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Hi Honey, I’m Homer
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000
This year’s hottest show is a read-through of an old Simpson’s script. Gareth Maclean sits in with the fans.
There was something close to mass hysteria when it was announced that Matt Groening and the voices behind Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and the rest of Springfield were coming to Edinburgh to perform a classic episode of The Simpsons. Everybody you spoke to wanted tickets for Simpsons Mania; 55 minutes after they went on sale, every single one was sold out.
When I got my ticket, my dinner companions – a doctor, two theatre directors, an agent and a publishing executive – in one of Edinburgh’s most delectable restaurants were most excited. Otherwise sombre professionals were transformed into giggling juveniles by their mere proximity to a Simpsons Mania ticket. The table erupted into a discussion of how culturally important the animated series is, how Groening came up with the idea for it, its subversive nature, its brilliant writing, the famous people who have been lucky enough to be immortalised in yellow, its origins on The Tracey Ullman Show, and its unerring quality over 10 years on British television. We wondered what they would do on stage. “Will it be like an Archers pageant?” someone asked.
As the diners next to us shuffled out, the waitress approached us. “Who’s going to see The Simpsons tonight?” she asked. I raised my hand.
“That was them sitting there,” she smirked. We were dumbstruck. As seven heads swivelled to look out the restaurant window, Hank Azaria (who plays Apu and Moe) and a band of less well-known faces smiled benevolently in. Azaria waved graciously.
An hour later, after clips from the show specially selected for a Scottish audience (there were lots of mad janitor Groundsman Willie), Azaria, Nancy Cartwright (Bart), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Pamela Hayden (standing in for Julie Kavner as Marge), Harry Shearer (Principal Skinner) and Tress MacNeille (Milhouse) took their seats in front of an adoring crowd and began reading Lisa’s Date With Density.
As soon as anyone opened their mouth, there was a cheer. Castellaneta’s first utterance as Homer got a huge round of applause – everyone loves Homer – and the generosity of the audience never wavered. (It would have been understandable if it had, given that the show’s flimsy programmes cost a hefty £7.)
As a kilted Cartwright adroitly jumped between Bart and Nelson, and a slight, balding man you wouldn’t be surprised to learn was a serial killer opened his mouth and Homer’s tones escaped, there was a weird dislocation between what was seen and what was heard. Hearing these people speak with the voices of Lisa, Marge and Apu seemed more unreal than the three-fingered cartoon characters who stood in clusters on either side of the stage. Both present and absent, the Simpson family were like Banquos at the feast. And then I remembered it was just a cartoon.
The tremendous vocal talents of each actor was amply displayed, with the cute-as-her-character Yeardley Smith and Azaria particular delights. This was a genuine, generous ensemble, with not a hint of ego from Castellaneta, who could be forgiven for thinking himself the star of the show.
If anything did mar proceedings, it was the difficulty inherent in taking a TV show unique for its visuals and stripping them away. The narrator’s scene-setting was essential but laborious, and who in the crowd knew what a “smash cut to the Simpson foyer” was? It was less radio than TV without the pictures. Still, the audience – which included a slew of stand-up comedians and actor Peter Mullan – revelled in being face to larynx with the voices of The Simpsons.
And as if to prove it, when the opportunity for questions arose, most were of the “Will you say ‘Doh!’?” and “Can we hear from Mr Burns?” variety. Naturally, the actors obliged and Castellaneta’s cry of “Doh!” and Shearer’s hissing “Excellent!” were lapped up. Preaching to the converted, the septet had the audience rolling over to have its tummy tickled. I think this qualifies as a success. And nothing like an Archers pageant.
At the beginning of the evening, by way of introduction, the man from Sky 1 noted: “Unlike Friends, the cast don’t get older and the scripts just get better.” Nor do they get $750,000 an episode. But then, the cast of The Simpsons are only really famous for what they actually do, and not for having nice hair or great pecs. Apart from Azaria – who has the most prominent film career and claim to celebrity, being married to (and recently separated from) the actress Helen Hunt – they are both anonymous and famous. You could have walked past them before the show without knowing who they were, or sat next to them in a restaurant. And that, for some intangible reason, makes them all the more impressive.
What the punters said
“Last year I saw Tony Bennett live at Caesar’s Palace and thought my life was on a downward spiral. But tonight took me straight back to that highest of happiest places”
Comedian Johnny Vegas
“It was weird to see the people when you’d only heard the voices”
“It was interesting to hear how Matt Groening came up with the idea for The Simpsons, and this was miles better than the cartoon”
“It was fantastic, but the story focused too much on the kids. I wanted to hear more of Homer”
Comedian Bill Bailey
“If you weren’t a regular viewer you’d be bored and disenfranchised. They gave you nothing to relate to, and couldn’t engage the audience who hadn’t bought into the scenario”
Anonymous woman who walked out
“A very happy event”
Man with crazy hair
Simpsons Mania is at The Playhouse, London WC2 (020-7839 4292), tomorrow and Friday.
Jonathan Ross interviews Matt Groening at 12.30pm tomorrow at the NFT, London SE1 (020-7928 3232).
Sky 1 is screening a weekend of programmes to celebrate 10 years of The Simpsons on September 2 and 3.
Interviews by Alice Purser.