The Simpsons: The Only Real People on TV
The Simpsons exist! These people are orange. Their eyes are very large. They get by with eight fingers apiece. Their hair is, well, hair, though not in any recognizable sense. They’re keen on pork chops. And their private lives are popular entertainment. The Simpsons do not understand this. Though they watch television incessantly, they do not know they have a show of their own. They know nothing of their cultural impact or their monumental importance to the Fox Broadcasting Company. They are unaware of the vast array of merchandise bearing their curious likenesses — air fresheners, for instance — nor are they able to ponder the unsettling implication of this. “We keep hearing there’s some TV show based on us,” says Homer Simpson, befuddled patriarch and doughnut enthusiast. “But I called all three networks, and they said we weren’t on.” And further: “I mean, I haven’t seen any checks.”
As such, the Simpsons live in ignorance. They receive their mail there. And that is where I recently found them. I arrived by bus (Homer’s suggestion). He met me at the depot. He could not fathom why Rolling Stone would wish to visit with his family. He himself tries to avoid doing so whenever possible. Still, he seemed to welcome the attention. Homer is a man, it would turn out, who has spent his entire life being barely noticed. He feels this may be because he has never changed his shirt, but who can truly know for sure? At least there have been doughnuts to fill the void. His, then, is a world of honey-glazed despair.
This article appeared in the June 28, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.
Ah, Springfield! Now here is one redolent burg! Smell the burning tires! Smell the toxic waste! Everything you need, hemmed into a small parcel of nondescript acreage: mall, prison, dump site, nuclear power plant (where Homer works), Barney’s New Bowlerama (where Homer plays). “Would you like to sleep in our house when you’re in Springfield?” Homer asks me. “Because there’s no room. So I don’t know what we’re gonna do if you want to sleep in our house.”
Homer needs fortification, numbness, beer. We stop off at Moe’s Tavern. I order soda. Homer looks stunned. “Let’s get this straight,” he says, “you want not beer?” He insists we quaff the local brew, Duff beer (slogan: “You can’t get enough of that wonderful Duff!”). To be sociable, Moe, the saloonkeep, sidles up and explains how his establishment got its name. “Moe’s is not named after me,” says Moe. “Everybody thinks that. I just thought Moe’s was a good name. But I didn’t think of it because I’m named Moe.” Homer quickly changes the subject, invoking what is clearly a favorite conundrum: dry beer. “How can you drink it if it’s dry?” he cries, over and over, a tad giddily. Much laughter ensues, and coughing spasms. Eventually, he tires of this.
“Now that you’ve had a few,” he says finally, with steely resignation in his voice, “we can go home.”
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Bartholomew J. Simpson, who is ten, whose conception forced his parents into wedlock, who speaks some French and at least one phrase in Spanish (“Ay, caramba!”), who has based his life on the teachings of Krusty the Clown, who excels at the game What’s That Odor?, who has his mother’s fortitude and his father’s forehead, is at present (if not usually) imprisoned in his bedroom. At Springfield Elementary School, where he feigns interest daily, Bart is celebrated for his philosophical writings, which he inscribes repeatedly each afternoon on chalkboards at the behest of his superiors. A sampling of his work: “I will not draw naked ladies in class.” “I did not see Elvis.” “They are laughing at me, not with me.” “I will not instigate revolution.” “I will not waste chalk.” On the day I meet him, he says he has just been detained (unjustly, he feels) to write out the pledge “I will not claim reporters are coming to see us.”
The secret origin of “Don’t have a cow, man!” (Bart’s preferred expletive): “Oh, man!” he says, inimitably perturbed. “Don’t have a fish. Don’t have a pig. Don’t have a cow. What would you say?”
From Bart’s rules of unacceptable Behavior: “Make sure there are plenty of escape routes.”
Lisa Simpson is all pearls and conscience, brains and blues. She is eight, a second grader of daunting intellect, a virtuoso on the saxophone. “I’m not precocious,” she announces, almost stridently. “Precocious is the word that adults chauvinistically use to diminish the fact that you’re reasonably intelligent!” She is, in this regard, the opposite of her brother. “Oh, Bart,” she will soulfully moan, “you’re just like Chilly, the elf who cannot love.” Or: “It’s up to you whether you confess to Mom and Dad, but I just want you to know I’m going to tell them myself in six minutes.” It is Lisa who greets us at the Simpson domicile, who regales us with insane, plaintive riffs on her sax. (“Are we wasting our money on lessons?” Homer says during Lisa’s performance. “Is it worth all those blisters she gets on her lips?”)
