I'm sure this interview originally ran with a witty or clever headline, but if it did, I sure can't remember it. At the time, I was for some reason convinced that The Simpsons couldn't possibly stay on the air for more than another year or so, and that we'd never actually see a Simpsons Movie. I also thought John Kerry would win at least 300 electoral votes, and that Mitt Romney would cruise to the GOP nomination after winning in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Anyway, this is a fun look back at what's now just about the midpoint of one of the longest-running shows in TV history.
The Simpsons has been hailed since its 1989 premiere as an innovative, groundbreaking, and intelligent animated comedy, and deservedly so. No other television show could match The Simpsons' insane plots, seemingly infinite cast of supporting characters, and graduate-level cultural and historical references. As the show nears the midpoint of its ninth season, however, The Simpsons has become an institution, as well. The man behind the production of The Simpsons, executive producer Mike Scully, sat down with Mania to talk about the challenges of keeping the show fresh and original and the future of America's favorite cartoon family.
After nine years, it's not uncommon for the quality of a show to decline; just look at Happy Days or Murphy Brown. But Scully says he and the rest of the show's writers, directors, and producers are determined not to let that happen to their show. Scully attributes this to one simple, but powerful, emotion: Pride. "We all take a great deal of pride in the show," he says. "We don't want to overstay our welcome and get to the point where people are yelling at you to get off the air. We try to keep the stories fresh and the jokes funny."
The Simpsons paved the way for the successful prime-time animated shows of the last several years, such as MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head, Fox's King of the Hill, and Comedy Central's South Park. Scully is pleased to see animation gaining acceptance among mainstream audiences, but points to the spate of failed animated series that premiered in the first years of The Simpsons' run as proof that animation alone is no guarantee of success. "For a while there were other shows that tried, like Family Dog and Fish Police and Capitol Critters. The mistake the people behind the shows made was thinking that the audience was responding to just the animation, that just because The Simpsons was animated the show was a hit. In reality, it was the writing, and the animation was secondary."
Scully thinks that the nature of animation makes quality writing critical to the success of any animated show. "It really is writer-driven," he says. "You don't have to worry about making Roseanne happy or whether or not somebody's locked in their dressing room refusing to come out." At the same time, Scully credits animation with allowing writers to push the edge of the envelope. "Animation allows you to do certain jokes you couldn't do in a live action show because there's a certain level of reality that's removed with animation. Like last week, where Homer bought a gun and he had it right in Marge's face and it was going off at the dinner table. If you saw real people sitting there, it wouldn't be funny anymore."
The Simpsons has always sported political and social commentary as pointed as its plots are outrageous. Past targets have included atomic energy, secret societies, censorious parents groups, and Social Security. Scully points out that the show's social criticisms are usually nuanced and omnipartisan. "[The NRA] show is a real mixed message show, which is the kind of message we like the best, just lay it out there and let the audience figure it out. Initially, the gun people we portrayed as gun nuts, but as we got to see them over the course of the show, they were very safety conscious and Homer was the nut and they kicked him out. If a gun owner got mad at the initial part of the show he'd really miss the point of it."
Scully is proud of the show's willingness to address controversial topics in a satirical manner, and considers it a trademark of the series. He is also proud of the show's willingness to take aim at a broad spectrum of sacred cows. "We like pointing out hypocrisies. We try to spread it around, and hopefully if people see all the shows they realize they're not being singled out. I guess when it applies to your particular belief it feels like it's targeted at you. But it's there for fun. All it's there for is to make people laugh, and if we make you think once in a while, then so be it. But we're not trying to single anybody out."
The Simpsons is also famous for its guest-stars. Celebrities ranging from Elizabeth Taylor to Dustin Hoffman to Leonard Nimoy have voiced guest characters. Indeed, all three surviving Beatles have appeared as animated versions of themselves. Scully promises that this season will be no different. "Coming up is Apu facing the prospect of his arranged marriage. We have Andrea Martin from SCTV and Jan Hooks from Saturday Night Live guest-starring in that one. In February, we have Krusty the Clown retiring from comedy, and the guest-stars are Jay Leno, Janeane Garafalo, Steven Wright, and Bobcat Goldthwait. And in May is our two hundredth episode, it just happened to fall in May sweeps. The guest stars on that one are Steve Martin and U2."
While it seems like everyone and his brother has already been a guest on The Simpsons, Scully says there are still a few "dream guests" that haven't yet made it onto the show. "Janet Jackson expressed interest in doing the show, and we're still looking for something for her. Steve Martin we had actually been after for several years, but we finally got him this year. Tom Hanks I'd love to have on the show sometime, and I'd love to have Bruce Springsteen on. But we don't want to approach people until we have the right part. And if they say no, we start stalking them."
While Scully has big plans for this season and next fall's tenth season, he does admit that the creative minds behind The Simpsons do occasionally give some thought to what the final episode of the series would be like. "There are certain things you would like to see happen," he says. "I'm sure people would like to see Smithers confess his love for Burns. People would like to see stuff like that, I think. We always talk about what would be a great last episode and we still haven't gotten it yet. Sometimes there's one that, after they air, we're like, "That would be a great final episode!"
Just as some episodes seem in retrospect to be perfect final episodes, occasionally there is an episode that, in hindsight, would have made a perfect movie. "The Hank Scorpio episode, where the Simpsons move to a town called Emerald Cavern, we thought, whoa, that might have been a movie. We cut so much out of that show, we realized later that maybe we could have opened that one up to a movie."
Scully does see a Simpsons film as a real possibility "somewhere down the line. We want to make sure we do it right. We don't want to take people's money. If you do a bad job on the movie, we'll taint the memory of the series. It's also a matter of money. It would be far more expensive to do than the weekly show, in terms of the quality of the animation. But I'd love to see it. If we find the right idea, I think we'll do it."
Whatever the future holds for America's first family of animation, Scully hopes that The Simpsons will continue to amuse with a sharp, satirical edge. "We've always maintained that every joke can't be for everybody," he says. "When you do that you wind up with Three's Company. We're hoping people are enjoying it."