Matt Groening's Baby Turns 10

A look at who helped make The Simpsons work for primetime

By Harvey Deneroff

© Animation Magazine, Vol. 14, #1, January 2000, p10, 12.

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama, notes, "The temptation in primetime animation today is to make a show about an overweight father figure beset by life's problems, which describes The Simpsons and almost any other primetime animated show." However, this doesn't stop him from being "a huge fan of shows such as King of the Hill, Family Guy and The PJs," and is truly commentary on the impact The Simpsons has had in the 10 years since it debuted on the Fox Network. Although we sometimes forget, it is a show that really did change the course of the animation and television industries and was instrumental in bringing about the current animation renaissance.

"There were three significant events that revitalized animation," says former Simpsons director-producer David Silverman. "Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which gave animation credibility and provided the networks to consider primetime animation; The Little Mermaid, because it made a lot of money, and The Simpsons, whose success brought animation back in full strength."

Animation historian and producer Jerry Beck adds, "The Simpsons was the first primetime animated series broadcast on a network since The Flintstones ended its initial run in 1966. Over its 10 years, it has inspired two animation booms on broadcast television. The first, in the early '90s, consisted of such series as Fish Police, Capital Critters and The Critic, which didn't quite work. The second includes the current round of shows like King of the Hill, Family Guy and Futurama. There is also a direct link to such cable shows as Beavis and Butt-Head and South Park."

Above all, the success of The Simpsons and the second wave of shows proved once and for all that animation could appeal to adult audiences. Silverman points out that the reason the show no longer seems as edgy as it once was is "because the bar has been raised over the years. But its longevity proves that you have to be edgy for edgy sake to be successful."

The Simpsons, of course, had is origins in a series of animated blackouts produced by Klasky Csupo in 1987 for The Tracey Ullman Show on the still-young Fox Network. These sketches quickly took on a cult status and led to The Simpsons Christmas Special in 1989 and the series itself the following year. Its success not only revitalized animation, but is also became the Fox Network's signature show, and helped to make the network more than just an also-ran in ratings race. This plus the almost-universal critical acclaim the show has had over the years, has elevated it to the standard against which all other animated shows are measured. It comes as no surprise that many of the current primetime shows were created by and/or supervised by Simpsons alumni, including Mission Hill, Futurama and King of the Hill.

The show's influence also goes beyond the creative aspects of primetime shows to the very way they are physically produced, including the way productions are managed and the overseas studios used. For instance, because of the track record of studios such as AKOM and other Korean studios on The Simpsons, it is now almost a given that overseas animation for primetime shows are done in Korea. And Although Klasky Csupo was unceremoniously removed from the show in favor of Film Roman in 1992, producing The Simpsons helped Klasky Csupo to rise through the ranks and become one of the top independent studios in Hollywood.

Among those who have shaped the show's production process are creative consultants Brad Bird (director of The Iron Giant) and producer Richard Raynis. Silverman, who directed many of the early shows along with Wes Archer, recalls that the two picked up a lot of ideas on how to time the animation from Bird, who made The Family Dog special for Steven Spielberg. (Other Family Dog alumni who came to The Simpsons include Gregg Vanzo, now co-owner of Rough Draft Studios, which produces the animation, and Rich Moore.)

Raynis, who came aboard during the first season as executive in charge of animation, recalls, "There was a lot of conflict on the production when I arrived, which I tried to diffuse. I observed the production and tried to engineer it based on what was actually happening, thus creating a method of production based on what it wanted to be.

"One aspect of the problem," Raynis says, "was a conflict between the live-action sitcom writer/producers like Jim Brooks and Sam Simon and the animators. The show needed to find [the] right kind of interface to allow both the writers and animators to do what they needed to do. Part of the problem with such shows as Capitol Critters and Fish Police, Raynis believes, "aside from the fact that hey may have been poor ideas for shows, may have stemmed from their use of the Saturday-morning production model, rather than one keyed to primetime." And the model he developed was so successful that he is now involved in overseeing (directly or indirectly) some 195 episodes of primetime and children's programming a year, ranging from Dilbert and King of the Hill to Dragon Tales and Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles.

On the aesthetic side of things, Bird did much to smooth out the cultural and other differences between the writers and the animators. Groening says, "He was indispensable. He conveyed a love of animation to the writers who were more interested in dialogue and stories. He was also one of the main proponents of the cinematic style The Simpsons ended up pursuing more and more as the years went by. Brad always honored the jokes we came up with, but in a visual way as possible. Sometime the writers and I were more concerned about whether the joke was funny at all, rather than whether it was visual or cinematic.

This ability to merge the skills of live-action writers with animators was a lesson that took perhaps too many years to sink in at other studios and networks. In this regard, executive producer Mike Scully, who has been with the show for seven seasons, says, "The ultimate mistake the other networks made {in trying to cash in on the success of The Simpsons} was they thought the primary appeal of the show was animated, rather than that of a well-written show that happen[s] to be animated. Which is why the first wave of animated primetime shows came and went so quickly, The second wave shows like King of the Hill, Futurama and The PJs have succeeded because they focus on writing and characters."

At the same time, the experience of working on The Simpsons has changed the outlook of many writers, who are now as much in demand as show creators for other primetime animated shows. Chief among these is Groening himself. "I thought I would never get into the beauty of animation. I always looked to Bill Scott and Jay Ward and their Rocky and Bullwinkle Show for inspiration.

In analyzing their work, I saw that the writing, voice work and music were the key, with animation the least important part. This was borne out by Beavis and Butt-Head and particularly by South Park. But much of the success of The Simpsons boils down to great jokes and sight gags brought alive by the beautiful acting dine by the animation directors. They made Homer alive. Homer, as far I'm concerned is a real person, which is a testament to people like supervising director Jim Reardon and all the artists at Film Roman, to whom I'd like to pay tribute."

The clearest evidence of Groening's conversion experience is seen in the sheer elegance of the animation in Futurama, which involves the talent of such Simpsons alumni as co-executive producer David X. Cohen and Vanzo.

After 10 years, The Simpsons continues to set the standards for television animation, and it looks to continue doing so for some years to come.

Harvey Deneroff is a freelance writer specializing in animation.

Cover quote: "The Simpsons' Genesis of Primetime Success".

Transcribed by Bruce Gomes

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