More than a hundred names flash on the screen in the final few seconds of The Simpsons every Sunday night: the writers and actors, animators and editors, technicians and producers who collaborate on that hit Fox show. Some of the jobs are, well, unusual. There are layout artists and background artists, color designers and a whole crew of people who do nothing but double-check other artists’ work, making sure they didn’t smudge anything. And there are almost as many other people, another hundred names, who get no credit at all. And credit is due.
In just a few months, The Simpsons has become the shining star in Fox’s lineup, a regular entry in the Nielsen top 15 despite the fact that at its heart this is guerrilla TV, a wicked satire masquerading as a prime-time cartoon.
The Simpsons of Springfield are dysfunctional in the extreme, a family of unwitting victims who have no idea why life keeps knocking them around. Homer Simpson works in the local nuclear plant, a safety inspector who sleeps on the job. He’s the leading candidate to replace Ronald Reagan as America’s most befuddled father figure. His response to practically any crisis is to mutter unintelligibly and slap himself on the forehead. This is not your standard cartoon hero.
It takes six months to complete a half hour episode of The Simpsons. It’s a twisted journey that spans two continents, costs more than a half-million dollars per show, requires lots of math, and, most of all, involves practically no one who wears a tie.
How do those scores of people do it? They’re not really sure. Every week, it seems, they barely finish on time. The production marathon invariably ends in a desperate deadline sprint. Dialogue is changed at the last minute, scenes rewritten even after the animation is done. On most Saturday nights, less than 24 hours before the show goes on the air, the producers are still working, still adding sound effects, still fiddling with anything left to be fiddled with.
Ay, caramba!, as Bart Simpson would say.
”The last 10 days are really very hairy,” explains Sam Simon, who shares executive producer credits with James L. Brooks and the show’s creator, cartoonist Matt Groening. ”When I used to work on Taxi or Cheers, we’d usually have three weeks to edit a show at our leisure. But with The Simpsons, we usually don’t see the completed show until the night before it airs. It’s all very down to the line.”
In fact, the production process is not unlike the opening montage that begins every Simpsons episode, the frenetic scenes where we see family members Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie careening toward home, a collection of accidents waiting to happen. They bolt out of doorways, and screech around corners, averting potential disaster at every turn.
It’s a miracle that any of them make it alive, but every week they somehow manage to emerge from the chaos, just in time for the start of the show.
The production of a Simpsons episode starts with the executive producers and writers locked in a room — or, more precisely, a suite at the St. James’ Club, a members-only hotel in Hollywood.
Simon says, ”We just shut off all the phones and come up with story ideas.”
Last year, only Groening, Brooks, and Simon concocted the basic plot lines. Now there’s a staff of writers (with credentials that range from Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman to Harvard Lampoon) who sit in on the initial story meetings. All of them toss out scenarios, story lines, jokes, whatever pops into their heads.
This tag-team approach to creative writing is a new experience for Groening. After 10 years of drawing ”Life in Hell,” the anxiety-ridden comic strip that is the spiritual and stylistic forerunner of The Simpsons, he was accustomed to working alone. But Groening, 36, was ready for a change. ”I definitely wanted to do this,” he says. ”It meant an end to my loneliness.”
Even so, Groening says he might never have taken a shot at television if not for Brooks, the Academy Award-winning writer and director (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News) who was also behind some of television’s most celebrated comedy series, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi. It was Brooks who first approached Groening about creating one-minute animated versions of ”Life in Hell” to be used between segments of The Tracey Ullman Show. Rather than surrender the rights to his comic strip characters, Groening created a whole new brood, the Simpsons, who made their debut in April 1987, on the third episode of the Ullman show.
”First of all, I was just honored that (Brooks) liked my little cartoon,” Groening says, ”but also it was his clout that allowed the show to be made without compromise.”
As story lines are being developed, Groening has three main concerns. He doesn’t want the show to pull punches just because it’s a cartoon, and he doesn’t want jokes or plots to be ”too sitcommy.” The Simpsons, he insists, is meant for adults. On the other hand, he doesn’t want the show to be too dark. And this from a man who once titled a cartoon ”If parents love you so much, how come they do such awful stuff to you?”
”A lot of humor writers, when the boundaries are loosened up, don’t get funnier; they get meaner,” Groening says. ”That’s something I really didn’t want to happen with The Simpsons. And it hasn’t.”
After the hotel session, the surviving story lines are blocked out on index cards, and each episode is assigned to a writer, who comes up with a working script. Then there is a series of rewrite meetings, with Groening, Simon, and the rest of the staff heavily involved.
”Everybody throws things in,” Groening says, ”including a lot of people who don’t get credit. That happens all through the process, animators suggesting sight gags, actors doing ad libs. All of this gets done sort of by consensus.”
The last rewrite comes after the actors have done a read-through rehearsal. ”We call it a table draft,” Simon explains, ”because we get the actors around a big table and hear them read it through. That’s our last chance to make big changes in the script, to see which scenes work, which ones need reworking, everybody getting a chance to pitch better jokes. It’s something that’s never been done on a cartoon show before.”
A few days later it’s time to record.