November 4, 2001

How 'The Simpsons' Survives

  There's a scene from ''The Simpsons'' that has been looping inside my brain since Sept. 11. It comes from ''The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,'' a four-year-old episode of the Fox show. During a family trip to Manhattan, Homer finds himself on a cartoon version of the plaza between the twin towers of the World Trade Center. There, waiting for a traffic officer to remove the boot from his pink family sedan (while his family is taking in a Broadway musical about the Betty Ford Center), Homer meets a vendor selling an exotic delicacy called Khlav Kalash. He buys some, washing it down with many cans of crab juice. When all that crab juice takes its inevitable toll, Homer runs up 107 flights of stairs, only to discover that the men's room in Tower 2 is out of order. But that's not the only surprise: Tenement-style clotheslines are strung between the two skyscrapers, and the windows open to reveal surly New Yorkers yelling at each other to shut up.

It's a great joke. But it plays differently now. For one thing, the image of New Yorkers as brash, contentious and impatient has abruptly vanished from the national mythology. And the picture of the skyscrapers as a noisy, gemutlich neighborhood now seems more poignant than ridiculous.


Recently, as ''Simpsons'' fans on the Internet have begun speculating that ''The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson'' will become a ''lost episode,'' vanishing forever from syndication, I've found myself wondering how recent events will affect Springfield, the Simpsons' hometown.

This is neither as facetious nor as trivial as it may sound. Since the towers fell, there has been much debate about how the terrorist attacks and their aftermath will affect popular culture. The discussion has been maddeningly inconclusive, but one clear theme has emerged: The easy laughs we took for granted two months ago seem to belong irrevocably to another era. This feeling, combined with a creeping tendency to stigmatize the immediate past -- to look back with shame at the old days when we were so complacent, so emptily clever -- makes an unabashedly silly show like ''The Simpsons'' seem especially vulnerable.

  But I hope that little will change about the indomitable four-fingered family that resides in a pink bungalow on Evergreen Terrace. For nothing has summed up the promise and confusion of American life in the post-cold-war era better than ''The Simpsons.'' Nothing else has harnessed the accumulated energies and memory traces of the civilization with so much intelligence and originality.  

Since its debut in December 1989, the show -- brainy and populist, sophisticated and vulgar, gleeful in its assault on every imaginable piety and subversively affirmative of the bonds of family and community -- has remained remarkably vital. Granted, the revelatory charge of earlier days has given way to the reassuring glow of familiarity. But the singular thing about ''The Simpsons'' has been its ability to stay funny for so long.

Next Sunday, the show begins its 13th season on Fox. It is currently the longest-running prime-time sitcom on the air; in the annals of series longevity, it is surpassed by only a tiny handful of shows. ''In the past 25 years there have been a lot of great shows on television,'' says Sam Simon, the former executive producer who ran the show in its first two seasons and hired most of its original writing staff. ''But there aren't many shows that people remain interested in after 12 years.''

Measuring the creative entropy that afflicts TV series has become a popular form of do-it-yourself cultural analysis. Recently, the phrase ''jumping the shark'' has entered the lexicon, referring to that point in its run when a series, having exhausted its premise, resorts to desperate novelty to keep itself alive. At the Web site that popularized the concept -- named after a late episode of ''Happy Days'' in which the aging Fonzie undertakes a death-defying water-skiing stunt -- the various ways in which a show can go bad are cataloged by example: ''New Kid in Town,'' ''Special Guest Star,'' ''Singing,'' ''Birth,'' ''Death.'' The part of the site dedicated to shows that never jumped the shark is headed by a picture of the Simpson family squeezed together on their indestructible living-room couch.

Elsewhere on the Web, especially among the diehard ''Simpsons'' fans who bicker in chat rooms devoted to the show, the attitude has been less sanguine. Seasons 9 and 11 were singled out as evidence of the show's inevitable decline, and Mike Scully, who has run the show for the past four years, was ritually abused as the man who corrupted Springfield. Rumors of the show's demise proliferated. But the show was clearly not ready to die; new writers were hired, and ratings began climbing. This show is now in such strong shape that a long-contemplated movie may finally be in the works.

