The long-running show's writers explain how their creative process works, two decades in.
In 1987, half of Europe was controlled by the Soviet Union. Then Matt Groening, mostly known at the time for being creator of the syndicated comic strip "Life in Hell," started working on a series of animated shorts. They would air on the Tracey Ullman Show, on a then-fledgling FOX network.
James L. Brooks and Sam Simon, writers, producers, and veterans of sitcoms including Taxi and Cheers, took note of Groening's work and assembled a writing staff. By December 17, 1989, when The Simpsons premiered as a half-hour series, the Berlin Wall had fallen. The Warsaw Pact's last Stalinist, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, was under siege. Two years later, when FOX moved the show to Thursday nights to compete against The Cosby Show on NBC, the USSR was in ruins.
Coincidence? Well, yeah. Obviously. But the time-frame gives you some idea of just how long the show has been on the air. In the 499 episodes and 23 seasons since that fateful December day, we have had a Clinton, an Obama, and two Bushes in the White House. We've seen Keaton, Clooney, Kilmer, and Bale as Batman. We've been through a pair of Internet bubbles, three wars, and at least a dozen Brett Favre retirements and comebacks. Along the way, the population of these United States has jumping from 248 million to 312 million, meaning more than 64 million Americans alive today have never known a world without Maggie, Lisa, Bart, Marge, and Homer in it.
With Sunday's airing of "At Long Last Leave" on FOX, 8:00 Eastern, the family that defined dysfunctional hits its astonishing 500th episode—a mark reached by only two other primetime scripted TV series, Gunsmoke and Lassie. Neither of which was funny. And neither of which had a tenth of the social impact.
Being animated has helped, of course. The characters never have to age. But the show hasn't succeed merely by avoiding the horrors of a cute child star growing to a surly teen on screen.
The Simpsons was revolutionary for being the first show on TV about TV. Ostensibly the story of a nuclear family (pun intended) living in the generic American town of Springfield, USA, The Simpsons, as media scholar Douglas Rushkoff has noted, is really a show about media itself. The first, and by far the most literate TV show to take on mass media and its discontents as a theme, Homer and company have been deconstructing pop culture for our edification and pleasure since the gang at Community were getting meta in grade school. Be it Hitchcock movies, infomercials, the superficial and sensationalistic local news, or Thomas Pynchon novels, the show is a crash course in popular culture, nearly compulsively cataloging and critiquing other media forms.
The Tom and Jerry parody Itchy and Scratchy, for instance. That show-within-a-show obsessively watched by the Simpsons kids was dazzlingly original for pointing out—usually in bloody detail—the rather uncomfortable truth that many Saturday morning cartoon shows for kids are insanely, even sadistically violent. Having that disturbing fact about mass media confirmed by mass media is not only funny, but a profound comfort to an audience.
Al Jean was on that first writing staff in 1989. Now an executive producer with eight Emmys and a Peabody, he oversees the series' production as showrunner. Jean told us about the very unusual guest for episode 500: Julian Assange. Currently under house arrest Britain and fighting extradition to Sweden, the WikiLeaks founder recorded his cameo over the phone.
"That was a first," Jean said.
Assange joins a mind-boggling roster of guest stars who've been on over the decades, one that reads like an encyclopedia of popular culture. Bob Hope, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Steven Jay Gould, Steven Hawking, Werner Herzog. Really. It goes on and on. Consider just the "J" section, for instance, which includes Jeff Bezos. Jasper Johns, Johnny Carson, and John Updike. British Prime Minster Tony Blair was on. While he was in office.
"That was cool," Jean said. "But we've never had a president on. Maybe that's why I was so excited about having Roosevelt this season."
That would be Teddy. In this season's second episode, "Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts," Superintendent Chalmers takes over Bart's education. The show features a guest appearance by, yes, Theodore Roosevelt. Sort of. Kind of. They used archival audio of the president's voice to create the impression that TR and Bart Simpson met.
Tim Long, a consulting producer, wrote the script. He explained the writing process.
"Al suggested the idea," Long said. "Both he and I had read the Edmund Morris books about Teddy, and we'd discussed them. So I think that's why he suggested it to me."
Long said he likes building shows around characters who've previously been in the background. Like Chalmers. He's Bart's principal's boss. But despite appearing on the show since Season 4, Chalmers had never really done much more than yell "Skinner!" at his subordinate. Chalmers had certainly never been central to an episode.
"It felt like Chalmers would be one of those guys who decries the way education has changed," Long said. "That he would be concerned about the way boys seem to be falling behind in school. So the whole thing started to gel."
This, by the way, is on a show that former Secretary of Education William Bennett once condemned as a negative influence on American's youth.
Long met with a few other writers. "We started to fill in some of the gaps—both in the story, and in Chalmers' attitudes and backstory."
Eventually he got together a "beat sheet,"
"It's sort of a short plot outline," he explained.
"With a few changes, Al approved it. Then I went out and wrote a draft. When I came back with the draft, the whole thing went through extensive rewrites and punch-ups. Then we had a table read with the actors. Then more rewrites, and then recording the audio."
After that, he said, comes what's called "animatics"—sort of simple mock-ups, displayed in sequence. "Then we do more rewrites, the color animation, and there's still more rewriting and recording."
All told, Long said, the whole process, from conception to air, took about year—typical for most episodes.
After doing that 500 times over two-plus decades, Jean told us that "the biggest challenge by far" is thinking of an original storyline. "The key is finding something we haven't done. Once we get that story, we know the writers, and staff and everyone can make it work."
That challenge was notoriously articulated and spoofed by one of the program's most successful followers, South Park, in 2002's hyper self-referential "The Simpsons Already Did It" episode.
South Park's usually mousy Butters character was taken over by his evil alter-ego, Professor Chaos. He tries to bring disarray to South Park, but every idea he comes up turns out to have already been a Simpsons plot.
"I think about that episode all the time," Jean said. "Once I was talking to my mom about a story idea. She said, 'South Park did it.'''
Good burn, mom.
What will Jean be thinking on Sunday night, as episode 500 airs? "That I'm glad it's over," he laughs. "And I guess I'll be thinking about working on number 501."
He's better be thinking further ahead than that. FOX has signed the show to air a 24th and 25th season, bringing the all-time episode tally up to 559. By then we may have a new president, or a new Batman. We may watch more dictatorships fall, or even have to see Brett Favre come back and retire again. Come what may though, at least The Simpsons will be there to go through it with us.