'The Simpsons' at 500: Untold Stories

 Joe Pugliese; Illustrations: Matt Groening

One must note that, for a series that has long celebrated the antics of an enthusiastic slacker (and his loving but dysfunctional family), the overachievements are staggering: In every half hour of every day, an episode of The Simpsons is broadcasting somewhere around the globe. Now in its 23rd season (and contracted to run through a 25th), the show is the world's most-watched U.S. television series with an average weekly global viewership of over 150 million viewers, and also lures in an average of nearly 8 million viewers in its regular Sunday-night primetime slot in the U.S. on Fox. Oh, and it even earned an entry into the Oxford English Dictionary, suspending any notion that "D'oh!" was merely a nonsensical exclamation of an idiot father.

Since its premiere in 1989 after an early incarnation on the then-fledgling Fox network's sketch series The Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons has never been just a "cartoon." Birthed from the antsy mind of creator Matt Groening, the series resurrected the animated primetime comedy, not seen since The Flintstones had gone extinct 23 years earlier. Today, The Simpsons can claim much of the credit for Fox's animation domination -- from Family Guy to Bob's Burgers to its reimagining of Napoleon Dynamite. It's not only the chief creative linchpin for 20th Century Fox Television -- (Simpsons has won 27 primetime Emmys and 30 Annie awards) but also is the most lucrative property on television, with a billion-dollar merchandising empire.

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But to hear the show's creator, producers, writers and voice talent tell the story, The Simpsons was a bit of a happy accident. On the eve of the series' milestone 500th episode airing Feb. 19, the brain (and voice) trust behind Bart, Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and dozens of other Springfield residents reflect on the early meetings, awkward auditions, totally out-there scripts and legendary guest stars that have mingled to make The Simpsons (sorry, Seinfeld!) the most important comedy of the modern era.

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Matt Groening
creator

"I always knew I was going to be drawing cartoons. I was greatly influenced by my father, Homer Groening, who was a filmmaker and cartoonist. But he'd worked in Portland [Ore.] his whole life. I always said, "Dad, why don't we move to Hollywood?" And he said, "Nothing good ever came out of a good committee." Our family -- my mom, Margaret, and sisters, Lisa and Maggie -- had a lot of verbal wit at the dinner table. It was very competitive to be funny. The fact that there is a TV show in which their names are attached to these crazy characters totally makes sense within the psychopathology of the Groening family. My dad had a big influence on the show. He said, "Never let Homer be mean to Marge." But he wasn't bothered by Homer strangling Bart.

I moved to L.A. straight from college. By the late 1970s, I was working at a record store called Licorice Pizza, on Sunset. I was miserable in L.A. I had no money. So I started drawing my comic, Life in Hell, and sold it as a zine at the record store. Production designer Polly Platt showed it to James L. Brooks. He was curious and called me for a meeting at Paramount. My 1962 Ford Fairlane had just bitten the dust. Luckily I was living right across the street from Paramount. They wouldn't let me in because I didn't have a car. I said, "But I have a meeting with James L. Brooks!" That was 1985. Nothing came of the meeting until a couple years later when James asked me to come over to the Fox lot to meet again. He was working on The Tracey Ullman Show by that point. I went into the Gracie Films bungalow, where we still produce today, and suddenly I was made aware that I might lose ownership of whatever I pitched. Instead of pitching Life in Hell, I drew new characters on the spot. I'd had them in mind for a while but had never drawn them. In the book The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West, there's a character named Homer Simpson. I knew I wanted to use that name, for my dad. After that, The Simpsons were featured shorts on Tracey Ullman from 1987 to 1989. They also started using them as trailers before movies, like War of the Roses. I went to a theater, and the moment The Simpsons came up on the screen, the audience burst into applause. That was the first major indication of, "Whoa, we have something here."

Our guest stars always come from the writers saying, "Wouldn't it be cool to have Stephen Hawking?" And he did it -- twice! He actually came to the table read and had a good time. It's rare in a town full of people who are called "geniuses" all the time to meet a real genius, you know? Our voice cast is so phenomenal, and what the writers do for the actors is push everything to another level. I'd have to say Lisa is my favorite character. She breaks my heart with what the writers do to her. But I always carry in my heart that she is going to grow up and escape Springfield for a better life."

James L. Brooks
executive producer

"The Simpsons series began like many things begin: with an animator getting drunk at a Christmas party. We were already doing Tracey Ullman, and David Silverman, who was with us then and would go on to direct The Simpsons Movie, cornered me and poured out his heart about what having a primetime Simpsons show would mean to animators. We watched the premiere at the Fox lot animation house, and it was what you might call "off-model." The characters looked grotesque! Everything was off. The first viewing experience was, "Oh my God, what happened to us?" Since these were coming from Korea, we didn't know if all the shows in the pipeline were like that, or if this was an anomaly. That week was one of the worst of any of our lives. Then, the second show was OK. What's been so good about The Simpsons is that we've allowed the tone to change from season to season, and sometimes from show to show. We wanted it to be real, we wanted it to be about character but never go too broad. But I think there was one year where there was a debate about whether The Simpsons could leave Earth. And that's where the space aliens came in. That's the great thing about the show -- that you can take them anywhere, from farce to romantic comedy. And we've taken our shots [at Fox], despite our fears! When Rupert Murdoch's been on the show, he's always done his lines. We've never heard a word about our comments about Fox News or anything. We have comedic license. I always say, if you came from the moon and landed on the Fox lot and went from office to office and guessed the show that's been on the longest, you'd never pick us. We're still sweating each episode. But I think that's a great thing."

PHOTOS: Meet the Cast of 'The Simpsons'

Al Jean
showrunner

"By the time I was hired in 1989, they had like 40 shorts. But one of the best things about the show was that it was off-the-radar for so long. The premise of the first full episode we wrote was that Homer was worried that Marge was going to get drunk at a party and get him in trouble at the office. In the shorts, Lisa was supposed to be this little hell-raiser like Bart, but their character differentiation was wider when we went to full series. So for the first Lisa-centered episode that we wrote, "Moaning Lisa," Jim Brooks said, "I want Lisa to be sad. I can't explain it." I'm a person who's often sad and can't explain it. So I put some of myself in that episode, and some of myself into Lisa. But to say it was just me is crazy. Jim Brooks is one of the greatest emotional writers there is -- he's had a huge contribution to the show in that way.

Michael Jackson once called Jim and said he wanted to do the show and even write a hit song for Bart. This is the only time this ever happened. We went to his agent Sandy Gallin's house. We're all sitting around this huge table and everybody's silent, including Michael. I'd never been more nervous in my life. He asked for a sound-alike vocalist, Kipp Lennon, to sing, and Michael did the spoken part. When Kipp sang, Michael was really cracking up. I also directed the Liz Taylor episode when she did the voice of Maggie saying, "Daddy." I asked her for 15 or 20 takes. At the end she said in the cute baby voice, "F-- you!" It was really funny."

Conan O'Brien
writer, 1991-93

"I was 27 when I started as a writer on the show. I thought, "I'm going to bring the edgiest ideas, push the envelope." When I got there, they told me, first and foremost, "The Simpsons characters are a family who love each other. They need to exist in that reality. Bart can't take out a gun and shoot Homer in the face; it's not the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote." So when I heard that, I gotta admit I kind of rolled my eyes, like "Whatevs, man." But the point is, those relationships really do ground the show. And in any good show, the characters do care about each other.

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