Redrawing the Map

By Diane Werts

© Newsday, December 12, 1999.

OK, let's put together the perfect TV sitcom.

You'd want it be funny, of course, and not just joke-funny. You'd want strong characters with emotional honesty. And you'd want the show's structure to be limber enough to support situations of all stripes, from dramatic to absurd.

You'd want it to appeal to as many people as possible: young, old, white, black, American, international. And to be timeless, so the show wouldn't get stale or look dated. While the tone would have an attitude, it wouldn't be sarcastic or snide. A good-natured sensibility would make the characters lovable, make viewers feel at home. The show should also look sharp and sound swell.

And you'd have ...

"The Simpsons"?

Sure, "The Simpsons." Why not? Matt Groening's animated fave meets all those qualifications. Heck, it regularly exceeds them. So regularly that Friday will mark 10 years of network success since the show's arrival Dec. 17, 1989, when Fox aired the warped Christmas special "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire." (Groening celebrates Friday in his own way with the fresh animated holiday hour "Olive the Other Reindeer" at 8 p.m. on WNYW/5.)

The new Fox network was taking a chance back then on this twisted-family cartoon, expanded from brief commercial "bumpers" on its "Tracey Ullman" sketch series. "They were a total of sixty seconds a show. And they tested really badly, by the way," recalls Garth Ancier, now NBC's chief programer, then filling the same role at Fox. Yet his 3-year-old netlet decided "The Simpsons" was "a really interesting shot to take. Why not see if an animated family show works? We broke the form with ‘Married... With Children,"' and its caustic family takeoff lured millions of viewers. Ancier took "a leap of faith" by ordering 13 "Simpsons" episodes, though prime time hadn't had an animated hit since "The Flintstones." Who knew whether "Life in Hell," cartoonist Groening's ruthless (but loving) view of suburban life, would fly?

"Don't tune in expecting to see ‘The Little Mermaid,"' Groening warned in a Newsday interview at the show's debut. (Because "The Simpsons" didn't start weekly till Jan. 14, 1990, Fox celebrates the 10th anniversary next month.)

"The Simpsons" sure looked different -- spiky yellow heads, blue hair -- and it acted different. But TV comedy had broadened in the late '80s with "Roseanne" and "The Wonder Years," and audiences responded. The Sunday series was an overnight smash and a bonanza of merchandising. Kids ate it up when wise guy Bart Simpson told adults to "Eat my shorts!" Almost as popular was dad Homer, an overreaching everyman whose "D'oh!" expressed his perpetual frustration with modern life. They weren't your everyday tube family. Their adventures were, uh, unusual. In the pilot alone, fourth-grader Bart gets a tattoo, Homer steals a Christmas tree, and together they hit the dog track. The Simpsons are also utterly addicted to television. This was subversive stuff.

Yet "The Simpsons" at its heart wasn't all that divergent from "The Flintstones," or any live-action familycom. Indeed, part of Groening's original inspiration "was just an attempt to justify all the wasted hours of watching television" growing up, the creator says by phone from his L.A. office. "I was a big fan of ‘Leave It to Beaver' and ‘Ozzie and Harriet.' And the most interesting character on ‘Beaver' was Eddie Haskell," the too-slick supporting character always getting his school friends into trouble with his schemes. "Why not make him the star?" Beyond that, Groening's goal was to "put into the show the kind of stuff I wanted to see on TV. And didn't."

And some of that he did. After all the anarchy, it's ultimately the sitcom staples of family, love and man's essential goodness that save the day. "The Simpsons" wraps unsophisticated emotions in a sophisticated package -- so sophisticated that first reactions ranged from enthusiasm to misunderstanding. TV critics celebrated the show's satiric density. Indignant parents who missed the satire warned American society was going to, well, hell by taking Groening's unruly tyke as a role model.

Groening took the antisocial accusations in stride. "With ‘The Simpsons' what we're doing is making fun of people who are normal trying to act normal," he told Newsday in 1989. "They're creatures of consumption and envy, laziness and opportunity, stubbornness and redemption. Just like the rest of us. Only exaggerated."

But what really makes "The Simpsons" soar -- still today, nearing 250 episodes -- is that they can do anything. Bart, Homer, mom Marge, sister Lisa, Mr. Burns, Apu the clerk, Ned Flanders, everybody is animated. Rather than using the form to ape reality -- as did "The Flintstones," transposing "Honeymooners" humor to a time with dinosaurs -- "The Simpsons" employs cartooning to deepen and expand the sitcom's parameters to sharpen the satire. Guiding Groening from the start were James L. Brooks ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi") and Sam Simon ("Cheers"), his series co-developers.

