Ay Carumba! It's David Silverman!

"The Simpsons" animator paints a behind-the-scenes picture of America's favorite non-prehistoric Cartoon family

By Christine Bielinski

© Art and Performance Magazine, March 1998.

It's obvious to anyone who watches TV why the visit of David Silverman to Northwestern University was so exciting. Silverman, after all, has had a hand in producing a classic cartoon featuring one of TV's most memorable characters known for a famous catchphrase. That's right, David Silverman worked on "The Adventures of Mr. T." "I pity the fool that watched that show," Silverman quips.

Silverman, better known as the supervising animation director for "The Simpsons," spoke February 28 at Tech, ahem, Ryan Family Auditorium about the past, present, and future of the classic cartoon. The animator drew a crowd of about more than 500 people, many of whom came armed with questions to be answered and books to be signed.

After studying animation at UCLA, Silverman, who turns 41 on March 15, jumped into the work force in 1983, a time he says was a dry spell for animation, hence his gig with Mr. T(1). But in 1987, Fox's "The Tracey Ullman Show" wanted to use an animated version of Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" as a bump between sketches. Groening, hesitant to share his copyright for "Hell," instead created "The Simpsons."

As he showed videotapes of the early Simpsons shorts, Silverman discussed the evolution of the characters from rough sketches to more refined cartoons. After the presentation, a+p talked with Silverman about the deceptively simple design of the Simpsons characters.

"On the surface, they have very few lines," Silverman said, "but their expressions require an underneath construction. When they turn in space, we have to find ways to convey their shape in 3-D. It does get complex."

As supervising animation director, Silverman, who is also currently working for Dreamworks SKG, consults with other directors on the show in deciding how to frame shots and draw the characters. Each episode takes at least six months to produce and is drawn by both American and Korean animators. Silverman's favorite characters to draw include Homer and Krusty because of "their shape and Dan Castellaneta's vocals for them."

After drawing these characters thousands upon thousands of times, do the Simpsons start to become real people? "They do and they don't," Silverman said. "Because I'm always drawing them, I'm like the magician who knows how the trick is done. But sometimes the script will have something and we'll say, 'Homer wouldn't do that.' We try to create an entity and do our best to service that entity."

Those entities have sure done well by viewers, who still make "The Simpsons" a top-20 show as the series finishes its ninth season and approaches its 200th episode. Fans who came out to Silverman's speech at NU enjoyed the behind-the-scenes tidbits he had to offer.

How did Lisa's character develop? Silverman had casually suggested she play the tuba, the same instrument he played as a kid. Groening* responded with a stream of consciousness and said, "Yeah, maybe she could [play] the baritone saxophone, and she could be a genius who goes unappreciated by her family." And a pointy-headed legend was born. [* NOTE: misquote]

What was it like working with Conan O'Brien, a writer on the show from 1992 to 1995? "Conan was the best at selling his material," Silverman said, "because he's a good actor. He's extremely funny and witty." When the NBC "Late Night" audition came along, "we just had a feeling he would get it," Silverman said.

When asked about the "Who shot Mr. Burns?" episode, Silverman said he was the only person who knew the culprit over the summer before the conclusion aired.(2) Silverman also admitted that Fox never followed through on the promotional contest that offered to have the lucky winner who correctly named Maggie as the trigger-baby drawn into an episode.

Silverman's thoughts on "South Park"? "The Simpsons' paved the way for 'South Park,'" he said. "'South Park' is kind of like a Peanuts' special gone bad." (3)

By pushing the TV comedy envelope, "The Simpsons" has opened the door for many animated shows that have gained popularity in recent years, Silverman said. After his speech, Silverman told a+p that "The Simpsons" was lucky to have the creative freedom offered by the Fox network. "The show could not air anywhere besides Fox," Silverman said. "Back in '89, the networks-ABC, NBC, or CBS- never would have touched it. The show never would have turned out this way."

Fox, of course, was also fortunate to have "The Simpsons" as one of its few early hits when the network was still a fourth-place upstart. "It was divine intervention," Silverman says in a booming, God-like voice.

Somewhere, Ned Flanders- and millions of fans- offer up a prayer of thanks.

Don't ask Christine Bielinski- she's just a girl!

Submitted by Rene Carlos

NOTE: David Silverman was misquoted in paragraph 9. It was, in fact Jim Brooks who "responded with a stream of consciousness and said, 'Yeah, maybe she could [play] the baritone saxophone -- and she could play it very well. That could be her character, she could be a genius kid who goes unappreciated by her family.'"(JP 01/09/03)

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