When Matt Groening was mapping out the character traits of the Simpsons a few years ago, he decided that Lisa would be the sensitive one in the family, an angst-ridden second-grader who wants nothing more than peace on earth, good will toward men, and, well, okay, maybe a pony. Mere words, Groening decided, would not be enough to express the depth of anguish in Lisa's little cartoon soul. So that's why he gave her a saxophone.
''We decided to make Lisa the intelligent, talented member of the Simpsons,'' Groening says, ''and hence completely overlooked.''
Lisa's mournful sax interludes have become as much a signature of the show as Bart's ''Eat my shorts'' wisecracks or Homer's ''I was just resting my eyes'' excuses for falling asleep on the job. Behind the scenes, at least a half-dozen studio musicians have provided the sound for Lisa's horn.
''I don't ever see the pictures when I play, so I have to ask what's happening, what the attitude's supposed to be,'' says Terry Harrington, who has been a jazz and blues session player for more than 25 years and who has played most of Lisa's saxophone solos this year. ''The last one I did, they told me she was, like, emoting to some guy, pouring her heart out.''
Alf Clausen, composer and conductor for The Simpsons' scoring sessions, says musicians don't try to play like second-graders when they're doing a Lisa solo. On the contrary. ''We think of Lisa as a really good player,'' Clausen says. ''She's a pretty together chick.''
There have been a couple of glitches. Groening says that in the main title drawings of the first few shows, Lisa, for some unexplained reason, was carrying a banjo case. And for a while, animators were drawing a tenor sax for Lisa, even though the real-life musicians were playing baritones. With those errors corrected, Groening promises Lisa will continue to wail in future shows and, who knows, maybe other Simpsons will try their hand at musical instruments. ''I've been thinking,'' Groening says, ''about giving Bart a drum solo.''