Few corners of the Earth have been safe from the cultural reach of “The Simpsons.” From Pakistan to Sweden to China, the American family that perhaps put the most fun into dysfunctional has delighted audiences - and confounded network and government censors - seemingly everywhere.
But until Friday, the family at the center of the longest running primetime scripted series on American television had never conquered the Hollywood Bowl. Well, “The Simpsons” can now officially itchy and scratchy that off its bucket list, if there’s anything left on it.
FOR THE RECORD
1:20 p.m.: An earlier version of this post referred to a character played by Conan O’Brien as Lyle Langley; the correct name is Lyle Lanley.
This post was originally published at 11:43 a.m.
The evening kicked off the first of a three night musical bash, appropriately called “The Simpsons Take the Bowl,” to help honor the groundbreaking sitcom’s astonishing longevity. On Sept. 28, the wonderfully unconventional Fox creation that proved a primetime cartoon could attract an adult audience will launch its 26th season with the episode, “Clown in the Dumps.”
Friday’s performance was a night of celebration, gratitude and looking back proudly on an incredible body of satirical work. Clips culled from its movie projects and its 552 TV episodes were played on the bowl’s big screens, joined by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra conducted by Thomas Wilkins.
For a silver anniversary, it was relatively low on sentimentality. No self-congratulatory speeches or weeping into hankies over their personal “journey” or “finding their passion.” Anything reeking of bloated self-importance would have been contrary to the farcical nature of the Simpsons ethos.
By design, the Simpsons bowl program was structured like an episode of television, albeit a hybrid - one that was part animated, part live action. While there were no commercials - unless you count the entire evening as one to push Simpsons merchandise - the show even opened and closed with credits.
The night’s core cast were co-hosts Hank Azaria, Nancy Cartwright and Yeardley Smith. You may or may not know their faces, but you definitely recognize their Simpson voices.
Azaria does many Simpsons voices, most notably Moe Szyslak, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon and Chief Wiggum. Yeardley Smith voices Lisa Simpson, while Nancy Cartwright does the honors for show scoundrel Bart. (Not at the performance were Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Homer, and Julie Kavner, who does Marge.)
And just like the animated TV show, there was a cavalcade of guest stars - Beverly D’Angelo, Jon Lovitz, Hans Zimmer, Conan O’Brien, “Weird Al” Yankovic, and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles who sang a terrifically choreographed and hammed up version of “Spider Pig.”
One of the hallmarks of the weekend show was its wonderfully mocking tone. It spared no one, not even the venerable Hollywood Bowl itself. In the show’s opening moments, a new animation clip had Homer and family racing to the bowl and paying for “El Cheapo” parking near the venue, only to end up in a stacked lot nightmare.
A big and bearded Matt Groening, the show’s creator, continued the mocking. This time, it was turned inward.
“Hi, I’m Matt and you may know me from `The Simpsons’ on TV and the re-runs of `The Simpsons’ on TV,” he said.
He told a few behind-the-scenes tales about the TV show, its many battles with the network censors and threw in a few tidbits of Simpsons trivia as well. It’s true, he explained, many of the show’s characters were named after people he knew growing up. That included his parents, Itchy and Scratchy, he added.
Well before reaching their bowl seats, the audience of truly all ages - that’s what happens when you’re on the air for a quarter century - was treated to a mini-Simpsons carnival. The historic venue, inside and out, was bedecked in all things Simpsons, a TV show that has raked in 31 Emmys.
There was a mini-Duff air blimp, and a battery of T-shirt cannons blazing away. Ushers hustling around the venue wore red cornstalk-style wigs like Sideshow Bob, while many female orchestra members donned a mountain of blue hair a la Marge Simpson.
Life-size cut-out characters dotted the bowl area including one of Montgomery Burns, the evil one-percenter everyone loves to hate. (His quote bubble said “Release the sounds,” a play on his infamous line “Release the hounds,” a tactic used to empty out his estate after an employee picnic.) One of the longer lines anywhere all night was for a photo with a large re-creation of the Simpsons themselves, planted on their famous family couch.
In a special nod to this industry town, the show also held its own special “In Memoriam” segment. Instead of honoring the dead per se, the Simpsons crew decided to pay tribute to the rather long list of dearly departed Fox network chiefs who served during the TV series’ run. Barry Diller, Gail Berman, Peter Liguori, to name a few, with the final joke being that Ralph Wiggum would someday be head of the network.
One of the evening’s many highlights was O’Brien, a former staff writer for “The Simpsons” two decades ago. The talk show host came dressed as Lyle Lanley, a con artist like Harold Hill in “The Music Man” who persuades Springfield to buy a useless monorail system.
O’Brien, who wrote the episode that aired in 1993, said he remembered thinking at the time as he looked around the writers room that “The Simpsons” had a season, maybe two, left in the tank before it would be canceled.
But as “Weird Al” Yankovic pointed out in his parody of John Mellencamp’s classic “Jack and Diane,” there’s no stopping certain forces of nature. In his little ditty about “Homer and Marge,” Yankovic sang that the Simpsons “will go on, long after the human race is gone.”