How 'The Simpsons' Works


Introduction to How 'The Simpsons' Works
"The Simpsons" has set several records for its longevity. Fox/Getty Images

"The Simpsons" is a true pop culture icon. The prime-time animated television show has won more than 30 Emmy awards, earned its creators, owners and cast members billions of dollars, and infiltrated every possible part of popular culture. There are Simpsons theme parks, video games, a feature film and mountains of merchandise.

But beyond its material success, "The Simpsons" has become a noteworthy part of American (and worldwide) culture. The catchphrases of Simpsons characters have become part of the English lexicon, and the show has changed how we understand comedy and satire.

A good episode of "The Simpsons" can be electrifyingly smart and make you laugh at a loud belch or a character getting hit with a rake. The show's writers might use a subplot to poke fun at organized religion, while also parodying a famous film and developing the personality of a supporting character. "The Simpsons" has been derided by critics and hated by parents ("don't have a cow, man"), beloved by fans ("hi-dilly-ho, neighborinos!"), accepted as a mainstream success ("meh") and eventually dismissed as having lost its luster ("d'oh!").

How did this crudely animated, anti-authoritarian cartoon become such a massive success? It all started when a cartoonist panicked moments before a big meeting and had to come up with a brand-new idea on the spot.

The Dawn of 'The Simpsons'

The Dawn of 'The Simpsons'
"The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening holds up ads for his comic. George Rose/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"The Simpsons" creator Matt Groening was about to meet with producer James L. Brooks in 1987 when he realized his original idea to pitch an animated version of his comic strip "Life in Hell" was doomed to fail. Groening thought up a more TV-friendly idea about a deeply flawed but still lovable suburban family, hurriedly naming them after members of his own family. Brooks liked the pitch, and "The Simpsons" debuted as brief filler segments during the sketch comedy show "The Tracey Ullman Show" in April 1987. The sketches were successful enough that the Fox network, still relatively new and searching for hit programming, expanded it to a half-hour, prime-time animated show late in 1989.

"The Simpsons" takes the basic form of the American situation comedy — a family deals with life's various problems in a funny way — and amplifies it, using animation to bend reality and make every scenario as ludicrous and hilarious as possible. Homer is the oafish father, Marge the worried mom, Bart the rambunctious son, Lisa the put-upon, too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter, and Maggie the cute, reticent toddler. They're surrounded by an enormous cast of outrageous characters, including a villainous boss à la Howard Hughes, a constantly overwhelmed school principal, a creepy bartender, an obnoxious next-door neighbor and dozens more. Their exploits range from the banal (Homer and his friends join a bowling league) to the bizarre (Mr. Burns builds a giant shield to deny the entire town access to the sun).

The show's popularity detonated like a pop culture landmine. Much of the early success was focused on Bart Simpson, whose "eat my shorts, man" irreverence seemed to tap into a vein of defiance in American culture at the time. There was controversy, though: Bart Simpson T-shirts were banned from some schools, and William Bennett, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, suggested that watching "The Simpsons" was a bad idea for the residents of a drug rehab center [source: Skonie and Kinsley].

The earliest Simpsons clips were animated by a studio called Klasky Csupo. Basing its animation on Groening's sketches, Klasky Csupo gave the show its initial rough animation style and bright color palette, including the yellow skin of the characters. Over the decades, especially with the U.S. government-mandated move to digital television in 2009, the animation gradually became smoother and more refined.

Of course, it takes a cast to voice the beloved Simpsons family and a crew to keep the show on air.

The Main Cast and Crew

The Main Cast and Crew
Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner (L-R), voice actors on the show, pose by stamps featuring Simpsons characters. GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

In lieu of listing all the cast and crew who have ever worked on the show, which would be exhausting, we'll provide a brief rundown. In addition to Groening and Brooks, Sam Simon was an executive producer on the show. Al Jean has been the showrunner since the 13th season — Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein and Mike Scully are a few of the previous showrunners. Dozens of writers have worked on "The Simpsons," but John Swartzwelder and George Meyer are credited with giving the show its character and voice, especially during the "golden age" of the mid-'90s. Notably, late-night TV host Conan O'Brien wrote several episodes, including the classic "Marge vs. the Monorail."