The continued vibrancy of ''The Simpsons'' franchise has a lot to do with the freedom and elasticity that animation provides. There are no child actors whose impending puberty threatens to wreck their cuteness, no pregnancies to be shoehorned into maudlin story lines. The range of secondary characters and new settings is unlimited; the Simpsons can go anywhere and do anything. In a cartoon universe, the laws of space and time are different: even as it has kept an eye on the developments in American political and popular culture from Bush to Clinton, from Michael Jackson to the boy bands, ''The Simpsons'' has also dwelt in the eternal present of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Bart will always be a fourth grader, the bane of Mrs. Krabappel's existence, and Lisa will remain a misunderstood second-grade intellectual. Mr. Burns may at last have developed a vague sense of who ''this Homer Simpson'' is, but animation does not enforce the laws of continuity and causality with too much rigor. During the show's ninth season, Homer and Marge celebrated their 11th wedding anniversary

All this keeps ''The Simpsons'' fresh. Of course, there are many other ways that shows can run down. The original writers may leave, the executive producer's attention may drift to other projects or the stars will demand stories tailored to their own ambitions. Most often, though, the personalities of the characters will begin to decay, either becoming overly exaggerated or mushy and indistinct. The more sitcom characters ''grow'' -- becoming, like the casts of ''M*A*S*H'' or ''All in the Family'' in their later years, more vulnerable, more sensitive, more ''real'' -- the more their comic potential shrinks.

This has not happened to ''The Simpsons.'' Yes, Homer has occasionally slipped from sweet doltishness into crude idiocy -Marge, what's the number for 911?'' -- and the speech patterns of Ned Flanders can give you a high-diddly headache, but Springfield, familiar as it is, remains full of surprises. The show has evolved over the years, but even as it has explored new avenues of absurdity, it has, more often than not, remained true to its founding spirit -- its madcap intelligence, its good nature and its willingness to try anything.

So who keeps ''The Simpsons'' from jumping the shark? This isn't a question I could answer simply by watching the show; at its best, ''The Simpsons'' seems to come out of nowhere. I knew that it had been many years since James L. Brooks and Matt Groening, the show's original guiding forces, devoted themselves full time to it. Since then, the title credits have been dominated by names like George Meyer, Al Jean, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, Ian Maxtone-Graham and Mike Scully. But who are these people? A few months ago, I headed to Los Angeles to meet the talents behind the cartoon veil of ''The Simpsons.'' I went looking for a glimpse of something that might help explain where the program comes from -- and how it manages to sustain itself as the culture's satirical mirror and fun-house utopia.

In ''The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,'' Bart, wandering through Manhattan, happens upon the offices of Mad magazine. When he asks the surly receptionist if he can take a tour, she shoos him away. ''There's nothing to see here, Sonny.'' But just as Bart is about to leave, Alfred E. Neuman himself pokes his head through the door, spouting vaudevillian mock-Yiddish. Behind him is a chaotic room in which the pages of the magazine seem to have come to life, as if the drawings of Don Martin and Dave Berg's ''Lighter Side'' were simple, faithful renderings of the world the artists inhabited. ''Wow,'' says Bart, ''I'll never wash these eyes again.''

One morning last July, in a similarly wide-eyed state, I arrived at a modest cluster of bungalows tucked into a quiet corner of the vast lot at 20th Century Fox in Century City -- the workplace of the people who write, animate and perform ''The Simpsons.'' It was a hot, cloudless Monday morning, and I made my way to the sound stage where a new episode called ''Blame It on Lisa,'' in which the Simpson family heads off to Brazil, was being taped.

The actors who play the Simpson family -- Julie Kavner (Marge), Dan Castellenata (Homer), Yeardley Smith (Lisa) and Nancy Cartwright (Bart) -- were dispersed in a wide semicircle behind microphones, their scripts on stands in front of them like musical scores. Hearing those familiar voices without the mediation of my television speaker, I found myself transported into a two-dimensional world of supersaturated color whose dominant hues were pink, yellow and #000042.

