Yellow FeverBy Robert W. Getz
© Collectors' Showcase, January-February 2000.
D'oh! Ten years after The Simpsons' irreverence, topicality and sheer volume of jokes raised the bar for every other sitcom on the air, America continues to have a cow over its favorite First Family.
Imagine a world without them.
Imagine for a moment going on a tour of a world that might have been. Your host is a ghostly figure who doesn't resemble Jacob Marley so much as an infamous 104-year-old animated industrialist. "Come now, you addlepated slugabed," he reprimands you. "I'm not paying you to sit there and chortle at Captain Billy's Whiz Bang!" Your index finger makes contact with one of his bony digits and you're off . . .
In the blink of an eye, you're whisked away to the living room of a typical American family circa 2010, observing them as they desperately search for some kind of entertainment on their high definition boob tube. ("Give me Uncle Miltie prancing about in assorted foundation garments," your host volunteers cheerily. "Now that was entertainment!") A few channel-surfed seconds of each program is sufficient for your purpose. It's obvious that something has gone terribly wrong. The one-note sitcoms are worse than you remember. The laugh tracks seem to have been cranked up several decibels higher.
And strangest of all: There's no prime-time animation.
It's hard to remember what television was like before we met The Simpsons ("Simpson, eh?," your host inquires, a Paleolithic light bulb going off somewhere). Their irreverence, topicality and sheer volume of jokes raised the bar for every other sitcom on the air. It was the show that broke all the rules before anyone could stop them. Because of this, The Simpsons have been a breath of fresh air since their very first appearance. Somewhere in Springfield, there's Homer, eternally baffled and befuddled; Marge, queen of the kitchen; Bart, preteen iconoclast; Lisa, doll-loving suffragette; and Maggie, whose silence speaks volumes.
Now in its 11th season, the show has become a television institution, an animated classic that rewards repeated viewings and whose catchphrases and characters have inserted themselves into our everyday lives. Homer's frustrated cry of "D'oh!" and his equally jubilant "Woo Hoo!" echo daily around the world from the schoolyard to the boardroom, expressing what ordinary words cannot. And, in a supreme stroke of irony akin to the Grinch carving the Roast Beast, Bart Simpson himself, the supreme underachiever of the 1990s, was chosen by Time as the Cartoon Character of the Century, a selection that prompted one outraged reader to have a cow and ask for an apology!
Without their example, it's hard to imagine Ren and Stimpy getting its shot at the big time, not to mention Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, South Park, The PJ's, or Family Guy. And the shows keep coming: Matt Groening appears to have duplicated his Simpsons success with Futurama, while ABC plans on premiering a cartoon sitcom based on the characters from Kevin Smith's movie Clerks later this year. In the course of pioneering the idea of animated shows that children and adults could equally enjoy, The Simpsons did wonders for their own longevity. Not only have they surpassed the record for longest-running animated program (held by The Flintstones), they are now the longest-running sitcom currently on the air, period.
January marked the show's 10th anniversary, and events and collectibles are being planned to mark the occasion. And not just any old collectibles: Simpsons characters who have never seen the light of a store shelf before should be appearing as you read this, as Fox aggressively renews the licenses for the show. In short, this year looks poised to match those early salad days of the 1990s, when one couldn't negotiate a toy store aisle without encountering a spiky-haired head. But how did we get here, dude?
Even casual Simpsons fans know by now that the family's roots can be traced back to the wickedly funny weekly strip that Groening began drawing in the 1970s, Life in Hell—a strip that Groening originally peddled from store-to-store in Xerox form before it found a permanent home at the L.A.Reader. He continues to draw it to this very day. It was James Brooks and Sam Simon who thought it might make a nice sorbet between the sketches on the fledgling Tracey Ullman Show. As legend has it, Groening, not wishing to give up the rights to his characters, quickly fashioned a last-minute replacement right before a meeting, basing this new bunch after the family he grew up in. They would be as dysfunctional and socially inept as his Hell characters, but their problems would be, in typical sitcom fashion, family problems. The Simpsons, then, would simultaneously be able to parody those shows that had come before them, while taking on issues that no one had before.