Although there are hundreds of characters on "The Simpsons," the primary vocal cast consists of only six people:

  • Dan Castellaneta — Homer
  • Julie Kavner — Marge
  • Nancy Cartwright — Bart
  • Yeardley Smith — Lisa
  • Hank Azaria — tons of characters
  • Harry Shearer — even more characters

While Kavner and Smith focus on their main characters, Cartwright voices several child characters on "The Simpsons." Castellaneta also gives voice to Krusty, Barney, Mayor Quimby, Groundskeeper Willy and several other characters. Azaria does the voices for Apu, Snake, Comic Book Guy, Cletus, Moe, the Sea Captain, Chief Wiggum and a truly embiggened number of others. Shearer voices Principal Skinner, Mr. Burns, Smithers, Reverend Lovejoy, Ned Flanders, Dr. Hibbert and a cromulent number of additional characters.

Next, we'll take a look at how an episode of "The Simpsons" goes from a wacky idea in a writer's head to a laugh-out-loud show.

How 'The Simpsons' Is Made

How 'The Simpsons' Is Made
An original animation cel from the show depicts some of Springfield's wacky denizens. Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

"The Simpsons" creators use a complex process to make each episode, which can take months to complete:

  1. The writers pitch episode ideas to each other and the producers. Once an episode gets the green light, the writer has a couple of weeks to create a draft of the script.
  2. The writing staff works on each script in a meeting room. (There are enough writers that there are usually two such meetings going on at the same time.) Each script is heavily revised. Although the original writer gets screen credit for the script, lines, jokes and subplots typically come from a variety of people on the writing team.
  3. The voice cast does a table read, performing the script aloud in a meeting room. A few days later, they record the episode's dialogue in a sound studio. Voice actors perform their lines separately — they almost never interact directly with one another while recording.
  4. Artists create a storyboard and story reel, rough versions of the final episode's animation, under the watch of the episode's director. The story reel establishes the basics of each scene, including character position, expressions and backgrounds.
  5. More artists take this storyboard and refine it into something that looks more closely like the final episode, incorporating any edits determined by the director and production team. The episode is still not fully animated, however. This step is known as layout. "Since every artist has a unique style, a show bible and style guide is created to tell each artist the 'rules' of the show," said Joe Russo II, who worked as a production assistant on early seasons of the show. "This guide has each character's orthographic view, extreme poses and facial expressions included. It serves as a starting point to make sure everyone is on the same page."
  6. A complicated chart known as an exposure sheet is created next. This chart describes in precise detail, frame by frame, everything in the episode. Every word and action is noted and timed, with words broken down into phonemes. This painstaking task is crucial to ensure that the animation matches the recorded dialogue and achieves the desired comedic timing. "I learned how to expose a scene by listening to a recording of the MAG tracks [vocal tracks transferred onto film stock] on an old Moviola and recording the phonemes onto the exposure sheet by cranking the MAG footage back and forth across a magnetic sound head," Russo said. Today, modern software streamlines much of the animation process and allows animatics to be used in conjunction with exposure sheets. Russo described the animatic as "a moving storyboard with sound. We can step through an animatic to view exactly what the director wants to create."
  7. The scenes are printed out, checked for errors and shipped to Akom studio in South Korea, where teams of artists complete the animation, drawing all the necessary frames and adding the correct colors, using the exposure sheet as a strict blueprint.
  8. The final animation is sent to the editor and producers, who add music and edit it all together into the episode you see on TV.

Now that you know the process of creating an episode, let's get to know the town where the show takes place: Springfield.

Springfield, USA

Springfield, USA
People gather in front of a Simpsons mural in Springfield, Oregon, the city many people once believed was the namesake of the animated Springfield. FOX via Getty Images

Springfield, the town where "The Simpsons" is set, is a major part of the show's success because it's so adaptable — literally anything can happen. Paradoxically, it's a stand-in for every small town in the U.S., with friendly neighbors and an "everybody knows your name" feel. But it also hosts multiple universities, sports teams and stadiums, a major airport, a monorail and several significant landmarks (like a gorge, a volcano, a tire fire and a Mystery Spot).