At one point in the script, Homer climbs up a telephone pole to try to restore his family's long-distance service. He connects various wires and repeatedly undergoes what the script succinctly describes as ''painful electric shocks.'' Castellenata is a slender, unassuming man, but his howls and shrieks conjured a vivid picture of Homer's bulky body writhing in agony. Somehow, in the alchemy of script and voice, the whole universe of Springfield seemed to emerge, as though the animation were completing itself in my head.

Actually, the animation is completed, by hand, in South Korea. A ''Simpsons'' episode is the product of painstaking collaborative labor. Each one takes nine months to complete. Unlike most series, which alternate periods of frenetic creative activity with long hiatuses, ''The Simpsons'' is in production year round. In any given week, a few members of the 20-person writing staff -- the largest in the show's history -- will be squirreled away in their offices working on drafts of new scripts. Their colleagues will be gathered around the battered tables of the two writers' rooms, hashing out story ideas or breaking down drafts line by line.

The rewriting process, guided by notes from the executive producers, and from Matt Groening and James Brooks, is rigorous. ''A good 'Simpsons' script is when you change 75 percent and everyone goes, 'Good script,' '' says Matt Selman, who joined the staff, at the age of 25, in 1997. ''A bad script is when you change 85 percent and everybody goes, 'Bad script.' ''

  After several rounds of revision, the script is read aloud by the cast, usually on a Thursday, after which it is rewritten further, for the following Monday's taping. The voice track then travels over the Hollywood Hills to the Film Roman animation studios, where a team of artists produces an ''animatic,'' a rough black-and-white assemblage of drawings, which is sent back to the writers for more rewriting. Even after the color animation comes back from Korea three months later, jokes may be tweaked and scenes rejiggered. The quality of a ''Simpsons'' episode owes a great deal to this schedule. There is simply more time to work out the kinks.

There is also a near-total absence of network interference. James Brooks's clout within the industry -- he was the creative force behind programs like ''Taxi'' and ''The Mary Tyler Moore Show'' -- has allowed him to insulate the show from the barrage of suggestions from executives that are the bane of most TV writers' existence. ''Many people, their first job is at a show like 'The Simpsons,' '' explains Mike Reiss, a former writer. ''And then they go into normal TV and they're shocked and disillusioned.'' As a result, a great many of them come running back.

In a profession often characterized by long hours, internecine competition and creative frustration, ''Simpsons'' writers seem remarkably content and well adjusted. ''It's not competitive in a personal way, unlike some places,'' says Dana Gould, a former stand-up comedian. ''It's not one of those places where somebody won't laugh at another person's joke because they want to get their own joke in.''

Standing on the lawn outside one of the writers' rooms, I was approached by Dan Greaney, whose casual-Friday business attire looked downright natty alongside his T-shirt-wearing colleagues. ''I have something to say,'' he said. ''Write this down: John Swartzwelder is the best writer in the world today in any medium.'' Swartzwelder is a notoriously reclusive former advertising man who has written 50 ''Simpsons'' scripts, far more than anyone else.

This unprompted tribute was hardly uncommon. With disarming frequency, ''Simpsons'' writers extol the genius of Swartzwelder and another senior statesman, George Meyer. Swartzwelder rarely visits the Fox lot and sends in tight, clean drafts that require relatively little rewriting. (Only half gets thrown out.) Meyer, in contrast, has just a few script credits to his name. But he is the guru of the writer's room, with an ineffable feel for the perfect quiddity of a good joke. Part of Meyer's gift, in Meyer's own estimation, is an ability to recognize those who share it. ''I can identify a funny person in a few minutes,'' he says, ''even if they're on the side of the road changing a tire.''

Meyer doesn't believe that humor is all that mysterious. ''In Arthur Koestler's book 'The Act of Creation,' he says that humor is at its essence based on the collision of contexts,'' he explains. ''Two people with different agendas pursuing them to the point of collision -- that explains a lot of comedy.''

But what about three or four dozen people, over more than a decade, pursuing different versions of the same agenda? This might be a definition of ''The Simpsons'' itself. It has certainly changed over time and reflected different personalities -- yet it has also maintained an extraordinary continuity. ''Executive producers come in, they're allowed to take it where they favor,'' Brooks says. ''There's a rotation, but within the rotation there is consistency too.''

A look at the first season's 13 episodes, now available on DVD, reveals some ways the show has changed since 1989. The animation is comparatively crude, and the episodes tend to follow a single story line -- as opposed to today's swerving narratives. At times, the characters we have come to know and love behave in ways that seem utterly unlike them. In ''There's No Disgrace Like Home,'' for example, Homer is so ashamed of his family's behavior at Mr. Burns's company picnic that he drags them to family therapy, which he pawns the television set to pay for. Over the years, of course, Homer has become immune to shame; it's a large part of his oafish charm.


Not everyone is happy about this: the dumbing-down of Homer is, among those who believe the show has lost its way, a leading index of its failure. Mike Reiss, a writer of the ''No Disgrace'' episode, thinks that ''much of the humanity has leached out of the show over the years. I see it especially with Homer. We used to say, 'Homer is my dad' -- a bluff, hard-working guy. Over the years he's gotten stupid and callous. It hurts to watch it, even if I helped to do it.''


Despite this, what's remarkable is how much of what will emerge in later seasons is already there. Most of the minor characters who have provided a rich reservoir of secondary narratives -- Krusty the Klown, Apu, Principal Skinner, Groundskeeper Willie -- were introduced in the first three seasons. Each ''show runner,'' as the executive producers who supervise the writers are called, has taken the show in slightly different directions, but the basic oscillation seems to be between the family and ''the crazy stuff.'' These distinctions can be awfully subtle, and a single era can be hard to characterize, even by the executive producers themselves.

Several veterans recall the ''crazy David Mirkin years'' as a time of wild inventiveness. But Mirkin himself sees his reign as one during which the family once again took center stage, in contrast to, say, the seventh and eighth seasons, when Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein ran the show and reached a pinnacle of zany self-reference with ''22 Short Films About Springfield'' and ''Simpsons Spin-off Showcase.'' Al Jean, the current show runner, also wants to take the show back to the family -- which is just what Mike Scully, his predecessor, says he feels he did. For everyone at ''The Simpsons,'' the family remains the center of gravity: sitcom archetypes who convene for our benefit every Sunday evening on their living-room couch, just as we find ourselves on ours.

It now seems obvious, even expected, that a prime-time show will be stuffed with pop-culture and literary arcana, goofy slapstick and emotional resonance -- and that grown-ups will sit down after dinner to watch a cartoon. But in 1989, it had been nearly a quarter-century since ''The Flintstones,'' the last successful prime-time cartoon, went off the air. And the madcap irreverence of the Ernie Kovacs tradition survived mainly late at night, on the margins of network schedules.

The inventor of ''The Simpsons,'' of course, did not come from television at all. ''I stopped watching TV around 1972, except for 'Saturday Night Live,' '' Groening says. ''I had better things to do.'' The son of an industrial documentary filmmaker (named Homer), Groening was, in the mid-1980's, the author of ''Life in Hell,'' a cartoon that appeared -- and continues to appear -- in numerous alternative weeklies. In 1987 he was recruited by James Brooks to create animated shorts for ''The Tracey Ullman Show.''

As Groening tells it, the Simpson family was born minutes before his first meeting with Brooks. ''I was going to do the 'Life in Hell' characters, but then right before the meeting with Jim Brooks, I find out that whatever I did, Fox would own. So I made up the Simpsons 15 minutes before the meeting. I drew a family, and named them after my own family.''

In addition to his inimitable graphic signature, Groening contributed a spirit of antiauthoritarian skepticism. ''If there's a message that runs through the show,'' he says, ''it's that maybe the authorities don't have your best interests at heart.''

But the show has always been more than a barrage of darts aimed at various corners of American society. The collaboration that turned the ''Ullman'' shorts into ''The Simpsons'' -- one involving Groening, Brooks, Sam Simon, a small group of writers including George Meyer and Jon Vitti, not to mention animators like David Silverman -- entwined the cartoonist's worldview with at least two distinct strains of television comedy. One is represented by the sardonic, absurdist one-liner and sketch-driven humor of shows like ''Saturday Night Live,'' ''Late Night With David Letterman'' and ''It's Garry Shandling's Show'' -- programs on which George Meyer and Jon Vitti worked. But Sam Simon and James Brooks, whose contributions to the development of the show were decisive, came from a background that might be described as high-quality normal TV -- broadly appealing, occasionally warm and fuzzy, well-written sitcoms.

The collaboration, especially between Simon and Groening, was not entirely harmonious. ''Sam Simon was assigned to work with me,'' Groening recalls. ''It was a pleasant experience for a few months, but then became very contentious. His motto was '13 and out' -- the network's initial order was for 13 episodes -- and he thought the whole thing was going to be a failure. It wouldn't affect him, but my career would be ruined! Which is why nobody talks about him anymore.'' A moment later, he added: ''Make sure you put in that I think Sam Simon is brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I've ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced.''

In fact, people do still talk about Sam Simon. ''If you leave out Sam Simon,'' Jon Vitti says, ''you're telling the managed version. He was the guy we wrote for.'' Jay Kogen, a former producer at the show, agrees. ''Sam had this amazing conception of Springfield,'' he recalls. ''He kept expanding the idea. He knew the freedom that animation provides and utilized it to the full extent. The big story at the time was 'Cartoonist breaks through into TV.' It could also have been, just as easily, 'Old-time TV producer breaks through into TV.' ''

Simon's account of the show's beginnings squares with Groening's on some points, but his interpretation is different. ''I didn't think the show was going to be successful, but I knew it would be good, and fun to work on,'' he says. ''So what I used to say was, 'Hey, come on, we're 13 and out, so let's have fun and do what we like.' '' As for Groening himself, Simon says: ''When I see Matt now, I shake hands and say hello. I can't lie and say that Matt did what he didn't do, but I do appreciate him creating that family. Thanks to Bart Simpson I have a pretty good life.''

Groening and Brooks currently serve as a kind of two-man counsel of elders, keepers of institutional memory and defenders of core priniciples. ''Every time I list rules for the show, some wise guy can point to an episode where we've broken every one,'' Groening says. He does try to keep a few basic taboos in sight: animals should always behave like animals, the Simpsons should avoid reflecting on their own celebrity and the Springfield universe should never become overtly cartoonlike. Whether or not the show has consistently lived up to these strictures, or to Brooks's humanist emphasis on character and emotional truth, is a matter of argument, but the two men share a clear commitment to something that can only, and oddly, be called realism. As crazy as ''The Simpsons'' can be, it never entirely loses sight of the peculiarities of turn-of-the-century American life -- which, of course, includes everything else that's ever been on television.

Near the end of my visit to Los Angeles, I found myself at a Thursday ''table read,'' which was held in a low-ceilinged conference room around the corner from the writers' bungalows. The atmosphere was festive and freewheeling. The cast and staff sat around the table, while the outer perimeter of chairs was filled with family and friends -- Mike Scully's daughters, James Brooks's two sons.

Something like the magic of the recording studio repeated itself, if anything with more spontaneity, since the actors were unrehearsed and the visual cues and directions were read, with impressive animation, by Ian Maxtone-Graham, a co-executive producer. Brooks, Groening, Al Jean, David Silverman and a half-dozen or so writers were there, though Jon Vitti was not. ''It's a horrible, awful, painful day if you wrote the script,'' he told me, over the phone, a few weeks later.

The script, written by Vitti, involved, among other things, a flock of pesky crows and a shareholders' meeting at the Springfield power plant. The assembled onlookers provided an appreciative laugh track, which did not distract the staff, who sat with furrowed brows, making notes and pondering the deeper logic of story structure and joke timing. The script at times seemed to strain in its attempt to fulfill the show's mandate not to repeat itself -- but it also played with the densely cross-referenced universe the show has created. At one point, trying to drive away the crows, Marge assembles a scarecrow from castoff clothes, all of which had appeared in earlier episodes.

When the reading was over, Jean, Groening, Maxtone-Graham and Brooks sequestered themselves in Jean's office to compare notes, while the writers milled around outside, awaiting instructions. After a while, Groening emerged, the writers dispersed into their rooms and we sat on a bench in the shade. The first act would be tightened, Groening said, ''to bring down the crazy register, and make the crows behave like actual birds, not cartoon crows.'' The episode's third act would be completely different. The rewriting would be done by the next afternoon, after the screening of an animatic for another episode.

Behind us, in the bungalow, the writers were plying their mysterious trade. Groening jingled his car keys and explained to me the concept of the sour wall. ''When the show's being performed this way,'' he said, referring to the raucous table read I had just attended, ''there's a wall of people with their arms folded, scowling. That's the sour wall. We concentrate on what makes the sour wall laugh.'' I had noticed such people in the room; most of them had been ''Simpsons'' writers, whose hardest job and greatest success may be in making themselves, and each other, laugh.

Over the next 22 Sundays, ''The Simpsons'' may face a newly daunting sour wall -- a distracted, anxious audience unsure of what they will see, or what they want to see, when they turn on the TV. Koestler's definition of comedy as the collision of contexts might equally serve as a description of tragedy, an account of what makes something the opposite of funny. ''The shark'' may turn out to be a metaphor not for creative exhaustion, but for an ugly and unexpected real-world plot twist.

I went to Los Angeles with the operative assumption that ''The Simpsons'' was one of the definitive culture products of the time -- a time that seemed, like the show itself, to be without an imaginable end. The new episodes will be the product of that vanished time, and as such they may evoke nostalgia or discomfort in ways the writers could never have anticipated.

On my visit to the Film Roman studios, I had admired a detailed, cartoon-scale architectural rendering of the twin towers -- a painstaking #000042print that was being prepared for a future episode already in production. What will become of that episode? Will it join ''The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson'' in oblivion? More to the point, will the writers who have winked and smirked, riffed and made up crazy stuff for 12 years still have an appetite, or an audience, for their humor?

I hope so. There is, after all, the possibility that the show's underlying virtues -- the deep, sly way that it is about virtue -- may become clearer than ever. If Al Jean is serious about recovering the show's emotional core, the writers may find a new reservoir of emotions to explore, and new challenges to their resourcefulness and pluck.

''Simpsons'' fans will be rooting for them. So much that is worth defending and protecting at the present time -- loyalty without chauvinism, the unsentimental, sustaining bonds of family, the capacity for crazy irresponsibility that is part of our cultural birthright -- lives and flourishes in Springfield. I'm perfectly serious, but go ahead and laugh.

A. O. Scott is a film critic for The Times.


Fox entschuldigt sich für Brasilien-Episode


Der Produzent der US-Zeichentrickserie "Die Simpsons" hat sich bei der Stadt Rio de Janeiro und deren Einwohnern für die negative Darstellung der brasilianischen Metropole entschuldigt. Die "Simpsons"-Macher hatten Rio in einer Episode als finsteres Rattenloch parodiert.

Los Angeles - "Wir entschuldigen uns bei der wunderbaren Stadt und den Menschen Rio de Janeiros", hieß es am Freitag in einer in Los Angeles verbreiteten Mitteilung des Produzenten James Brooks. In der Episode "Blame it on Lisa" wurde der Simpson-Daddy Homer bei einem Besuch in Rio von Straßenkindern ausgeraubt und von einem Taxifahrer ohne Lizenz als Geisel genommen. Außerdem liefen in der Folge Ratten und Affen über die Straßen.

Die Tourismus-Behörde der Stadt hatte daraufhin erwogen, die Macher der Comedy-Serie zu verklagen. Natürlich habe der Chef der Tourismus-Behörde Rios die Satire erkannt, hatte ein Sprecher der Einrichtung am Montag gesagt. Die unrealistische Darstellung unterlaufe aber eine 18 Millionen Dollar (fast 20.5 Millionen Euro) teure Werbekampagne für Reisen nach Rio.


Mit der Erklärung vom Freitag entschuldigten sich die Macher der Simpsons zwar, ließen gleichzeitig aber nicht von ihrem trockenen Humor ab. "Sollte das nicht ausreichen, bietet Homer Simpson dem brasilianischen Präsidenten an, mit ihm auf Fox zu boxen", hieß es in der Mitteilung. "Die Simpsons" werden in den USA im Fernsehkanal Fox der Twentieth Century Fox ausgestrahlt, der auch für seine Box-Übertragungen bekannt ist.