The Guys Who Go With the 'D'oh!'
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
LOS ANGELES -- On the campaign trail in 1992, George H.W. Bush promised voters that if he were reelected president, "we're going to strengthen the American family to make it more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons."
The Simpsons won. Good night, John Boy.
"When Bush said he wanted us to be the Waltons, we thought, what? He wants us to be poor and sleep in the same bed?" This is Al Jean, one of the founding writers for "The Simpsons," which has been a pop culture trademark for 18 years and 400 episodes on the Fox network.
"We also wondered, why the Waltons? Weren't they, you know, set in the Depression?" This is David Silverman, one of the original animators for the show and now director of "The Simpsons Movie," opening nationwide on Friday.
Though younger fans may not recall the distant past of the 1990s, there was a time when the antics of Bart ("Eat my shorts") were considered controversial -- the 10-year-old as social outlaw. Today's parents might beg for children as relatively restrained as Bart.
"We've gone from counterculture to mainstream culture in this 20 years," says James L. Brooks, who developed the show, which is successful beyond his wildest dreams, now the longest running sitcom in television history (the runner-up, interestingly, is "Ozzie and Harriet," 1952 to 1966).
"In American culture there's been a historical pattern where people pretend to be offended by something of the moment and then they lose interest and find something new to be offended by," says Simpsons creator Matt Groening, which rhymes with raining, as in money raining down upon Groening's head from show sales, worldwide syndication, commercial endorsements and an orgy of merchandising -- and coming soon: the box office receipts from a potential blockbuster.
"There's always a menace," Groening continues. "There was the menace that children would steal quarters from their mothers' purses to play video games at arcades. There was the menace that rock-and-roll lyrics were too filthy. There was the menace of comic books."
"Yeah," says Jean, archly, innocently, "it's always something, isn't it?"
The four Simpson founders all laugh conspiratorially (insert a Montgomery Burns eeeexcellent here), because they know that nothing is better for comedy than the pixie dust of mild subversion. In fact, you get the feeling they miss being merry pranksters in the culture wars (that prize has gone to shows like "South Park" and "The Daily Show").
The Simpsons team gathered Monday in a hotel room, naturally, to promote the movie. Together, they've outlasted most marriages. The youngest, Silverman, who is 50, has spent two-fifths of his life living in Springfield. They say kind things about each other, quote each other, bestow bouquets of credit. They tell jokes, but as Brooks explains it, "the Simpsons culture is very protective of the family," and one has to ask what family he is talking about: the people-people? Or the bubble-bellied, goggle-eyed, yellow-headed cartoon-people?
"The Simpsons" almost never happened. In 1986, Groening was (and still is) drawing a comic strip called "Life in Hell" for the alternative press. The title for the panel was taken from Walter Kaufmann's "Critique of Religion and Philosophy," and the cartoon characters are angst-ridden rabbits and two gay men in fezzes. The recurring themes: love and doom.