Lance Wilder

By Christian Hamaker

"Faith in the Foreground: Lance Wilder"
©, January 15-17, 2002. recently talked with Lance Wilder, the background design supervisor for FOX-TV’s The Simpsons, about his faith and the impact of his Christian presence behind the scenes of one of TV’s most successful shows. Part 1 of the interview, concentrating on Lance’s background and current position on The Simpsons, follows. Part 2, to be posted later in January, offers Wilder’s take on the controversy surrounding The Simpsons in the Christian community, and the artistic ups and downs the show has gone through during its several years on the air. Tell us about your background. How did your Christian faith play a role in landing a job on The Simpsons?

Lance: I was born and raised in Massachusetts, and we had a fantastic art program back in high school. I graduated in 1986, and I got into the Rhode Island School of Design. I graduated from there with an Illustration degree in 1990.

I took some classes in animation as well. I’d always been into the Disney cartoons. The Warner Brothers Looney Tunes shorts were my biggest influences, as far as cartoons went. As far as live action TV comedies, I was always into Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show and Hogan’s Heroes and things like that.

When I got a little bit older, I was really into All in the Family and M.A.S.H., which really weren’t kid shows, but I really loved the characters and the play between really funny stuff and some serious moments. It was that combination that really attracted me initially to The Simpsons when I first saw it.

I saw [The Simpsons] a little bit on The Tracey Ullman Show when I was at college. But I had a roommate that told me that [The Simpsons] was becoming a series.

A bunch of our friends came and watched the original Christmas show back in December of ’89. We recorded it, and it floored us -- there was just so much heart and soul. It was really funny, and there just seemed to be a lot of depth to these crudely drawn characters. I guess the show premiered in January of ’90. By the third or fourth episode, I was just convinced that the people behind the show really, really got it, they really knew what they were doing.

The animation was fairly simplistic. It had a perfect style that mirrored the writing, and I just loved it. I thought the show was going to be a hit, and I heard on Entertainment Tonight that it was picked up for a second season. I was a senior at college at the time and trying to figure out what I wanted to do. So I basically stopped my senior project at the time, which was working on writing and illustrating children’s books, and switched over to try to get a job on The Simpsons.

They approved my presentation, and said, “So you want to get a job on the show. Why don’t you go for it?” Over the next couple months, I took some animation tests. I failed the first tests because I didn’t have any experience. I didn’t know what they were looking for, it was kind of confusing. They said, “Well, we have some openings in background layout/background design. Do you want to give that a try?” I love designing backgrounds and buildings, so I said, “Sure. Just let me know exactly what I did wrong and what you’re looking for, and I’ll have it to you in 48 hours.”

They wanted me to design the inside of the Springfield mall and the inside of Homer’s break room at the power plant. So I did those two, and I added one more extra, which was this kind of upshot three-point perspective inside the power plant, with staircases and pipes and all this stuff. That was kind of the clencher. They loved the first two, but they said they were pretty impressed that I added an extra one [that was] way more complicated and involved. They called me up and gave me the job a couple weeks before I graduated.

Two days after graduation I moved out here, and got a place to stay and started doing the first Halloween show. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven was the first thing I did back in June of 1990.

As far as my influences growing up, my mom has been a Christian since I was two to three years old. My dad has always been a churchgoing agnostic, kind of a really good, honest person, conservative. He’s also involved in the Air Force. He’s really intelligent when it comes to math and business and my mom is a music teacher, so I had that whole kind of music and artistic upbringing.

I always went to church and Sunday school growing up. I went away to college. I always believed that there was a God and everything, but my senior year a friend invited me to a local church. That kind of brought me back to going to church and thinking about things. I was doing a lot of praying about where I’d get a job, where to go, what to do -- and this whole thing just opened up the last two or three months of my senior year. I’m still here.

When I went away to college, for the first three-and-a-half years I wasn’t really involved until a good friend of mine invited me to a local church there my senior year of college and kind of got me back into the weekly thing and reading my Bible again and just praying again, having that daily relationship with Christ. I got this great job and moved out here [to Los Angeles], and I didn’t know a single Christian person or a Christian church.

I heard all these weird stories about L.A. and California and I didn’t know what kind of churches or people were out here, so I just had this dream job making good money and doing what I always dreamed of. But I had no church, so I just kind of hung out and worked a lot and never got into anything bad. Nobody was a Christian that I knew of [for] about the two years I was out here.

And then one night the power went out and when it came back on I had to reprogram stereo, and I came across the KKLA Christian radio station. I was listening to the program that was on. I didn’t know there was a Christian radio station here. So I just started listening to that more and listening to it at work because I have that freedom to listen to whatever I want while I’m drawing. And I just started kind of coming back to it and questioning things and growing again.

It was about that time that my future wife [Maria] moved out here. I was friends with her at art school. She also got a job on The Simpsons, and we started hanging out together. She was brought up Catholic; I was brought up in a little Baptist church in Massachusetts, and I’d never like really witnessed to anybody. I was just nervous she wouldn’t like me.

She was really opening up and finding out stuff and she and I started listening to tapes from the Christian radio station and reading and our Bible and going to church together. She became a Christian, and we really helped each other out. We got engaged after a couple years. We’ve been married for six years and have three kids.

In Hollywood. the industry is just very time- and energy-consuming on a creative level, and so I seem to spend a lot of time here with my responsibilities on the show. It’s a good 50-plus hours a week, which does use up a lot of my energy [and] which keeps me from spending as much time with my wife and kids and [from] reading and doing personal projects I’d like to do. So that’s my personal struggle. I mean, it’s kind of a mixed blessing for me. There’s a hundred things I’m thankful for, and yet I do personally struggle with a lot of the workload and responsibilities in pulling off a show like this. It’s a pretty tight schedule. How old are your kids?

Lance: Nathan is five, Jessica’s almost three, and Jacob is 10 months.

Maria designed The Simpsons with me for five or six seasons. She’s a full-time mom now. What exactly is your role on the show?

Lance: I’m the background design supervisor. We have a design department that is in charge of designing every single show that is seen on Sunday nights. We get the scripts. I’m in charge of background design, and Joe, who I work with, is in charge of the characters and props.

I read through it [the script] and write down the descriptions of everything we’re going to need for that episode. Now a lot of things like the house, and the church and the Kwik-E-Mart I’ve done in the past, so I will pull from those whenever I can. But, there’s about 40 new designs per episode. It can be anything from new stores at the mall, to shots of outer space with a satellite to an amusement park, or even a show like where we went to Tokyo, Japan, or the Africa show that I did last year.

I have a team of four background designers that I work with and kind of oversee, and we create the locations for every place the Simpsons go and draw it in the style of the show that Matt Groening helped to come up with about 12 years ago.

I have a lot of pictures from my hometown in Massachusetts that I use as an influence. But Springfield is supposed to be kind of Anywhere, USA, so there are influences around the East Coast and New England, and there’s some of a Midwest feel. There’s also a bit of California and Oregon kind of stuck in there as well. That’s why Springfield kind of has an oceanfront and lakes but yet the desert’s within reasonable driving distance, and we still have mountains and forests. And of course the one episode they had an unscaled mountain, right?

Lance: Oh, yeah. The Murderhorn, I think it was.

I’ve been with the show so long that I know the shows really well, better than most of the writers. They acknowledge that when we have these design meetings with the producers. I try to remember all the past shows and places we’ve been to before and little things that we’ve seen in past shows.

For instance, when I designed Millhouse’s bedroom a few years ago, I included the Krusty walkie-talkie that he had given Bart in a past show. So Bart always has a walkie-talkie in his room now, and Millhouse has that walkie-talkie. I make sure that it’s in there from that show we did, like, eight years ago. Or in Millhouse’s bedroom, I put a Spinal Tap poster on the wall. Spinal Tap did our show third season. There’s like little things like that that I’ll try to incorporate. The fossilized angel?

Lance: Yeah, exactly. The fossilized angel Homer hid in his closet. Once in a while he’ll go to that utility closet in the foyer. I try to fill it up with things we’ve seen before, like some of his trophies that he won or Homer’s bowling ball or his fishing hat, which is actually based on Colonel Blake’s fishing hat from M.A.S.H. that has these fishing lures.

I know what I can get away with that fits the continuity of the show, and I know what the artists here should not be putting in. You know, we’ve had people put in their own little things like a dog whizzing on a fire hydrant in a painting, and I’m like, “You know, we’re not going to do that.”

I make sure on little things like that. Backgrounds need to complement the characters and the world the Simpsons live in without being too distracting.

I try to put in a lot of things that seem natural. Matt Groening refers to it as “observational detail,” where there’s just enough little things that make it look lived in, like cars in the streets, or a little bit of trash in the streets, or a bottle on the sidewalk outside of Moe’s Tavern or, you know, the Simpson’s house might have, you know, just like little details or things in the kitchen or hanging on the refrigerator.

There’s this little sign on the bulletin board in the kitchen that says “God Bless This Mess.” I was allowed to design into the kitchen. I think it was the third or fourth season they had me update the house, and I was allowed to put “God Bless This Mess.”

I thought that it fit. It was kind of my personal, sort of religious, touch. I think it fits without being too over the top. So that’s been seen in many shows. I designed The Summer of Four Foot Two, where the Simpsons go stay at the Flanders’ beach house, which was a show I really liked. The curtains in their house with all the little fish symbols or the fish magnet that’s on the Flanders’ refrigerator -- those were things that I brought up that everybody thought was appropriate.

Or designing Reverend Lovejoy’s office or the foyer of the church. I’ve been able to put “This Week’s Bible Verses.” I’ll pick certain Bible verses to put in there.

They know that I know what I’m doing, and I’m not trying to get away with anything. But I’m pretty conscious of where and when I can put something in that’s appropriate. Did The Simpsons debut the same year as Married with Children?

Lance: Pretty much, and I was actually a big Married with Children fan for different reasons. I thought it really was a spoof on family. A lot of people thought it was anti-family. I just thought it was funny. My friends and I liked it a lot.

But funny you mention that, because when I moved out here I became friends with one of the producers on Married with Children. I used to go over there a bunch and got to be on the set for a few shows. I'll still see an old show where I can hear me laughing in the audience. My kids don't quite get that.

Fox was a cutting-edge network looking for that type of humor, and I think The Simpsons went way beyond what Married with Children did as far as satire. I think we have the luxury of being an animated show to do whatever we want, and the ultimate luxury is that the characters don't have to age. So the show just keeps going and going and stays fresh.

A regular sitcom creates all these great scenarios and new story ideas by putting different characters together. But The Simpsons had a little bit of that cutting edge, with Bart, and Homer choking Bart. I don’t think anybody ever really takes that literally. We even had a joke on our Behind the Laughter episode two years ago -- a Behind the Music spoof on The Simpsons -- where Homer's explaining that choking gag. That little bit of child abuse became one of our most endearing gags for 10 years. But I don't think anybody sits there and says, "That's terrible, he's really choking his son. He could hurt him. What if fathers start choking their kids for real? I think part of the fun of The Simpsons is that you can get away with doing stuff that you know people really wouldn't do in real life.

But here's a show that has Homer actually do it but never hurt Bart, and then apologize and say things like, "Marge, you're right," or, "I'm sorry boy."

Homer and Marge and the kids end up loving each other, and Homer sticks up for the family in all these crazy situations. There's great stability there, and I think that's part of the big appeal of the show.

Ultimately, even with all the craziness of Married with Children, Al Bundy was always faithful to Peg, and I think that when they were developing The Simpsons there were a lot of similarities even with some of the early story ideas that helped kind of mold the Fox network. I think that Married with Children pushed the envelope more than The Simpsons did, particularly since it was live action.

Lance: Yeah, it did, definitely, because it was live action. There was a cartoon quality about that show that I liked. I didn't take it literally; it was just spoofing and jabbing at each other and kind of pushing the extreme situation. The two guys that created Married with Children, their whole purpose was a sort of anti-Cosby Show. That was sticky sweet, and it was a good show, but it ended up being a little bit boring and sterile and not totally reflective of what went on in the average household. I think that they helped pave the way for a show like The Simpsons. How many years has The Simpsons been on the air?

Lance: The show premiered December of '89 -- the Christmas special -- and the series actually premiered January 14, 1990. I started at the beginning of the second season. We're now in our 13th season. We'll probably be finished in January for all the shows that you'll see through May. How have you seen The Simpsons ebb and flow artistically?

Lance: Yeah. I think everybody here would be honest and say that they have their favorite episodes, their favorites seasons. I honestly think that this show has been a dream come true. We've had a handful of writers and producers that have remained pretty constant or somewhat involved on a consultant level through the years, but despite the fact that we’ve had a lot of different writers and different show-runners and producers over the last 12 or 13 seasons, the inside joke from the writers is they never want to be the group that brought The Simpsons down.

So their level of writing tries to remain extremely fresh. They have all these back shows and wonderful characters to build on, so although it's more difficult and more pressure to come up with funny shows and new ideas, at the same time they've been handed this amazing world to be creative with.

For better or for worse it's a pretty well-oiled machine, and there's a process that we have down in doing the show from beginning to end. We're working on six or eight shows at different stages at a time. It's a lot to keep track of and juggle.

The first three or four seasons were so exciting and fresh, and it was so new to me. I think that the fifth and sixth season we had some really great shows, but the show was kind of treated a little bit differently. We had a different producer who's incredibly talented and really funny. He used to do that Chris Elliott show Get a Life, and he did Romy and Michele's High School Reunion.

He just had a different sense of humor that I loved that was different than the type of humor I think we were doing in the first four seasons. It kind of brought a different kind of show for two seasons. We had a lot of gags. A storyline would go down this side avenue and have a bunch of jokes and then jump back to the main storyline, whereas the first four years it was more of a storyline from beginning to end, or two storylines. The shows were a little more wild and crazy, with bizarre endings.

He left, and two writers took over and took some of that [the previous producer's style] but also some of the character things that we dealt with the first four years, so there was more of a mixture the seventh and eighth seasons.

One of their writers was the show-runner for the last four years, and he kind of mixed and matched, so we had three or four different kinds of shows going on, which was also good. You weren't getting the same type of show week in and week out. You never quite knew if this was going to be a tender Marge and Homer show or a Lisa/Homer show, or if it was going to be a wild and crazy show like Whacking Day, where they go after the snakes and kill the snakes, which I also loved. It was a little more crazy and a little bit more unrealistic, but I think that's kind of freedom we have. How has the Christian community in L.A. supported your work over the years?

Lance: It's funny. Once in a while I'll get people, within church and outside of church, say to me, "How can you work on a show like The Simpsons? That's really terrible. How can you justify that?"

That's been rare, but I pretty much answer that question by saying I agree with about 90%-95% of The Simpsons. I think it's funny, it's satire. It's not a Christian show. It's a comedy that comes from about 15 different writers from different perspectives who are very talented, and the reality is that it's just trying to be entertaining, it's trying to be funny.

It makes satirical comments and points about religion, politics, school, family, parenting and marriage. Then people say, "But what about when Homer falls asleep in church?" And I say, "Well, that's funny. Can't most people relate to boring church services and stuff growing up?"

Once in a while there will be a line or something said that I won't agree with, but so what? Sometimes I have a little bit of a say, and sometimes I don't. Ultimately, what I've found is that it's not all about The Simpsons as a show. It's more about what goes on behind the scenes for me and working with a great group of writers and talented artists.

We have about 18 or 20 Christian artists on the show now in different positions, which is really fantastic. When I started being more open about my faith, we had a lot of really heated debates, and I wasn't really used to that. I really had to learn how to sort of walk that tightrope of witnessing, just by having a good work ethic and being honest and just trying to have an answer when questions and situations come up.

I find that about 98% of the time I'm not the one that brings up any of these religious questions or ethical or moral questions in politics or in life. People will ask me or bring them up or get my take on it. I refuse to get into big heated debates I just kind of give a Biblical answer and say you know, "This is what the Bible says, and this is what I feel."

I'm more conscious of trying to be someone that can just kind of plant and water and set a good example, and it's great because over the years we've had more and more Christian people, from directors to assistant directors, on the show. We have storyboard artists and people in the color department, the design department, the layout team and animators. We have Christians on the show as artists who are just amazing. The truth is that I work with some atheists and Buddhists and Muslims and non-religious Jewish people, agnostics and stuff who are also incredibly talented, and I'm friends with these people and I really enjoy working with them and I wouldn't have it any other way.

I've come to realize that these people don't know they don't know Christ, they don't have a background or they've been burned by the church or had a bad upbringing, or a family member has burned them. I've really just tried to listen to people and understand. I say, "Hey you know I understand why you're ticked off at the church. No wonder you feel that way," and they're kind of taken aback.

I'm not standing up there saying, "Do this, don't do that." That's not really what the Bible's about. The Bible's about a personal relationship with Christ, and God's given us the Bible as a guideline for our benefit on the best way to live our lives. But we all choose whether we want to or not, and people kind of look like deer caught in the headlights when I say that.

I'm not going to try to sound high and mighty, because the truth is that I do struggle. I do get stressed out sometimes, and I have arguments and fights with my wife, but we love each other, we forgive each other, we are there for each other despite the hard times and the really tight pressure trying to finish a show. I'm here till 10 p.m., or I don't see my kids for a couple days.

I'm glad that I have a Christ-centered marriage. I joke with her. I said, "You know, I'm glad that we serve a patient God who's not done with us yet." It is a growing process, and I'm glad because everybody struggles with different things. I just really hope that He continues to use me, not only here on the show but with the different people that have been put here in my life and in my work right now. That will probably change sooner or later, and I hope that He can use me and whatever skills He's given me to do the best quality stuff that I can and have an influence on people.

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Last updated on September 23, 2002 by Jouni Paakkinen (