It’s been almost three decades since “The Simpsons” changed from a rough collection of clips to the lunkheaded family everyone knows.
“The Simpsons” started as short cartoons, but when they got their own series in 1989, a historically popular program was born.
And after three decades, creator Matt Groening still loves amping up the funny in an episode. He does so by tweaking the sound mix, usually just by making noises louder. In one telling moment, Groening makes a scene funnier by turning up the sound of Homer Simpson breaking his back while dancing.
“Well, one of the things we say is, ‘More pain, more funny.’ The sound of pain is much more funny than the sound of pain giving,” Groening says, as he mixes sound for the show with showrunner Al Jean, sound producers and music producers.
Groening remembers struggling, years ago, to mix a scene with Homer fighting another character, Waylon Smithers. He tried mixing in all kinds of different sounds, and then realized the sounds of pain were the funniest part of it all.
“We are a sick culture,” he says.
Groening and his colleagues have taken full advantage of that “sick culture” to make TV history. “The Simpsons” is now the longest-running scripted series in American prime-time TV. And there’s a lot behind the pivotal moment when a bunch of animated shorts became a groundbreaking TV series.
In the mid-1980s, Groening met producer James L. Brooks. Brooks created programs such as “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi.” He wanted to develop an animated version of Groening’s popular comic strip, “Life in Hell,” to run on “The Tracey Ullman Show.”
But as Groening sat in the waiting room of Brooks’ office, he got worried.
“I realized that I would probably lose control of whatever came out of this deal. And the Fox network, this isn’t going to go anywhere. This is only going to last a few months, and it’s going to go down the tubes — that’s what everybody was saying,” Groening says. “And I didn’t want to ruin my good gig with my weekly comic strip. So in the waiting room, I drew ‘The Simpsons’ for the very first time.”
Groening named them after his family, except for Bart. The Simpsons were comprised of slow-witted Homer, gravelly voiced Marge, bratty kids Bart and Lisa, and baby Maggie. The ridiculousness of the sitcom at the time wasn’t just a satire of the American family — it was a satire of TV itself.
As the characters got more popular, Brooks says they used clips of “The Simpsons” between taping sketches for “The Tracey Ullman Show” starting in 1987.
“We put them together as entertainment for the audience to hold them there while we got ready. And a lot of nights, the big laughs were for that,” Brooks says.
That reaction sparked an idea: giving “The Simpsons” their own show. But when Fox suggested a single Christmas special, Groening told Brooks to ask for 13 episodes instead.
“I always thought, and Jim agreed, that it might take the audience a few episodes to get into the show. So they came back to Jim and said, ‘How about two specials?’ And Jim said, ‘No.’ And they said, ‘How about four episodes?’ And Jim said, ‘No.’ And we went for the 13 [shows.]”
Brooks notes this was a delicate time for a very new Fox network.
“The network at that time was hanging on by a thread. It was really on the verge of bankruptcy then,” he says. “We held out for 13 shows, which for them at the time represented an enormous investment.”
Groening, Brooks and showrunner Sam Simon became the architects of the series. Current showrunner Al Jean was among the first writers hired for the show. He says “The Simpsons” were a bit meaner in the Ullman shorts.
“Homer in the shorts was kind of angry and got a little dumber, although we try to keep him from being too dumb, that’s always kind of a warning flag for us. In the shorts, Lisa and Bart were both kind of hellraisers. Lisa, in the series, became the intellectual — sadder and a little deeper,” Jean says.
But there was one big problem: The animation for the first episode they planned to air looked terrible, according to Groening. He first saw it at an animation studio with a documentary film crew in tow.
“I’m looking at this while the cameras are rolling. And it’s the worst animation … I could not believe it,” he says. “I’m there to promote this brand-new show and the animation is all weirdly rubbery and charmless, and I’m going, ‘Heh, heh. That’s great.’ ”
Eventually, they decided to air a different episode first — on Dec. 17 1989 — a Christmas story titled “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” Mimi Pond, a cartoonist, TV writer, and friend of Groening’s, wrote it as a freelancer, and saw it extensively rewritten. But she was still excited.
“It was thrilling for me to be a part of this new thing, and I knew it was going to be a really big stinking deal,” Pond says.
“I was given a crew jacket and I was wearing it on the subway in New York and everyone was like, ‘Oh, my God, where did you get that? I want that!’ And I thought, ‘This is going to be so big.’ I just didn’t know it was going to take off without me,” she says.
Pond later learned she wouldn’t be hired on the first season’s writing staff, which was all male.
Years later, she heard rumors that Sam Simon didn’t want female writers, but that’s something Jean disputes. Simon, who left the show in 1993, died in 2015 after a long battle with cancer.
Jean also says things have changed. Of the show’s 23 episodes this year, he says he believes 10 of them are written by women.
“I wish it was more. I’m glad it’s not less. We’re trying to do our best,” Jean says.
So how has the series thrived for so long? Groening says the key is finding bold new ways to mine comedy out of a structure they built 30 years ago.
“Some people are going, ‘Well, it’s not the same as it was in season 4 or season 7.’ You’re right. It isn’t. But if it would have remained the same, I don’t think we would still be here today,” Groening says.
Couple that evolution with characters who never age and an audience who has literally grown up with the show, and you have an audacious experiment which has become a TV institution.
Serena McMahon produced this story for the web.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.