A decade of D'oh!

Nick Bradshaw goes behind the scenes to celebrate The Simpsons' birthday, after 10 years on Sky One...

By Nick Bradshaw

© Sky, September 2000

Forget the Clintons - The Simpsons are America's first family. This may sound a bit over the top, but while the likes of Robin Williams received standing ovations at this year's US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado, The Simpsons received the biggest ovation of all. In fact, it seemed that the whole town was desperate to get tickets to watch a man called Dan say D'oh!

For the audience, it was a big occasion. The voice actors for The Simpsons were reading a script of the show live on stage for the very first time. And, after the performance, executive producer Mike Scully tried to explain exactly why Homer has struck such a chord:

"If guys are honest, they realise there's a lot of Homer is most of us. The only difference is that Homer says things out loud. One of our writers always says that the best way to write for Homer is to imagine he's a dog, because a dog's emotions change from minute to minute. In a matter of seconds, he can go from being upset to angry, to confused, to happy."

One man who knows the big yellow fella better than most is Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer, who has given us classic phrases such as "D'oh!", "Woo-hoo" and "Mmmm, donuts!" "I wouldn't say that I'd hang out with him, but I like Homer," he says. "There have been times when the writers have tried to get him to do things that are a little mean. He's boorish and unthinking, but he'd never be mean on purpose. I try to keep him on track."

Hitting the big time
The Simpson family was the brainchild of cartoonist Matt Groening (who's created an exclusive front cover for us this month). After starting life in a short sketch on The Tracey Ullman Show, the characters soon became famous enough to go solo. The Simpsons first appeared on British screens on Sky One 10 years ago, and the channel celebrates its anniversary on Saturday 2nd and Sunday 3rd. Over the years, the show has become a worldwide institution, with celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, Paul McCartney and even Rupert Murdoch lending their vocal talents.

One of the strange aspects of watching the Simpsons appears live is hearing Bart's voice coming out of a grown woman's mouth. The woman in question, Nancy Cartwright, learnt her trade from Daws Butler (the voice of characters like Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound), and, as well as Bart, she provides the voices for Rod Flanders, Todd Flanders and Nelson.

Apparently it's normal for woman to play young male characters. "Unlike kids, their voices don't change, they don't have to work limited hours, and you can go for a drink with them at the end of a day's work," says Groening.

To become a good voice actor, Cartwright had to learn to become a good listener. She doesn't listen to what people say, as much as how they say things. "I rip off voices from everywhere and anywhere," she admits, "from people I know, even from movies." I used to read stories to my children using them as guinea pigs to try out new voices. But they didn't like that and would go, 'No mommy, don't do that! Just be mommy please!'

"I don't get a lot of people coming up to me but, when it does happen, it brings such joy to people that I actually enjoy talking to them. Especially little kids - it freaks them out when I start talking like Bart. You see them get a big smile on their face and it's like..." Nancy switches into her Bart voice, "cool, man!"

Most actors complain about the pressures of fame and claim their job is a lot harder then it looks. Not Nancy. "Are you kidding me? This is the best job on the planet. We work so little, we get paid a lot of money. I'm doing what I love to do. It's my whole purpose in life."

Dan Castellaneta agrees: "Doing this still gives me a buzz. We only get together about once a week. There have been times when I've had trouble continuing with something because I can't stop laughing. We sometimes have to stop so that I can calm down."

Springfield success story
Just as Nancy and Dan feel fortunate to have landed their current roles, Matt Groening says he's blessed to have attracted such a good team of actors, writers and animators.

"I used to worry that if I took my eye off the ball, something could go wrong," Groening admits. "But not any more. I've got a lot of faith in the team who put the show together. The actors are fiercely protective of their characters. They help make sure we don't get them to do or say things that wouldn't seem right. I may not be as involved as I used to be, but I do stick my nose in from time to time. I've been there from the start, so I often annoy the writers by reminding them that we've already had Homer stuck in a tube at a water park."

For the last eight years, the team has been led by executive producer and chief writer Mike Scully. Of taking the helm, he says, "My main goal when I took over was not to screw things up! I didn't want to be known as the captain who sank the ship."

His job involves a drawn-out process. "From the time the writer pitches the story to it appearing on air is about nine months," he says. "It makes it hard to be topical. We are able to change a joke shortly before a show airs, but the new one has to match the mouth movements in the animation - and, let's face it, it's hard enough to come up with a funny joke. Plus, we like our writers to come up with things that show a healthy disrespect for everything Americans hold dear."

And long may it continue - a sentiment which Groening obviously agrees with. "The actors got a big raise a while ago," he says. "The show wouldn't be able to go on if any of the main voice actors left. They're irreplaceable."

But it seems, it's the young Bart Simpson who is closest to his heart. "Luckily I don't look like Bart," he chuckles. "Even though he's loosely based on me." Matt Groening may now be a millionaire businessman, but he feels he still has plenty in common with the Simpson son. And as long as Bart's around, he'll never have to completely grow up. Lucky man!

Your Questions...

Here, Sky digital customer get the chance to put their questions to cartoonist and famed creator of The Simpsons Matt Groening

How do you pronounce your surname? Richard Ives, via email
My parents taught me that Groening should rhyme with complaining, although people with the same name have contacted me and pronounce it in many different ways.

What made you become a cartoonist? Myles Harrington, Basinstoke
I've always loved cartoons, and my father was a cartoonist. When I was at school, I used to get bored and would draw cartoons.

How is it that the character Maude Flanders appears in the episode set at a grown-up Lisa's birthday party, despite being killed off in a recent episode? Richard Harrison, Bradford
Oops! Maybe we'll have to do an episode explaining that. Actually I've been thinking of asking the writers to find some way of bringing her back. Perhaps there's a bizarre explanation - I just haven't worked it out yet.

Transcribed by Bruce Gomes

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Last updated on December 6, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (