The Simpsons Folder
The Simpsons Folder
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February 27 2003
America’s first family, and couch.
Michael Idato meets up with the cast of The Simpsons.
Los Angeles is a town wallpapered with tickets, but few tickets are as elusive as one to The Simpsons. Only 22 times each year – once per episode – the writers, voice cast and executive producers Matt Groening and Al Jean gather in a bungalow on the 20th Century Fox lot to read through that week’s script.
Tickets are by invitation only, and today – episode #EABF20, titled The President Wore Pearls, which will not be seen until late in 2003 – I find myself sitting between a handful of British government ministers and Hank Azaria’s dog.
A decade ago, the “read-throughs” were open only to a hallowed few. Today, there are no fewer than two dozen people in the room, and for a moment it looks like we might even run out of seats at the table. It is, to be sure, a very big table. But The Simpsons, to be sure, is a very big show.
“By far the main reason we do this is to see how the material plays,” explains Al Jean, who has been on staff at The Simpsons for its entire run. He began as a writer; he is now executive producer. “You can have a group of writers work for a long time, and go through five or six re-writes, before we even get to the table.
“You just don’t know how the material really works until you hear it read by the actors and you hear an audience respond to it. We don’t have [studio audience] tapings like a live-action show. We do screen the episodes when they are done, but this is really the best judge we have [as to] whether the material is working.”
It isn’t opening night, but, he says, “There are 22 reads a year and I get nervous before all 22.”
Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Hank Azaria (Moe, Chief Wiggum, Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel), Harry Shearer (Burns and Smithers, Principal Skinner, Ned Flanders), Nancy Cartwright (Bart) and Yeardley Smith (Lisa) take their places around the table. With them are Groening and Jean, executive consultant Antonia Coffman and a string of writers who spend the next two hours furiously scribbling in their scripts. Julie Kavner (Marge, Patty and Selma) is at home, on a speaker-phone link.
The series is in its 14th season, will mark its 300th episode this year, and looks certain to go into the record books as one of the longest-running TV series of all time. Its brilliance is without peer and its consistency impressive.
Today’s script – a parody of Evita in which Lisa, elected student body president after Martin Prince is ousted, is seduced by the power and glamour of her new role – demonstrates that consistency. The punchlines are sharp (well, the British ministers laughed, at any rate) and the show’s little touches, including its parody of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical from which it borrows a theme or two, are inspired.
By the time it draws to a close the British ministers lead the queue to get their script signed by the voice cast, the parting gift of choice for those lucky enough to be at today’s show. The writers have recessed to tighten the script before the following week’s audio recording, which is then passed on to the animators, who construct the scenery to match the dialogue.
The Simpsons is maturing nicely, with far smoother edges than it had when it premiered in 1987 as a series of shorts – 48 in total – on The Tracey Ullman Show. By 1989, Fox was so impressed with what they had seen that they ordered a 13-episode series. The early episodes were rough and some of the voices – particularly nuclear power plant tycoon C. Montgomery Burns – were still finding their proper tone.
That said, the first season contains some of the show’s best-loved episodes, including Homer’s Night Out and The Crepes of Wrath.
“There is a little revisionism which goes on in regard to the first year,” says Jean. “People say it was unformed, and that it took a while to find itself. Having been there, I can say it was the most popular thing I had ever seen. The sensibility of the show was there from the beginning, dealing with a family trying to survive in the world, beset by the problems everybody has; big business out to get them, government not necessarily on their side, the world a difficult place to live in.
“If there was a refinement, it was that with the success of the show we hired more people and did more re-writing, so the show tended to get more layered. I heard it once compared to a lasagne, with jokes peppered at every stage, but I feel the philosophy has not changed from day one.”
One thing that has changed, however, is the growth of the show’s supporting cast. Originally, Castellaneta, Kavner, Cartwright and Smith were hired to play the Simpson family, and the show didn’t venture far beyond, respectively, Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa. Now the supporting cast numbers more than 100, and characters like Barney Gumble, Moe, Chief Wiggum, Wayland Smithers and Ned Flanders have loyal followings among the fans.
“Definitely from the second year there was an increase [in] the size of the Simpson universe,” says Jean. “We would explore who Patty and Selma might know, or how Burns related to Smithers. [One of the keys] to the longevity of the series is that there are about 30 or 40 characters that people are really attached to, many of whom were there in the first year, and some of whom were even in the shorts, like Krusty or Grandpa.
“There is no question that it enables the show to stay fresh, having so many characters.”