Smart, Vulgar, Subversive, Quirky, Hilarious--and a Hit

A daringly off-center little comedy titled "The Simpsons" has bolted out of the box to grab a deservedly huge national following and become the most successful series on Fox.

"There's room on TV for a dysfunctional family you can laugh at," noted brilliant cartoonist-writer Matt Groening (pronounced Graining) about the soulfully geeky animated characters he designed in about 15 minutes.

Airing at 8:30 p.m. Sundays on Channels 11 and 6, "The Simpsons" is a guerrilla attack on mainstream TV, meshing smart writing and directing with unique voices and animation to transform a conventional sitcom formula into a commentary on American values. Beyond all that, however, it's just flat-out funny

Who are the google-eyed, buck-toothed, dysfunctioning Simpsons?

--Homer. Father. Works at nuclear power plant. Understanding parent ("Why you little. . . !").

--Marge. Mother. Blue hair. Whiny. Known for sage advice ("There, there. . . .").

--Maggie. Infant. Communicates distinctively (by sucking pacifier).

--Lisa. Typical second-grader ("How can we sleep at night when there's so much suffering in this world?").

--Bart. Fourth-grader. Spiked hair. Sensitive ("Oh, gross, man").

A blissful little brood? No way, man.

"What a horrible, truthful view of family life," observed a laughing Sam Simon, co-executive producer of "The Simpsons" with Groening and James L. Brooks.

Here, says Groening, is the typical adult attitude toward kids: "We as sophisticated grown-ups are aware of the concerns of children being trivial." Thus in a recent episode that found Lisa deeply melancholic about life, Marge was ready with knee-jerk wisdom, initially urging Lisa always to hide her true feelings behind a happy face.

On "The Simpsons," Simon says, "Every time a parent sits a kid down and gives him advice, you can count on it being horrible."

And usually funny. The show's style is quirky, and the humor--Groening's motto is "entertainment and subversion, in that order"--is darker than anything else on mainstream TV without being bleak. The writers--including Simon and Groening, who are each 35--range in age from the mid-20s to the late 30s.

"Whatever makes the writing staff laugh, we put in the show," Simon said. "That's why it's very smart and very vulgar."

Surprise! Smart and vulgar are paying off not only creatively, but also commercially. Last Sunday's episode of "The Simpsons" beat the competition on ABC and NBC and tied for 24th in Nielsen's weekly national ratings. That's highly credible by any measure, but in credible for a series on Fox, a three-nights-a-week network inevitably bogged down by having fewer and less-powerful affiliates that ABC, CBS and NBC.

So no wonder that Fox has already extended its commitment to "The Simpsons" for next season, ordering 23 additional episodes to go with the 13 for this season.

The incredible high point this season came when Bart's cheating on an aptitude test earned him a transfer to a school for gifted children. More than any episode to date, this one hilariously satirized what Simon describes as "the socialization of children" by their parents and others.

"The Simpsons" isn't predictable. Coming episodes include a sendup of the Rob Lowe sex tapes and Marge contemplating an affair with a bowling pro. With Fox's "Married . . . With Children" already under fire for raunchiness, will "The Simpsons" be next?

"We're in an age when sponsors can potentially pull out because of pressure groups," Simon said. "It makes me nervous. I've never gotten so much angry mail, and because kids like the show so much, I'm having second thoughts about some of this stuff too. This is an adult show, and I'm proud of it, but I feel bad that a lot of people are going to be offended by what's coming up."

Groening doesn't feel bad at all, saying: "It doesn't give me a thrill to try to offend someone, but if we do, too bad."

Groening is no stranger to cartooning, having 10 years ago created "Life in Hell," a simply genius strip about "loneliness and isolation" that he syndicates himself to 200 newspapers, most of them campus or alternative publications (including the L.A. Weekly). Weirdly drawn rabbits are the stars of "Life in Hell" and its paperback spinoffs, "Love Is Hell," "School Is Hell" and "Childhood Is Hell." A sample:

"Why Is TV So Cool?" asks the headline above goofy-looking rabbits in front of a set. "It allows several people who hate each other's guts to sit peacefully together in the same room for years on end without murdering each other."

