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Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies From a Lifetime Writing For The Simpsons
Mike Reiss and Mathew Klickstein
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Matt Groening named the characters after his family - his parents Homer and Marge, his sisters Lisa and Maggie. Bark is supposed ly an anagram of brat, but he did have a brother named Mark .... The minor characters - Flanders, Lovejoy, Quimby, are all streets in G's hom town Portland, Oregon.
(Duff McKagan, bass guitarist for Guns N' Roses, likes to claim that he was inspiration for Duff beer, and that he was asked for permission to use the name. It's a cute fake story - writers had never even heard of him.)
Each character is instantly recognizable in silhouette.
Last animated prime time show was The Flintstones 20 years earlier. No-one remembered how it was done, but did rem one thing - "They keep running past the same goddam palm tree" - to avoid. Favourite couch gag ending the episode when The Simpsons beat out The Flintstones as longest running animated show: the Simpsons run into living room where they find the Flintstones already sitting on their couch. (Hanna-Barbera required thatFred Wilma and Pebbles be paid the standard guest fee of $400)
ALF was a show with a puppet, so we knew the kids would watch it, even if they didn't get the jokes. That freed us to write jokes purely for adults. They included a parody of The Tonight Show, which was on 3 hours after the kids had gone to bed.
Used same principle for The Simpsons - don't write for kids, write for their parents who will be watching it with them.
Not a new idea - Mad magazine often referred to, or parodied, things that kids would never have known or seen, but that their parents understood.
Use the phrase "for some reason" - it justifies the unjustifiable, for some reason.
San Simon wrote lyrics to Itchy and Scratchy theme song: They fight and bite, They fight and bite and fight, Fight fight fight, Bite bite bite, the Itchy and Scratchy Show!. Over time he has earned more than a million dollars from those lyrics.
(Reiss said he felt sorry for Nancy Cartwright, bc she normally talks like Bart. But .... she has since won an Emmy and earned $65 million with that voice.)
Once we instructed our Korean animators not to make all the background characters white. In next show they did, all the homeless people and criminals were black.(p103)
After 30 seasons, every member of the Simpsons family has been in prison, most of them twice.
It tkes 9 months to make a single episode - like pregnancy, another 9 month project, it starts out as fun and ends up painful, messy, and expensive.
A team of South Korean animators hand draws 24,000 cels to make one episode.
One of writers went to China to adopt a baby girl. Team immediately wrote an episode where Patty and Selma do that. The next year the same writer went to China to adopt another baby girl. And we said "Dude, we did that episode already!" So he went back to China and returned the baby.
From the start it was decreed "If you hear a fact on The Simpsons, it has to be true.
Reps of the nuclear power station industry objected to the way it was portrayed, so invited one of the writers to take a tour. He came back saying it was much worse than they imagined, but main takeaway: "There's a candy machine every ten feet!". So we faithfully worked this detail into the show.
parody of james Bond, Fox said couldn't use that name. So changed it to james Bont. And then had the actor record the line as "James Bond."
One night Homer is watching TV and an ad says "Warning: Beer can cause liver damage, kidney failure, and camcer of the rectum". And Homer says "Mmmmm .... beer".
Homer gets to 239 pounds ("I'm 239 and feeli' fine") and Monty Burns goes "You're the fattest thing I've ever seen. And I've been on safari."
The only catchphrase that is original is Nelson's "Haw-haw!". D'oh was first used by 1930's comedian Jimmy Findlayson, who used it as a synonym for damn. "Eat my shorts" ad "Don't have a cow" were around in 1950's schoolyards.
If you believe Wikipedia, The Simpsons have had 725 guest stars. Of course, according to Wikipedia, I've had sex with 725 supermodels. I know, bc I put it there.
Maggie Simpson has only spoken three times, but when she does, she is always voiced by a celebrity. Elizabeth Taylor uttered first word, "Daddy". (300 people crammed into the tiny studio to hear her record it.) The others werJodie Foster and Carole Kane.
Of allthe 725 guest stars, I've only had one I considered a prima donna. To protect her anonymity, I'm only allowed to use her first name - Oprah.
Whatever the fans say, people are stillwatching the show. Ratings in season 29 the highest they'd been for years. 658 episodes, and we do two or three plot lines per episode, which means that after three decadeswe've burned through 2000 stories. So to do a new episode we have to come up with the 2001st best idea out there.
Actors in human dramas get bored - Seinfeld, Friends cast, MASH, and they run out of ideas. The only live-action show that lasted nearly as long as The Simpsons was Lassie - a star who never complained.
