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D'oh! 'Simpsons' Celebrate

6/17/2014
D'oh! 'Simpsons' Celebrate © FOX D'oh! 'Simpsons' Celebrate

Don't have a cow, but animated series enters 15th season

By Jacqueline Cutler
Zap2it.com
 
No one expected 15 years ago that the phrases "Don't have a cow, man" and "Ay, carumba" would become part of the vernacular.

Or that "D'oh" would become an entry in the venerable Oxford Dictionary.

Or that the amusing 30-second shorts on "The Tracey Ullman Show" would go on to win 20 Emmy Awards.

Certainly, no one predicted that "The Simpsons" would become the longest-running sitcom in prime time and the longest-running animated series ever. FOX launched the series 15th season Nov. 9.

"Because of the incredibly fluky way 'The Simpsons' got on television, it can't be readily replicated," says Harry Shearer, who gives voice to evil billionaire Montgomery Burns, fawning assistant Smithers and vacuous anchorman Kent Brockman. "We were the product of a fledgling network desperate to be seen as being in business with major show business figures. They gave [executive producer] James Brooks a very sweet deal that included no network interference. Unless you have a fledgling network desperate to be in business, you don't get that."

That creative freedom has resulted in consistently funny scripts -- no mean feat considering the number of humorless sitcoms. Each script goes through about eight drafts, according to Al Jean, the show runner and producer who has been with "The Simpsons" from the beginning.

"In the early '90s, George Bush Sr. said America should be more like the Waltons than the Simpsons," Jean says. "Some conservatives thought Bart too disobedient. Now, we're considered part of the establishment. A lot of the people who were 15 years old when we started are now 30."

While the rest of the world ages, the Simpsons remain the same. The series revolves around the Simpson clan, led by dad Homer (voice of Dan Castellaneta), who has the IQ of a salami and the appetite of a shark. He works for a nuclear power plant where he regularly causes toxic disasters. Though some critics label the family dysfunctional, Homer and his homemaker wife, Marge (Julie Kavner), manage to function and love each other as they rear their children. Bart (Nancy Cartwright) is a fourth-grader whose potential could be measured in prison sentences, but he has a good soul -- when he isn't selling it. Lisa (Yeardley Smith), the smart, feminist, saxophone-playing vegan, is on a perpetually doomed crusade to save her family, usually from its own idiocy. Baby sister Maggie sucks on a pacifier.

Over the years, the show has proven it has no sacred cows. Creator Matt Groening uses the same irreverent approach evident in his "Life Is Hell" cartoon strip that runs in more than 250 newspapers.

Despite animation's infinite visual possibilities, "The Simpsons" relies on razor-sharp writing. It comes as no surprise that late-night host Conan O'Brien wrote for the show for two years. "It hurts my feelings that they are still funny," O'Brien says. "They should have lost their way after I left. Don't they know? Damn them."

Rather than lose its way, the subversive comedy continues to do what it does best: work on a number of levels. Children enjoy it, particularly for Bart's pranks, but they don't get all the cultural, political and sexual jokes. In the recent Halloween episode, "Treehouse of Horror XIV," for example, the opening segment was "Reaper Madness," a takeoff on the 1936 anti-marijuana film "Reefer Madness." While adults may chuckle at that reference, the children instead will laugh at Homer killing Death.

Still, some parents give the Sunday night comedy a wide berth, fearful that Bart's underachieving ways will have a greater influence over their children than Lisa's overachieving. And parents who limit children's viewing are more prone to allow them to watch an educational show than this.

Indeed Cartwright limits her children's TV viewing. "No sugar and no TV during the school week," she says, sounding more like the single mom of two she is than the spike-haired rascal she voices. For years, her children watched "The Simpsons" on tape so they could be in bed early on Sunday, but now that they are 12 and 14, they watch together.

A single episode -- which goes through various production stages in California and Korea -- takes up to a year to go from idea to broadcast. So when Cartwright settles in to watch Sundays, she sees it for the first time from start to finish.

"It's pretty cool," she says. "I can pretty much watch and be a fan."

Among the show's many fans are celebrities who vie to be on it the way stars did a generation ago with "Batman." The eclectic roster of guest stars includes Aerosmith, Buzz Aldrin, Tony Bennett, blink-182, Johnny Cash, Bob Denver, Kirk Douglas, Bob Hope, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Ian McKellen, 'NSYNC, Luke Perry, Wolfgang Puck, Tito Puente, the Ramones, Pete Sampras, John Updike and Adam West.

This season brings more guest stars, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books.

The official season opener, "My Mother the Carjacker," features Glenn Close as Homer's jailbird mom. A screening of the Nov. 16 episode, "The President Wore Pearls," supports Jean's assertion that Season 15 of "The Simpsons" is "one of the best." The musical episode pays homage to "Evita" with a story line in which Lisa becomes a student body president in the style of the Argentine icon.

Despite the fact that most shows reach their expiration dates long before episode No. 313, which is where "The Simpsons" is now, there is no end in sight. "The cast contract expires at the end of the year," Jean says. "They are renegotiating for three years. I wouldn't be surprised if it went another five."

"I am willing to do it forever," Cartwright says. Shearer was more pragmatic. "Indefinitely is a pretty long time," he says. "As long as the audience wants more, we'll do more."

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