hit my heart like chocolate. I drove away thinking, "Wow, cool, I got another job." But it really was just another job. I was already on six Saturday morning cartoon shows. I had already bought a house and was quite successful doing voiceover work, and this new gig wasn't any big deal.
I think Nelson has evolved the most out of all the characters I do. There's a soft spot in him that the writers have found. He's got this special attraction to Marge, and he sings these songs, and he's got a crush on Lisa. There's something about this poor kid -- his mother works at Hooters, his dad went out to buy milk and never came back. I wouldn't want him to come over for dinner, but I really love doing his voice."
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voice of Homer
"Before The Simpsons, I was at Second City in Chicago, and Tracey Ullman and [Tracey Ullman writer] Heide Perlman saw me perform a sketch comedy bit about a blind, crippled comedian. They asked me to come to L.A. and audition. Tracey liked something I did in that sketch and thought my laugh was very genuine. She said if it hadn't been for my performance, I wouldn't have gotten the part.
I was a big cartoons fan. I'd done voiceover for Chicago radio and an animated commercial that I don't think made it to the air. I was already a big fan of Matt's Life in Hell and read that religiously. I thought it was doubly cool to do because it was a cartoon and it was working with someone whose work I already admired. Homer had a big droopy mouth and was kind of deadpan, and I immediately thought of Walter Matthau. That's the voice I started with and I eventually refined it to make it cartoonier. Julie Kavner's voice for Marge was more tired, and she decided she'd talk more quietly. About the "D'oh!": In Laurel and Hardy films, [the duo's foil] Jimmy Finlayson went, "Dooooh!" when they got hit, hurt or frustrated. In The Simpsons scripts, it was written as "annoyed grunt" -- and still is. I asked Matt what an annoyed grunt is, and he said it could be whatever I wanted it to be. My mind latched on to Finlayson's "Dooooh!" Matt said we only had a minute, so we shortened it to make it faster. I thought Finlayson's expression was a euphemism for "damn" because you couldn't say that on TV at the time. When we had our 200th show reading, Dave Mirkin, who was running the show, came in and said, "Well, we're halfway there." He didn't know how wrong he was! I don't know if we're going to reach a second 500 -- I've been waiting for the other shoe to drop for 15 years -- but I'll go as long as the show goes."
voice of Marge
"Marge's sound came out of just having a tired voice. I didn't want my voice coming out of a cartoon face, so I wanted for it somehow to be different! The fact that the writing is so good and they're coming up with fresh stories at this point just amazes me. Our upcoming Lady Gaga episode is no different! The story has to do with Lisa having low self-esteem and Marge not knowing what to do with her anymore. It has such a good message. Jim Brooks was on hand to help direct the episode. Lady Gaga was there with all of us, but a lot of times the guest artists aren't able to be there to read with everybody because of their schedules. But they all really want to be there. They know it's sort of prestigious."
voice of Lisa
"I originally auditioned for Bart. That lasted a good eight or nine seconds. It was like: "Cut, cut, cut! You sound too much like a girl!" I'd never done voiceover before. I was teased relentlessly as a kid for having this voice. And so you sort of think, "Well, I can't imagine how that would ever work in my favor." And then they said, "Well, here's a picture of Lisa and she's 8." During the audition, I was in an empty room with a low coffee table and a beat-up couch, and there was one of those tape recorders where you had to push record and play at the same time -- that was the sophisticated equipment they had for the audition. I read for casting director Bonnie Pietila. I came back a couple days later and read for Matt. He was like, "OK, that's good." I thought, "Oh, er, what?!" I mean, I didn't think it had gone very well. A lot of people have said to me, "You're so much prettier in real life" and "You're taller than I thought." "And I'm like, "Thanks? Taller than what? Taller than 4-foot-2? Taller than Lisa Simpson? Taller than the way you see me on your TV?"
voice of Moe, Chief Wiggum, Apu
"I'd just done a pilot for Fox where I did the voice of an animated dog. It was a Roger Rabbit-type of idea where the dog was animated and everybody else was real. Around that time, they were replacing the voice actor who'd done the voice of Moe on Simpsons. I'd always thought it was because they were unhappy with his work, but I found out from Matt recently that they were quite happy with his vocal work. He was just difficult to work with. Boy, lucky for me! I went into a room with Matt and Sam Simon; I didn't know them, but I knew Jim Brooks was a genius. I did the first Moe recording and got hired on the spot. The next week I did Apu, the next week Wiggum, and that was it, we were off and running. We were able to experiment quite a bit, especially in the beginning. Jim was able to shepherd and protect it. He didn't have to take network notes, so he didn't. He let the thing be what it wanted to be and turned it over to some really creative people who took that vision and ran with it."
As told to Tim Appelo, Matthew Belloni, Lesley Goldberg, Marisa Guthrie, Michael O'Connell and Stacey Wilson.