Can't crack the Japanese market, and for the strangest reason - japanese don't like cartoon characters with only 4 fingers, bc Yakuza members chop off their little fingers as sign of loyalty. So to have four fingers implies you're a criminal. Disney actually goes to the expense of putting another finger on Mickey etc.
"Brooke Shields was so bad in a production of The Diary of Anne Frank that when the Nazis came onstage the audience yelled out "She's in the attic!"
When the show premiered in 1968, it was condemned by church groups across America, - until someone pointed out that the Simpsons were the only family on TV who actually went to church.
Dr Seuss hated children. So did hans Christian Anderson. Lewis Carroll loved children in a way that's illegal in 48 states...
I'm not gay. No, no. A thousand times no. Three times, yes, but I was drunk. The first time.
I have a shelf of awards fromgay groups. At least I think they're awards. Many vibrate.
How to spin criticism: 'Execrable' can mean 'deserving to be excreted'. See? 'Deserving'. That's good! Or it can mean'of poorest quality' Okay, see? 'Quality'. That is also very good.
Why does the show endure? Bc it's based on two fundamental human qualities: family and folly. Family basically stays the same no matter who the participants are. But folly constantly changes as humans make up new ways to be idiots.
A new book, Springfield Confidential, sheds light on the controversial character - who has already been benched from the show, according to writer Mike Reiss: “Hank Azaria saying he won’t voice the character anymore is like Val Kilmer announcing he won’t play Batman again - no one’s asking him to."
Apu is near death, according to the co-author of a new book on The Simpsons - which this week became the longest-running scripted series in the history of television. The book, Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for the Simpsons, by Mike Reiss - an original Simpsons writer still at the show - and Mathew Klickstein, author of a Nickelodeon oral history, contains scads of extremely funny and fascinating background material on everything from how The Simpsons came to foresee a Donald Trump presidency to why it's unlikely an Itchy and Scratchy feature film will ever be made. There’s also material about tension between its creators.
Despite the show passing Gunsmoke on April 29 with its 636th episode, the most talked about Simpsons character in the news right now has hardly made an appearance in two years. That’s thanks to Hari Kondabolu’s 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu, which turns a critical eye on the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor—a stereotypical Indian immigrant with a thick accent who’s voiced by the white actor Hank Azaria. An April 8 Simpsons episode tried to address the issue, but ultimately let it go with little more than a shrug: Lisa and Marge Simpson facing the camera as Marge says, “Some things will be dealt with at a later date.
“If at all,” Lisa adds.
But Azaria had a thoughtful response to the controversy during an April 24 Late Show appearance. “I think the most important thing is to listen to Indian people and their experience with it,” Azaria told Stephen Colbert. He added that if the character is to be eliminated or changed, he hopes that a South Asian writer or writers—none of which the show currently has on staff—will be asked to handle it. “I’m perfectly willing to step aside,” he concluded. “It just feels like the right thing to do, to me.”
Reiss’s response to Azaria displays some of the defiance that’s come to define the Simpsons writers’ room. “Though there’s a lot of discussion on Apu,” Reiss told me in an interview, “he’s barely had a line in the past three seasons. Hank Azaria saying he won’t voice the character anymore is like Val Kilmer announcing he won’t play Batman again—no one’s asking him to.” Reiss also said that the writers have been aware since even before Kondabolu’s documentary that there were issues with the heavily accented Indian-American convenience-store owner.
“There is all this hoopla about Apu, and the fact is we were cued into this three or four years ago. We did an episode then to address it,” he said. That was January 2016’s “Much Apu About Something,” which introduces Apu’s nephew Jay, a Wharton graduate who has shortened his first name from Jamshed—and is voiced, without an accent, by Utkarsh Ambudkar, an Indian-American actor.
The episode both delivered hoary archetypes and mocks them. Jay is an annoying hipster who calls his uncle “brah.” In an Italian restaurant, he accuses Apu of being a stereotype; a chef then emerges from the kitchen speaking in an accent straight from a 1950s commercial for canned ravioli: “Stereotype-a? Who’s a stereotype-a? That’s a spicy accusation.” His wife, an old Italian woman who has a faint mustache, swats him with a wooden spoon: “You pipe-a down.”
As Reiss said, Apu “has barely been in the show since then. People are saying, ‘Get Apu off the show.’ Well, he’s not on!”
