Homer's Odyssey

Success hasn't spoiled The Simpsons, whose creators continue to take bad taste to new heights and to have way too much fun

By Russell Shorto

© US Weekly, #275, May 22 2000, p52-57.

One of the best live shows in Los Angeles has been running for more than 10 years, but it isn't open to the public. Visually, it's not much; a group of people sitting in a plain, dropped-ceiling, florescent-lit room dominated by a long conference table. But close your eyes and suddenly it's The Simpsons. It is about 10 A.M. on a Thursday afternoon and the actors who have made Bart, Homer, Marge and the others famous are seated around one end of the table. Homer's lunkish baritone seems incongruous coming out of Dan Castellaneta, a thin man with graying hair covered by a baseball cap.

Yeardley Smith, a petite woman with short red hair and freckles, by contrast, seems a perfect match for Lisa Simpson's voice. Harry Shearer, the actor with the widest range, who gives voice to more than 30 of the show's characters, gets everyone's attention with a one-man bit in which he alternates between Homer's boss, the nasal, imperious Montgomery Burns, and his groveling, throaty assistant, Smithers.

Smithers: Sir... I need some time off. As you know, I've been writing a musical about the Malibu Stacey doll.
Burns: And you want me to call Sophie Tucker for you - yes, I know.
Smithers: Actually, sir, we've been booked into a small theatre in New Mexico.
Burns: Whoa, slow down. There's a new Mexico?
Smithers: Yes, I want to go there and make my dream come true.
Burns: A show about a doll? Why not write a musical about the common cat? Or the king of Siam?
This is what's known as a table-read, the initial run-through of a script that the Simpsons writers may have spent months putting together.

Seated at the other end of the table, opposite the actors, writers and producers scribble notes. Ranged around the perimeter of the room is the audience, about 40 assistants, publicists, journalists and best friends' sisters. At the middle of the table, imposing and serious in jeans and a faded blue polo skirt and his trademark salt-and-pepper beard, sits Matt Groening the creator of the show. He listens with head down, bangs flopping, jotting notes.

This is the first step in a process that will end six months later, when the episode has been animated and set to music. The actors, though seeing the script for the first time, deliver their lines as if they've been at many rehearsals. The writers mouth the words as their work is brought to life.

But what's astonishing is the energy in the room - the sort of zest you expect in a show's first season, not its eleventh.

Therein lies the continuing wonder of The Simpsons; Amid much fanfare, the cartoon celebrated its tenth birthday earlier this year, a milestone that most shows stagger by, if indeed they ever reach it. Yet there are few visible signs of infirmity here. The season finale, which airs May 21, is titled "Behind the Laughter." It's a dead-on parody of VH1's documentary series Behind the Music, whose formula features a musician's or a group's rise to stardom, followed by a (usually drug-fueled) crash, then rebirth. The Simpsons' version envisions them going through a similar cycle, thanks to their cartoon celebrity. We see the family literally rolling in money, moving out of their house and into M. C. Hammer's former mansion. Homer becomes addicted to painkillers ("Let's just say that fame was like a drug. But what was even more like a drug was the drugs") and finally so torn apart by greed that they sit around the dinner table each accompanied by his or her lawyer. After 10 years, it's fair to ask: Has the Simpsons team really avoided the pitfalls of fame and success - and if so, how?

The Simpsons is now the longest running sitcom on TV. It has won 15 Emmys. Last year, Time, in its ranking of the greatest artworks of the twentieth century, declared The Simpsons to be nothing less than the best TV show in history. Fans range from grade-schoolers to world-class brains like physicist Stephen Hawking and paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (both have guest-starred as themselves) and artists like Jasper Johns and poet laureate Robert Pinsky. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations has added Homer's "D'oh!" to its pages, alongside "To be or not to be" and "Let there be light."

Although no logner the ratings juggernaut it once was, The Simpsons' Nielsen number for this season is a solid 8.5, about where it has been for several years. When you add merchandising (which reportedly tops $1 billion to date), foreign distribution (it is seen by an estimated 60 million people worldwide), product endorsements (Butterfinger and Burger King head the list), CDs, books, video games and the multimillion-dollar market in cels sold through fine-art galleries (each episode requires about 25,000 hand-painted acetate cels that, after filming, are sold to collectors for upwards of $1,000 apiece), it's clear that the show is a flourishing franchise.

Not even the diminished involvement of Matt Groening has slowed the momentum. At 46, the Portland, Oregon, native who started this phenom now chooses to devote himself to his syndicated comic strip, Life in Hell. Beyond that, Groening, whose wife of 13 years filed for divorce last year, likes to spend his time at home with his two sons. "Basically, my role on The Simpsons is just to go to the table-read and laugh along with everyone else," he says. "Everybody offers opinions on what works and what doesn't. I'm just one more guy offering mine. The Simpsons was born as a pure improvisation. In 1987, James L. Brooks, the producer and writer of such classics as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi and Lou Grant, was working on The Tracey Ullman Show when fellow producer Polly Platt brought him some off Groening's Life in Hell cartoons - which, then, as now, run in alternative weekly newspapers. But while waiting to go into Brooks office, Groening decided not to offer the characters from his strip because he feared losing ownership rights. As he later said, "I didn't know if this animation thing was going to pan out." So on the spot he dreamed up a cartoon family based on his childhood.

