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Nobody D’ohs It Better

As The Simpsons hits 300 episodes, Stephen Phelan reveals the elusive genius behind its finest moments

THE Simpsons doesn’t write itself. It’s just written so well that it seems that way. The characters are coloured and shaped with such vivid detail and personality, and their absurd version of the world sustained with such fine touches of constant creativity, that they might as well actually exist.
So when Homer makes another of his fantastic anti-logical arguments — ‘Facts are meaningless! You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!’ — or expresses a wish to do something more dreamily fulfilling with his life, like work in a carnival ‘where people throw ducks at balloons and nothing is quite what it seems’, you don’t consciously admire the scriptwriters for their exquisite dialogue. You just laugh like a baby.

The prevailing sense of this cartoon universe expanding all by itself, even though it is obviously the product of serious thought and high intelligence, is maybe the best measure of The Simpsons’ greatness as an ongoing work of art. It has been so completely created that it has a life of its own. Which explains, at least in the abstract, why the series has stayed so consistently brilliant since it began in 1989 — and why it is so difficult to imagine how it will ever end.

Tonight the 300th episode will be broadcast — and the show’s owners at the Fox network have commissioned two further series, which will make The Simpsons the longest- running television comedy of all time. UK broadcaster Sky One has arranged a long Easter weekend of celebration, which will include a documentary about the massively talented and committed cast of voice actors as well as The Golden D’ohnut Awards, a selection of 12 episodes considered favourites by loyal viewers.

My own vote would go to an episode from 1997 titled The Cartridge Family, in which Homer goes to buy a gun . The shopkeeper offers him a selection of firearms but tells him he’ll have to wait five days for the gun to be legally registered.

‘Five days?’ wails Homer. ‘But I’m angry now!’

‘Yeah, well, that’s the law,’ sighs the shopkeeper.

‘I’d kill you if I had my gun …’ Homer mutters, squinting with hostility.

When he finally gets the gun, he uses it as a household appliance, blasting light switches off and shooting open cans of beer. That particular edition fuses every element of The Simpsons’ genius — the quicksilver slapstick; the acute and fearless satire of the most ludicrous, insidious forces and thought-processes behind American culture; and Homer’s horrifying, endearing and hilarious impulsiveness. But where, or who, does this genius actually come from?

The short, common, pub-quiz answer is Matt Groening. Most people know that Groening created the Simpson family characters, giving them the names of his own parents and siblings, for a series of short animations designed to link the sketches on The Tracey Ullman Show in the late 1980s. When Fox invited him to expand The Simpsons into a show of its own , Groening, along with co- creators James L Brooks and Sam Simon, hired a team of old friends and respected TV joke-writers to help build a parallel universe around his yellow and malfunctioning nuclear family.

Since then The Simpsons has become the prime example of the standard practice for scripting television in America — writing and rewriting by committee. A squad of 24 writers now works on it, thrashing out every episode in two adjoining bungalows specially set aside on the Fox Studios lot in Los Angeles. Although they continue to carry the spirit that the instinctively seditious Groening first burned into the show — his fierce conviction that America’s moral authorities do not always have the people’s best interests in mind, and a healthy disrespect for everything Americans hold dear — the writers have moved far beyond the domestic, semi-realistic parameters he set for the first couple of series, using the freedom of animation to make anything happen as long as it’s funny and respects the essence of the characters. And while Groening still supervises the scripts, he has not written an episode himself for more than 10 years. In his own words, he ‘oversees the empire’ — his creation is broadcast weekly to 60 million people in 60 countries — but he leaves the working life of The Simpsons in the hands of his private army of ‘Harvard-grad-brainiac-bastard-eggheads’ (his words again: 10 of the writers are Harvard alumni).

Which makes it hard to be sure where credit is due. The title sequence says my own favourite episode was written by John Swartzwelder, but it’s not necessarily that simple. The process works something like this: one of the writing team has an idea for a Simpsons story. The idea is fleshed out with a group brainstorming session . The writer then does a first draft of the script, which is submitted for heavy editing, line by line, and rewritten again and again before, during and after the voice recording and animation stages.

The writers admit that it is very rare for any of them to be responsible for more than three jokes each in the final edit of a single episode … with one exception. When an American TV critic recently rhapsodised about a particular script credited to regular writer John Vitti, he was informed that the jokes quoted in the review were actually contributed by executive producer George Meyer. And if anyone is the secret brains behind The Simpsons, it seems to be Meyer. He has been working on the show since just after it started, following a spell of abortive academia, failed money-making scams and unhappy years writing jokes for David Letterman and Saturday Night Live. When asked why The Simpsons is ‘still so good after all these years’, head writer Mike Scully does not hesitate. ‘At the risk of pissing off the other writers,’ he says, ‘I think the reason is probably George Meyer. He’s made us all choke in the rewrite room more times than I can remember.’ Co-writer Ian Maxtone- Graham has also remarked that he would ‘rather make George Meyer laugh than win an Emmy’.

By all accounts, Meyer throws in far more than his share of the unexpected sight gags, erudite allusions and wild character details that have made The Simpsons such a bottomless cave of wonders. He’s the guy who sits in the script workshops and suggests adding a sign outside the church after a tornado that says ‘God Welcomes His Victims’.

Matt Groening has regularly presented himself as the rebel within the system — the man who uses Rupert Murdoch’s monolithic Fox corporation to deliver The Simpsons’ counterculture messages through the mainstream. But the more you learn about Meyer’s worldview, the more you sense his influence . He is an elusive figure, almost always working (‘Nobody really gets time off. Ever,’ executive producer Al Jean has admitted ) but rare interviews and biographical pieces in the American media render a pretty fascinating impression. A lapsed-Catholic yogic vegetarian in his mid-40s, he is addicted to documentaries and obsessed with his own hatred of consumer culture and the way advertising ‘irresponsibly induces discontent in people … and leaves the debris of that process out there in culture’. The Simpsons takes place among that debris, in a decaying town full of TV-zapped, self-interested malcontents.

In The New Yorker magazine last year, Meyer mused that the only purchasable product that might be good value is LSD, ‘because it costs five bucks, and then you go crazy, maybe jump out a window’. ‘Can you imagine?’ he asked the interviewer in wonder. ‘You might change your life; you might drop out of society. That’s really a lot.’

In some respects Meyer seems like a much smarter Homer, preoccupied by the possibility of escapes and epiphanies. He says he watched ‘everything’ on TV as a child because he ‘liked to see adults getting away with stuff, and hoped to join them one day in anarchy and mayhem’ — and maybe the big secret of The Simpsons’ appeal is that it recognises the desire for anarchy that children and adults share.

But if Meyer puts the lightning in the bottle, what happens if he leaves? He has already vowed to quit the show twice in the last seven years, exhausted, depressed and agitated by the urge to do ‘something more personally fulfilling’, but was coaxed back at the last minute. When the handful of voice actors who provide the distinctive tones of more than 50 characters threatened to strike over a pay dispute in 1998 , the producers began holding auditions for replacements before the strike was averted. But Meyer seems to be far less expendable. Mike Scully said recently that he ‘can’t even imagine the rewrite room without George’.

In the end, the longevity of The Simpsons depends on the quality. Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa never seem to get any older — but if they’re going to make it to their 600th episode, they need the right people putting words in their mouths.

The 300th episode of The Simpsons is on Sky One tonight at 9.30pm