After 25 seasons on the air, The Simpsons has permeated every corner of pop culture: postage stamps, bootleg T-shirts, video games. Since we're in the middle of a one-month break between the record-breaking 552-episode Simpsons marathon on FXX and the premiere of Season 26 on Fox, a gap obviously needed to be filled. The solution: "The Simpsons Take the Bowl," a three-night stand at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend celebrating the abundant music of Springfield's finest. The show has spawned no fewer than six albums, from the excellent (Songs in the Key of Springfield) to the queasy (The Yellow Album). Friday's opening-night show was sometimes rambling and under-rehearsed, but was mostly as tasty as floor pie.
The Bowl was remade as Springfield, decorated with lots of large cutouts of the show's characters and a ten-foot high inflatable Blinky (the three-eyed mutant fish). Many of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra's female members sported blue Marge wigs onstage. For chunks of the evening, they accompanied classic sequences of the show; the clips benefited more from being played on a huge video screen than the score did from getting a full orchestral treatment. While Alf Clausen and Hans Zimmer are accomplished composers, neither of them is a mad genius on par with Carl Stalling (who scored the classic Looney Tunes shorts, which also get the live treatment every summer at the Bowl).
There was also newly commissioned animation, with the Simpsons family taking in a show at the Bowl: in an excellent opening sequence, we saw Mr. Burns pay $100 for valet parking, while the Simpsons clan opted for $5 parking in a cheap lot that more closely resembled a demolition derby. They then trudged higher and higher through the nosebleed seats, until they ended up perched on the Hollywood sign (which fell apart and rearranged itself to spell D'OH).
The show was introduced by creator Matt Groening, "the guy whose signature you all know, the guy whose name has been mispronounced so many times, but not tonight — here's Matt." Groening ambled onstage, said "You may know me from such TV shows as The Simpsons and reruns of The Simpsons," thanked various people involved in the stage show, and read what were apparently actual notes from the Fox censor during the show's early days. We learned that it was deemed unacceptable for Bart to point a shotgun at the Easter Bunny and say, "In the next five minutes either your eggs or your brains are going to be in this basket."
The show was co-hosted by three of its voice actors: Yeardley Smith (Lisa), Nancy Cartwright (Bart), and Hank Azaria (many characters, including Moe and Chief Wiggum). Since most of us will never attend a table read, it was a rare pleasure to hear their extremely familiar voices emerging from unfamiliar human bodies. Azaria, for example, sang Apu's "Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart," backed up both by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and six female dancers in hot-dog costumes.
A montage of the show's opening sequence and some of its epic couch gags (including the ones directed by Guillermo del Toro and Banksy) was followed by the appearance of Beverly D'Angelo as country singer Lurleen Lumpkin, costumed with a lavender spangled jumpsuit and gargantuan falsies. She reprised "Bagged Me a Homer," a song from her 1992 episode "Colonel Homer." For no explainable reason, she was also backed up by the dancers in hot-dog costumes.
Film composer Hans Zimmer joined the orchestra on piano for a chunk of The Simpsons Movie and the Oscar-nominated short "The Longest Daycare." (TV composer Alf Clausen had to settle for being introduced from the audience.) Zimmer was followed by Yeardley Smith, name-checking the famous musicians who have appeared on The Simpsons but didn't make it to the Bowl, and then telling the story of Michael Jackson's appearance on the show, when he read his own dialogue but got singer Kipp Lennon to impersonate him for the songs. Lennon and Nancy Cartwright then performed the episode's climactic song, "Happy Birthday Lisa."
Next up: "Weird Al" Yankovic, performing "Homer and Marge," a rewrite of John Cougar Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" (originally appearing in the 2003 episode "Three Gays of the Condo," but done here in a full-length version): "Oh yeah, The Simpsons will go on, long after the human race is gone." Yankovic finished by doing the show's theme music on accordion, cuing a clip where Homer accidentally set off fireworks and was savagely beaten by the orchestra (and Lisa, happy to be working with quality musicians at last). The video screen encouraged the audience to visit the concessions stands: "SPEND MORE THAN SEVEN DOLLARS," it exhorted. "IT WON'T BE HARD."
After intermission, a Season Eight clip of Homer and Bart's visit to a gay steel mill served to introduce the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles, who performed "Spider Pig," "We Do (The Stonecutters' Song)," and, doffing their Stonecutter robes to reveal sparkling waistcoats, "See My Vest."
Conan O'Brien, introduced as "the only Simpsons writer that anyone cares about," came out and reminisced entertainingly about working on the show's early seasons, deciding that the show had maybe one or two years left in it, and decamping for the supportive environment of NBC. "Sure, it's funny to you," he chided the laughing audience. In a bright red jacket — "I have no dignity" — he gamely performed "The Monorail Song" from his best-loved episode, "Marge vs. the Monorail." (The song was originally performed by the late great Phil Hartman.)
Azaria came out as beer spokesman Duffman, encouraged the launching of T-shirt cannons into the crowd, and introduced an honor roll of the departed: The long list of the presidents of the Fox network who have come and gone in the decades that The Simpsons has been on the air. Smith and Cartwright then performed "Minimum Wage Nanny," from the show's parody of Mary Poppins in Season Eight.
An actual tribute to the departed: An airing of the Troy McClure educational film "Meat and You: Partners in Freedom" was followed by an appearance by Jon Lovitz, who entertainingly compared his own lack of vocal flexibility to the extreme malleability of his friend Phil Hartman. Lovitz then covered a Hartman song: Troy McClure performing in the musical adaptation of Planet of the Apes. "I will play the talking human being," Lovitz told the audience."It's a little thing called acting."
David Silverman, a longtime Simpsons director, then came onstage as a member of Vaud and the Villains, an old-fashioned New Orleans-style music-hall band, performing the bordello-defending song "You Put the Spring in Springfield." Silverman played tuba — and since he has a flare for the visual, it was a tuba that had flames coming out the top.
Shows at the Hollywood Bowl traditionally close with a fireworks show — in this case, the grand finale was "Do the Bartman," the hit 1990 single written for the show by Michael Jackson. Anticlimactically, it came after the fireworks display. The fireworks were paired with a few spectacular Simpsons scenes (a climactic sequence from the movie with Homer and Bart on a motorcycle, the brilliant 2007 couch gag that showed the history of evolution and civilization). A sold-out crowd ended up ignoring an expensive pyrotechnics spectacular to focus on a TV screen; even after a quarter of a century on the air, The Simpsons can still be that compelling.