Boggle-eyed and on the big screen
The Simpsons is the longest-running animated show in television history, the longest-running sitcom in American television history and the most internationally syndicated show in history. It is broadcast in more than 45 languages, in more than 90 countries, and has generated more than $2,5-billion for Fox. It is also ‘the deepest show on television” (according to Canadian philosopher Carl Matheson) and ‘one of the most amazing feats, not just on TV, but in the whole entertainment world” (according to Ricky Gervais).
It’s ‘a corporate-manufactured show that openly and self-reflexively parodies the very consumer capitalism it simultaneously promotes”, according to an earnest book of essays, Leaving Springfield: The Simpsons and the Possibility of Oppositional Culture, one of countless academic studies analysing its contributions to philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, mathematics and linguistics. Oh, and it’s also a celebration of family or an indictment of the American family, a vicious insult to Christianity or a celebration of Christianity, depending on whom you believe.
All of which might seem a heavy burden to place on five bright- yellow, boggle-eyed residents of the mythical settlement of Springfield were it not so clear that Groening always meant it to be this way. ‘The history of TV has traditionally been not to do anything that would scandalise grandma or upset junior,” he once said. ‘Our solution on The Simpsons is to do jokes that people who have an education, or some frame of reference, can get. And for the ones who don’t, it doesn’t matter, because we have Homer banging his head and saying, ‘D’oh!’”
There are, presumably, a few places left on the planet where the influence of the world’s best-known dysfunctional family has yet to be felt. But they’re getting fewer, and will be fewer still when The Simpsons Movie—awaited for years by fans with frankly religious fervour—arrives in cinemas this week.
The list does not, for example, include the isolated Kenyan hill village of Tabaka, known locally for the quality of its soapstone carving. Later this year, the Tabaka community will begin producing officially licensed busts of key Simpsons characters.
The village is one of about 600 Simpsons licensees, producing everything from armchairs to Bart Simpson asthma inhalers. (Talks are under way to use the characters’ voices for in-car satellite navigation systems.)
‘Tabaka is about 10 hours outside Nairobi by bus, on bumpy roads, and they’re only just starting to get electricity,” says Paul Young, a business studies graduate from England, who had the idea for the statues, recruited the Tabaka carvers, and persuaded Fox to let him license and distribute the figures through his company, Craft Village. For almost a year, the carvers made prototypes by using Simpsons toys and T-shirts as source material.
Eventually, Young made a return journey to Tabaka with a handful of videotapes, commandeered a TV and VCR, found an electricity source and showed the villagers their first episodes of The Simpsons.
‘They loved it,” he says. ‘Not all of it really travels across cultures—there’s the language barrier, and a lot of subtle references to American films. But the slapstick and fart jokes, they certainly travel. Now, whenever we go back, it’s always, ‘Bring us more Simpsons videos!’”
The animators and writers on The Simpsons—there are more than 200 in all—talk about their work in a wry, self-conscious way, because it is an unremitting production line of joke writing and character drawing—but, on the other hand, they do work on The Simpsons. Many first encountered it as children. ‘I grew up with The Simpsons,” says Jennifer Moeller, an animator on the show and movie. ‘And then all of a sudden I’m drawing him. Which is kind of a thrill. But it’s also a job.” When people find out what Moeller does for a living, they tend to pepper her with questions, which gets tiring, so usually she says, ‘I have a desk job.”
The Simpsons universe is defined by a set of alarmingly strict rules.
Characters can never age or develop—Maggie has learned precisely one word in 20 years—and every storyline must be fully resolved by the end of each 21-minute episode, a restriction that would be the death of most sitcoms and all soap operas. ‘In the early days, we were incredibly rigid—everything that happened had to be something that could actually happen,” says Jim Brooks, the show’s avuncular founding producer. ‘For years, we wouldn’t go into outer space, for example. And we begged our actors not to do any publicity, so as not to break the illusion that these characters really existed.” (It finally visited outer space in an episode entitled Deep Space Homer, guest starring Buzz Aldrin.)
Significantly, what does not happen during the writing process is any kind of inspection of the script by Fox executives. The network was in a state of financial crisis when the show began, enabling Groening and Brooks to secure a non-interference clause—with the result that a mainstream Murdoch-owned US TV channel has spent two decades broadcasting, in prime time, a cartoon that makes jokes about sex and religion, builds storylines around gay love, and even openly mocks the rightwing absurdities of its sister network, Fox News Channel. ‘I’m sorry, Marge, but I refuse to live under the same roof as a member of the liberal media!” Homer complains when Kent Brockman, the local news anchor and egomaniac, temporarily moves in.
‘Did you know that, every day, Mexican gays sneak into the country and unplug brain-dead ladies?” Nor does the show promote a particularly earnest attitude towards drug-taking. (‘Fame was like a drug,” Homer famously declares in one episode, ‘but what was even more like a drug were the drugs.”)
