Eternal Youth Keeps ‘The Simpsons’ Fresh
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – For more than a decade they have reigned as television’s favorite dysfunctional family, and now “The Simpsons (news – Y! TV)” will soon enter the record books as the longest-running sitcom in prime-time history.
Now in their 14th season of animated social satire on Fox television, that beer-guzzling, doughnut-scarfing family man Homer Simpson and all the good citizens of Springfield have shown no signs of aging as they near their 300th episode.
With its ratings on the rise, “The Simpsons” remains one of the most watched TV shows on Sunday night and was one of the rare bright spots on the Fox lineup during an overall slump in the News Corp.-owned network’s viewership earlier this season.
It also remains a perennial favorite among critics and in December earned its first Golden Globe nomination in the race for best comedy series, a rare feat for a cartoon show, even though it didn’t win.
Earlier this month, the network announced that it had renewed the series for two more years, through May 2005, meaning “The Simpsons” will stay on the air for at least 16 seasons. By then, they will have easily eclipsed the real-life Nelson family on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” as the longest-running weekly comedy series on TV. The Nelsons left ABC in 1966 after 14 seasons on the air.
But long before a very different Ozzy came to MTV as head of “The Osbournes” unruly household on MTV, “The Simpsons” had established itself as a worldwide pop culture phenomenon seen in more than 70 countries.
And according to creator and executive producer Matt Groening, eternal youth is a key ingredient of the show’s enduring success.
“I didn’t expect to be on the air this long,” Groening said at Fox’s winter showcase for critics in California recently. “One of the great things about doing an animated show is your characters don’t age. So your show stays fresh, and you keep the audience fresh. I love ’60 Minutes,’ but the people who make it are starting to look like the people who watch it.”
For Harry Shearer (news), the voice of Homer’s tyrannical boss, Mr. Burns, and the saccharin, Bible-thumping neighbor, Ned Flanders, the challenge of performing several characters is what keeps the show interesting.
“I would get enormously bored, even after seven years, just coming in and doing this one character every week,” Shearer said. “For the actors, one of the great things about making this show fun after all these years is all the different characters we do.”
One thing is certain. It isn’t big bucks that keeps the ensemble coming back year after year.
“Altogether, we still don’t make as much as one ‘Friend,”‘ joked Dan Castellaneta (news), the voice of Homer, alluding to the reported $1 million per episode earned by each of the six principal members of NBC’s hit comedy “Friends.”
The actors clearly enjoy their work, even if they have to suffer silly questions from fans at public appearances.
“The strangest question I ever got is: Do I sound like Lisa Simpson when I’m having sex? And the answer is no,” said voice actress Yeardley Smith (news).
Beginning as a string of cartoon shorts on the “Tracey Ullman (news) Show” in 1987, “The Simpsons” debuted as a half-hour series on the then-fledgling Fox network in January 1990.
At the outset, the series centered on the hijinks of the wisecracking, underachieving 10-year-old Bart Simpson, a spike-haired misfit who darts around town on his skateboard and drives his fourth-grade teacher nuts.
But as the show evolved, its focus shifted to Bart’s bone-headed father, Homer, who works at a nuclear power plant and punctuates his frequent mistakes with the anguished, half-syllable utterance “D’Oh!” Castellaneta said he adopted Homer’s signature expletive from a character in an old Laurel and Hardy film. “I think it’s a euphemism for ‘damn.”‘
Rounding out the Simpsons clan are beehive-haired mother Marge, the sensible, good-natured anchor of the family, and Bart’s two sisters — pacifier-sucking baby Maggie, a silent observer of all, and second-grade prodigy Lisa, a baritone saxophone virtuoso and intellectual of the family.
Behind them is a huge cast of regulars who populate the fictional town of Springfield — extended family members, neighbors, teachers, classmates, Homer’s co-workers, his pals at Moe’s Tavern, Apu the convenience store clerk, police chief Wiggum and even the Comic Book Guy.
The show derives much of its humor from sharp-edged social commentary, skewering authority figures and such hallowed institutions as public education, politics, the medical profession, law enforcement and the entertainment industry. The series also is known for the steady parade of guest celebrities who lend their voices, and in many cases their animated caricatures, to cameo appearances.
Actress Jane Kaczmarek (news) of “Malcolm in the Middle (news – Y! TV)” will reprise her role as Judge Harm for the upcoming 300th episode of “The Simpsons,” in which Bart goes to court to win emancipation from his parents after learning that he starred in a commercial as a baby and that Homer squandered all of his earnings. George Plimpton will appear as himself in a 301st original episode airing the same night.
Those two segments, and a rerun of an episode featuring guest stars Tom Petty (news), Lenny Kravitz (news), Elvis Costello (news) and Brian Setzer (news), will air in a 90-minute block on Feb. 16.
I guess the rumors of them going off the air after this season were unfounded.