When television’s longest-running cartoon show first hit the air, most of its writers and producers gave it six weeks at best. The one optimist figured it might last 13 weeks, Associated Press reported.
That was nearly three decades and 640 episodes ago. As the first prime-time cartoon show since “The Flintstones,” ”The Simpsons” has managed to maintain solid ratings, offer creatively offbeat humor and entertain viewers in dozens of countries.
Writer Mike Reiss was among those with little hope for the show’s prospects when he signed on in the late 1980s for want of better options to advance his comedy career. But concerns that the fledgling Fox network might cancel the show vanished after it won effusive praise from critics and fans.
In the new book “Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons” (Dey Street Books, $27.99), written with Mathew Klickstein, four-time Emmy winner Reiss provides a laugh-out-loud account of how the show came to be, how episodes are developed, the voices behind the characters and a raft of Simpson trivia that might surprise even the most loyal fans.
Reiss, colleague Al Jean and a handful of other writers came to the show with a Harvard education and an immersion in comedy through their work on the “Harvard Lampoon.” While creator Matt Groening got the acclaim for the show’s success, Reiss, who has been with “The Simpsons” for most of his career, credits the late Sam Simon for assembling the writers and setting the tone.
His book takes readers inside the writers’ room, where about half a dozen people spend the day pitching jokes. It’s part of a prolonged process that begins with a 45-page script and goes through the recordings by cast members, animation, editing and musical scoring. Each episode takes nine months and eight full rewrites.
The author is often asked how a network as conservative as Fox came to embrace a show that can seem “liberal to the point of anarchy.” He writes that Fox, as a daring newcomer when the show debuted, gave the writers immense freedom. It didn’t hurt that “The Simpsons” raked in big profits and that network founder Rupert Murdoch was a fan.
The book is a trove of anecdotes and details about the show, which has become a subject of study at many colleges. Half of the production budget — about $2 million a show — goes to cast members. A full orchestra participates in each show, even though it would be cheaper to simulate that with a synthesizer. The most popular foreign market for “The Simpsons” is Latin America, where it’s dubbed into Spanish by a Mexican cast.
Over the years, the 725 guest stars have been on “The Simpsons,” from Stephen Hawking and three of the Beatles to Larry King, Joe Frazier and Elizabeth Taylor. The few who have turned down an invitation include Bruce Springsteen, Tom Cruise and every U.S. president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama.
Reiss wades into the recent blowup over Apu, the Hindu convenience-store clerk whose singsong accent made the show a target amid allegations of racial stereotyping. The author suggests that “maybe after three decades, time has run out for Apu.”
Most of the show’s famous catchphrases are uttered by Bart — “cowabunga,” ”eat my shorts,” ”ay caramba” and “don’t have a cow” — but the most popular is Homer’s “D’oh,” which came about by chance. It was written in scripts as (ANNOYED GRUNT), but cast member Dan Castellaneta read it as “D’oh!” The rest is history.
The book is certain to resonate with devoted “Simpsons” viewers and even those who watch only sporadically. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to know why the characters are yellow or which of the nation’s many Springfields can claim the Simpson family as its own?
“The Simpsons” is rooted in the principles of family and folly, according to Reiss, who is often peppered with questions about its enduring popularity — and when its long run might finally end. His reply: “The day people all over the world start treating each other with love, respect and intelligence.”