Once the animated short took off and Fox decided to make a show of it, Brooks struck a deal that would pay dividends for years to come. He made the network agree that there would be in involvement from the suits - no sitting in at meetings, no "notes" on scripts, which would tend to make the show less outrageous and more politically correct. Instead of quirks - like Homer's penchant for walking around in his tighty-whities in front of his children - we would have had compromises. Instead of elaborate riffs on A Streetcar Named Desire (who can forget Marge singing "I always rely on the kindness of strangers: in her theatre group's musical version?) the execs would probably have pushed guest stars from other Fox shows.

The creative freedom continues to this day. Even more than for other comedies, the writers on The Simpsons are its heart and soul. They tend to be a fairly specific subset of the population: overwhelmingly male and white, mostly in their thirties and forties, several of them Harvard alumni who honed their style at the Harvard Lampoon. In appearance they cultivated a certain rumpled, old-sneaker aspect. And oh yes, they are very funny.

The executive producer is Mike Scully, a father of five and former stand-up comedian who oversees all aspects of the program, from writing through animation and filming. The 42-year-old Scully wears his hair straggling down his neck; dressed in what looks like a very old pair of army pants and a washed-out blue T-shirt, he hardly projects the image of a successful TV producer. "This really is a writer's paradise," he says. "We get to do stories we want and the jokes we want. That's part of the reason the show is still going strong."

George Meyer, reed-thin with pinprick eyes and an infectious laugh, is a legend in comedy circles. As a writer for Late Night With David Letterman in its early days, he came up with the gag of rolling over everyday objects with a steamroller. He has been a part of the Simpsons team almost since the beginning and is considered by insiders to be the comic brains of the show. "The stories often veer off in weird directions and kind of lurch from one topic to another," Meyer says with some pride. "That would certainly raise red flags for executives. They like stories that flow, that make sense."

"And that aren't about leprosy," Scully adds, referring to a recent episode.

"Are we going to keep the pig's blood? Meyer asks. He's referring to the script they are currently reworking, which includes a scene where Homer, dressed as Santa Claus in the Thanksgiving Day parade, douses the holiday crowd with a bucket of...something.

"We had a big decision yesterday of what kind of mammal blood we should use," Scully explains.

Asked if the writers worry much about turning off or offending their audience, Meyer says, "We try to offend different sectors on a rolling basis, so they can never mass enough people against is in a particular week."

Few programs in the history of television have had such a cultish, eagle-eyed fan base. Because the show doesn't use a laugh track and isn't filmed before a live audience, the writers don't have to leave pauses for laughter and can cram jokes on top of jokes, mixing fart gags with literary or historical asides at will. In a single episode from earlier this season, the unofficial but exhaustive Simpsons Archive ( counted references to the drug Ritalin, the Rolling Stones' song "Mother's Little Helper" and the Trammps' "Disco Inferno," napalm, the Guggenheim Museum, A Clockwork Orange, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a MasterCard commercial, the children's magazine Highlights, Michael Dukakis's 1988 presidential campaign, the movies Kelly's Heroes and The Three Amigos, Tiananmen Square and Popeye.

But has success changed the writers? "When I started I was an elderly Hispanic man," writer Jim Long answers dryly. "Actually, Tim and I have girlfriends now," chips in Matt Selman, at 28 the youngest writer on the team. "We would never have gotten girlfriends working for a mediocre show."

What about fresh ideas? Where, after 250 episodes, do the Simpsons writers go for new material?

"Over to King of the Hill," Scully answers without missing a beat. "I have a key to their story file."

"A lot of old Happy Days episodes haven't been turned into anything," adds Selman. "They're just sitting there!" He starts with the proverbial blank sheet of paper. The pencil swiftly to the left, then scratches right. The pear-shaped body appears, then the elongated dome of the head. In about five minutes, Matt Faughnan has a standing figure of Homer Simpson in all his lumpen glory. One drawing down for this episode, approximately 25,000 more to go.

We're in North Hollywood, at the studios of Film Roman, the animation company that brings The Simpsons and their Springfield neighbors to life. The floor is divided into cubicles, where most of the animators work surrounded by dolls, toys, action figures and other inspiring knick-knacks. Nearly everyone has a mirror for making faces into; that's why those moving mouths sync so persuasively,

Faughnan is one of 125 animators and artists here, plus about 100 more in Korea (where the most time-consuming work can be done more cheaply), who craft every episode the old-fashioned way. Computers have largely taken the animation industry; but Homer, Marge and company are in a time warp. They take shape the same way Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd used to, with pencil on paper.