Springfield Confidential, which goes on sale June 12, is filled with deep-cut Simpsons history, from the story about a custom Homer Simpson-voiced G.P.S. misleading Reiss to a section that compares a gory Itchy & Scratchy supercut—produced to test the possibility of a spin-off—to “the brainwashing films Alex had to watch in A Clockwork Orange.” It also contains tidbits about other diversity issues, including a problem the show had in its first couple of years with animators in Korea. The animators were instructed not to make all of the background characters white; “in the next show they animated, all the homeless people and criminals were black,” Reiss and Klickstein write. Further instructions were sent.
Increasing diversity in the Simpsons writers’ room has been a challenge, Reiss said in our interview. First, much of the team—most of whom are white, Jewish, and alumni of the Harvard Lampoon—stays in place so long that openings are rare. But over the last decade, he said, the show has tried to mix things up: “We always hire the best people, and over the last decade they have been people of color and women, and that’s it,” he said—though the show can’t always hold on to those writers for long. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep them on the show because they’re so desirable in Hollywood. When you have someone with the Simpsons credit and they are a woman, they become super desirable in Hollywood, and they get hired away.”
In a section of the book devoted to burning questions, Reiss spends seven paragraphs responding to this one: “What do you say to people who say the show has gone downhill?” His response, in part: “When a show makes it to one hundred episodes, or a person makes it to a hundred years, that’s cause for celebration. Our show is a 658-year-old man. And you’re asking why it’s not as cute as it used to be? We’re lucky the Simpsons can still pee.”
There’s a section about the few celebrities, Bruce Springsteen among them, who have turned down guest roles on The Simpsons. (I want to, but won’t spoil George Takei’s unique rejection.) Regarding the 2000 time-travel episode in which President Lisa Simpson declares, “We’ve inherited quite a budget crunch from President Trump,” Reiss writes that it’s important to remember,“‘President Trump’ was the punch line to the setup, “What’s the dumbest thing we could imagine America doing?”
No U.S. president or former president has agreed to guest-voice themselves on the show. The writing team composed a part for Bill Clinton and sent him the script. “While I’d love to do The Simpsons,” Clinton wrote back, “I’d never do anything to disgrace the office of the president.” Sometimes, Reiss and Klickstein write, “They write the jokes for you.”
But no matter how funny the show—and the book—may be, they’re currently overshadowed by the problem with Apu. A day after I interviewed Reiss, USA Today published an interview with Simpsons creator Matt Groening, mostly about the Gunsmoke milestone. The reporter also asked about Apu—and Groening replied, in essence, that the April 8 episode would be the show’s last word on the controversy.
In the book, Reiss offers a revelation about the birth of the character. Apu first appeared in the 1990 episode “The Telltale Head,” the eighth episode of The Simpsons, written by Reiss, Al Jean, Groening, and Sam Simon. The script refers to the character only as “Clerk.” His single line: “35 cents, please.” Reiss writes: “Because Hindu convenience store clerks were a movie cliche even back then, I inserted this stage direction under his line: ‘THE CLERK IS NOT INDIAN.’”
For years, Reiss thought Azaria had decided on his own to add an Indian accent; this is the Apu origin story repeated in The Problem with Apu. But in the book, Reiss says that according to Azaria, the voice was Simon’s idea. In our interview, Reiss added another wrinkle. During the script’s first table read, he said, Azaria had not yet been hired—so it’s possible an uncredited and forgotten voice-over actor was actually the first one to add the accent.
Passing the buck to Simon, who died in 2015, or a forgotten stand-in is a safe way to diffuse controversy over the origins of a potentially troublesome caricature. And it’s not the only way Springfield Confidential tries to shift the focus away from trouble. Reiss writes that almost no actor on the show plays what they actually are. “White guys play black men, straights play gays, and grown women play little boys. And Apu might be an unflattering stereotype, but that can also be said about lots of our characters, from Grandpa to Rich Texan. Groundskeeper Willie is pure cliche: a whiskey-swilling, haggis-eating, bagpipe-playing Scotsman—played by an Italian actor.” (He also opines that a joke is only in bad taste if it doesn’t get a laugh.)
“We’d hate to lose a beloved character from the show,” Reiss concludes in the book. “But times change, and maybe after three decades, time has run out for Apu. It’s not my call: as a white Jewish guy, I can’t tell Indians not to be offended by another white Jewish guy playing an Indian.”
After the Groening interview ran, Reiss e-mailed me and said it was probably best to limit his comments about Apu to the two pages he spends addressing the issue in the book. He added that if I didn’t think that was enough, I could use the line he’d said about Val Kilmer and Batman. A day later, he e-mailed to make it clear that the fate of Apu was not his call, ultimately: “All this will be decided by people above me.”
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