Bart, Homer, Conan and Michael Jackson: Behind the Scenes Stories From 500 Episodes of 'The Simpsons'

2012 Issue 6: 'The Simpsons'
Photo by Joe Pugliese. Cover illustration by Julius Preite. The Simpsons ™ and © 2012. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

As TV’s most successful show hits a 500 episodes, Matt Groening and co. open up about mocking Murdoch's, collaborating with Liz Taylor, Lady Gaga and the King of Pop and Conan O’Brien's awkward run-ins with Johnny Carson and Bob Hope.

READ: Behind the Scenes Stories From 500 Episodes of 'The Simpsons'

THR COVER STORY: 'The Simpsons' at 500

As TV’s most successful show hits a milestone, Matt Groening and co. open up in the newest issue of The Hollywood Reporter about mocking Murdoch's News Corp., collaborating with Liz Taylor, Lady Gaga and the King of Pop and O’Brien's awkward run-ins with Johnny Carson and Bob Hope.

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.

Birthed from the antsy mind of creator Matt Groening -- and first part of the then-fledgling network's sketch series The Tracey Ullman Show -- the 1989 premiere of The Simpsons resurrected the animated primetime comedy, not seen since The Flintstones had gone extinct 23 years earlier.

PHOTOS: THR Goes Behind the Scenes at 'The Simpsons' Animation Studio

"The Simpsons came from the old world of television," one-time series writer Conan O'Brien tells The Hollywood Reporter. "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."

Today, The Simpsons is 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. But to hear the show’s creator, producers, writers and voice talent tell the story, The Simpsons was a bit of a happy accident.

PHOTOS: The Hollywood Reporter Cover Stories

On the eve of the series’ milestone 500th episode airing Feb. 19, THR cover boys Groening, showrunner Al Jean, EP James L. Brooks and the rest of the brain (and voice) trust behind Bart, Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and dozens of other Springfield residents tell THR about 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.

Here are a few behind-the-scenes anecdotes from THR's cover story:

"We’ve taken our shots [at Fox], despite our fears," says EP James L. Brooks. "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."

"Michael Jackson once called Jim [Brooks] and said he wanted to do the show and even write a hit song for Bart," showrunner Al Jean says of the uncredited 1991 guest spot and single, "Do the Bart Man." "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."

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During his three-year tenure as a Simpsons writer, Conan O'Brien had encounters with two iconic comedians: Bob Hope and Johnny Carson. Neither meeting, as he explains, went according to plan. "My arm shot up when they asked for volunteers to record Bob Hope’s voice at his home in Toluca Lake,'" O'Brien says. "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."

With so much television already under their belts, most involved with the series see no end in sight. "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," Dan Castellaneta, voice of Homer, tells THR. "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." Others are even more optimistic. "I think the show will outlive all of us," says former producer Mike Scully. "Nothing would make me happier than some episode in the future to end with a title card that reads, 'In memory of Mike Scully.'"

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This spring, Lady Gaga joins the storied ranks of Simpsons guest stars. Like Elizabeth Taylor, and so many others, she sat in with the whole cast during the recording. "The story has to do with Lisa having low self-esteem and Marge not knowing what to do with her anymore," says Julie Kavner, the voice of Marge. "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."

The Simpson clan, at least in name, is based on creator Matt Groening's family: his mother, Margaret, sisters Lisa and Maggie and his father, Homer. Despite their namesakes often unflattering antics, Groening says that only one condition came from his father. "He’d worked in Portland [Ore.] his whole life," Groening says of his cartoonist dad. "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 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."

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"I’d just done a pilot for Fox where I did the voice of an animated dog," Hank Azaria tells THR. "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."

"Homer had a big droopy mouth and was kind of deadpan, and I immediately thought of Walter Matthau," Castellaneta says of the character's inspiration. "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!'"

As for Bart and Lisa, the actors behind the characters -- Nancy Cartwright and Yeardly Smith, respectively -- originally went in for the other's part. "That lasted a good eight or nine seconds," Smith says of her reading for Bart. "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.'"

Read the complete THR cover story here