This is another of the reasons for the continued success of The Simpsons: Things are still done by hand, with all the care and attention and rough edges that that entails. Animation director Mark Kirkland, a 43-year-old with ruddy good looks, stand behind Faughnan, arms folded, and nods at the drawing. "There's a human feeling to it," he says, explaining why they continued with such a painstaking, low-tech process. "The Simpsons are blue-collar characters, and we give excellent blue-collar animation. Can you imagine The Honeymooners in color? I don't think so."

The look of the characters has softened over time, and the overall quality of the drawing has improved. Says Groening, "In the early days of The Simpsons, we honestly didn't know what we were doing. When we saw the first animation, it was a total disaster. It was really bad. Once producer said, 'This is s---.' And an animator said, 'What do you mean by s---? And he said, 'A vile substance which causes disease.' "

The animation quickly got up to speed, but it wasn't until the fourth season that the characters achieved the look Groening wanted. Still, not everyone buys into the studiously awkward aesthetic. "We've been slammed by the animation industry," says Kirkland. "Some people at Disney and such places have told us they don't like The Simpsons, that it's not rich enough, full enough. But it's consciously that way."

Handmade drawings aren't the only throwback: In an age when most TV shows use electronic music, The Simpsons sound is provided by a 35-piece orchestra, a costly touch that speaks of great attention to detail. Through the glass pane of the recording booth the six actors stand or sit before microphones. Julie Kavner, the voice of Marge and perhaps the best-known cast member (she was Brenda Morgenstern on Rhoda and appears in Woody Allen films), is steeping a cup of tea. Dan Castellaneta (Homer), fresh from a starring role in an off-Broadway production of The Alchemist, is rubbing his hands together. Nancy Cartwright (Bart) and Yeardley Smith (Lisa) wait for the cue from the producer, Ian Maxtone-Graham. Harry Shearer (the bass player in This is Spinal Tap) will appear in this scene as Principal Skinner; he's sitting cross-legged in his chair, reading a book. The one supporting actor in the room is Marcia Wallace; she play's Bart's teacher, Mrs. Krabappel, and is recognizable as the secretary on The Bob Newhart Show.

This is a dialogue recording session for Show CABF04, "Homer vs. Dignity," which will air this fall. It begins with a scene in which Bart witnesses his teacher and the principal locked in a passionate embrace. At their microphones, Shearer and Wallace (seated across the room from each other) escalate kissing and grunting noises, and then Shearer delivers the line "Come on, Edna, don't be tardy!" The smooching soon dissolves into giggles, and the scene collapses, "Was that an orgasm joke?" Wallace asks. "I didn't get it." Smith says, and everyone laughs again.

After three more sexually charged takes, and with her part in the script over, Wallace gets up to leave. As she passes Shearer, she gives a coquettish postcoital sigh and thanks him. More laughter.

The actors are happy to say that, after many years, they still love what they're doing. "It's the best job on the planet." says Cartwright, a forty-ish mother of two who came to L.A. 20 years ago with a dream of doing voice-over animation and studied under the late Daws Butler (the voice of Yogi Bear). "It takes four hours a day, one day a week, with a couple of hours later in the week. We get paid a lot of money. And we're free to do other things. Everybody's working on feature films or writing books."

Though content creatively, the actors represent the one potential disaster to the smooth functioning of the cartoon factory. Two years ago, they entered into their first major contract negotiation with Fox, and the network played hardball. One executive reportedly suggested they could all be replaced with high school students. In the end, a settlement was reached, but tension remains.

"It was pretty brutal," says Smith. "The studio was not very happy with us. They didn't want to pay the money, and they don't like it when you threaten to walk out. But I have not regrets and I'd fight for it again."

"If you watch the way other networks treat the stars of shows that are marginally successful, it gives you pause," says Shearer. "NBC gave the cast members of Will & Grace Porsche Boxsters on the occasion of their second season on the air. By contrast, no Porsche Boxsters have been waiting for us in the Fox parking lot." Some actors complain that the network is not giving them their fair share of revenues from merchandise (last November, Fox licensed a new series of Simpsons action figures that will come with computer chips containing the characters' voices).

"They lie to us all the time," says one cast member of network executives. "They play us against each other. They divide and conquer. It's just business, I guess, but it never ceases to amaze me."

"I don't want to negotiate in public," says Fox Television Entertainment Group chairman Sandy Grushow. "We have great respect for these people, would like everyone to feel adequately compensated, and it will be our goal for everybody to return. At the same time, we have a business to run, and this is a public company and we have a responsibility to run it as cost-effectively as possible."

Meanwhile, the best indication of the place of The Simpsons in the network's history and in the culture is found at the studio itself. The lot is bounded by five enormous murals on the walls of the soundstages. Four of them are classic scenes from 20th Century Fox films - Marilyn Monroe luxuriating in The Seven Year Itch, Julie Andrews dancing on top of the mountain in The Sound of Music, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader duelling in Star Wars and Henry Fonda leading men on horseback in The Ox-Bow Incident, The fifth mural shows Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, three stories high, grinning like a bunch of - well, cartoon characters. In its primary-color vividness, the mural looks utterly goofy alongside those classic images of celluloid history. And it somehow seems to fit.

Transcribed by Bruce Gomes

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Last updated on May 21, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (