Simpsons still going strong as they embark on 11th year

By Mark Mcuire

© PioneerPlanet/St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press, September 25, 1999.

They debuted in 1988 in vignettes on ``The Tracey Ullman Show,'' quick, quirky cartoon fillers between comedy sketches. In December 1989, this wildly dysfunctional family sparked a merchandising frenzy, while reintroducing animation to prime time in a trend that continues today.

A decade later, ``The Simpsons'' is the longest-running situation comedy on television. The television landscape has changed radically in this time (when ``The Simpsons'' debuted, Fox was on the air only three nights a week, and the idea of the network having NFL football was an unthinkable pipe dream), the sitcom has remained a constant.

Homer is still a dunderhead. Marge still has that blue beehive that would scrape the top of train underpasses. Maggie is still sucking on a pacifier. Bart is forever stuck in the fourth grade.

And ``The Simpsons'' is still fresh and smartly written, and foreseeably in three years will challenge the record of ``The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet'' as the longest-running sitcom ever, 14 years. Creator Matt Groening said the comedy's durability can be traced not only to the characters being well-drawn, but the fact they are drawn in the first place.

``It would be tough to pull off that kind of longevity in live-action,'' Groening said. ``In animation, at least the characters don't grow old. Animation lends itself to novelty and surprise.''

Which is the brilliance of ``The Simpsons,'' whose 11th season premieres Sunday.

While the characters have been locked into their age and place, the exemplary staff of writers (which once included late-night host Conan O'Brien) has artfully taken the show in peculiarly different directions that just wouldn't work in live-action.

``It is a huge advantage. There are just so many areas that we can delve into,'' said writer George Meyer, who has been with the show for nine years. ``Cost is never a factor. If we want them to go to the Great Wall of China for a quick joke, we can do it and it won't cost $100,000.

``The fact that the network doesn't give us notes is enormously liberating,'' Meyer continued. ``We don't have to appease them. We get to get some really bizarre stories past the American network.''

Like in Sunday's episode, when Homer becomes a consultant to Mel Gibson (who continues the legacy of the show's high-profile guest appearances) on his latest film. In the Oct. 3 installment, Bart is put on a new behavioral drug with some pretty wild side effects. (Let's just say that Fleetwood Mac was made for singing while driving a tank, and leave it at that.)

At the onset of the series, the unequivocal star of the show was Bart (voice of Nancy Cartwright), whose catch phrases ``Don't have a cow, man'' and ``Ay, caramba!'' and ``Underachiever and proud of it'' became T-shirt staples that ended up banned from many schools.

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Last updated on October 2, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (