The Simpsons of Springfield, U.S.A., will mark their 500th episode as a TV family Sunday. “The Simpsons,” in its 23rd season on Fox, is already the longest-running cartoon, the longest-running situation comedy and the longest-running scripted prime-time series in the history of American television.
There is something especially improbable about this particular household, with their goggle-eyes and cantilevered overbites and complexions betokening an advanced case of jaundice, claiming these crowns. And yet it is exactly in the spirit of the show, embedded in its seemingly contradictory quantum mechanics: They are losers who win, even as they lose, if for no other reason than they have one another. This remarkably stable long-term relationship is at once their horrible fate, and their good fortune.
On the Saturday before the airing of the 499th episode, I sat down over soft tacos, chile rellenos and mole tamales with “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening in a Oaxacan restaurant south of Hollywood, not far from where he lived in the days before the series made him an international household name. (I should say now, in the spirit of transparency, that I knew him then, when we were working for competing alternative newspapers in the early 1980s — Groening was writing for the L.A. Reader, which also published his comic strip “Life in Hell,” which he still draws weekly — and have since.)
“I had this vague idea of invading pop culture,” Oregon native Groening said of his early days in Los Angeles, which he chose over New York as the warmer, drier place to live in poverty while planning that coup. “I remember hanging out, just down this street, in Astro Burger with [artist friends] Gary Panter and Byron Werner and scheming how to do it. Gary had written an art manifesto about it and Byron said, no, that we were sell outs, as we split a burger three ways.”
And now: Three days after our lunch, Groening received a star on the Walk of Fame, to go with the one “The Simpsons” already holds. The art toy company Kidrobot, which produces a line of Simpsons figures, has now added one of their creator, holding a big pencil in one hand and a sketch of Homer Simpson in the other. A seventh season of his other cartoon series, “Futurama,” revived by Comedy Central after being canceled by Fox, is in production. And it was announced this week that, thanks to a $500,000 endowment, there is a Matt Groening Chair in Animation at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
“I think we were in the right place at the right time,” he said of the series’ long life and global reach. “Audiences were ready again for a prime-time animated TV show. We were the first out of the gate and, using a very conservative template of a family sitcom, found a way to tell jokes in many different styles, from slapstick to references I don’t even get. There are really obvious pratfalls and stuff taken from traditional cartoons, but there’s also a guest appearance by Thomas Pynchon. It’s really crazy that something so quirky is so popular, but whatever that mix is, it works.”
He recalled the company sitting down “for a table read of the 200th episode, and that was a staggering number. David Mirkin, one of the executive producers, said, ‘Well, we’re halfway home.’ And everybody laughed because it was obvious that there was no way we would be on for 400. So now to have done 500 is … really fatiguing.”
If the series, developed with James L. Brooks and Sam Simon, is no longer at the center of the cultural discussion — “We’re not the new kid in town and haven’t been for a couple of decades now,” says Groening — it is because it has permeated the culture. It has seeped into the common soil, generating everything from toys (recently banned in Iran) and comics and trading cards to academic papers with titles like “‘The Simpsons Movie': Critiques on Consumerism and Environmental Problems” and “Tones of Morality Through Layers of Sarcasm: The Simpsons and Its Underlying Themes.”
“I’ve been in a street market in Argentina where somebody took pieces of chalk and carved Simpsons figurines out of them,” says Groening, “and of course there are Simpsons Russian nesting dolls. Wherever you go, somebody has appropriated the thing, and it’s off-model and totally delightful.”
Situation comedy is a kind of paean to self-destructive human foolishness in which the foolish humans never quite destroy themselves. (Because there is always a next week.) There is a lot of celebration in “The Simpsons’” satire: Groening describes the show as “‘a bunch of writers and animators trying to be as funny as possible and still tell stories with heart. James L. Brooks insisted from the very beginning that the characters had to be real and if it were just a cartoon he wasn’t interested in pursuing it. And I think that was a really smart thing.”
“The Simpsons” of today is certainly a different show than in its first season, when it was rendered in a handmade squiggly line and more narrowly played with the elements of classic family sitcoms. The ratio of domestic humor to pop-cultural or political satire to conceptual weirdness that makes up the mature series varies from episode to episode, to the delight or dismay of its followers, but the show has been remarkably consistent over the decades.
The current season has parodied “Mad Men,” “The Social Network,” the lachrymose punditry of Glenn Beck and young-adult literature (in the framework of a caper film). But it also has Bart reading “Little Women” to the school bullies, Marge discovering Ethiopian food (Lisa: “They’re using pancakes as spoons!” Bart: “Let’s see what else they do wrong!”), and a strangely lovely Christmas episode, “Holidays of Future Passed,” that takes family into its imperfect but not hopeless future.
Even after half a thousand episodes, are there stories Groeningwants to make sure to tell before the still-not-in-sight end? “Mostly it’s revealing back stories of some of the characters we’ve never dealt with. We have a character we call Squeaky-Voiced Teen, which is [Dan] Castellaneta doing a 1940s Hollywood teenager. We’ve never given him a name; I’d like to know a little bit more about that guy.
“Once at Fox 20 years ago, they asked, ‘What would you like to see? We’ll do anything.’ I said, ‘Well, how about a 600-foot-tall statue of Homer Simpson in West L.A., and at midnight he tilts his head back and laughs uproariously all over Los Angeles?’ And you could eat lunch in his head, which would turn 360 degrees. They said, ‘Be more realistic.’ I said, ‘OK, how about a blimp shaped like Homer that flies around the world?’”
In a sense, that’s exactly what happened.