Originally created for “The Tracey Ullman Show” in 1987, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson became America’s favorite dysfunctional family when they got their own series in 1990.
Three years later, “The Simpsons” remains the only successful prime-time animated program in more than a decade; attempts to duplicate its popularity have failed dismally. “The Simpsons” begins its fifth season at 8 tonight on Fox (Channels 11 and 6).
Before he devised the grotesque yellow clan, Matt Groening (“rhymes with ‘complaining’ “ ) was known for “Life in Hell,” his irreverent weekly comic strip that features a trio of alienated rabbits and the identical twins/lovers Akbar and Jeff. A sardonic look at contemporary trends, jargon and relationships, “Life in Hell” appears in 250 papers.
Groening talked about the coming season in his comfortable, cluttered office on the Fox lot last week.
Question: Why has “The Simpsons” succeeded when other prime-time animated series have failed?
Answer: Back at the very beginning of the series, (co-executive producer) James L. Brooks talked about an ambition for the show, which was to go for moments of non-cartoon-y emotional reality that would make people forget they were watching a cartoon.
The way to do that is to place a far greater emphasis on writing and acting than has been the case with virtually every other animated TV series. When the voices were cast for the show, we generally chose actors who do things other than cartoon voices. The people who do cartoons voices for a living are used to making every line hot and peppy; we go for more of a roller coaster of emotions that coincides with stormy real life.
The Simpsons have always been written as a family of people who love each other and drive each other crazy--which is something we can all identify with.
Q: What other animated programs do you like?
A: As an animation fan, I’m encouraged by anything that’s different and new that gets on the air. There are shows being tried today that don’t look like all the other shows we’ve seen come out of the big animation sausage factories for the last 20 years. “Ren & Stimpy,” “Rug Rats,” “Eek the Cat!” and “Batman” are visually different from that same old stuff.
Q: As the father of 2- and 4-year-old sons, what do you watch with your children?
A: They like “The Simpsons” OK, but they prefer Disney and the classic Warner Bros. cartoons, so I respect their good taste. Much to my wife’s dismay, I watch cartoons with my kids, and I have to admit there’s a slight increase in tiny fisticuffs around the house after watching the old classic “Popeyes.” One show I probably wouldn’t watch if I didn’t have kids is “Shelley Duval’s Bedtime Stories” on Showtime, which is a really impressive series for kids.
Q: If “Ren & Stimpy” and “Beavis and Butt-head” can make it on TV, is there a chance for “Life in Hell” in animation?
A: After “Beavis and Butt-head,” I think everything is permitted. By the way, I love Beavis, but I just want to kill that darned Butt-head! There is a possibility that the “Life in Hell” characters might be animated sometime, but I hesitate, knowing the hellishness of success that I’ve experienced on “The Simpsons.” Animation is a brain and body killer--it’s hard work!
Q: Will the current flap over violence on television affect “The Simpsons"--especially “Itchy and Scratchy”?
A: I’ve always maintained that what’s bad for children is not violence but bad storytelling. There’s plenty of bad storytelling on TV, but a good violent story is still a good story. I’m not particularly enthused about violence as entertainment, but with “Itchy and Scratchy” we’re parodying some of the ridiculous, violent cat-and-mouse cartoons of the past. So “The Simpsons” will not be affected by the outcry: They’ll be as crude and crass as ever.
Q: So what crude and crass adventures can viewers expect during the new season?
A: We’re always trying to top ourselves and not repeat what other shows have done, which causes the situations to become more outlandish every season. On tonight’s season premiere, Homer reveals he was a member of the Be Sharps, a chart-topping barbershop quartet in the mid-'80s. Later in the season, gambling will be legalized in Springfield and Mr. Burns will open his first casino. Sideshow Bob--voiced by Kelsey Grammer--will get out of prison again, this time with the words Die Bart Die tattooed on his chest--which he explains to the parole board is merely German for “The Bart.” Our annual Halloween special, “Treehouse of Horror IV,” includes “Bart Simpson’s Dracula,” inspired by the recent Coppola frenzy. And a new worker played by Michelle Pfeiffer comes to tempt Homer at the Springfield nuclear power plant.
Q: How long do you think you can keep “The Simpsons” going?
A: One of the most difficult things about animation is that it requires unblinking scrutiny at every stage of the process or things can go disastrously off track. I don’t know how long we can maintain the standards we’ve set for ourselves; I hope we go out riding high, but whether that’s in the next few years or several years down the line, I can’t say.
Q: Does having a new group of writers help keep things fresh?
A: We have a new executive producer, David Merkin, who worked on “Get a Life” and “New-hart,” and there’s a whole slew of downy-cheeked new writers, whom I have the pleasure of telling, “Sorry, we already did that in season two,” whenever they come up with a brilliant idea. I think having a staff of people who aren’t shaving yet is going to work in our favor--they’re more in touch with Bart’s inner child.
Q: Are you still planning a Krusty the Klown spinoff?
A: There were plans to do a “Krusty the Klown Show” in live action, but then I realized how much animation had spoiled me, so we started planning to do it in animation. Then things got bogged down in pesky business negotiations, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see a Krusty spinoff in this century.
Q: What about the plans for “The Simpsons” comic books?
A: We’ve started a comic-book company called Bongo Comics Group. Our debut titles are “Simpsons Comics,” “Bartman Comics,” “Itchy and Scratchy” and “Radioactive Man"--Radioactive Man is the comic book hero Bart worships on the show. We’re trying to appeal to an audience that’s been overlooked in comic-book stores: kids who want to read something that’s funny and not full of gruesome, sadomasochistic power fantasies. I just hope that audience exists!