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There Goes The Neighborhood
10-04 1997 © The Guardian Guide
America’s best loved house only ever existed on paper – until now. Simpsons creator Matt Groening gives John Patterson a guided tour of a real-life dream home “And I’m very proud to be the first person to vandalise this house.” Matt Groening rattles the mixer ball loudly inside his spraycan. He turns to the wall and paints a particularly thuggish-looking Bart Simpson head on the garage wall, before adding the legend “El Barto was here”. Of course he was. He lives here. This is his house. In a new subdivision in Henderson, Nevada, about 10 minutes from downtown Las Vegas, Fox TV has built a life-sized replica of the Simpsons’ home. It’s extremely yellow. In the driveway is Homer’s dodgy Chevy, dent on the fender, oil slick on the tarmac. Inside, the house is exactly as it appears on TV, from the lurid colour scheme (generator green, Jazz Age coral, pink flamingo) right down to the mouseholes in the skirting board.
This is Simpsons Day with a vengeance. To see the house made brick and mortar before us is weird enough. Later at the New York New York Casino back in Vegas, the media will be serenaded by the Marge-o-lettes, the soul cuties in the towering blue wigs who make the Ikettes look sober and restrained by comparison. We were even flown here from Los Angeles on Fox’s own Simpsons Jet, decorated with the family’s faces on the fuselage and Marge’s hairdo climbing up the tailplane.
I feel sad for the people who really live around here, says Groening. When they signed the papers, I don’t think anyone told them, ‘And your neighbours will be the Simpsons’.”
Actually, their neighbours will be whoever wins the house in a special draw to be held during The Simpsons’ season premiere episode next week. Who does Groening think would make the ideal inhabitants? “My sons Abe and Will love this house, and they’d be glad to live here. But that may be the cut-off point – eight years old. What I’m hoping is that whoever wins it will sell it back to Fox, and next year we’ll come back here and blow it up. Wouldn’t that be cool? The neighbours would love that too, everybody’d be happy.”
It’s difficult to imagine the people who’ll soon move into this neighbourhood. Driving here from Vegas, you won’t spot Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart, but you will see Terrible’s Country Store, which is more than passably Simpsonian. At the moment most of the properties are unfinished, and few have residents. The hum of building equipment and cement mixers makes it resemble the suburb where Ray Liotta ends up in Goodfellas. Opposite the sulphurous Simpson home is a grey town house with its two-car garage door forlornly open. As executive producer Mike Scully points out, “According to the show, that’s where George Bush moved in.” And indicating the vacant lot to the left of the Simpsons, filled with construction company detritus, he notes, “Flanders’ house seems to have been torn down and replaced with porta-johns.”
“I don’t think it’ll do anything to the value of the other houses in this neighbourhood,” says Groening as he prepares to decorate a wet concrete slab on the garden path with a Grauman’s Chinese Theatre-style Homer head, three-fingered handprints and his signature. “But the people living here will be able to say to their visitors, ‘You see that garish house in the middle of the development? Our house is three doors down.'”
Inside, the Simpsons’ home is part full-scale doll’s house and part eerie déjà vu as you encounter three-dimensional replicas of stuff you’ve only seen animated by Korean cartoonists. The builders have reduced the colour scheme to 25 colours, mostly those of neon, ice cream, fluorescent highlighter pens, and anti-toxic warning labels – all matte, no gloss. Here in the living room is the most famous couch on American television, and the TV with its wonky antennae which beams Itchy And Scratchy to a peace-hating household. Look out of the window and you can see the barbecue set that Homer got for 10 cents at Flanders’ bankruptcy sale after the Leftorium went belly up, and Bart’s tree house, emblazoned with the welcoming invitation, “Come in! NOT!!”
Upstairs is Bart’s room, with its tiny unmade bed, Krusty the Klown alarm clock, and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich rotting on the bedside table. The kids’ bathroom is much as you’d imagine it: a mess, one damp towel on the cistern, and the toilet plunger on top of that. Lisa’s bedroom has her saxophone on the bed and her Miss Springfield award on the wall (she won by default; the real winner, whose razor-sharp eyelashes slashed the air like Freddy Kruger’s finger-knives, was struck by lightning). Her wardrobe features three pink dresses, all exactly the same as the one she wears on the show. Open Marge’s bathroom cabinet and there’s an unholy collection of extra-large cans of mega-hold hairspray to support that blue ‘do. You can even try on the shower cap Homer uses to safeguard his two remaining hairs.
Outside the house, the mayor has turned up to honour the cartoonist with a commemorative plaque and to proclaim this day “Matt Groening and The Simpsons Day” in Henderson. Groening “aw-shucks” his way through the presentation and one is reminded of the tacky ceremonies presided over by Springfield’s own mayor, Diamond Joe Quimby. This scene has been pre-satirised.
From the house, we return to Vegas proper, for a ceremony at the New York New York Casino Hotel to thank Groening for bringing the Simpsons to town. Bob Miller, the governor of Nevada, is here to do the honours. So is the self-proclaimed “CEO of Las Vegas”, Wayne Newton. Newton is a triumph of polyester tailoring and taxidermy for the still-sentient, his glow-in-the-dark perma-tan either the result of many decades beneath the UV lamp, or the by product of the years when Nevada was the epi-centre of the US Army’s nuclear testing programme. For Wayne, all is “Wonderful-wonderful.” He can’t say it just once.
The ostensible purpose of this trip is to celebrate the new season premiere, in which Homer takes the family to New York, or “Manhattan: Home of the World-Weary Poseur”, as the show puts it (hence the choice of casino). Arriving on Sit-and-Stare Bus Lines, the family splits up, with Homer in search of his car, abandoned by Barney Gumble between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, while Marge and the kids take in a Sondheim-esque Broadway shoe, “Kickin’ It: A Musical Journey Through the Betty Ford Clinic” (“Shhhh! They’re tying Liza Minnelli down!”). Bart gets to see the offices of MAD magazine, including Alfred E Neuman himself.
After the brief ceremony, Groening settles down to chat about yellow skin and his overbite policy.
“The silly answer is they’re yellow to make people think that their TV set isn’t working right, but the real answer is I didn’t want it to look like any other cartoon show. I wanted it so that when you were clicking through the channels with the remote, you could tell it was The Simpsons right off. And overbite-wise, well, you have to have an overbite and no chin. If you’re a celebrity with a prominent chin, you can’t be on the show.” So much for Jay Leno as a guest.
As for autobiographical content in the show, Groening assures us, “The Simpsons are a combination of my family and my friends’ families growing up. My family’s not as stupid or as ugly as the Simpsons, but I did fight with my sisters Lisa and Maggie the same way Bart does in the show. Marge is actually based on my mother, who really did have a hairstyle like that. She denies it, but I have a passport photo of her, which I plan to publish very soon.” What about Bart as a role-model for his sons? “Abe and Will have grown up alongside the show, and back in the beginning, when there was a lot of controversy about Bart being a bad influence, I just told parents, ‘Aw, grow up, stop acting like Homer Simpson.’ But now that my kids are older, they’re starting to quote Bart Simpson back at me, and I’m beginning to see why parents have been annoyed by him.”
And talking of sassing one’s elders and betters, how does he get away with smartmouthing Rupert Murdoch on the show? “You know what? He loves it. We had one scene in which Rupert Murdoch was in the Springfield prison, and the executives ran down the hall and said ‘Uh, Mr Murdoch, is this, um, okay?’ And he just said, ‘It would be an honour to go to prison on The Simpsons.’ So he’s a good sport.”
Now that the Simpsons house has been realised, can we expect more? “That’d be great. If we could find more space in Vegas, I’d like to build Moe’s Tavern and the Power Plant. I think there should be a Simpsons theme park. My dream would be a 2,000-foot statue of Homer Simpson with a revolving head and a restaurant inside it, so you can eat dinner inside and see the new Las Vegas as you eat. In Las Vegas, this would be subtle architecture!”
And finally, how does he stay normal in Hollywood? “Well, I’m a cartoonist,” explains Groening, “and this is just a complete fluke. If things had worked out the way my life was supposed to be, I’d be back in my crummy apartment drawing freelance illustrations and struggling to get by. But I lucked out, I was in the right place at the right time with the brand-new Fox Network. They allowed me to have some fun and it just took off.” And now he’s a zillionaire. “Oh,” he purrs, “they support me with a modest little stipend.”