Ay Caramba!

Trailblazing toon still in top form after nine seasons

By Ray Richmond

© Variety, April 23, 1998.

It isn’t so much that no one ever expected “The Simpsons” to make it to 200 episodes, a figure achieved by a comparative handful of shows in TV history (and no other animated series). It’s really more that no one thought it would even get to 20.

Here was a show, after all, that sprouted in the unlikeliest of places: from a series of cartoon shorts on the poorly-rated “Tracey Ullman Show” in 1987. It would debut as a half-hour with the Christmas special “Simpsons Roasting On an Open Fire” on Dec. 17, 1989, and as a full-blown series on Jan. 14, 1990.

Eight years and change later, it’s the longest-running primetime series on Fox, a syndication monster, a global phenomenon, a merchandising wonder and, many believe, the finest-written comedy of its type in the history of the medium. It has reportedly earned Fox in excess of $500 million over its lifespan — a lot of d’oh! in anyone’s book. And there appears to be no end in sight. All indications are that “The Simpsons” will move past its 10th season that begins next fall to an 11th and a 12th.

“As (former ‘Simpsons’ executive producer and current consultant) David Mirkin said at our script reading for the 200th episode, ‘Wow, we’ve reached the halfway point!’,” quips Matt Groening, the show’s creator and co-executive producer.

Well ... maybe a bit more than halfway. But James L. Brooks, whose Gracie Films produces the show, points out, “ ‘The Simpsons’ exceeded everyone’s expectations about 195 episodes ago. This is all gravy. And the great thing is that the show has stayed vital and alive and fresh, and I think the reason for that is you’ve had different executive producers taking control of the show. That’s really helped keep the focus flexible.”

That “Simpsons” focus has always been on keeping it different, keeping it unpredictable. And as the episodes have piled up, that’s grown tougher and tougher, Groening believes.

“We’ve been obsessed not only with not doing what other shows are doing, but also trying not to repeat ourselves,” Groening acknowledges. “It’s very hard. I always have to be reminded, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve already had Homer in an avalanche where he winds up unscathed.’ Luckily, we’ve had a lot of teams of enthusiastic and competitive writers who are intent on beating the writers that preceded them.”

The writers who were there on “The Simpsons” in the beginning (only George Meyer remains from that group) had no guide to follow. There was, after all, no such thing as primetime animation back in 1990. “The Flintstones,” the most successful primetime cartoon up to that point, had been off the air for 24 years. The presumption was that it was kid stuff that wouldn’t fly with grownups.

But fly it did — not only in originals on Fox but in racking up record ratings around the country in its off-network syndie life. Without a “Simpsons” paving the way, it’s unlikely there would ever have been a “Beavis and Butt-head,” a “Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist” or a ‘South Park,” and certainly never a “King of the Hill.” “The Simpsons,” running on the upstart young Fox, proved quickly that a cleverly packaged animated comedy could bridge not just age gaps but also gender and racial ones as well.

“It’s been a real signature series for our network,” offers Peter Roth, prez of the Fox Entertainment Group. “ ‘The Simpsons’ personifies as well as any series on our air the Fox brand — distinctive, daring, alternative and, most especially, well-crafted and clever.”

Roth acknowledges that while he wasn’t there at the show’s inception, “it truly began a whole new trend in TV. And it’s just confounding how solid the quality continues to be.”

Twentieth Century Fox TV prexy Sandy Grushow agrees. “ ‘The Simpsons’ has proven to be one of the great joyrides in the history of television. It could not possibly have been more unexpected, or more meaningful, for the Fox Broadcasting Co. Early on, the challenge was — from a marketing perspective — to create the perception this was more than just a cartoon, that it was very intelligent and sophisticated and worth watching for audiences of all ages. Our company did an exceptional job of that.”

Along the way, the show that has brought fresh new meaning to the term “dysfunctional family” has burnished into the vernacular such phrases as “D’oh!” (or, as it’s spelled out in the show’s scripts, “annoyed grunt”), “Don’t have a cow, man!” (from Bart), “Excellent!” (from Mr. Burns) and “Hi-de-ly-ho!” (Ned Flanders’ annoying way of saying “hello”).

This is also the show that has introduced more individual characters than any other series ever to grace the small-screen — well over 250 who have had speaking lines in at least one episode. You know a lot of them: Krusty the Clown (the world’s only TV clown to have had a quadruple bypass); Dr. Nick Riviera (known for having said, “The coroner! Sheesh ... I’m getting so sick of that guy. Oh well, see you in the operating place.”); and a fella named Charles Montgomery Burns (the filthy-rich Springfield Nuclear Power Plant owner who once disguised himself as 1960s icon Wavy Gravy).

Groening has been there to meet them all, in the process rising from a counterculture artist to a very rich man. But he has never lost his enthusiasm for “The Simpsons” and its animated denizens, marveling at how “the characters have remained consistent, and the situations we put them into are still inventive and original. ...We’re still rewarding our fans for paying attention.”

Groening maintains that he has a few personal favorite moments that stand out in the 200 segs. One came during the second “Treehouse of Horror II” Halloween special that premiered on Jan. 31, 1991 in the “Homer’s Nightmare” segment. At one point, Mr. Burns (playing a mad scientist) pulls the brain from Homer’s surgically-opened head, flops it atop his own smooth scalp and intones, “Look at me, I’m Davy Crockett!”

“Jon Vitti, who pitched that line in the writers’ room, sent everyone into hysterics,” Groening recalls. “I’ve never seen so many people in the room fall on the floor laughing. And they just wouldn’t stop.”

Another of Groening’s faves was the time Bart was reported missing and Homer, in a panic, picks up the telephone, punches a button and screams, “Operator, give me the number for 9-1-1!”

“That has to be my all-time top line,” Groening admits.

One of the things that continues to surprise and amaze Groening about “The Simpsons” is that even after 200 episodes, the show “hasn’t already offended everyone whom we’re capable of offending. By this time, I’d have figured that most of the people whom this show might offend would have just stopped watching. But they keep right on writing in and complaining, anyway. When will they learn that we’re not going to learn from them?”

When it comes to “The Simpsons,” learning avoidance has truly been elevated to an art form.

Ray Richmond is the co-author of “The Simpsons: A Guide to Our Favorite Family” (HarperCollins), which has sold nearly 400,000 copies since last fall.

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