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The Simpsons Folder


‘Simpsons’ still beating the odds

Sunday, February 16, 2003

Their look – bad overbites, bulging eyes, and jaundiced skin – was hardly Hollywood. Their irreverence was risky, their network, iffy.

But the unlikely Simpsons clan defied the odds and, 16 years after debuting in a short vignette on Tracey Ullman’s variety show, they’re still going strong on Fox. It is Sunday night’s highest-rated entertainment series among adults 18 to 49.

At 8 tonight, “The Simpsons” marks a milestone few TV series ever reach – the 300th episode. In “Barting Over,” the second of three back-to-back episodes, Bart discovers he was a commercial star as a baby, but Homer squandered all his earnings.

Officially born as a series on Jan. 14, 1990, barely four years after Fox’s launch, “The Simpsons” is prime-time’s longest-running animated series and longest-running current sitcom. Recently renewed for two more seasons, it’s on track to become TV’s longest-running sitcom ever.

Created by cartoonist Matt Groening and strongly backed by veteran producer James L. Brooks, the Emmy-winning series is also a cultural institution. Homer’s “D’oh!” is even in the Oxford dictionary now.

The secret of their success?

“The writers and the cast are real perfectionists. They never want to let it slip,” says executive producer Al Jean, who also attributes the show’s timeless appeal to the fact that Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie don’t age or mature. “When you turn on ‘Happy Days’ in Season 12 and Fonzie’s the principal, you think, ‘This isn’t the show that I used to watch.'”

To Harry Shearer, who gives voice to more than a dozen regular characters on “The Simpsons,” including Montgomery Burns, Smithers, and Reverend Lovejoy, it’s crucial that, other than standards issues, Fox has never interfered. “We don’t get creative notes. As Al says, we don’t have 10 guys with business degrees telling us how to be funny.”

That role largely falls to Ivy Leaguers. Currently, 10 “Simpsons” staffers, including Jean, are Harvard graduates. Small wonder there are brilliant cultural references and parodies and, despite the six-month lead time, timely commentaries.

And then there are all those celebrity guests – including Michael Jackson, who created a surreal “Simpsons” moment during a read-through, Shearer recalls. The King of Pop, playing a 300-pound white mental patient who thought he was Jackson, brought along a “sound-alike” to fill in for him when the script called for him to sing his old ballad about a rat. “At that point, he sits back, and the guy across from me starts singing ‘Ben,'” Shearer says.

“The Simpsons” (and “Roseanne” and “Married … With Children,” which has a reunion show tonight) were part of a late Eighties backlash against “The Cosby Show.” Says Jean, “That was a terrific show, but people started to get sick of bland successful families … Now, we’ve been on so long, we are sort of the Establishment. But no one’s ever confused us with ‘The Cosby Show.'”

Still, it’s a long way from the early days, when educators and religious figures blasted Bart as a poor role model.

Recently, the Archbishop of Canterbury called the show “one of the most subtle pieces of propaganda around in the cause of sense, humility, and virtue.”

Jean says the show’s always had “a definite moral base,” and a thinly veiled secret: “They do love each other.”