Animated series can sometimes get away without paying large sums to well-known actors to provide voices: after all, the celebrity’s biggest asset, his or her face, isn’t visible. The Simpsons started out modestly in this respect, but 20 years and several fraught contract negotiations later, its main voice artists have become highly paid stars. The headline names—including Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Castellaneta (Homer), Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria (various parts)—make a reportedly ‘comfortable” six-figure dollar sum an episode, in return for a few hours of recording that can be completed, if necessary, away from LA. This flexibility is what allowed Tony Blair to take a guest role: his lines were recorded in 10 minutes in Downing Street, one week when Al Jean, the ‘showrunner” who oversees the series from day to day, happened to be in London on other business.
‘I gotta tell you, [voicing The Simpsons] is the most fantastic, easy job in the world,” says Azaria, whose Simpsons roles include the whiny-voiced bartender Moe Syzslak. Plus, you get to meet extraordinary people, he says, slipping into a reminiscence about Stephen Hawking’s multiple appearances.
‘But the strangest part is what [the public] will come up and say to you. You know, there’s been more than 400 episodes—we don’t memorise our lines, because we’re sitting there reading them into a microphone. So people will quote lines to me, and I’ll have no idea what they’re talking about.”
The secrecy surrounding The Simpsons Movie has been intense, but Variety, the industry newspaper, has already revealed that the plot is built around storylines involving religious fundamentalists and global warming.
It has been observed elsewhere, several times, that Groening bears a surprising resemblance to a Simpsons character. But here’s the thing: Groening does bear a surprising resemblance to a Simpsons character.
His skin may not be yellow, and he does not suffer from an ‘overbite” (the defining characteristic of every Simpsons mouth), but he is broad, big-cheeked and he scoops the air with his large hands as he speaks, which makes meeting him (especially in a room full of human-sized Simpsons cutouts) slightly unnerving.
Among fans, the moment Groening invented The Simpsons has attained the status of legend, and there are several versions of it, but a sufficient number of the participants recall it similarly enough to suggest that it’s probably fundamentally true. In the mid-1980s, his main job was drawing the comic strip Life in Hell, an often deeply cynical cartoon, syndicated in various ‘alternative” newspapers, that had its origins in his appalled response to arriving in LA from the friendlier milieu of Portland, Oregon, where he grew up. (He still draws Life in Hell every week, often after midnight, after a day on Simpsons business.) Brooks, meanwhile, was producing a weekly comedy show starring comedian Tracey Ullman and needed to fill some one-minute-long slots between segments, known as bumpers. He thought Groening might like to animate Life in Hell.
So did Groening—up until the moment he arrived in the lobby of Brooks’s office, where it suddenly occurred to him that this might require him to give up the rights to his characters. Instead, in the space of four or five minutes, sitting in the lobby, he sketched out the five members of The Simpsons family, naming them after his own father and mother, Homer and Margaret, and his sisters Lisa and Maggie. Using his own name seemed a little self-absorbed, he said, hence ‘Bart”. (He now has two sons himself, named Homer and Abe.) Groening was in his early 30s at the time; he is now 53, and the Simpson he reminds you of is not Bart, but Homer.
The first episode, a Christmas-themed affair called Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire, was broadcast in the US on December 17 1989. The viewing figures began to climb rapidly, taking everyone by surprise.
‘There were these little things that started happening, where I thought, ‘OK, something’s going on here that is a little bit out of the ordinary’,” Groening says. ‘I remember some random graffiti—a picture of Bart on the side of a fence here in LA. And then, in 1990, I remember seeing bootleg Simpsons merchandise—an African Bart with Nelson Mandela on a T-shirt being sold on a street corner in New York. It was just so ridiculous.” The same year, Bart appeared on the cover of Time, and shortly afterwards Groening saw his first Simpson tattoo. ‘I was shocked. And dismayed, actually, that I had somehow contributed to people mutilating themselves.” He laughs abruptly, then pauses. ‘But now I see it all the time. It seems like half the time I buy a CD in Hollywood, the person has a Simpsons tattoo. It’s bizarre. Especially when I can’t work out who it is, because it’s not too well drawn.”
It was the first president George Bush who conclusively put the show on the cultural map, using his 1990 State of the Union speech, in the middle of a doomed election campaign, to condemn what many perceived as the show’s celebration of dysfunctionality and ‘slacker culture”. (Bart Simpson T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘Underachiever—and proud of it, man!” had begun to sell well at the time.) ‘America needs to be a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons,” Bush scolded, prompting—inevitably—a Simpsons episode in which the family watches the Bush speech on TV. ‘Hey, we are like the Waltons,” Bart says. ‘We’re praying for the end of the Depression, too.”
For all its distrust of authority—politicians, bosses and the news media are uniformly portrayed as corrupt—it’s easy to overstate the subversiveness of The Simpsons. You might even see it from the opposite perspective—as having lent a crucial underground credibility and youth appeal to Fox’s deeply corporate operation. Its treatment of organised religion, for example, is markedly softer than non-viewers might expect: the character of Ned Flanders, irritating Simpsons neighbour and hokey evangelical Christian, has been embraced by many US Christians, and The Simpsons has featured often in American church sermons.
‘I definitely was influenced by the counterculture, growing up,” Groening says, ‘and it seems to me that unless subversion is at least an element of what you’re doing, then it’s no fun. But it’s also an entertainment product, no bones about it. And is it possible to be subversive in something so commercial? I can’t say. I try.”—