Brooks made sure the show had heart. Look back at Groening's early gag-driven "Ullman" snippets, and they're much harder-edged. What Brooks and Simon built into the series is nearly the opposite. Succeeding these snapshots of high anxiety, the half-hour episodes explore all the everyday emotions that hold the characters together between such extremes.

The show's voice casting was crackerjack, some of it favored by luck. Dan Castellaneta (Homer) and Julie Kavner (Marge) were "Tracey Ullman Show" regulars handy to provide Simpsons voices. Utility actors such as Hank Azaria (Moe, Apu) and Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Smithers) proved to be versatile performers.

But the secret weapon behind "The Simpsons" is scripts that aren't cartoony. "We are an animated sitcom," says current "Simpsons" executive producer Mike Scully, who's been with the show since season five (it's now season 11). Gags aren't its writers' stock in trade. Character is. They address ordinary circumstances employing animation's extraordinary methods -- freedom from sets, weather, gravity, realistic action, even time. Bart is forever 9 years old. He doesn't have to grow physically or emotionally.

So writers can try wild ideas, leaping boundaries of reason and mixing odd storytelling rhythms. Ancier thinks that's the show's backbone: "What Jim and his group did was figure out how to use the animated form to tell stories at a much faster pace than traditional sitcoms." And "Simpsons" writers can easily execute comedy in appropriate layers. Got a silly pun or passing reference? Plant it in the background. Got a hankering for weird behavior? Add a crazy character in the show's teeming town of Springfield.

"The Simpsons" truly reinvented TV animation. It's no accident that writers schooled here have gone to other series: Al Jean and Mike Reiss ("The Critic"); Greg Daniels ("King of the Hill"); Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley ("Mission Hill"). Not to mention Conan O'Brien, now doing a pretty fair job reinventing late night.

In their hands, animation evolved from a Saturday morning afterthought to one of prime time's prime genres. Every broadcast network and many cable channels air or are readying animated series aimed at grown-ups. "The Simpsons" proved animation could be an adult form without being "adult." And as viewers grew used to Groening's deliberately crude drawing style, TV animation extended beyond cute animals and comic book realism. Would "South Park" exist without "The Simpsons"? Not likely.

For that matter, would there be a Fox network without "The Simpsons"? The show was Fox' first true sensation, grabbing a first-season 35 audience share and rocketing into Nielsen's Top 30 (a feat Fox wouldn't repeat until six seasons later with "The X-Files").

In September, 1990, after just one (mid-)season of only 13 episodes, Fox went for the Big Three's throat, stunningly moving "The Simpsons" to Thursday at 8 opposite NBC's top-rated "Cosby Show." And it did the job, jump-starting a new fourth night for Fox and slowing the "Cosby" juggernaut, which would never again finish a season No. 1.

But that's nothing compared to "The Simpsons"' current accomplishment. Here it is a decade later, "The Cosby Show" is long gone from prime time -- and "The Simpsons" is still going strong for Fox. TV critics still praise the show's cleverness and marvel at its consistency.

Groening says: "I hope we give up the ghost when the show runs out of steam. But the episodes we're working on for next season are as good as ever."

How does "The Simpsons" stay so good? "It's set up to be a writer's dream," says Scully. "There's no network or studio interference... It's the way James L. Brooks set the show up in the beginning. We don't have to get approval from anybody."

Early "Simpsons" writers cleverly tackled everything from crooked politicians to Bart's selling his soul, and Scully says their successors feel intense pressure to live up to the standard.

They also feel unusual affection for the series. Though Groening now concentrates largely on "Futurama," he still keeps a hand in "The Simpsons" 10 years later, because, "it is still fun, and I like the people I work with. The jokes the writers tell that don't get into the shows, it's the best free show around."

"The Simpsons" survives not just because it's creatively strong but because its appeal is so broad-based. "It's one of the few shows that the family can sit down together and watch, and there's something in it for everyone," says Scully, dad to five kids ages 9 to 16. "I love the mix of intellectual and lowbrow humor. My wife and I tend to laugh more at some of the verbal jokes, while the kids will be laughing at Homer falling down the stairs."

Parents watching "The Simpsons" with their kids and loving it? How far we've come from the early uproar over Bart's "bad" behavior. "Thanks to ‘Beavis and Butt-head' and ‘South Park,' suddenly we're ‘Ozzie and Harriet' here," muses Scully. "And the show hasn't changed at all."

Amen to that.

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Last updated on April 21, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (