Keeping Up With The SimpsonsBy Bill Brioux
© TV Guide (Canada), Mar 29 1997, p16-19
While many long-running shows slip into a creative coma after only a few years, The Simpsons has managed to stay fresh and funny for eight seasons. Even people who don't watch the show are aware of the dysfunctional family living in Springfield, U.S.A.: Homer, a faithful but oafish father who works at the local nuclear power plan; Marge, the socially conscious mom; Bart, the mischievous 10-year-old; Lisa, the bright, sensitive daughter; and baby Maggie, who's only ever spoken one word ("Daddy").
The show, created by cartoonist Matt Groening ("Life in Hell"), had its humble beginnings as a short weekly segment on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. Two years later The Simpsons debuted on Fox, giving the fledging network its first real hit. Since then, the show has spawned its own culture - hit songs ("Do the Bartman:), T-shirts ("Don't Have a Cow, Man") and language ("Aye, Carumba!"). Today, The Simpsons still pulls in good ratings and continues to surprise us with its clever, twisted tale on everyday life.
TV Guide talked to the creative team behind The Simpsons and discovered 10 rules for keeping a TV family on top:
1. Always be real
And that's how it must be, says Groening, who keeps close tabs on his characters. A few years back, Homer lurched violently out of character and Groening had to pull things back into reality. "What I try to do is remind everybody on the show that we have to stick to certain rules," he says. "We're the only cartoon show where, when people hit the ground, they're actually bruised and bloody."
2. Never tell the same joke twice
Sometimes, you have to watch an episode twice to catch a joke - which is a good thing, says Groening. "There are the obvious jokes, the visual sight-gags, the subtle literary allusions and at the most subtle, what we call freeze frame gags - jokes you can only get if you videotape the show and play it back in freeze frame. What we try to do is reward people for paying attention."
3. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite
Groening hears some jokes 40 or 50 times. "Generally, if a joke makes it on the air," he says, "it means that we are pretty happy with it."
4. Don't hire sitcom writers
5. Banish the network brass
Groening confirms that the suits at Fox have kept their distance. "I think it's partly because they didn't understand animation, so they didn't know how to interfere with it," he says. "Second of all, it's no fun to hang around on the set, because there is no set. You can't come down and flirt with beautiful young starlets, because there aren't any. Although, you know, I'm pretty good lookin'."
6. Think big, within reason
There are still some restrictions, says Groening. "The animators have begged us, please, don't have any more circus trains crash into passing parades and spilling over into the zoo. The director had to go on a long vacation after that show."
7. Use the whole town
8. Treat guest stars like family
"On lousy sitcoms," adds Oakley, "they'll write in a star and go, 'Elizabeth Taylor will come on and promote her perfume.' We never write around a star, but if we have a new character that's a big role, we often go after a star." Like they did with Taylor, who spoke baby Maggie's one and only word.
9. Draw the laughs
Much of the credit lies with cartoon veteran Phil Roman, whose studio has meticulously animated the series since the start of the fourth season. "There are changes made at every point," he says. "It's more like doing 22 or 24 half-hour features a season in terms of the quality and the demands."
10. Be clever, not nasty
"I think we're able to get away with some fairly dark comments about our culture by leavening it with lightness. The fact is, the show is a celebration - that's been my main goal from the very beginning."
Transcribed by Bruce Gomes
Last updated on March 3, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)