After years of following the antics of the idle rich on shows like Dallas and Dynasty, the television audience was grateful for the blue collar lunacy of Springfield. In 1990, they were granted their own show, and the image of Bart Simpson was suddenly inescapable. During this first flush of popularity, it decorated everything from dolls to clocks to towels to t-shirts, with kids proudly pledging allegiance to the "world's greatest underachiever." All of a sudden, putting a cartoon show on in prime time seemed like anything but a risk.
Unfortunately, many shows crashed and burned attempting to duplicate the success of The Simpsons, while the show that started all the fuss went gamely onward, introducing new characters, hatching ever more outrageous plots, and turning out the smartest comedy writing TV had seen in ages.
The collectibles most people remember from this first wave of merchandise are the many, many Bart dolls—both plastic and plush—that lined toy aisles, as well as the other family members transformed into rubber bendies and rag dolls. Dan Dee was the manufacturer of these most common of Simpsons collectibles (Jesco made the bendies), including the memorable Talking Bart Simpson which warned kids they were being duped! The so-called Burger King dolls—promotional rag dolls with plastic heads—also date from this heady time. It's literally impossible to attend any kind of garage sale without coming across one or more of these beauties, though, as common as they are, it's not always easy to find their cardboard accompaniments (Homer's bowling ball, Marge's purse, etc.).
It was Mattel that helped bring a little dignity to the proceedings by producing a line of Simpsons action figures that fans still hanker after today. It included all five Simpsons and threw in Bartman and Nelson Muntz for good measure. They had articulated body parts and came with accessories, including word balloons for each figure that would fit neatly into the tops of their heads. As if that weren't enough, the Sofa and Boob Tube set featured a couch (with ejector seat) and TV set (with interchangeable pictures). They were well-made and accurately reflected the show. Fans loved them. Mattel upped the ante with three large activity dolls of the Simpson kids, each supplied with matching toys for the doll and the kid who played with it.
Comic artist Bill Morrison (Roswell, Little Green Man and Simpsons Comics) was hired at the peak of the craze to help provide packaging art. He's since gone on to work on many other Simpsons-related projects and is currently the art director for Futurama. According to Morrison, the show's immense popularity began to work against it. The sheer abundance of Simpsons toys that was starting to sit on shelves led some to think that the show, and its merchandise, had seen its day.
"People became tired of it," he says, "and, as a result, companies were reluctant to make any more. There were a lot of things that we were still interested in doing, though."
Another line of Mattel toys that was being considered, and which would have included spring-loaded Family Car and Nuclear Van break-apart vehicles, never got past the prototype stage. An Otto doll was similarly designed and abandoned. "I remember a motorized barbeque grill that was going to be made for Homer," says Morrison, who also recalls a talking Grampa Simpson doll that never saw the light of day. "There was going to be a Ninja Bart and a Baseball Bart with a cap and bat."
Clearly, though, the blush was off the rose. Soon, the same stores that had been loaded with Bart buttons and banners were consigning them to their clearance aisle or not carrying them at all.
Gradually, however, new and improved Simpsons memorabilia began to appear. An official publication called Simpsons Illustrated provided interviews, behind-the-scene glimpses of the show and the first-ever use of The Simpsons in comic strip format. It would eventually lead to an all-comics test issue of Simpsons Comics and Stories that would in turn launch the Bongo Comics Group, an imprint that published Simpsons-related comic books. Nintendo began to issue Simpsons video games featuring the family. Two new sets of trading cards from Skybox, each with a plethora of desirable chase cards, were met with acclaim.
