It may be the story of an ordinary yellow-skinned dysfunctional family in a 'normal' American town, but The Simpsons has always been an extraordinary television show. In the decade since their British TV debut, the groundbreaking animated series has comfortably emerged as the best-known and best-loved animated show in the history of television. It's also become a worldwide cultural phenomenon, spawning such unforgettable catchphrases as "Ay Carumba!", "Don't have a cow, man!", and, of course, "D'oh!"
Today, not even Homer Simpson himself would be dumb enough to question the enormity of The Simpsons' global impact. Yet while Homer could probably recognize the show's success, he would almost certainly find it very difficult to pinpoint the secret of its appeal. In fact, the question of why The Simpsons is so popular remains something of an ongoing topic of debate among the show's cast and crew, including the series' esteemed creator, Matt Greening.
"Every one of us has a slightly different answer," explains Greening. "Most television is very flat and shallow - not to knock other TV shows, but it is. On The Simpsons, what we try to do is reward you for paying attention. If you don't pay attention, it's a very funny, brightly coloured show with lots of moving images. If you pay attention, there are actually references to other things that are going on in our lives and in culture, like movies and books and so on. So if you have a few brain cells, you're not completely insulted - just partially," he laughs.
Groening's view of The Simpsons as a multi-layered and deceptively complex show is shared by its current head writer and Executive Producer, Mike Scully. "It's also one of the few shows left - if not the only one - that the family can sit down together and watch," says Scully. "If you sit down with your kids and watch it, it's not a chore. There's something in it for everybody. I think that's also because as fans grow up, they get older and they continue to watch the show, they start to understand it on a different level. I think that helps it."
Each Simpsons cast and crew member may have slightly different theory about the show's appeal, but Groening is pleased to report that all the series' makers agree on The Simpsons' distinctive style and tone. Everyone involved with the production also makes their own contribution to its success.
"This really is a shared vision," states Groening. "There's surprisingly little disagreement about the direction of the show. There's some, and we duke it out, but there is a consistency of tone. We're very consistent."
The "team spirit" that pervades the making of The Simpsons is probably best demonstrated by the show's scripting process. Although each episode is normally credited to a small number of writers, everyone on the series is encouraged to suggest additional ideas and gags.
"You help out other people with their episodes and they help you out with yours," elaborates Mike Scully. "So in the end, you know, hopefully, everyone's made a contribution. You get to work with the best on this show, from writers to actors and animators. You'd be crazy not to take advantage of that."
Once a script has been completed, it is recorded as written (in 'natural dialogue form') by The Simpsons' cast in preparation for the show's animators. Interestingly, because the show's principal cast members each voice a number of different characters, the recording process constantly requires them to alternate between their various Springfield counterparts.
As confusing as it sounds, though, actor Harry Shearer feels that The Simpsons' use of sequential recording is actually one of the series' greatest assets. "On a lot of animated shows, you go in and you just rattle off your part and you leave and they put it together later," explains Shearer. "From the beginning, these shows have been done like dramatic episodes. The continuity and the ability to hear each other and react to each other - even if each other happens to be your other self at certain points - I think explains why what comes out of The Simpsons is not just voice work, but acting."
During the recording process. The Simpsons' cast often find inspiration by drawing upon different aspects of their own personalities. This is certainly true for Bart Simpson, Nelson Muntz and Ralph Wiggum's real life alter ego, actress Nancy Cartwright.
"As far as Bart goes, I think we all have a little bit of Bart inside of us." notes Cartwright. "Bart's kind of the little guy who gets away with doing everything that we all wish we could get away with. So, I mean, I could go into detail for you. I got expelled from school when I was in seventh grade for writing something nasty in the rest room.
"As far as Nelson goes - 'Haw, haw!' - I never did that as a kid! I'm not sure about Nelson, but he provides a great outlet for me, as Bart's nemesis; he allows me to be able to have that part inside of me and contribute to the show. He's this angry guy, he's really tough and a bully, and it's really great fun to play. I think every actor likes to play something that's challenging and I find Nelson pretty challenging.
"And Ralph Wiggum - 'My cat's breath smells like cat food' - he's a sweet, innocent guy, and I think he's sort of the sweetheart of the group. He's so innocent it doesn't really matter what he says, and that's kind of fun to be able to say something and know that everybody's going to respond in a certain way."
Nancy Cartwright's co-stars. Harry Shearer, Tress MacNeille and Hank Azaria, all have their own tongue-in-cheek perspectives on their relationships with their Simpsons counterparts.
"Since I play both Burns and Smithers, I guess the main thing that draws out in me is my own deep self-love," jokes Shearer. "But, as Matt pointed out, all the characters I play have in common a corrupt venality, and I have a deep well of that to draw on!"
"I like playing Agnes Skinner dearly because I figure I'm going to be her one day," laughs MacNeille. "It's all practice."
