The Simpsons Folder
The Springfield Files
1998-01 © cult tv
Executive Produce Mike Scully on taking The Simpsons to the big screen. U2’s forthcoming anniversary appearance and the Everyman appeal of the Springfield clan. Karen Levell races to the sofa and tunes in… “Homer Simpson is a fat, lazy slob who takes no pride in his job and even less pride in his family.” And this is from a man who knows. A man who actually likens himself to the great pot-bellied one. And he may have a point. After all, Mike Scully, Executive Producer and five-year veteran of The Simpsons, spends much of his day in a Homer-like state of bliss: watching cartoons, listening to music and “thinking of where to go to lunch.” He also writes some damn funny stuff. As sole writer on a single episode, he’s delivered at least two true classics: ‘Lisa’s Rival’ where Lisa finds herself intellectually challenged by a younger classmate voiced by Winona Ryder; and ‘Bart The Shoplifter’, [f1], the excellent Christmas special in which a desperate Bart turns to stealing to satisfy his lust for the latest ultra-violent game Bonestorm.
Right now though, Scully is music on those factors that have helped The Simpsons scale the ratings ladder.
“The Simpsons follows the tradition of character-driven shows like The Flintstones and Wait Till Your Father Gets Home, but visually I think it’s very new,” Scully begins. “At the time, the colours were unique and jarring, and that was intentional. Matt Groening [the show’s creator] understands how people watch television – with the TV zapper in hand. So he wanted to create something different to make people who were casually surfing channels stop and say, ‘Woah! What was that?'”
The concept clearly worked, not only in the US but all around the world. Was Scully surprised at how well the show actually traveled?
“Very much so. To me it felt like a really American show, but on the other hand, it’s basically about a family, and I guess any country can identify with a family. Although a lot of the references are very American – the doughnut eating cop, the convenience store clerk who overcharges you if he’s from another country, and of course, Homer is the ultimate American stereotype. He’s kind of an Everyman figure – everyone sees a little bit of themselves in him.”
And what of the dysfunctional nature of this family, is that a familiar set up around the globe?
“That’s a term that gets thrown about too much. I think every family is dysfunctional in its own way. And it’s those people in the family that you wind up talking about the most – they’re the most interesting. That’s why Bart gets more attention than Lisa.”
Of course, the less than perfect reality of The Simpsons is a bit too much for some people to handle.
“There’s still people in this country who refuse to watch it or let their children watch it,” he admits with a sigh. “They don’t like Homer’s poor work ethic, the bad language, the drinking, the way that Bart doesn’t respect authority. But any decent kid will challenge authority if they have a mind of their own. I think they get nervous that TV is going to encourage it, but of course it would happen without TV. If my kids say ‘Damn’ or ‘Hell’, I would love to be able to blame The Simpsons, but the chances are they probably heard it from me.
“I think that the people who oppose the show are missing the point. Deep down this family obviously loves each other, they stick together, they help each other out when the chips are down. There is actually a lot of heart to the show – if you watch enough episodes you really start to figure it out.”
And it’s not as though the writers don’t exercise internal censorship. Sex rarely gets a look in and drugs are a definite no-go area.
“We try to keep the characters pretty asexual, although we are working on an episode which deals with the rekindling of Homer and Marge’s sex life,” Scully says. “But, generally, the show doesn’t get into too many sexual issues, and we certainly don’t deal with drug things. The one thing the show will never do is preach. It’s not our function to deliver a social message. We’re not here to say that drugs are bad. We’re not here to change people’s lives, we’re just here to try and make them laugh.
“American shows tend to be fond of tackling ‘big issues’, and it’s always kind of bothered me, because, if your business is comedy, then your first duty is to be funny, and if you can make a point while at the same time being funny, then that’s fine. The ultimate crime is to ‘do’ issues as a substitute for the jokes you can’t come up with. We’re here to be funny, and that’s hard enough as it is. We don’t want to take on changing the world.”
As a writer, Scully is responsible for much of the show’s cynical asides and delicious flecks of catty satire, generally directed at politicians, public figures, and the amorality and mediocrity of Hollywood, and American culture in general. But despite attacking so many public figures, the writers have seemingly never found themselves on the wrong side of a big lawsuit.
“We rarely run into too much trouble, because now everyone understands that the satire has become something of a trademark of the show, up to the point that it’s seen as kind of an honour to be mentioned in any regard – positive or negative,” Scully explains.
