Simpsons Spoken Here

By Ray Richmond

Globe and Mail, November 23, 1993.

The "Simpsons" started out in 1987 as doodles on the pad of creator Matt Groening for a series of one- and two-minute "bumpers" that bridged segments on the Fox comedy-variety series "The Tracey Ullman Show".

Now, in its fifth season as its own half-hour series, Fox's subversively witty "The Simpsons" is poised to challenge "The Flintstones" as the longest-running and most successful animated program in the history of prime-time television. Many believe it is already the most clever and original cartoon comedy ever.

"The Simpsons" recently produced its 100th episode, a significant milestone. It can be seen in more than 70 countries worldwide and has been dubbed into dozens of languages.

"The Simpsons" remains Fox's highest-rated show and draws top dollar from advertisers. What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is that such crudely drawn characters -- and inhabiting a family so roundly dysfunctional -- have struck such a chord.

To get a closer peek at the world of "The Simpsons", a recent voice recording session was attended. What follows is a firsthand account of how it all comes together.

It's 10 o'clock Monday morning inside the Darryl F. Zanuck Building on the lot of 20th Century Fox in West Los Angeles, where the actors who supply the voices of Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, Burns, Smithers and the rest of the clan on "The Simpsons" have gathered for their weekly recording session.

Dan Castellaneta (he's Homer, among many others) and Harry Shearer (he's Burns and Smithers and assorted others) are playing ping-pong, a recording-day ritual that seems to be as old as "The Simpsons" itself.

In a few minutes, Castellaneta, Shearer, Julie Kavner (Marge), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Nancy Cartwright (Bart) and Hank Azaria (Apu the Hindu convenience store owner and Ned Flanders, among others) will sit down with executive producer David Mirkin and a crew of writers at a table reading to determine what shape this latest script is in.

This "Simpsons" episode is called "Lady Bouvier's Lover", and it says everything about the show's lengthy production process that the program being readied in late October isn't scheduled to air until April or May.

At a table adorned with fruit, croissants and various beverages, the script run-through begins.

During the reading, there is genuine hearty laughter at various points.

"When you do these table readings for a lot of shows, there's just this stony silence because it's not funny," Cartwright said. "It's painful. But not here."

"This show is so brilliant it still surprises us," Smith added.

Immediately after the reading, the youthful and fairly bedraggled- looking crew of writers huddle to make script changes based on what got a chuckle and what didn't. The actors make phone calls or kill time reading, eating, or playing ping-pong -- or recording "wrap-around" dialogue for a future episode -- until the actual recording begins.

Each of the actors is free to ad-lib. And as Azaria said, "We've all being doing this long enough to know how far we can go with impromptu stuff and when someone's going to blow the whistle."

"Oddly enough, I can relate better to Lisa Simpson that to my character on 'Herman's Head' even though Lisa's a cartoon," said Smith. "Her emotions and her family situation are closer to reality."

"Marge is a very centered person, probably more than I am," added Kavner. "That's what is so interesting about this show. It deals with flawed people, and you rarely see flawed people anywhere else in comedy on TV."

Shearer concurred.

"Wonderfully flawed people are the basis of good comedy," he said. "There is this cult of likability that has swamped network thinking. You have sitcoms with all of these bland, likable characters who need to swap wisecracks in order to be funny."

To say that much from today's recording session won't make the final cut is to greatly understate things. Few outside the process can appreciate everything that goes into it.

The voices have little to complain about, however.

"I would say this is the best job in America," Kavner said. "You work two days a week. One of those [Thursdays] is just a one-hour run- through. The next day is all day, but who can complain?"

"We don't have to do any of the grunt work and get all of the glory," Castellaneta said. "Plus, we're free to do other things in acting. And we can stay anonymous. No one knows us except by voice."

Writing for "The Simpsons" isn't just a job, it's a life. The voice tracks are laid down at the beginning of the process. The pictures and animation are produced to match the words over a period of roughly six months.

Every script requires the equivalent of 10 rewrites, said Mirkin. At every step, there are amendments and additions and refinements.

"The scripts are also much more dense than any you find on TV," Mirkin said during a break. "They're packed with twice as many jokes as other sitcoms. I mean, it will take us hours just to come up with a freeze-frame joke designed for the one guy out there who wants to stop his VCR and look at it."

The recording session is actually just more of a glorified rehearsal designed to help the writers ascertain where the script quality stands, Mirkin said. The rewrites will continue for months.

Small wonder that there is such a tremendous burnout factor for "Simpsons" writers. For the fifth season, a whole new crew was brought in (along with Mirkin) to bring the show a fresh perspective.

Hiring new writers -- most of them in their 20s and graduates of Harvard University -- has produced some rough spots, Shearer said.

"Things got a little off-balance in terms of the characters early in the season," Shearer said, "but I think it's largely straightened out."

Among those who left after last season was Conan O'Brien, a "Simpsons" writer-producer who put together several memorable episodes last year (and a few that carried over into this season) before becoming NBC's late-night talk-show host.

"Conan is a very funny and talented man, and it was hard to lose him," "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening acknowledged.

As the recording session moves along, the versatility of the actors -- especially Castellaneta and Azaria -- becomes clear. Castellaneta bounces from being Homer to Grampa to Barney the drunk without taking a breath and minus any evident vocal similarities.

"As Homer, Dan is expert at making a stupid man very complex," Groening said.

All told, the voices present (also including Pamela Hayden and Doris Grau) will record a whopping 45 different voices -- many of them obscure one-timers -- for the script. Azaria voices 11 of the characters, Castellaneta does 10.

Shearer offers a view on why "The Simpsons" continues to thrive while such other prime-time animated series as "Fish police", "Capital Critters" and "Family Dog" quickly bit the dust.

"The networks have learned all the wrong lessons from 'The Simpsons'," Shearer said. "They think all they need to do is toss on a show about cartoon animals, and they'll have a hit. If you didn't know better, you would think network executives were stupid."

Transcribed by James A. Cherry

Search The Simpsons Archive:    Search Help

[ FAQs, Guides & Lists | Capsules | Upcoming | Miscellaneous | News | Contacts & Links | Home ]

Last updated on January 19, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (