The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
I don’t think that I would be using hyperbole if I were to say that if it weren’t for The Simpsons, I wouldn’t even be reading this website. I owe my love of comedy, my desire to write comedy (and about it), and my entire sense of humor to the fact that I grew up with that show. It’s the same reason that when the first few seasons of The Simpsons arrived on DVD I would turn on the commentary tracks and ingest every detail I could about what the creators had to say about it. I’m going to imagine that a number of you out there are shaking your heads in agreement out there.
Well, if the paragraph above sounded familiar to you, then today I am going to share a nice little treat with you: a panel discussion featuring creator Matt Groening and frequent director David Silverman answering questions for an excited crowd in NYC. For a Simpsons nut that’s good enough, but even better, this panel took place on October 2, 1992. That puts this panel right at the beginning of Season 4, (literally the day after the episode “A Streetcar Named Marge” aired) which some fans consider to be the best in the show’s history. As such, this conversation serves as a time capsule of what it was like to work on The Simpsons when it was at its peak.
After a series of clips from the show, which featured a disproportionate amount of material from the short pieces featured in The Tracey Ulman Show, Groening and Silverman step on stage and talk a little bit about that particular period in the show’s history. We learn that one of the reasons for the strange look of the characters during that time was the fact that the drawings would be done based on the previous drawing that had been done, rather than a standardized model sheet. Silverman states that he and fellow director Wes Archer just made it up week to week, and were the only two animators working on the show, so as a result, everything evolved as it went on. These original segments were just fifteen seconds long (although Groening was promised two minutes originally, before the producers learned how expensive animation actually was), and due to their length, they relied much more on simple sight gags, rather then dialogue. Going even further back, Groening reveals that when he was originally brought in to pitch his segment, he had planned on using the characters form his recently retired alternative comic strip, “Life in Hell.” However, once he learned that Fox would insist on owning the characters (Groening claims he found this out fifteen minutes before going in to pitch and that this policy was due to the fact that Fox had missed out on that sweet, sweet Star Wars merchandising money), he hastily created a dysfunctional cartoon family that he named after his own parents and siblings.
A big theme that comes up in the audience’s questions throughout the evening is that of controversy. It seems so long time ago now, but there was a time when Bart Simpson’s antics were considered indecent and inflammatory. A t-shirt asking, “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” was banned from several public schools just a few years ago, and parent groups, churches, even the President were talking about how the show was eroding American values and destroying children. So it makes sense that everyone wants to know if Fox gives the writers a lot of trouble. Initially, the network did raise some issues, saying that, “Mickey Mouse never used the word ‘hell,’” but Groening is quick to point out that theirs is not a kid’s show. Occasionally, though, a word will need to be changed. Silverman, as an example, remembers a time when the network said that Bart couldn’t say, “We got screwed,” so it became “hosed” instead.
But ultimately the show is what it is because of the core belief that seems to have come along with its inception. Groening explains that when he and co-creators Sam Simon and James L. Brooks were talking about how to expand the shorts into a regular series, they decided that they wanted to redefine what a family sitcom could be. Traditionally the family show will work hard to not offend the most sensitive person watching, and it won’t tell jokes that “Junior won’t get.” The Simpsons, as they envisioned it, wouldn’t subscribe to that rule. Additionally, in the midst of all that cartoon craziness, the show would look to create real moments of emotion that would hopefully cause the viewers to forget they were watching a cartoon for a moment.
In the early 1990s, following the massive success of The Simpsons, the other networks tried to cash in and create their own prime-time animated shows to compete, like Family Dog, Fish Police and Capitol Critters. Groening, Silverman, and even the audience give a few theories as to what makes The Simpsons successful while so many other shows during this time would fail. For Groening it’s simple: the show is funny. The writers work hard on it and a lot of work goes into making sure that by the time it goes on the air, it’s as dense as it can be, in terms of gags. After the table read it’s rewritten that night, before the re-reading the next day, prior to the voice actors’ recording. And often times, as they’re recording, changes will be delivered, with various edits and lines being added and subtracted at each stage of the animation process as well, with changes coming just days before the show airs, as well. In terms of what makes the show different from the imitators, Silverman believes it’s just because there is care in the work. He believes that their show “has a point of view” to their work. Meanwhile, Capitol Critters and Fish Police, both animated at Hanna-Barbera, look identical, and feature characters that could exist on either show. There’s a singularity to The Simpsons that sets it apart from anything else on television. In their questions, the audience suggests that it’s due to the timing and pacing of the episodes, the number of jokes on the show, the allusions to famous movies, the voice acting, and even the jazz references that the show makes.
Amidst a lot of information that is pretty well known now (Are the kids going to age? What state is Springfield in? Will Harvey Fierstein be on the show again?), there is a sprinkling of random tidbits that is pretty interesting for Simpsons fans. For example, in 1992 Matt Groening’s favorite episode of the show was “Life in the Fast Lane,” in which Marge starts to fall for a bowling instructor named Jacques, voiced by Albert Brooks, citing that as the moment that he realized they were doing something “really different.” We learn that Groening believes that in the 1988 election, Marge would have voted for George Bush, but probably wouldn’t again in 1992 after he said all that stuff about her family. An audience member asks in there were plans to do a movie, and Groening says that “yeah, we’ll do a movie sometime,” not knowing that “sometime” means 15 years later, though it is interesting to see that it was already an idea that was being considered. And finally, Groening reveals that he does give some input on The Simpsons video games that are produced and will even test them before declaring them “too hard for him.” In my opinion, he’s right, because I remember “Bart vs. The World” for the NES being intensely frustrating.
While in many ways it feels like a much different show, twenty years after this interview The Simpsons continues. Some might argue that it has lost that idea that Groening describes at being at the core, of creating real emotional moments for the audience, but it still serves it’s secondary purpose of being a densely written joke machine, that in this time has inspired hundreds of shows since. In 1992 Groening and Silverman probably wouldn’t have believed you that in 2012 their show would still be running, but here we are. The fact that we are still watching and discussing these characters is a testament to the humanity that is deep at the center of these weird, yellow humans. Whether you’re the biggest Simpsons geek there is, or you prefer American Dad, there’s no denying that this cartoon family changed the face of comedy forever.