And what about the digs at Fox Television? After all, the host network does seem to get a bit of a kicking.
“Yes, it does!” He laughs. “We have a tendency to bite the hand that feeds us. But they understand that it’s part of the fun of the show. One of the great things about being involved with The Simpsons is that it’s a completely unique experience as a writer, because on most shows you have to accept the input of the network and the studio, their notes on the things they want to be changed. Normally, there would be around twelve people going over your script, telling you what’s wrong with it and how to fix it, and we don’t have that here. We’re completely autonomous. We make all our own creative decisions and so, if the show comes out great, we pat ourselves on the back, if it stinks then we have to blame ourselves.”
But then it seems Scully wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It keeps it sharp, and the writers take great pride in their work. We don’t take it for granted, and we don’t ever consciously let the quality slide. We never want the show to overstay its welcome. We don’t ever want the public telling us it’s time to cancel the show. Ultimately, we’ll be the ones who decide when it’s time to move on.”
So how long does he think the show can actually continue?
“I would say at least another couple of years – at that point we’ll have reached ten years and around 240 shows. If we feel we can still keep it fresh and funny, then maybe we’ll carry on, but that’s a decision that won’t be made for at least another year.”
The show’s longevity and national-treasure status provides it with sufficient clout to secure plenty of big-name guest-star voice-overs, often to the point where celebrities actively approach the Simpsons’ producers begging for an appearance.
“Yeah, famous people do still approach us, even though they know there’s a chance that we’re going to make a little fun out of them, but I get the feeling they’d be disappointed if we didn’t,” Scully shrugs.
“We have a hit-list of people who have made it clear that they would like to be on the show if we can find them the right part. In the case of U2, they were just starting their Pop Mart tour, and we’d already heard from them that they wanted to do the show someday. We had a story [the 200th episode ‘Homerpalooza’] [f2] that called for a big stadium concert which had a big political theme, because Homer is running for political office. Since U2 are a politically conscious band, it seemed like the perfect chance to get Homer on stage with Bono – you know, talking politics.”
But Bono and company aren’t the only stars in the anniversary special. Steve Martin plays Homer’s opponent as the two run for the hotly contested post of Sanitation Commissioner.
After eight years of rubbing shoulders with Hollywood celebrities, you would think that the Simpsons crew would have become blasé about the stream of famous types who lend their vocal talents to the show, but that’s not the case. In fact, they even have a system in place to ensure they all get a unique souvenir of each starry visit.
“Every time a celebrity comes in to do a show we have them autograph the covers of about 40 scripts – that way we don’t have to ask ourselves,” Scully admits.
Stalking the President
So, with so many luminaries queuing up to appear on the show, do they still have to chase guest stars?
“Yeah, we chase them. Sometimes we even stalk them if we have to,” he laughs. “I believe we approached Bill Clinton’s office a few years ago. We also tried Al Gore once, but he wouldn’t do it. Although we eventually did him anyway, taking a poke at him for being so stiff and boring – we heard back from his office that he thought it was very funny.”
The Simpsons hasn’t always had such luck with political officials though. George Bush once famously criticised the show, saying he wanted American families to be “more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons.”
“That speaks for itself,” Scully snorts dismissively. “It shows just how out of touch he was. I don’t know any families like the Waltons, but I know plenty like the Simpsons. I watched The Waltons when I was growing up, and I thought it was pretty damned boring. If I had to be a member of either family, I’d take the Simpsons every time.”
Big screen dreams
Along with the standard spin-off merchandise tat, there’s also the as-yet unanswered issue of The Simpsons movie…
“It gets talked about a lot,” Scully says candidly. “We simply haven’t come up with the right way to do it, and we certainly don’t want to just slap it together, and throw it out there, because we know it will probably be very successful and so, if we do it, we have to make sure that it’s really, really good. If we did a bad job, it would taint people’s memories of the TV show.
One thing you can be certain of though, it won’t be a live action flick.
“It would have to be animated. I don’t see how we could ever do a live-action movie as funny as the animated series. The animation allows so many creative liberties that you just wouldn’t be able to achieve with live-action. I think it would be impossible for a set of actors to portray these characters. The audience likes to see them the way they are, and if you tried to turn, say, John Goodman into Homer, then it ultimately has to be disappointing to everyone, including John Goodman. Obviously, he could never live up to Homer.”
[f1] Actually titled “Marge Be Not Proud” (3F07)
[f2] The 200th/U2 episode is “Trash of the Titans” (5F09).