Ditto "The Simpsons." Groening created the family in 1987 at the behest of Brooks, a producer-director-writer whose lineage includes those classy movies "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News" and the luminous TV series "Taxi," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "The Tracey Ullman Show," currently on Fox.

So taken was Brooks with a "Life in Hell" blowup on his office wall that he encouraged Groening to try animation for the Ullman show. Fearing that transfering "Life in Hell" to Fox would mean also relinquishing its rights, Groening instead decided to create new characters, all of them except Bart named after his own family.

Thus "The Simpsons" began appearing on the Ullman show as brief "bumpers" separating sketches, with the distinctive voices and grunts of Ullman regulars Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner as Homer and Marge, in addition to Nancy Cartwright as Bart and Yeardley Smith as Lisa (Harry Shearer would join the cast as infinite other characters when it became a series).

Like the "The Tracey Ullman Show," "The Simpsons" got a series commitment from Fox primarily through Brooks' clout. Not only was Fox skeptical about "The Simpsons," so also was Simon, who was then, and still is, executive producer of the Ullman series.

"I thought it was a bad idea," he said about expanding "The Simpsons" to a half hour. "As much as I liked the bumpers, I thought 20 seconds to a minute was the right dose."

And? "What really elevated 'The Simpsons' is that a lot of really talented people have come in from the Tracey show. Matt's (creative) voice is certainly in 'The Simpsons,' but initially he was talking about a show where there'd be Martians and a lot of fantasy," said Simon, grimacing. "I'm glad we rejected that."

Hmmmmm.

One senses from talking separately to Simon and Groening in their Fox offices that the two are as incompatible and out of tune with each other as the Simpsons.

Simon projects sleekness. The bearded, banged, shaggy-haired Groening usually wears Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian-style shirts to work and is shaped not unlike the barrel in which Bart rolled down a hill on a recent episode.

Simon is largely ignored by the media; Groening--averaging 20 interviews a week--is adored by the media.

"It bothers me a little bit," Simon acknowledged. "But I knew going in that Matt, the underground cartoonist who gets a series, was a compelling story. He did create the characters."

"Although I get the lion's share of the glory, it's a collaborative effort," said Groening before quickly adding: "But my contribution to the writing of the show should not be minimized. I'm involved in every creative aspect, from conception of ideas to writing scripts to directing voices to designing characters."

Said Simon: "Matt is really torn. He's doing a lot of other stuff for the show, merchandising and things like that. He's the show's ambassador."

Informed that Simon had characterized him as the show's ambassador, Groening paused before replying. "That's a little bit condescending," he said, later adding: "There's definitely a power struggle here. There's a scramble to claim credit for the show now that it's become successful."

Simon and Groening are also opposites in other ways.

Simon is a TV insider whose short but flashy pedigree includes "Taxi," "Cheers" and "It's Garry Shandling's Show." None of those offered quite what "The Simpsons" does, he says. "The most liberating thing about animation is that you can have as many characters and as many sets as you want. In three-camera (comedies), you can't go to the opera for three minutes (as the Simpsons did recently)."

Meanwhile, Groening is an outsider immersed in his first TV venture. "My first problem in making the show was my fear that it would not turn out to be something different," he said, "that it would be watered down and be full of compromises. That didn't happen.

"The other thing is that there is a sourness and mean-spiritedness to a lot of TV comedy that leaves me cold. That may sound strange coming from the author of 'Life in Hell,' but I did fear getting locked in a room with overpaid and bitter TV writers."

And? "Luckily, I'm working with other people who think the same things are funny that I do," said Groening, who nevertheless remains uneasy about the collaborative process. "That's why I won't give up my strip," he said. "I'm used to working by myself and getting full credit and full blame."

Now, the full story. Will the characters in "The Simpsons" ever achieve true happiness? Groening himself once posed that question in "Life in Hell" about his comic strip characters, and the answer he gave in the strip also applies here:

"What a silly question! At this very moment, they are as happy as you are."

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