Dan Castellaneta, Yeardley Smith, Al Jean, Matt Groening and James L. Brooks talk about the 400th episode
With The Simpsons airing their 400the episode May 20th, it is interesting to note that they have been on television over 17 years. They started as small segments on The Tracey Ullman Show, but evolved to their own TV series, and this year their first full length motion picture.
Recently, Dan Castellaneta (Homer), Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Al Jean (writer/producer), Matt Groening (creator/writer/producer) and James L. Brooks (write/producer) got together to discuss the tremendous popularity of the show, the characters, it's longevity, and the new motion picture due out later this year.
Do you think the fans who started with the show will love the show when they're 54 years old and they've been with the show for 36 years? What would you do to cater to those folks?
James L. Brooks: I don't think there's a constant mass that watches this show as they grow older. I think it's replenished. And the great thing to us about the show right now, if you saw any of our work weeks, is that the passion still goes into the show. We still worry. Everybody comments to us about how long we've been on, but the experience of doing the show, except for a lot of creative independence we get, is very much like we're just starting.
Matt Groening: And sadly, many of our fans have died -- (Laughter) they've gotten so old. But luckily, new ones are being born every day.
Do you ever copy yourself? Is there some big log of jokes that you can look at and somebody remembers, "Didn't we do that before?"
Matt Groening: We have writers now who are so young that they grew up watching the show, and they remind some of us who have been around longer that we've already done a joke that somebody is pitching.
Al Jean: Yeah, you know, we've said on the show that Bart was born in 1980. We have a writer on the show who is now younger than Bart.
Matt Groening: And Dan and Yeardley also keep us honest because they remember the lines that they've said.
Dan Castellaneta: I know that Al has an encyclopedic memory of the show. And anybody who raises (the idea) especially a new writer, "Why don't we do this?" Al will know exactly when it was, what episode, and, you know, when they did the joke.
What is it about the format or the content of this show that allows it to still be successful for so long?
Yeardley Smith: I really think it's that - because of the creative control that Jim Brooks set up when he said he would do this show, that you don't have too many cooks spoiling the soup, that that's sort of the magic formula and that if you took that away, probably we would have lasted maybe those six or seven years. I firmly believe that that's the magic bullet.
Is it the animation format that also lends itself to not get tired?
James L. Brooks: The thing I love most about the show is that you can do any form of comedy. You can do low comedy, high comedy, romantic comedy. You can take it anyplace. I think that's I say is the number one reason.
When will you know when it's time to quit?
Al Jean: Well, we definitely still are really excited about the stories that we're doing. You know, to be honest, it's not as easy as it was 17 years ago. But I think we would know if we just felt we were really having trouble coming up with ideas, but we're not.
James L. Brooks: To us, it's like if you had a vineyard and you had great years and years where it wasn't. It works like that. It doesn't work in one continuum. I think the last couple years have been among our best.
Why did it take so long to get a movie done?
James L. Brooks: You know what the truth is? Because I can't quite put my finger on it. We always wanted the right, at the last minute, to say we weren't doing a movie, even after we'd worked at the script. We always wanted that right, and there was one regime where that was tough to grant, and we needed that. And I think what finally happened is that we wanted to do it. We had thought about it a long time. And we had a critical moment in the third year where we had an episode that, if we added to, we thought it would be a great movie. It was "Kamp Krusty." Then we said, "We're a television show," and that shut us up for a long time because we are a television show. We wanted to focus on that. And then two years ago, almost simultaneously, we all began to think we should explore it.
The "Treehouse of Horror" episode this season ended with parallels to the Iraq war. It's a very different tone for you guys. In hindsight, do you think that worked, and would you do something like that again?
Al Jean: Well, the sad thing is we wrote the joke -- it was more of a political commentary even -- a year ago, and it was still timely when the show came out. I hope to God for everybody that's over there that things get better soon. We've always been satirical. I don't think it's anything different from what we've done in the run of the show. We do like to mix it up. We do something like that, and then we do sort of a farce the next week.
Who are some of the big stars just begging, banging down your doors to get on your show? Because everybody you talk to, they want to be a voice on The Simpsons. They want to see their little image as part of your group.