Groening chose the name "Springfield" partly because it's a common one in the U.S., and the writers intentionally play with the idea that the town's specific location is impossible to determine. They've hidden it on maps, prevented characters from talking about it or described it in impossible ways (like when Ned said the state it's in borders Kentucky, Maine, Nevada and Ohio ... which is a geographic impossibility). Groening said he named the town after Springfield, Oregon, in an interview, leading people to think the northwestern city was the show's actual setting. But an episode of the show that premiered soon after the interview debunked the myth in Bart's chalkboard gag, where he writes "the true location of Springfield is in any state but yours" [source: Busis].

There are hundreds of stores, museums, hotels, restaurants, bars, schools and other locations in Springfield, but some are more prominent than others. There's the Kwik-E-Mart, operated by Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. There's Mr. Burns' nuclear power plant, where Homer is paid for a job he is profoundly unqualified to do. Bart and Lisa attend school at Springfield Elementary, never aging through 30 years of episodes. Homer spends a lot of his free time drinking Duff beer at Moe's Tavern. Of course, the Simpson family is usually in their home, a modest suburban house with a polite, if overbearingly religious, neighbor named Ned.

Would you like to read about some of the gags "The Simpsons" is known for? Do you like information presented in an easily digestible bulleted list form? Well, continue reading!

A Partial List of Simpsons Staples

A Partial List of Simpsons Staples
Bart's chalkboard sequences are one of many memorable gags on "The Simpsons." FOX via Getty Images

This list is where Simpsons fans all nod and smile, while non-Simpsons fans make that "I'm not sure if this milk is still good" face (then drink it anyway):

  • The blackboard gag (aka chalkboard gag): The title sequence of many episodes is altered to show Bart writing a different message on the school blackboard, presumably as part of his detention.
  • The couch gag: The title sequence features the entire Simpson family entering the living room and sitting on the couch, but is altered in each episode to show a variety of mishaps and misadventures. Usually, something bad happens to Homer.
  • The Treehouse of Horror: Every fall a trio of spooky tales spoofing various horror and sci-fi movies lets the writers and animators throw away continuity and kill off the main characters in hilariously disturbing ways.
  • Guest stars: There have been hundreds of guest stars on "The Simpsons." Popular Irish rock band U2 was one of them. Several U.S. presidents were, too, although none have voiced themselves. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair played himself, though.
  • The theme song: It's so catchy! It was composed by Danny Elfman, who was in an '80s band called Oingo Boingo and is best known for scoring multiple movies by director Tim Burton.
  • "The Simpsons" did it already: There have been so many Simpsons episodes covering such a massive swath of American pop culture and satirical topics that virtually any story idea or gag seemingly has been done on the show. Other shows have done entire episodes making fun of the fact that "The Simpsons" has done everything.
  • Catchphrases: D'oh! Hey hey! Ay, ay, ay! No es bueno! Eeeeeeexcellent. Worst. Episode. Ever. Meh. Characters on "The Simpsons" are known for catchy catchphrases. And if you're thinking of making an ironic comment about how "The Simpsons" uses lots of catchphrases, "The Simpsons" did it already.
  • Predicting the future: There are some weird coincidences that, in retrospect, make it seem like "The Simpsons" was eerily accurate at predicting future events. But there's something of a Nostradamus effect happening — it's easy to interpret a wacky element of a Simpsons episode in a way that makes it fit a real-world event. "The Simpsons" also did not predict Donald Trump running for U.S. president. A clip showing him announcing his candidacy was created after the actual announcement, although it's often associated with an incorrect airdate. "The Simpsons" did make a joke back in 2000 about a future Trump presidency bankrupting the country, and Bart's blackboard gag saying "'the president did it' is not an excuse" in 1998 was a reference to Bill Clinton, as much as it may seem to fit current events.

In the next section, we'll take a look at the vast cultural impact of "The Simpsons," and give all our readers free doughnuts.

The Success of 'The Simpsons'

The Success of 'The Simpsons'
The Simpsons have provided many other forms of entertainment besides prime-time television, including thrills for amusement park visitors. GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/GettyImages

Note: Due to a technical error, all the doughnuts have been replaced with scorpions. Please enjoy your free scorpions.