It is also Lisa who shows me her mother’s novel in progress, a secret writing endeavor unearthed from a drawer of large hairnets, a historical opus based on the lives of Marge Simpson’s own mother and grandmother. It is a book about denial, servitude and suffering. There are recipes, too. (“Recipes are the quilts for people without thread,” Marge states.) The first sentence of her prose work: “She rises in the morning, concealing before her first breath the pain she feels for her children.”
The book is tided simply The Color Orange.
Marge Simpson’s secret Pork-Tenderizing Tip: “The extra ingredient is care.”
It is God’s gift,” Marge says demurely, “I Can’t take any credit for it.” She’s speaking of her hair, that magnificent azure alp, a soaring monument to follicle power and genetics. It is the biggest of big hair, engineered with a single bobby pin and silent prayer. It looms. Maintenance time: one hour to shampoo, one half-hour to comb out, six hours to dry.
“Do you have to print that?” she asks me later, meaning her hair-care regimen. “It seems vain. I don’t want people to think I’m that indulgent. Can you make sure they know that, at least?”
From Bart’s rules: “Kids, stay in school! Otherwise you’ll have to go to work. I plan to stay on the educational gravy train until they kick me off screaming.”
When Homer met Marge, a love story:
Homer: I remember our first kiss. Three guys pinned her arms, and I kissed her. Right on the cheek! Hey, I was twelve!
Marge: Will you stop telling that story! He wrote me poems, too. Like this one: “Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.” It’s not original, but it was in his own handwriting.
Homer: There’s only one word to describe her; that word is toasty. Marge’ is the toastiest woman I know. Whoopee! Whenever I question whether we’re a civilized society and we’re not just beasts, I just think of how all men restrain themselves when they see my Marge!
Maggie Simpson suckles. that’s about it. She pacifies famously. Few have seen her infant lips; always her mouth is corked, obscured by contentment. She sees everything, however, and perhaps understands more. “We let our children develop at their own pace,” says her mother. “In many ways, she’s very advanced.”
“You hardly even know she’s here,” says her father, “unless…stinky pants! Let me tell ya, you hope they’re burning tires over at the dump when she does that!”
I ask Bart, once he is liberated from confinement, to show me what’s in his pockets.
He pulls out $300. In tens and twenties.
“Where did you get this money?” says his father.
“I’m collecting for underprivileged kids,” says Bart. “I only take a thirty-percent cut; United Way takes forty. Call me a saint, man!”
Bartspeak, the issues:
On education: “You want me to tell you about the damned school system? Wanna hear something good for your story? Are you tired of homespun crapola? Wanna get to it? They hate children!”
On music censorship: “Of course albums should be labeled, man. Why waste your money on music that won’t disgust your parents?”
On what he reads: “Lisa’s diary. I make notes in the margins. Mostly I read book reports of kids who’ve been in my grade before. Also, I once read the Boy Scout handbook. But basically, I don’t think anybody should willingly join an organization where there’s a big guy with a whistle telling you what to do. Where the plus is that you learn to make knots!”
On women: “I don’t like girls. They don’t like me. Anybody who says different is gonna find something hot and smelly on their doorstep in the near future.”
Bart catches. Homer pitches. They toss the old apple around. They unpeel the old onion. They fire the old aspirin tablet. It happens every evening, in the back yard, like classic Americana. A man and his progeny at play: “There’s nothing sweeter,” says Homer, winding up, “than being in your yard at the end of a long summer day, throwing the ball around to your son, and really burning one in there and seeing him shake his mitt a little after you’ve stung the hell out of his hand! Oops! Dig it out of the dirt, boy! Heh-heh-heh!”
Later, Homer expands on father-son philosophy:
“I guess I wish that no matter how old he gets, he always listens to me and does what I say. Even if I’ve got stuff coming out of my face and I’m bent over double and everything hurts — I just say one thing, and he jumps to it! But parents don’t get that wish. Your children forget. All those years you spent playing with ’em…My big wish is that he never gets into any serious trouble with the law. Ultimately, I guess I wish what all parents do — that he doesn’t grow up. And who knows? Maybe I’ve got a shot.”
For his part, Bart says, “I like that I get to call him Homer and he hardly ever strangles me for it. He’s courageous. Fear is not in his vocabulary. Come to think of it, neither is success. For that matter, neither is vocabulary.”
