It is the 15-minute doodle that has raked in billions.
Matt Groening drew "The Simpsons" in a quarter of an hour for "The Tracey Ullman Show" on the then-fledgling FOX network. Twenty years later, after President George H.W. Bush vilified it, critics hailed it and the industry feted it with awards, "The Simpsons" celebrates its milestone 400th episode Sunday, May 20, with "You Kent Always Say What You Want."
"The Simpsons Movie" opens July 27, a video game is planned, and Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando Resort are slated to open Simpsons rides in spring 2008.
This success is far beyond what creator Matt Groening had dared hope, yet the man who still writes the weekly comic strip "Life in Hell" knew from the start that this family was special.
"I thought 'The Simpsons' was going to be a hit show," Groening says in a rare interview. "I thought, 'We need to have a primetime cartoon on the air. This is what I would have wanted to see on the air when I was a kid.' That is what I am always thinking on any creative project. My worry was that adults would not give it a chance because it is a cartoon and say, 'Oh, another show for kids.' If I could get adults' attention, then they would like it. I never imagined I would be talking about it 20 years later. April 19 was the 20th anniversary of the first 'Simpsons' on 'Tracey Ullman.'"
The characters have morphed from their initial harsher look on Ullman's show.
"On almost every long-lasting cartoon, the characters do change," Groening says. "Mickey Mouse transformed, Bugs Bunny transformed, Betty Boop had dog ears. It comes in part as the people who draw the characters get used to them and get to know them and they take on a life of their own. I always meant the original design for the characters just to be a jumping-off point. I knew they would get simplified and perfected, and it took a few years to get them to the stage I wanted."
Groening's work is simple, though never simplistic. His cartoon bunnies in "Life in Hell" resemble Marge Simpson, and anyone who has read his work over the years instantly recognizes his characters, with their protruding eyes, rounded teeth and thick lines.
"All of my drawings are very similar," he says. "My theory of animation design is to make your characters identifiable in silhouette."
As usual, Sunday's episode is funny, based on the script alone.
In it, there are gentle pokes at dentists (a sign at the dentist's office reads: "No matter how you brush, you are doing it wrong"), and a celebrity guest star, Ludacris, voices Luda-Crest, a talking tube of toothpaste.
Kent Brockman, the nimrod newscaster, blurts out a heinous curse that gets him fired. The pompous anchorman had lost his on-air composure after Homer spilled scalding coffee in his lap.
As is often the case in Springfield, the trouble can be traced to Homer. As short-sighted, gluttonous, immature and selfish Homer is, under those layers of fat a good heart beats; provided Marge and Lisa explain why he is good.
Dan Castellaneta has voiced Homer from the beginning, when he sounded like Walter Matthau on a bender. Few actors have the opportunity to play a character for so long, and in the rare instances they do, actors (notably Kelsey Grammer) say that they can think like their characters.
"Sometimes around food I will go, 'Mmmmm, hot dog,'" Castellaneta says, breaking into his Homer voice. "I don't think it's a good idea to think too much like Homer; you would get into too much trouble."
Offscreen, Castellaneta's Chicago accent is prominent, and he, like his cast mates, continues to work on many other projects. Still, it's a fair bet that no other role will ever give him a chance to coin a phrase that is included in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Castellaneta is the man behind, "D'oh!" Homer's signature phrase, uttered after he does something stupid, a pretty common occurrence.
"It was surreal; something I did wound up being in the dictionary," he says. He freely admits to borrowing the phrase from comedian Jim Finlayson, who was a Keystone Cop and a foil to Laurel and Hardy.
"When they would skip out on the rent, he'd say, 'd-ooooh,' and you know it was a euphemism for 'damn.' This was during the Hays office (the era from 1930 to 1968 when profanity was strictly forbidden in film). So when I did it, it was written as an annoyed grunt, and I asked Matt and I did that 'd-ooooh,' and he said, 'Can you do it faster? It's animation.'"
Groening continues to work on the show in many capacities. He reflects - more honestly than most - on reaching the 400th episode.
"It's too many episodes," he says and laughs, realizing no creator should admit such a thing. "It made sense to me when we did 366; that was one episode a day including leap year, and now you can go for more than a year. We have gone beyond the 400 with what we are working on. It is great to have so many episodes that even I can't remember everything that has happened. I can tune in to old reruns, and I can get caught up in it.
"I don't see any reason for us to stop unless there is a feeling we are not having fun anymore," Groening says. "The only thing that is not fun about doing this anymore is it does not get any easier. The animation takes as much steady concentration to detail, so sometimes we get fatigued. The worst aspect of this job is cold pizza at midnight, when you are still writing, and that's not so bad. And creatively it is so much fun to work on a show where anything we can think of, we can do."