Aug 18, 2007

Simpson Family Values

A cartoon family whacked America's funny bone in 1989, eventually becoming the longest-running TV comedy ever. As The Simpsons jumps to the big screen this month, not everyone involved—including the writers, the voices, and Rupert Murdoch—agrees on what has made it a pop phenomenon.

by John Ortved | Vanity Fair

The Story of D'oh: Lisa, Homer, Bart, Marge, and Maggie Simpson. View our picks for the 10 best Simpsons episodes ever. All illustrations Fox/Photofest.

In January 1992, during a campaign stop at a gathering of the National Religious Broadcasters, George H. W. Bush made a commitment to strengthen traditional values, promising to help American families become "a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons." A few days later, before the opening credits rolled on the animated sitcom's weekly episode, The Simpsons issued its response. Seated in front of the television, the family watched Bush make his remarks. "Hey! We're just like the Waltons," said Bart. "We're praying for an end to the Depression, too." While the immediacy of the response was surprising, the retort was vintage Simpsons: tongue-in-cheek, subversive, skewering both the president's cartoonish political antics and the culture that embraced them. Twelve months later, Bill Clinton moved into the White House. The Waltons were out; the Simpsons were in.

When The Simpsons had premiered on Fox, in 1989, prime-time television was somewhat lacking in comedy. Despite a few bright spots such as Cheers and the barbed, happily crude Roseanne, the sitcom roost was ruled by didactic, saccharine family fare: The Cosby Show, Full House, Growing Pains, Family Matters. Of the last—the show that gave the world Urkel—Tom Shales piously declared in The Washington Post, "A decent human being would have a hard time not smiling."

It was on this wan entertainment landscape that The Simpsons planted its flag. Prime time had not seen an animated sitcom since The Flintstones, in the 1960s, and the Christmas special with which The Simpsons debuted made clear that Springfield and Bedrock were separated by more than just a few millennia. In "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," Homer takes a job as a department-store Santa after the family's emergency money is spent on tattoo removal for Bart. Following a motivational chat from Bart on the nature of Christmas miracles on television—meta-commentary was a Simpsons hallmark from the start—Homer risks his earnings at the track, on a dog named Santa's Little Helper. When the dog comes in dead last, the family adopts him. While the ending sounds a tad cheesy, and it was, the seeds had been planted: up against impossible odds, and one another, the family ultimately bonded together and overcame. And the gags were solid: Homer is despondent at the length of his children's Christmas pageant; a tattoo artist unquestioningly accepts 10-year-old Bart as an adult; the family's Christmas decorations are clearly pathetic in contrast to the Flanders family's next door. Critical reaction was nearly unanimous. "Couldn't be better … not only exquisitely weird but also as smart and witty as television gets," raved the Los Angeles Times. "Why would anyone want to go back to Growing Pains?" asked USA Today.

What followed is one of the most astounding successes in television history. The Simpsons went on to be a ratings and syndication winner for 18 years, and has grossed Fox sums of money measuring in the billions. It has won 23 Emmys and a Peabody Award, and was named the best TV show of all time by Time magazine in 1999. (The magazine also named Bart one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. "[Bart] embodies a century of popular culture and is one of the richest characters in it. One thinks of Chekhov, Celine, Lenny Bruce," the writer cooed.) But the most telling accolade is that The Simpsons is TV's longest-running sitcom ever, outlasting The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet's 14 seasons.

Not surprisingly, given its success, The Simpsons has spawned many imitators and opened doors for new avenues of animated comedy. Directly or indirectly, the show sired Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill, Futurama, Family Guy, Adult Swim, and South Park, which, nearly a decade after Bart's boastful underachieving, managed to regenerate a familiar cacophony of ratings, merchandise, and controversy when it premiered, in 1997. (The controversial label was perhaps deserved. Bart's greatest sin has been sawing the head off the statue of the town's founder; last year, on South Park, Cartman tried to exterminate the Jews.)

"It's like what sci-fi fans say about Star Trek: it created an audience for that genre," says Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy. "I think The Simpsons created an audience for prime-time animation that had not been there for many, many years. As far as I'm concerned, they basically re-invented the wheel. They created what is in many ways—you could classify it as—a wholly new medium. It's just wholly original."

"The Simpsons is the bane of our existence," says Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park with Trey Parker. "They have done so many parodies, tackled so many subjects. 'Simpsons did it!' is a very familiar refrain in our writers' room. Trey and I are constantly having our little cartoon compared to the best show in the history of television, The Simpsons. Why can't we be compared to According to Jim? Or Sister, Sister?"