Consider Homer Simpson, a man of thirty-five who looks fifty, a man at whom evolution has laughed, a man with three hairs. Perhaps he eats too much too loudly. Perhaps he is too prone to proneness, a sloth of fabled proportions. Homer understands his place on the sofa. For instance, I ask him about his baldness. “There’s a saying,” he says. ” ‘A good toupee looks like a good toupee.’ And I can’t afford one. Plus, for the kids’ birthdays, I always write Happy Birthday on my head. You can’t do that if you’ve got hair.”
Homer bonds easily. He confides well. He has private thoughts and remembers many of them. A sampling:
“Here’s what women don’t understand: We, as men, need to be alone together for long periods of time. For instance, we left the bar two hours ago, and I don’t know about you, but I just want to sit on some dirty bar stool next to some other slob. You know what I’m saying….
“Down at the plant, I’m doing a job. And when I die, somebody else will be doing this job. And when he dies, somebody else will do it. I dunno. Makes you feel great to be a part of something like that….
“Marge was very mad at me once. I’ll never forget this. She went crazy. Sometimes you say things in fights you regret later, so you have to be careful. Some things never go away. And this is something I’ll never forget: She called me a peckerhead. I still think of it. That’s how much it stung. I wonder: Was it just anger, or is this what she thinks every time she looks at me?”
From Bart’s rules: “There’s no substitute for the social interaction you get hurling a spitball at your unsuspecting neighbor or popping a milk carton off the dress of a well-deserving girl.”
An experiment in consumerism at its most crass: Say the Simpsons are given twenty-five dollars each. Say they are loosed upon Springfield Mall, whose concourses bulge with acquisitive possibility: the Jerky Hut, the Ear Piercery, the International House of Answering Machines and so on. Here is what happens:
Marge takes a facial at Betty’s Beehive. “All that squeezing!” she says later, pleased and relaxed. “And I didn’t have to do a thing. I dozed off with music playing, and when I woke up, there was a glow.” (“That’s because you realized you’d blown twenty-five bucks!” a rueful Homer says.)
For Maggie, Marge descends on Sweet ‘n’ Tinkly, a music-box emporium, selecting one that plays the love theme from An Officer and a Gentleman. ‘It’s my favorite song,” says Marge, a tad moonily.
Lisa heads to Ye Olde CD Shoppe, where she purchases cassettes by grizzled bluesmen (Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Cow Cow Davenport).
Bart goes to the Carousel o’ Violent Toys. He gets a BB gun. Homer: “Bart! You can put somebody’s eye out with that thing!”
Bart: “I hope so, for twenty-five dollars!”
Homer buys doughnuts. Seventeen dozen doughnuts. “It’s so silly,” says Marge, “to pay all that money for something that’s just gone, with no lasting benefit!”
“You’re forgetting belching, “ says Homer. “Mmmmmm, deeeelicious!”
Later, the authorities will discover that the window of the bus on which this reporter departed from Springfield, U.S.A., was shattered by a small pellet, shot from a low-caliber weapon, possibly an air rifle.
From Bart’s rules: “Commit the following sentences to memory; you’ll be surprised at how often they will come in handy: I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it! They can’t prove anything!”
Homer on the phone, two weeks hence: “I’ve never had anybody to talk to like this. Was it just professional, or are we friends? Do you play cards?”
An Animated Conversation With Bart’s Creators
So we lied.
The Simpsons do not exist! Alas, they are paint. They are graphics. They are made, partly, in Korea. Three men, none of whom are orange, rule all that is Simpson. Foremost is Matt Groening — the cartoonist who created the Simpsons in his own family’s image and has since been forgiven for doing so. Besides Groening, there reign James L. Brooks, comedy deity (Broadcast News, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Tracery Ullman Show), and Sam Simon, ace sitcom scribe (Taxi, Cheers). These men, as executive producers of The Simpsons, conspire on the Twentieth Century Fox lot, in Los Angeles, where they tend to an empire built on boorishness and prolific licensing (dolls! bubble gum! snow boots! beach towels! talking toothbrushes!). They are T-shirt magnates who write. Together, and abetted by a crack staff, they give Homer’s family life, dyspepsia, dialogue.
Therefore, in order for Rolling Stone to interview the Simpsons, these men must convene in a room and speak in animated tongues. They must drink much coffee. They must wrestle with conceit, reality and caprice. “It’s Homer’s point of view that nobody ever went wrong trusting a reporter,” says Brooks, thus sardonically establishing the ground rules for the session. Having the Simpsons comprehend their TV stardom, it is decided, would ruin them. “I don’t think it works to have them come in for a script conference,” says Brooks.
“But,” says Simon, excitedly, “we should have them use language they wouldn’t use on TV. Can Homer say ‘asshole’?” (He can but ultimately doesn’t.) All three stress that the Simpsons are not Toons. “Although,” says Groening, ruling out no possibility, “they could be in Roger Rabbit 3!”
Buckets of swell story ideas for future episodes emerge in the exercise. Among them: “Sexual Harassment at the Nuclear Plant.” (“Mr. Burns [Homer’s boss] could enforce a dress code that all female employees wear halter tops!” says Brooks, somewhat giddily.) “Bart Goes to Camp.” (“Wow,” says Brooks, “there’s real rebellion opportunity!”) “Homer Gets a Gun.” (“I don’t know,” Brooks-Homer says, “it just makes me feel terrific to have my hand wrapped around it.” Simon adds, laughing, “He should shoot the burglar!”) And “The Repulsive Church Function,” which hatches like so:
Groening: Cake auction! Marge bakes!
Simon: And she gets her hair stuck in the cake! Then the mayor buys it!
Brooks: Wow, that’s great! Hey, even better — we put a real recipe on the screen. No, wait! A recipe book! We put out a recipe book! Pork chops! Pork chops!
The scent of merchandising can do odd things to a man.
Without Brooks, of course, it is doubtful Simpsonia would have gripped the land. He sponsored the Simpsons’ rise by hiring Groening three years ago to contribute his incisive cartoonery to The Tracey Ullman Show.(Groening’s semiunderground weekly comic strip, Life in Hell, featuring profane rabbits and gay twins in fezzes, is pure cult classicism, a decade old and thriving still.) Each week, the Simpsons, in skitlet form, bracketed Ullman’s commercial breaks. Spun off last January into a half-hour show all their own, they’ve become the soul of Fox Broadcasting, dependably notching Top Twenty Nielsen ratings. (The Ullman show, which recently shut down forever, rarely got out of the bottom ten.) Roughly 150 animators – most of them in South Korea (to offset labor costs) — toil over six-month periods to complete single episodes, matching up imagery with the characters’ voices, which are recorded be-_ forehand. (Ullman alums Dan Castel-laneta and Julie Kavner speak for Homer and Marge; Yeardley Smith is Lisa; Nancy Cartwright is Bart; and Harry Shearer is almost everybody else, although Albert Brooks and Penny Marshall have turned up in the occasional cameo voice.)
All of which makes Matt Groening, 36, really rich.
He has, nevertheless, clung steadfastly to his wits. “It’s pretty funny,” he says. “I like it because [the Simpsons] are not glamorous. So much in our culture is designed to make you feel envious. The Simpsons definitely do not.” Last year he named his firstborn Homer, but then Groening himself is a son of a Homer. And a Margaret For sisters, he has a Lisa and a Maggie. There is no real Bart (anagram for brat, which rhymes with Matt). “Bart reminds a lot of people of their disgusting little brother,” Groening says. “I mean, nobody I’ve ever met has ever said, You know, I’m just like Bart Simpson.’ “
Bart Simpson is a sociopath. He will, according to those who know him best, one day be arraigned. His will be a life of either happy crime or government espionage. “Bart is trapped in a world where everyone else is struggling to be normal,” says Groening. “Bart’s response to being normal is ‘No way, man!’ He is irreverent; he never learns his lesson and is never repentant. He is an out-growth of those times when, as a boy, I was unfairly made to sit for hours in the principal’s office, vowing to get revenge later in life for my punishment.
“The best part of all this,” Groening says, “is seeing Bart Simpson graffiti on freeway underpasses. The worst part is seeing Bart Simpson graffiti on the side of my house. Somebody wrote HOME OF BART, which was a little unnerving. So I guess what I’m saying is, the best part is graffiti on other people’s property.”
And there is the sheer pleasure of being banned. Bart has lately been expelled from grade schools across the map — in the form of T-shirts. The prime contraband has been garments bearing the wily youth’s countenance and the legend Underachiever. And proud of it, man! Educators, it seems, frown upon such candor. In a prepared statement (read by Groening), Bart Simpson will only say, “I have no comment, other than my folks taught me to respect elementary-school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear.” He then asks, “Is it possible that grade-school principals have lost their sense of humor?”
“When people get mad about Bart,” Groening says, mustering the correct perspective, “my response is, no one should take advice from any cartoon character — with the obvious exception of McGruff the Crime Dog.”
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