"The Simpsons" is so popular it literally has changed the world. The worldwide audience for a Simpsons episode is in the tens of millions — while it's popular in English-speaking countries, it's been translated into German, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and many other languages. These translations can require significant alterations to the stories and characters because so many of "The Simpsons" themes and jokes are specific to American culture. But a surprising amount of the show's appeal transcends language and cultural barriers. Homer is a hilarious doofus in any language, and the show's focus on a strong, loving family (even if they're pretty flawed) wins over viewers in every culture. The words "d'oh" and "meh" have even been added to English-language dictionaries.

In its prime — the 1990s, roughly — "The Simpsons" averaged more than 15 million viewers per episode. And during 2004 contract negotiations, it was estimated that Fox had earned $2.5 billion on Simpsons advertising, merchandise and licensing fees [source: Weinraub]. You might say the Simpsons are the Beatles of television, an especially Simpson-esque comparison, since "The Simpsons" not only parodied the career of the Beatles in the episode "Homer's Barbershop Quartet," but also all three Beatles who were alive during production of "The Simpsons" appeared on the show.

The big-time success of "The Simpsons" has brought it into a wide array of industries beyond television. There are Simpsons-themed rides at Universal Studios theme parks in Florida and California. "The Simpsons Movie" was released in 2007, with box office earnings eventually topping $500 million. And if you can think of a piece of merchandise, you can find it with a Simpsons character printed on it. As of May 2017, Simpsons fans can access every single episode of the show's entire run with a video streaming app from Fox.

The Cultural Impact of 'The Simpsons'

The Cultural Impact of 'The Simpsons'
A crossover episode of "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" called "The Simpsons Guy" aired on Sept. 28, 2014. FOX via Getty Images

Some of the show's cultural impact is less tangible. The show's catchphrases and one-liners create a shared cultural knowledge among fans. And its success as a prime-time animated show led directly to the creation of others of its kind, like "Family Guy" and "Futurama," and less directly to an explosion of sharp-witted animated shows aimed at adults.

There's nothing less funny than explaining a joke, but that's exactly what sociologists and critics have done over the years, analyzing how "The Simpsons" uses humor in complex ways. The best Simpsons episodes layer jokes using multiple references — to the show itself, to cultural concepts and to simple comedic ideas like sight gags, all prodding at satirical ideas about American culture. An example: Homer ignoring the voices in his head ("Dental plan!" "Lisa needs braces!") to vote against his own interest is funny all by itself, but even funnier if you understand the decades-old film trope of depicting a character's echoing memories. And the joke is even better if you're aware of the history of labor rights in the U.S. That's a lot of weight for one joke to carry.

The show has declined in popularity over its decades-long run — there was an average of 4 million viewers in season 27 as compared to 10 million in season 17 — and a lot has been written about why "The Simpsons" isn't as good as it once was. The main cast members even agreed to a pay cut to $300,000 per-episode from $400,000 in 2011, due to the show's declining ratings [source: Block & Masters].

It's possible that during the mid-'90s the show was so good that even the tiniest slip in quality is glaring. The show might be a victim of "'The Simpsons' did it already," as writers have increasing difficulty coming up with fresh stories and jokes. "The Simpsons" might still be as good as it ever was, but the audience could be fragmented and distracted by a splintered media landscape. It's also possible that the writing just hasn't been as good, or the show's satire seems quaint in an era when reality has become too unbelievable to mock. It's likely a little bit of all those factors.

Yet, as of May 2017, "The Simpsons" has broadcast more than 600 episodes and aired for more seasons than any prime-time scripted show in TV history. By the time its 30th season ends, there will be more episodes of "The Simpsons" than any prime-time scripted show, surpassing the record held by "Gunsmoke" [source: Porter].

Whatever the show's current quality, or whenever its run ends, one thing's for sure: We'll always remember Springfield.

Author's Note

I'm a big fan of "The Simpsons," and have been since I was very young. But I've had the theme song stuck in my head for three weeks now — please help. (My favorite Simpsons character is Professor Frink.)

Related Links

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Sources

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