Al Jean: In February we (had) two great shows: Natalie Portman and Eric Idle. Eric Idle in a show where we satirize the "7Up" movies. He plays the filmmaker. It's terrific. We (had) Meg Ryan, Stephen Sondheim, James Patterson, Peter Bogdanovich, and Andy Dick in one episode on March 4th. And then next season we've got an episode that has Stephen Colbert and Lionel Richie ..., among others.
Is there anyone who has asked you where you just say, "No, we don't want you," just because you can?
Matt Groening: Well, that's the glory of being in Hollywood. No. We have a long list. There are a few people we've tried to get on the show who we haven't gotten yet, but we'll get them eventually.
Al Jean: We've never gotten a President of the U.S. although Rudy Giuliani is doing a bit in a show that's coming up this year.
Is there something that you've always felt you wanted to do and you needed the freedom of the big screen to do it?
James L. Brooks: You know, it's the home team that's doing the movie. It's not a different group of people who came in. For our animators to have this kind of scope and this stuff to play with for the first time, I can't tell you what it means to them.
Dan, if you listen to the first, second season, Homer sounds nothing like Homer today. And I wonder how the voice finally found -- how you finally found Homer's voice.
Dan Castellaneta: Well, when we first started with "The Tracey" -- they were little interstitials in "The Tracey Ullman Show" -- it took maybe about an hour to record, you know, those small segments. But the first sessions were about nine hours long, as I recall. And I started out with kind of a Walter Matthau kind of voice like that, but Homer's emotions went all over the place. And doing (making Homer noises) all day, I needed more power. I needed more power behind it, and I also needed to find an area in my throat that was more comfortable. So it was over a gradual period where it went like this and then it got dropped down like there. There I could have the power and the emotion. Every kind of emotion.
And was "d'oh!" always written, or did it just happen?
Dan Castellaneta: That actually came from the very first -- when we were doing "The Tracey Ullman Show" shorts. And it was written as "annoyed grunt," and I asked Matt, "What's an annoyed grunt?" He says, "Whatever you want." And being a big Laurel and Hardy fan, I went back to Jim Finlayson, who used to go, "D'ohhh!" But we only had, like, 30 seconds or something, so Matt said, "You've got to speed it up. We don't have that much time." So then it went from "d'ohhh!" to "d'oh!"
Mr. Brooks, let me ask you. You've had such a long career in TV and movies. How does The Simpsons fit into your career? Do you consider it among the proudest achievements?
James L. Brooks: You can't grasp it. You know, it's the thing that doesn't happen to any of us. It's the thing that always happens to somebody you read about, for all of us, I think. And the great thing, as I say, what it is now is the degree of creative freedom we have as it becomes, you know, less so around us. We still have that kind of freedom that we had from the earliest days, the FCC notwithstanding. But you know, as far as our own ability to try and do the show the best way we can, we're unimpeded. And as a matter of fact, we're supported. So that part is amazing. And you know, it seems -- it's harder to relate to because of what the show has become, you know. It's just -- it's so beyond imagination, what's happened to us, that you can't wear it the same way.
Where do you put it on your resume as far as your favorite things you've done or proudest things?
James L. Brooks: Well, it's -- yeah, I think 1, I guess. Yeah.
And to follow that up, are you totally sated in terms of any interest of doing live-action TV comedy anymore? Do you ever think about that?
James L. Brooks: Yeah, sure. There're shows I love. Yes, you bet.
Matt Groening: I have to say, one of the reasons why the show has been on the air, I think, as long as it has, is because of the ambition that Jim inspired back at the very beginning when we were just doing little shorts on "The Tracey Ullman Show." When it came time to do the show as a series, Jim said he was interested in it only if we went for real emotion. That's always been his ambition for the show, and it's an ambition we share. I think The Simpsons is plenty goofy and wacky and has some great side gags, but we try to return to some real emotion consistently. That's actually been one of the things we've aimed for in the movie, as well. We're trying to take advantage of the media of animation on the big screen. Also, it gives us more time to explore the characters' feelings in a way that is more difficult in a 22-minute weekly TV show.
The Simpsons 400th episode airs this Sunday at 8/7c.
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