'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!'
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.
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.
"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
"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."
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"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."
"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.
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.