The Simpsons Folder
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The Simpsons Special: It’s America’s finest export. Marcus Dunk celebrates Springfield’s 10th birthday. “Homer, you’re late for English.” “English? Who needs that. I’m never going to England.”
TEn years ago Margaret Thatcher was still clinging to power, mobile phones were unwieldy things that had to be carried around with giant hand-held batteries, and the only people who had heard of the “internet” were military types and boffins. More astounding, however, is the fact that in this country, hardly anybody had heard of The Simpsons. No wonder Homer didn’t need to come here. We were still in the dark ages.
In the following decade Homer and co have not only come to England, they’ve conquered it. Although initially broadcasters seemed concerned whether the show’s unique blend of scatalogical humour and American in-jokes would translate across the Atlantic, they needn’t have worried. The Simpsons are now as much a part of this culture as roast beef and poor sporting achievement. The citizens of Springfield have entered the popular imagination, and it doesn’t look like they’ll be leaving anytime soon. But just as it’s now hard to imagine a world without The Simpsons, it’s also easy to forget that behind these familiar yellow folk, there are actual real live flesh and blood people bringing these characters to life.
“I provide the voices for Moe the bartender, Police Chief Wiggum and Apu the Kwik-E-Mart clerk,” smiles character actor and comic Hank Azaria, with just a hint of his characters’ mania. “I also do a handful of others. I used to make mistakes swapping between the voices, but I’ve been doing it for 12 years now, so I’m used to it.
“Who’s my favourite? Gosh that’s a hard one. I think I enjoy doing Professor John Frink [breaking into the character’s voice]. He’s the one who’s like the nutty professor. I love doing him.”
For any fan of the show, there’s something a bit disconcerting in connecting all these familiar voices to a real person; which is perhaps why the live-action version of the show, The Simpsons Live, is proving to be such an enticing hit.
First performed at the U.S. Comedy And Arts Festival in Aspen in February, and coming to Edinburgh and London this month, the show involves a handful of regular Simpsons cast members sitting around a stage performing a read-through of an episode.
It might not sound as exciting as watching a televised episode, but seeing the likes of Dan Castellaneta (who voices Homer), Nancy Cartwright (Bart) and Azaria rapidly switching between voices and bringing the script alive is giddy stuff. “I was amazed by people’s response to it,” nods Azaria. “I knew the show was popular, but people really got into it. It was a great experience.
“In a way, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised, because every time we record it in front of people on the Twentieth Century Fox lot, they really love it. It’s actually become very popular for people on the lot to drop by and visit while we’re recording. It’s great because each show becomes a little event.”
Azaria also has a career in live-action films. He’s had major roles in blockbusters like Godzilla, comedies such as Mystery Men, and he was the lead in Tim Robbins’ ensemble piece, Cradle Will Rock. But although he has a filmography bursting with well-known movies, there’s still a sense that Azaria is an unknown quantity, as if the physical anonymity that doing cartoon voiceovers bestows has pursued him in his film career. It’s a strange anonymity that continues despite the fact that he’s also had a high-profile marriage to Oscar-winner and Mad About You star Helen Hunt, which, it’s just been announced, has hit trouble (the two have separated, but Hank refuses to talk about the relationship).
Whatever the case, talking to Azaria you get the sense that underneath his affable demeanour there’s a steely resolve, forged perhaps during his days as a stand-up, that could eventually bring him big-time star status.
“Well I did stand-up comedy for about a year,” he laughs. “I enjoyed it, but the club scene is tough and the crowds are so rowdy that when you die, you really die. People yelling out, “YOU SUCK!”, “GET OFF”. When you go through things like that, in a way you can look at becoming an actor as a progressive thickening of your skin.”
It’s obviously something that served him well for making the move to The Simpsons. Although landing that job may now seem a canny career move, for a while it could have turned either way. The Simpsons started out in 1987 as “bumpers” in the version of The Tracey Ullman Show screened in the States, slotted between the ads and the programme itself, before getting its own slot on American TV. Despite the universal acclaim that’s now being heaped upon it, the show met a lot of resistance on the way to becoming the sort of cultural institution that can sell out live performances and land performers like Azaria up to a rumoured $100,000 an episode.
Back when cartoonist Matt Groening first brought the cartoon to air, commentators, nay-sayers and doom-mongers rounded on The Simpsons, accusing it of being an attack on family values and an example of the dreaded “dumbing down” of culture.
The Daily Mail described it as “one of America’s most amoral cartoons, which delights in a relentless attack on traditional values”; while former president George Bush declared that American families should be less like the Simpsons and more like the Waltons. Ultimately, however, even the most witless woke up to the fact that The Simpsons was the sharpest show on TV. A show that celebrates the family while pointing out its weakness, a show that, in cartoon form, could go where live-action feared to tread.
“So much of the show’s success is down to the writing,” says Azaria. “It’s consistently good. But there’s a lot of elements to it. I think there’s a real marriage of sensibilities between Groening, [executive producers] Mike Scully, James Brooks and the other guys who shape the show. They were the ones who had the power and the ability to carry through the vision, to deal with the network demands, stay true to the artistic vision and yet still get on the air. And, of course, there’s us. I think we add a lot.”
So is Azaria happy with the fact that most of the time he’s more well known for his voice than his face? “I’m pretty comfortable with the success I have,” he says. “When I was growing up I was always doing voices and imitations, but I had no idea it was something that could be marketed as a skill. So to be able to act and to do The Simpsons, well, you couldn’t ask for a better job. I love it.”
Sky One celebrates 10 years of The Simpsons with a weekend of special programmes on September 2-3 and Matt Groening will be in coversation with Jonathan Ross at the NFT, London on August 17. Phone 020 7928 3232 for tickets
With 40 Simpsons’ characters and numerous one-offs to his credit, Hank Azaria would have to be the most prolific actor involved on the show. Outside the immediate Simpson household, his characters have helped shape the bizarre world that is Springfield.
Moe the Bartender. Owner of Homer’s favourite drinking den, Moe’s Tavern, Moe is the grumpy barman who is always ready with a sarcastic comment and a glass of ice cool Duff. Along with the permanently drunk Barney Gumble, he’s one of Homer’s few friends. Most likely to say: “When I get hold of you, I’m going to use your head for a bucket and paint my house with your brains.”
Apu the Kwik-E-Mart clerk. Manager of the Simpson’s local convenience store, the affable but determined Apu Nahasapeemapetilon pursues the American dream by ensuring no opportunity passes for making money through dodgy bargains. Most likely to say: “I won’t lie to you. On this job you will be shot at.”
Chief Clancy Wiggum. Springfield’s intellectually challenged Chief of Police ensures through example that Springfield’s finest is one of the most morally lax and ethically dubious police forces you’re likely to encounter. Most likely to say: “Krusty the Clown, you are under arrest for armed robbery. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say blah blah blah blah blah blah.”
Other Azaria-voiced characters to look out for: Dr Nick Riviera, Homer’s nuclear power plant friend Carl, Professor Frink, and the Comic Book guy.