‘The Simpsons’ set to invade the Hollywood Bowl
When you gather some of the top creative names behind “The Simpsons” in one room, a reporter’s questions tend to get buried under rapid-fire one-liners, overlapping anecdotes and boisterous laughter. ¡Ay caramba!
But who would expect otherwise from a team that has worked together for a quarter of a century chronicling America’s most comically dysfunctional family?
The first wisecrack on a recent afternoon was fired by Matt Groening, creator of the long-running animated series on the Fox network. “What is this, the Watergate hearings?” he deadpanned when sitting down with three colleagues to face a reporter on the other side of a conference room table.
It was actually the same room on the Fox lot that the series uses for its table reads before each episode. Taking their places at his side were “Simpsons” producers Al Jean and David Silverman and actress Nancy Cartwright, who voices the role of 10-year-old truant Bart Simpson.
The occasion was a spirited conversation about the show’s 25th-anniversary celebration. If the recent FXX marathon and news of a soon-to-be-released app featuring every episode weren’t enough to satisfy fans, “The Simpsons” is throwing a live concert bash starting Sept. 12 at the Hollywood Bowl.
Many of the details of “The Simpsons Take the Bowl,” which runs for three weekend performances, were under wraps, but the team said the concert production would take the form of an episode and emphasize the series’ music, including performances of memorable comic songs by cast members and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.
“It’s structured like an episode, and it starts with opening credits,” said Jean. “And Matt is in it!”
“I’m going to read some of our creative censor notes,” Groening said, referring to lines and scenes that the network deemed questionable. “I was going through it today, and there’s a whole list that I can’t do, not even at the Hollywood Bowl.”
Writing began about a month and a half ago.
“We’ve been literally putting out a draft a day,” Jean said. “We’ve worked as hard on it as anything we’ve ever done.... We always like to think: What would I like to see if I were a fan of the show? What would I like to see live?”
The Bowl concert will mark the first time that “The Simpsons” team has tried a live event of this magnitude — and the first time the series has set up shop at the historic venue.
The song lineup includes live performances of “Do the Bartman” and “The Monorail Song.” The parody number “See My Vest,” which was sung by Montgomery Burns in a 1995 episode, will be performed by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.
Cartwright will team with actress Yeardley Smith, who voices Lisa Simpson, to perform a song from the show’s “Shary Bobbins” episode, which was a sendup of “Mary Poppins.”
“Those songs resemble what we saw in that movie but just enough that it’s ours and not enough to get us in trouble,” explained Cartwright.
The Bowl concerts will also feature original animation and will include the voices of Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner –- Homer and Marge Simpson. (The actors themselves aren’t scheduled to appear in the concert.)
Producers said the animation will be Bowl-themed in the tradition of classics like “Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl.”
“We’ve had a great time covering the Bowl to get the visuals right. We like to research when we cover a place,” said Silverman, referring to the process of animating a real venue.
In addition, the venue will be decked out to create a “Simpsons"-themed universe “in a way you’ve never seen the Bowl,” said Jean. “I can’t even tell you because I’m not sure yet.”
Silverman chimed in: “We’re painting it yellow, right?”
“We’re only going to be serving Krusty burgers and Squishees,” Cartwright said.
The concerts will serve as an informal tribute to composer Alf Clausen, who has scored the series since the first “Treehouse of Horror” episode in 1990.
“He’s the backbone of the show. He’s what you hear every week,” said Groening.
Clausen recalled in a separate interview that he had finished working on the series “Alf” and “Moonlighting” when he received the offer for “The Simpsons.”
“I said no,” he recalled by phone, adding that at the time he didn’t consider himself to be a cartoon composer. Groening eventually persuaded him. “He said to me that we look at the show not as a cartoon but as a drama where the characters are drawn … and would you like to score it with that in mind?”
The composer said his favorite “Simpsons” efforts include the Stonecutters’ anthem “We Do” from a 1995 episode and “Señor Burns” from the “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” episodes. He said that the writers typically provide the lyrics and that it usually takes him two to three days to compose the music for the songs as opposed to five days for the score.
Clausen said he works mostly from his home in Santa Clarita. (He and his wife have five grown children between them.) The orchestral scoring of each episode takes place with a 35-piece orchestra on scoring stages in L.A.
After 25 years, “the most difficult thing for me is the fatigue factor,” said the composer. “The hours are long, and the creativity level is high.... I can get writers block for a moment or two; if that happens, I will put that one music cue aside and come back to it the next day and I’ll know what I need to do.”
Hank Azaria — who voices many of the show’s supporting characters, including bartender Moe Szyslak and Kwik-E Mart operator Apu Nahasapeemapetilon — will host the Hollywood Bowl concerts and perform songs in character.
The actor said he will sing the “Who Needs the Kwik-E Mart?” number as Apu.
“He’s a character who started out as one joke,” said Azaria by phone from New York. “But then he got fleshed out. Apu is really smart and caring — more so than most Springfield natives.… He’s kind of an everyman in a way.”
Azaria said one of his favorite characters to voice is school Superintendent Chalmers. “I have a soft side for stock types,” he said.
In recent years, some critics and fans have complained that “The Simpsons” has lost its comic edge and originality.
“You see a lot of fan boys whining about quality,” said Azaria. “The truth is to say it goes up and down.”
The producers said they experienced burnout from working on “The Simpsons Movie,” released in theaters in 2007.
“We haven’t recovered from it,” said Groening. “What we learned from doing the movie was that we should have had a B team. The same people who did the movie did the show. We worked twice as hard for three or four years.”
The Bowl concert probably won’t have much of a life after its three performances. Producers said there are no plans to record the performances because some of the guest stars, including Conan O’Brien, are appearing as a favor to them.
“So there are no broadcast rights. I don’t know if anyone can hold up a cellphone,” said Jean.
O’Brien formerly worked on “The Simpsons” as a producer and writer. Also set to appear is “Weird Al” Yankovic, who will perform a version of the song “Homer and Marge,” a parody of the single “Jack and Diane.”
When asked if there are any characters they would like to see given a song, the team fired off a number of suggestions. Groening mentioned Ned Flanders while David brought up Prof. Frink.
Cartwright said she would like to perform a full song as Nelson Muntz, the school bully noted for his mocking laughter.
Speaking in Nelson’s rough, gravelly voice, the actress declared: “I must say I’m ready for my close-up!”
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