"I've done so many voices since I was a child, it's a nice outlet for that," reveals Azaria. "Otherwise I'd be insane somewhere!"
This year, members of the general public have been given their first chance to actually witness The Simpsons cast at work in a live script-reading performance. The first of these took place at the American Comedy Arts Festival in February, and was followed in August by the Simpsons-Mania Tour 2000 readings in Edinburgh and London. During the latter performances. Harry Shearer was really struck by the show's global popularity.
"The script that we performed had a lot of jokes that seemed, to me, to have a certain dependence on American language, particularly American music," he explains, "and all of those got the appropriate laughs. So it amazes me the degree to which American is everybody's second language now. You go to Australia or Scotland, they have their own culture, but they also have our 'wonderful' culture as well!"
In Groening's mind, things like The Simpsons live script-reading are more than just a fun diversion for the show's makers and its audience. On the contrary, he feels that they could prove crucial to the show's survival beyond its current 12th season.
"Animation takes an incredible amount of sustained energy and attention," he points out. "I'm hoping that these kinds of really fun things - going out and actually meeting the people who really love the show - will keep the show alive for that much longer."
Another development that might give The Simpsons a new lease of life is the production of a movie. When quizzed about the likelihood of a Simpsons film. Groening admits that it's a complicated issue right now. "I think that there's a business answer and a creative answer," he states. "The business answer is that no deals have been struck. The creative is, I think, what we all agree. We would like to do a movie if we could do something that's not redundant; that's not the same as the TV show.
"I think we've figured out how to do a half-hour TV show really well and the idea of extending it to 90 minutes and doing a big movie is a little daunting, because, basically, every episode of The Simpsons is like a mini-movie. If you filmed it live action, it would cost lots of money."
Groening confirms that "there have been some mutterings" about a Simpsons movie between the show's producers and 20th Century Fox, but "nothing serious." In the long term, however, he feels that a Simpsons movie almost seems inevitable. "I have no doubt we'll do a movie eventually," he declares matter-of-factly.
Regardless of the franchise's future. The Simpsons has certainly come a long way since it began life as a series of animated shorts in The Tracey Ullman Show. Reflecting on the series' many triumphs, Groening turns to Executive Producer George Meyer to reveal what most of the show's cast and crew believe has been The Simpsons' very greatest achievement.
"One time a child saved his brother because he had seen the Heimlich manoeuvre on the show," reveals Meyer. "Let's see Friends save a life!" adds Harry Shearer with a chuckle. Besides letters from life-saving viewers, the makers of The Simpsons have also received numerous gifts from the show's fans. One of these presents proved particularly memorable for Groening.
"Several years ago, we got a box of cookies that came in a box of dog biscuits and they were shaped like little bones," he recalls. "And the letter that accompanied this said, 'This is my new invention: cookies in the shape of dog biscuits. Please try them.' But they came in a dog biscuit box. And I brought them into the writers and they ate them,' he laughs.
The Simpsons has, of course, earned an army of celebrity fans, many of whom have made guest appearances in the series. This particular trend looks set to continue for as long as the show is in production.
"We haw a long list of celebrities who have asked to be on the show," confirms Groening. "We're just going down the list! Virtually any rock band you can think of under the age of 60 wants to be on the show."
White most celebrities have jumped at the chance to voice a character in The Simpsons, the show's producers were disappointed that former US President Ronald Reagan declined an invitation to guest star in the show. "We tried to get President Reagan once," reveals Executive Producer Al jean, "and he wrote a really nice letter saying 'no'. That would have been fun."
Despite President Reagan's absence, Springfield hasn't been short of memorable visitors in The Simpsons' 10-year history. From the central Simpson clan to their friends, neighbors and distant relatives, The Simpsons utilizes well over 100 regular and recurring characters. It's no wonder, then, that the true father of Springfield, Matt Groening, finds it difficult to choose just one of The Simpsons characters as his personal favorite.
"I like them all for different reasons," he insists. "What's fun is that these characters are now established. We have hundreds of characters in Springfield, and use 40 or 50 per episode. They're well established and the second they come on the screen, you know who they are. And it's really fun to write jokes for them.
"I like the characters who have one or two lines an episode. A lot of Hank's and a lot of Harry's characters and Anne's and Tress' are secondary. I know Homer is going to get laughs, I know Lisa and Bart are going to get laughs, but when we can get laughs out of the more obscure characters, that's really great.
"I have to say that if I have a specific favorite character, it's probably Lisa Simpson," he reveals with a grin. "Because I think she's the only one who's going to escape Springfield some day!"
Judging by The Simpsons' enduring success, it could be a long time yet before any of the show's cast and crew escape Springfield. As Homer might say, "Woo-hoo!"
Source: Simpsons Comics