Bill Oakley & David Silverman

By Laura Lee Davies

"Family Fortunes"
© Time Out Magazine
, 25 September 1996.

Don't have a cow, man, but 'The Simpsons', the animated story of America's most dysfunctional family, is finally coming to the BBC. If you're not yet addicted to its subversive wit, lovable characters and memorable catchphrases, don't worry - you soon will be.

The other day I heard that a friend was about to fire off an irate letter to a highbrow newspaper. In a general knowledge quiz, the paper had asked 'What is Homer's favourite food?' 'This is ridiculous!' the woman had fumed. 'How are we supposed to know what his favourite food was when he lived nearly 3,000 years ago?'

It's an easy mistake to make if you've been spending more time reading books than watching TV. The newspaper in question, clearly clued into 1996, had decided that Simpsons dad Homer didn't need a surname. His foodstuff of choice is doughnuts, by the way.

The LA production of 'The Simpsons' are now working on the one-hundred-and-seventy-fith episode of the show. With the new episodes breaking on Sky One over here proving faster and funnier than ever, that seems quite a feet. Indeed, considering the great 'Fawlty Towers' only comprised 12 episodes, perhaps the world domination of 'The Simpsons' is as deserved as it is unsurprising.

This autumn, the earlier series of the show will be screened for the first time on the BBC. Since 'The Simpsons' arrived on satellite in the UK in 1990, the number of dish-owners in Britain has grown: Simpsons awareness is consequenly now quite high. But for all you viewers who only know plucky ten-year-old Bart because you saw him spouting 'I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?' from someone else's T-shirt, then perhaps a little background might help explain exacly why a) terrestrial telly is finally going to be cool, b) satellite viewers are salivating at the thought of the new 'Homerpalooza' episode to be screened on September 29, and c) doughnuts are so important.

'The Simpsons' started life as a five minute slot on 'The Tracey Ullman Show', expanding to full feature length when it earned its own show in Christmas 1989. Although it wasn't quite the slick show it is today, the essentials where there: a dysfunctional family, living in a place called Springfield, populated by other average Americans, supported by the local nuclear power plant and located somewhere in America. It was initially compared to 'The Flintstones', but its part-slapstick, part-serious comedy had a lot more in common with 'Roseanne'. The mix of believable characters, tight, witty scripts and a low schmaltz-factor instantly appealed. By the time the show reached Britain, it had already overtaken the top-rating 'Cosby Show' (remember that?) in the States. Bart Simpson's famed mischievousness was only a tiny part of the plot. Mum and dad Simpson, Marge and Homer, had their own comic character defects, while sister Lisa was the intellectual. Then there is the cast of hundreds which populates their world - classmates, teachers, shopkeepers, businessmen, local authorities, neighbours, friends and family. There are no useless walk-on parts: even the guy who comes to fix Homer up for illegal cable TV has his own character references. Throw in a few catchphrases like 'Cowabunga!' and 'Doh!', an observational wit and a painstaking attention to the detail of contemporary America and you've got genius telly you can enjoy even if you've never been to a baseball game or bought yourself a Mexican hat made of tortilla chip.

'Certainly in the first year, the show was very slow-paced, pretty much one joke every 30 seconds,' recalls one of the show's current executive producers, Bill Oakley. 'Then people got a strange kind of addiction to it. Now we have probably three times as many jokes and plot twists, about six jokes a page. In fact, our stories move at such a frantic clip that to appreciate the new shows, you're gonna have to have a body of knowledge somehow!

'In America we've aired about 155 episodes and we're always trying to outdo ourselves to keep it fresh. Last year we had a special 3-D show on Hallowe'en. I think we can keep going for several more years before we all drop dead.'

Oakley's estimate of the team's life expectancy sounds pretty optimistic: his run-down of the production process sounds more like a reading of 'War and Peace'. After ten months, countless rewrites, production meetings, preliminary drawings and recordings, a single episode makes it to the screen. 'Most shows have maybe a couple of readings before recording. We have about eight rewrites which means things have to be funny for us on eight occasions. We're talking about people who are pretty jaded, so it has to be good!'

David Silverman was one of the founding animators and is now the show's Supervising Animation Producer. 'There has been an evolution in the show like there was with Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny,' he says. 'But there has also been an exploration of the characters. The dumber Homer was made, the more laughs he got. The scriptwriters seemed to loosen Marge up a bit too. At the beginning she wasn't as flawed as Homer, but in a later season she seemed to take on the same mental blockage as every other character in Springfield... Maybe it's something to do with radiation from the plant.'

Unlike other sitcoms, 'The Simpsons' has a luxury that the likes of 'Roseanne' and 'Cheers' don't: drawings allow you to go wherever you want, without a location budget and expensive actors. It's not a sitcom tied to the sofa, bar or office. 'People ask why there was a shift in attention towards Homer,' says Silverman. 'It always has been more centered around Homer, I think, but also, Homer's grown up, his life takes him to different palces and into different situations with different types of people. How many times can you do Bart doing something mischievous?'

In fact, over the years, subsidiary characters like headmaster Principal Skinner, power-plant owner Mr Burns and God-squad neighbour Ned Flanders have often been the focus of the week's episode, and when the plot link to the Simpson family seems tenuous, well, the scriptwiters merely throw in a couple of knowing references to make the story run a little smoother. 'Don't worry, Bart' Lisa consoled her concerned brother one week: 'It seems like every week something odd happens to the Simpsons. My advice is to ride it out, make an occasional smart-Alec quip and by next week we'll be back where we started from, ready for another wacky adventure.'

The people in Springfield may only exist on TV, but spend a holiday driving round the States and you see Simpsons characters sitting at motel receptions, serving in restaurants, running gas stations and presenting the Channel Nine news. 'I think the characters on this show are probably more real than most of the characters you see on TV,' says Oakley.

So what is it that has made the American population fall in love with a show that actually reflects the dysfunctional side of contemporary America? Is it that the show is both attentive to reality but also distanced from it by dint of being a cartoon?

'It's one of the reasons. When the series first came out, the idea of the dysfunctional Simpson family was exciting. But now, the Simpsons are one of the most functional families on TV! They love each other and they get on a lot better than others. The times have changed around them.'

When George Bush was in office, he became so concerned about the show's dark reflection of America that he declared that the nation's families should be more like 'The Waltons' than 'The Simpsons'. In reply, the makers sent a letter supposedly from Marge Simpson to Barbara Bush defending her family. Babs actually replied to the ficticious mum. I, too, have probably invited the family into my life a little too frequently: I am writing this on a computer fitted with 'Simpsons' catchphrase sound effects. Whenever I make a mistake, Homer's voice shouts 'Doh!' at me.

Slilverman confesses that, on occasion, he has dipped into the 'Simpsons' pages on the Internet and, after seeing the kind of dialogues being conducted, typed in 'You idiots! It's a cartoon!' 'There's also an ongoing discussion about where Springfield actually is. I was doing a lecture once and told them it was in North Takoma. Half the room laughed but you could see the others trying to picture where North Takoma is on the map!'

'There are people who take it seriously too the point of absurdity,' claims Oakley. Unsurprisingly, these people make contact via the Internet too. 'Most of them are obsessed with Lisa and the integrity of her character. They gripe that there are things she wouldn't have done.'

Perhaps that's another reason for the show's enduring appeal - our heroes aren't around to spoil our perfect images of them: Marge hasn't sung the national anthem in an inappropriately silly tone at the Super Bowl; Bart Simpson hasn't disgraced himself on Sunset Boulevard and - after the filming of the forthcoming 'Homerpalooza' episode where he joins the supercred annual American rock tour - Homer hasn't left his real-life wife of 15 years to run off with the chick out of the Smashing Pumpkins.

'The fact that the characters are cartoons and that they always stick at the same age is definitely a plus,' says Oakley. 'Otherwise, Bart would be about 18 by now and would probably have gone through an awkward adolescence, had lots of pimples and a drug problem if he was a real actor. Homer would be balder and fatter and probably kind of depressing to look at!'

Instead, the cartoon about dull old Anytown America taps into 'real life' when it invites celebrities either to play themselves or ficticious characters as guset voices. Over the years, all of the surviving members of The Beatles have appeared on the show, while Kathleen Turner played the creator of Malibu Stacey, a Barbie-like doll. Danny DeVito, James Woods and Elizabeth Taylor have also appeared, along with countless other stars (see box).

'Without being specific, there are certain types of celebrity that love doing "The Simpsons",' explains Oakley. 'Everyone on the show has this rather arrogant attitude that we're working on the best TV show in history and when anyone doesn't agree with that, we're baffled! We never have a problem getting rock stars and anyone with children; when Meryl Streep did the show, her kids were more excited about it than any of her Oscars or anything. Usually the ones over 60 don't understand the show because they just think cartoons are dumb. But Jack Lemmon was _great_!'

After nine years with the show, David Silverman is now based part-time at Spielberg's Dreamworks outfit, working on a new feature project. He reckons that after nine years, now may be a good time to move on, but he's not entirely sure why... Bill Oakley, who joined the show in its third season, doesn't see an end to the Simpson story just yet. The offices usually have about 18 episodes on the go at a time and the team gets a holiday between Christmas an New Year. 'As long as we can find people prepared to devote themselves to "The Simpsons" to the exclusion of their personal lives, we'll be able to keep going!'

Such addiction. If you haven't been Simpsoned yet consider yourselves warned.

Submitted by Brian Petersen

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