The Internet, of course, was also helping to change things. Fans now had access to online auctions that allowed them to bid on collectibles from around the world. To their astonishment, many found that quality Simpsons collectibles were still being produced regularly in the U.K., Australia and elsewhere. Not to mention the new generation of fans who hadn't seen the original memorabilia during its first go-round and who now felt the need to catch up. One Web site that came to their rescue was Bill LaRue's Collecting Simpsons!, an online guide to everything Simpson that featured regular updates on the latest paraphernalia. Sparked by his rediscovery of the Burger King dolls, LaRue was bit hard by the bug.
"It wasn't so old that it was hard to find things, but there were still enough rarities to provide the thrill of the hunt," says LaRue.
His Web site (www.members.aol.com/bartfan) took his hobby to the next logical step by attempting to catalog everything he'd managed to find. Even LaRue admits, though, "you can't have everything."
There was a general sense among fans during the late 1990s that, even though there wasn't as much stuff being produced, what was out there now was generally better done and practically begged to be collected. With the release of an official guide to every episode of the show that left little unrevealed (including helpful lists of every time Homer has uttered his immortal D'oh!), a CD soundtrack of the show's original songs, and the long-awaited release of episodes on videotape, a corner was turned and the show's profile seemed to return to the high gloss it had known in the early '90s.
If LaRue's site helped bring some long overdue respectability to the hobby, The Unauthorized Guide To The Simpsons Collectibles (by this author and published by Schiffer Books in 1998) helped to consolidate it. Now there was a price guide that collectors could hold in their hands as proof that they weren't alone. Hundreds of color photos of collectibles helped chart the sheer variety of items that had been produced around the world. LaRue's own guidebook, Collecting Simpsons!, was released last December, while a sequel to the Schiffer book is due this October. eBay and other online auction sites continue to sponsor heavy trafficking in Simpsonabilia, though, as LaRue says, "it's hard to tell whether it reflects more Simpson collectors or just more people on the Net."
As all of this interest builds, the Simpsons phenomenon shows no signs of slacking. A syndicated Sunday Simpsons strip debuted last September across the country, bringing the show's sensibility to the funny papers. Their official web site has been revamped. Desk and wall calendars have returned to stores. The year 2000 has been earmarked to celebrate the show's 10th anniversary and, as we commence the next 1,000 years of Simpsonmania, there'll be no let-up of events, including the show's receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame early this year, trivia contests and TV specials, and the first ever official Simpsons Fanfest, scheduled to take place in Las Vegas this fall.
On top of that, it looks like the United States will finally rejoin the rest of the free world in the production of Simpsons toys.
As you read this, the first new batch of characters from the World of Springfield should be arriving. This first wave of figures will contain faces we've never seen make the jump to collectible before, including Barney Gumble and Mr. Burns. The infrared technology that allowed last summer's The Phantom Menace figures to speak will do the same for Springfield's denizens when used with special playsets (including a Kwik-E-Mart!), while larger dolls of the family will actually be able to argue with each other, Furby-style. Sequels to the official show guide and soundtrack arrived in time for Christmas last year and Simpsons Pez dispensers are finally scheduled to arrive soon.
"There's a whole generation of kids who have never known a world without the Simpsons," says Morrison. "I think people are starting to realize that, like Mickey Mouse, The Simpsons is here to stay." It's hard to doubt him, as the show continues to go in new and unexpected directions while remaining true to its original and anarchic spirit.
"Spirit?," your host asks inquiringly. "Why, I haven't been able to countenance anything in the way of potables since Aubrey Beardsley tricked me into drinking that glass of absinthe! I later dreamt I was being chased by great dumb beasts with scarcely a hair upon their heads, wielding strange, almost donut-like, devices of destruction. What do you suppose it meant?"
You shrug and suggest that it might be a good time to go home. "Poppycock!," your companion replies. "The night's positively fetal! They tell me I'm quite the terror at Old Maid when my blood count's been regulated, what do you say?"
Robert W. Getz, author of The Unauthorized Guide To The Simpsons Collectibles, is now so old and infirm, and his eyesight so bad, that he inadvertently started a Pokémon collection recently while under the mistaken impression that he'd been purchasing bad Bart Simpson bootlegs.
Last updated on October 10, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)