Not that there aren't some debits on The Simpsons' ledger—for every King of the Hill, there was a Fish Police and a Critic. But over 18 years, The Simpsons has been so influential, it is difficult to find any strain of television comedy that does not contain its DNA. And yet the show's footprint is so much larger. Homer's signature "D'oh!" has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. There's a "Simpsons and Philosophy" course at Berkeley (for credit), not to mention the hundreds of published academic articles with The Simpsons as their subject. Even conservatives have come around. "It's possibly the most intelligent, funny, and even politically satisfying TV show ever," wrote the National Review in 2000. "The Simpsons celebrates many … of the best conservative principles: the primacy of family, skepticism about political authority.… Springfield residents pray and attend church every Sunday." Next to pornography, no single subject may have as many Web sites and blogs dedicated to its veneration. The Simpsons has permeated our vernacular, the way we tell jokes, and how our storytellers practice their craft. If you look around, you can see the evidence, but as with any truly powerful cultural force, you can never see it all—it's buried too deep.

Such lofty significance was never the goal of Matt Groening, a native of Portland, Oregon, who, with writing aspirations, moved to L.A. in 1977, at the age of 23, immersing himself in the punk-rock scene and working on novels. He was freshly graduated from Evergreen State College, a hippie school in Olympia, Washington, with no grades, exams, or required classes. After several menial jobs, he began recording his disgust with life in L.A. in a comic strip, Life in Hell, which he sent to his friends back home and distributed at the record shop Licorice Pizza, where he found work behind the counter. The strip featured deeply cynical, existential ruminations from a bunny named Binky, his illegitimate, one-eared son, Bongo, and a fez-wearing gay couple—who may or may not be identical twins—named Jeff and Akbar. It found its way into the Los Angeles Reader and then LA Weekly, in 1986, and eventually caught the attention of James L. Brooks, writer-producer of Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and writer-director of the film Terms of Endearment, among others.

Gary Panter, friend of Matt Groening's, cartoonist: The people I knew who were doing the mini-comics at the earliest were Matt, Lynda Barry, me.… Matt's earliest comics were about language.… He did a whole series of Life in Hell called "Forbidden Words." He would just name all these phrases that were overused in culture and forbid them from being used again. His comics were very ambitious, and his drawings very simple, but beautifully designed; it has clarity, and Matt's a great writer, and understands human psychology.

James Vowell, founding editor, Los Angeles Reader: Matt was always trying to sell Life in Hell as an idea to me for a weekly cartoon in the paper. He'd draw these little pictures on paper napkins … and occasionally I'd say, "Matt, why don't you make that chin a little smaller." He didn't need me to edit his cartoons, I guarantee you.… They became super popular almost immediately.

Polly Platt, production designer, Terms of Endearment: I was nominated for an Academy Award for Terms of Endearment, and I wanted to give Jim Brooks a thank-you gift. [Matt] did a cartoon called "Success and Failure in Hollywood." So I called Matt and I bought the original. [Jim] was thrilled! He just laughed and laughed, and hung it up on his wall in his office. It was a brilliant cartoon. Success and failure come out to exactly the same thing in the cartoon. I think it's people shooting each other.

The Simpsons in their overbite-y, earliest incarnation.

My suggestion to Jim was that I thought it would be great to do a TV special on the characters that Matt had already drawn; I never envisioned anything like The Simpsons.

At the time, Brooks was looking for a cartoon short to place before commercials as minute-long "bumpers" on The Tracey Ullman Show, a sketch-comedy series that Barry Diller, then C.E.O. of Fox Inc., had asked him to produce in 1987 for the new and struggling Fox network.

Jay Kogen, writer-producer, The Tracey Ullman Show (1987–89), The Simpsons (1989–93): They really wanted Life in Hell. But Matt was making a good bit of money on mugs and calendars from Life in Hell, and Fox wanted to own the whole thing. He said, "I won't sell you this. But I have this other family, called The Simpsons, that you can have." And then he proceeded to draw something on a napkin that legend has it he just made up on the spot. And they said, "O.K., we'll do that!"

Polly Platt: What's funny now, because he's so rich, is that I was driving home from my office at Paramount, very shortly after that, and I saw Matt sitting at the bus stop. He didn't even have a car. I had no idea he was so poor. I stopped my car and said hello and offered him a ride. We were going in different directions, or he was too proud, or whatever.

Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist, Maus: I pleaded with Matt and advised him strongly from my elder-statesman position to not work with Fox. "Whatever you do, don't work with those guys! They're gangsters! They're gonna take your rights away!" He's never let me forget it.

Gabor Csupo, original animator, The Simpsons (1987–92): When Jim Brooks originally saw Matt Groening's drawings on his wall, it was all black-and-white, just the line drawing, no color or anything. And that's how he wanted to do the show. And we said, "You know what? We gonna give you color for the same price." And all of a sudden the eyes lit up and he said, "O.K., you guys are on." The characters were so beautiful but, let's face it, primitively designed that we thought that we could counterbalance that design with shocking colors. That's why we came up with the yellow skin, and the blue hair for Marge.

Michael Mendel, associate producer, The Tracey Ullman Show (1987–89), The Simpsons (1989–92): Matt would just show up with a two-page script and go, "Here it is. This is the cartoon we're doing this week." It was sort of guerrilla-style animation. We would hang out on the stage of Tracey Ullman, and in between block and rehearsal, we would grab [the actors] and record their lines. It was me and Matt and the animators and a couple directors—a really small group of people working on this little one-minute cartoon every week.

Wally Wolodarsky, writer-producer, The Tracey Ullman Show (1987–89), The Simpsons (1989–93): The Simpsons were viewed as poor relations by the writing staff of The Tracey Ullman Show, and we secretly always felt that The Simpsons was the funniest part of the show.

For the voices of Homer and Marge, the producers used Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner, actors who were already regulars on The Tracey Ullman Show. (Marge's rasp is Kavner's normal voice, almost uninflected.) Yeardley Smith, who auditioned using her own voice for Lisa, was a struggling actress with some Broadway and TV-movie credits. She had originally auditioned for the role of Bart, while voice actress Nancy Cartwright tried for Lisa. When they switched, Cartwright—who had followed the advice of her mentor, Daws Butler, the voice of Yogi Bear, to move to L.A. and try voice acting—attempted a version of a voice she had used on My Little Pony and The Snorks, and Bart was born.

The bumper episodes were amusing snippets of the dysfunctional family's daily life, focusing mostly on the kids being kids, and the grief they caused their parents: Bart and Lisa engage in a burping contest; Bart directs the pallbearers at a funeral as if he were the foreman on a construction site.

Though critics liked The Tracey Ullman Show, the series wasn't a big hit; but, then, neither was much else on the network. Still, Diller saw that the big-three networks were getting old and tired—they were losing viewers to cable and independent networks—and he was eager to experiment. In early 1988, he launched one of television's first reality programs, America's Most Wanted (Cops would follow in 1989), while taking the sitcom in lewd new directions with Married … with Children. When Brooks approached him with the idea of making The Simpsons into its own series, Diller eventually bit, thinking that the show might be, as he later put it, "the one that can crack the slab for us."

Barry Diller, former chairman and C.E.O., Fox: Everything was failing at the time, all those half-hour sitcoms: Mr. President, etc. We all thought the Simpsons were really cute, but their shorts weren't making any noise, nor was The Tracey Ullman Show, for that matter, which was unfortunate. I never saw it as a series. What made the difference was Jim Brooks. I know it was originally Matt's drawings, and I'm sure [executive producer] Sam Simon made his contribution, but the show never would have happened, or have been successful, without Jim Brooks.

Rupert Murdoch, C.E.O., News Corp.: I was at a program meeting with Barry Diller and the people at Fox Network, and afterwards Barry said, "Come into my room, I want to show you something." And he had a tape there, of about 20 minutes in length, of all the little 30-second bits that had been through The Tracey Ullman Show. And he played it, and I just thought it was hilarious. I said, "You've gotta buy this tonight." He said, "No. It's more complicated than that." So we went forward from there.

Michael Mendel: Barry Diller just wanted to make specials and Jim [Brooks] put his foot down and said, "It's a series or nothing." The network wanted to play it safe, and they weren't sure if this was going to work. I don't think that happens today. I don't think anyone gets on the phone with Barry Diller and says, "Take it or leave it. It's a series."

Barry Diller: I wanted to do anything that did not involve making a commitment of 13 episodes. But Jim said, with six months of lead time, it wouldn't work any other way.

Michael Mendel: It was like, "I love them as one-minute cartoons, but as a whole half hour, I don't know." I didn't think they'd be able to hold people's attention. Great prediction on my part.

Rupert Murdoch: You look at it in today's figures, the risks [of making The Simpsons its own series] weren't that great. But at the time, we were very conscious of how much money we were spending on productions. It was certainly tremendously important in establishing the use of brand of the network.

Brooks's man in charge of developing the show was Sam Simon, a writer-producer who had worked with Brooks on Taxi and Ullman. Simon would depart The Simpsons after its fourth season, leaving behind much acrimony between him and Matt Groening over creative differences and compensation issues. Simon's lawyers negotiated a lucrative deal for him; he left without much severance, but retained a piece of the show. (He has made more than 10 million dollars a year since.) Many of the original staff remain loyal to Simon, crediting him with taking Groening's crude characters from The Tracey Ullman Show and making them into the Simpsons that the world knows and loves. Simon recently told 60 Minutes, "Any show I've ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy; I hate myself." For his part, Groening has said, "I think Sam Simon is brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I've ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced."

Colin Lewis, postproduction supervisor and producer, The Simpsons (1990–97): Sam had problems with Matt from the beginning. The stuff with Matt, anyone will tell you, in terms of them feuding and not talking … that was consistent from the beginning.

Polly Platt: Matt did not get along with [Sam]. Nobody got along with him. He's kind of an awful person. If he was at any meeting, it just seemed that everyone would turn on each other.

Barry Diller: I was totally aware of their problems and often mediated them on behalf of everyone. For a while it was not a happy place. But I think it ultimately made the show better.

Michael Mendel: A lot of the foundation for the show and the reason why I think it's successful was laid down during those tumultuous times.

Jay Kogen: It was clear that there was animosity back and forth. It was a tough position for Sam to be in, because Matt was getting all the accolades. I would think that if you were pouring your life's blood into something and getting none of the credit, it would be irritating. If you look at the original Simpsons cartoons, those are closer to Matt's drawings, but Sam reshaped them and re-drew them. He had experience in sitcoms. He had also worked in animation. He's also a very talented cartoonist himself. He's really smart, and handled storyboards and all that stuff.

Brad Bird, supervising director, The Simpsons (1989–92); feature-film director, The Incredibles, Ratatouille: I think the unsung hero has always been Sam. I was in the room when he took some pretty mediocre scripts and just sat there in his chair, with all the writers in the room and a cigar, and went through, line by line. And he would get people to pitch lines … but 9 times out of 10 he came up with the best line. And if someone came up with a genuinely better line, he'd put that in.

Jay Kogen: Matt wasn't always in the room. So it's hard to fight with everybody and have a real say if you're not there. He's also a very pleasant, easygoing guy, and the writers' room can be a tough place. But, you know, ultimately Matt got what he wanted. When he pitched stuff, he got what he wanted.

With the enlarged scope of a series, a cast of characters outside the family was needed. There were Patty and Selma, Marge's spinster sisters, and Grandpa, Homer's neglected father. Moe the bartender, Homer's enabler, is the bitterest man in town, while the local-TV kiddie show is hosted by Krusty the Clown, a Friars-era showbiz hack. Homer's boss is the 104-year-old nuclear-power-plant owner, Mr. Burns, a throwback to the robber barons (with some Charles Foster Kane, Rupert Murdoch, and Barry Diller thrown in). To voice the supporting roles, the performing cast was filled out with veteran improv actors Hank Azaria (Chief Wiggum, Moe, Apu) and Harry Shearer (Principal Skinner, Mr. Burns, Kent Brockman). The late Phil Hartman helped create some of The Simpsons' best moments voicing the charmingly incompetent litigator Lionel Hutz and washed-up actor Troy McClure.

Josh Weinstein, writer–executive producer, The Simpsons (1991–98): When Jim and Matt and Sam first assembled a group of actors for the show, they didn't go for voice-over actors, people who did kids' voices and cartoon shows. They went for real actors and actors who had a lot of comedy, improv experience. Sometimes some of the best moments came from the actors themselves, and not from the script.

Hank Azaria: The hard stuff was the first two or three years, where we were finding the tone, sensibility, even specifically the voices of the characters. There was a lot of finding it in fits and starts. We would record all day long.

Michael Mendel: Fox had this really huge A.D.R. stage, and everybody [not just the actors] was in the room with the microphones. You couldn't make a noise while they were recording or you would ruin it. It was always a challenge to not laugh on top of these actors' takes because they were so funny. So people would be, you know, crawling under their desks not to ruin the take.

Read the full entry of this post at Vanity Fair

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