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Friday, April 25th, 2014

A Chat with the Cast and Crew of 'The Simpsons'

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

The Simpsons has been on TV forever. Over its long run, The Paley Center has done a number of Simpsons-centered events over the years (From the Archives looked back at one featuring Matt Groening and director David Silverman from 1992) and I attempted to pick one of the more recent ones, celebrating the show's 300th episode. It wasn't until I was about halfway through the seminar that I looked at the date and realized that this event was still 11 years ago, in 2003(!). Assembled here for the big panel are creator Matt Groening, past and present show runner Al Jean, and the voices of Homer, Lisa, and Mr. Burns, and thousands of others, respectively, Dan Castellaneta, Yeardley Smith, and Harry Shearer.

As I imagine is often the case, a number of questions are centered around the creation and process behind the show that seemed to be asked every time these figures are interviewed, whether together or separate. The Simpsons started out on The Tracey Ullman Show. Matt invented the characters outside of Jim Brooks' office so he didn't have to give up the rights to the characters in his "Life in Hell" comic strip. The family is named after the members of Matt's family. The process of creating an episode takes many months, many steps, and many, many rewrites at every stage. They are all surprised that the show has lasted this long. If you're a fan of the show, you already know all of this.

However, there was still a lot to be learned from this large pool of talent, once you get the basics out of the way. The casting for the show was mostly done during the Tracy Ullman Show era with the voice actors Dan Castelleneta and Julie Kavner being plucked out of the cast of the show. Nancy Cartwright, voice of Bart, and Yeardley Smith, Lisa, auditioned for the show separately, with Yeardley initially auditioning for Bart. When recording audio for the original shorts, often the cast would huddle under blankets behind the bleachers of the show and record the lines between the saw blades building the sets and Tracey rehearsing her music numbers. The early days of The Simpsons were rather ramshackle, but clearly they did something right.

Harry Shearer was brought on once the show went to series and then went on to do many, many voices on the show. When asked how he creates so many unique voices he states that his process is "as unanalytical as humanly possible… I just made a leap for each one. The only thought I gave was that I didn't want one to be too close to another…. If they didn't say stop, do something else, I'd keep going." Castellaneta, who supplies the voices for an equally large selection of characters, echoed this sentiment, saying that it took him about three tries to find the right voice for Homer's friend Barney Gumble. In general, at the read-throughs where writers will hear the voices for the first time, they'll just go with it unless there's a specific way they wrote it.

Al Jean, who worked as The Simpsons showrunner with his writing partner Mike Riess for seasons 3 and 4, before returning to run the show solo with season 13, was asked if he's ever tempted to change the focus of the show, and his response is that every show runner throughout the course of the show always says they want to focus on the family. Groening then chimes in that what their main goal now is to surprise the audience and experiment.

The second half of the seminar is comprised of questions via satellites from a number of colleges and universities from across the country. As is often the case with audience questions, some are incredibly insightful, and some don't work out so well. The first question is an example of the latter, but leads into an interesting discussion. The panel is asked why the show talks so much about death and religion, since it's a cartoon and it's supposed to be funny. Groening explains it rather succinctly: "The best comedy comes from what you have the most anxiety about, and people have a lot of anxiety about death and religion. We also do a lot of baldness jokes." From here, there is a little bit of a discussion about how the media's perception of the show has changed over the years. According to Shearer, initially the show was excoriated by the conservative media for destroying family values and Bart's bad influence. However, in the last couple of years, he had been interviewed by two conservative magazines about Ned Flanders, which referred to the show as one of the most moral shows on TV.

The panel is asked if they're ever concerned about "going too far" and immediately it gets a little dark when Jean states that he doesn't think there's a funny way to handle abortion or Homer being physically abusive to Marge (Although, Groening points out, he can do it to Bart). This question sparks something in Groening who tells a brief story about having Homer give out his email address on the show, which was an actual address that one of the writers would respond from as Homer Simpson. One woman wrote to Homer and said that she was grateful for last week's episode of the show because it was the first time she had laughed since the World Trade Center, to which Homer wrote back, "What happened to the World Trade Center?" This being 2003, the crowd was not ready for this joke, and while nobody boos or anything, there's suddenly an awful lot of tension in the room as Matt apologizes, blames it on Homer, and points out that the question was about "going too far."

This being 2003, the questions is posed about the possibility of a Simpsons Movie, which would eventually be released in 2007, and at this point was already secretly in the scriptwriting phase. This question is handled very diplomatically. Jean cryptically responds that the cast is signed to do it if there is a script, and Groening responds that it's hard to write a movie while the show is still on the air, but if they come up with a good movie idea, they'll do it. While not a particularly enlightening piece of information today, it is interesting to see how they dodge the question without answering one way or the other.

At one point in the panel they are asked if they're ever worried about running out of story ideas and Matt admits that they really aren't. More often, "we find ourselves wondering if we've already done a joke." Here we stand, in Season 25, with 548 episodes aired and at least one more season on its way, and the stories keep coming. Sure, we can debate endlessly when the show peaked, and if it's as good as it once was, but the fact of the matter remains: The Simpsons continues to roll forward, delivering unique stories, and fresh new jokes every week. Personally, here's hoping for 25 more.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries "Ramsey Has a Time Machine" has a very self-explanatory title.