As primetime’s longest-running animated series on TV celebrating its 400th episode, The Simpsons had the honor of closing this year’s Paley Festival on Thursday (March 15). It was a double honor since it was also the first show to ever return for a second appearance at the festival.
With this episodic milestone and the eagerly awaited feature film looming, the talk turned to the show’s past. Although many fans had heard it before, creator Matt Groening explained the origins of the show and why he set it in Springfield:
"I used to draw a weekly comic strip [Life Is Hell] with bunny rabbits in it … and then I got a call from Gracie Films to do animation for the Tracey Ullman Show … I thought I’d do one on the bunny rabbits. Fifteen minutes before the meeting I heard the cartoon would eventually fall into FOX’s clutches. I was not going to waste my great bunnies on this network that wasn’t going anywhere. So on the spot I created [The Simpsons]. I was in a hurry, so I named them after the members of my own family … but changed Matt to Bart.
"Springfield is the city in Father Knows Best, but also a couple towns over from where I grew up in Portland, Oregon … But it’s a common name, so I thought it’d be fun if everyone thought it was their [Springfield]."
Actress Nancy Cartwright delighted the audience by slipping in and out of character effortlessly and sharing an anecdote about meeting a man who didn’t believe that she was the voice of Bart. "No, I know the guy who does Bart," the man had insisted. In her Bart voice, Cartwright told the audience, "Who’s laughing now, loser?"
Cartwright also provides the voices for some of Bart’s schoolmates like bully Nelson Muntz, which made for what the panel called "interesting girl-on-girl action" in episodes like "The Haw-Hawed Couple" when Bart and Nelson interact. Another of Cartwright’s specialties is the rather clueless Ralph Wiggum, and she had fun reciting her favorite Ralph lines, "My cat’s breath smells like cat food" and "When I grow up, I want to be a principal or a caterpillar." According to the writers on the panel, Ralph is a "moron Confucious," whose lines "have to be just right, not just stupid."
Later, the panel really got animated (sorry) while discussing past guest stars, in particular, Beatles Paul McCartney and the late George Harrison.
Groening: "When you meet them and you don’t talk about the Beatles, they get really happy. We did talk about the Beatles, but I also mentioned one of[Harrison’s] solo albums, and his eyes lit up."
Producer David Mirkin: (about having a vegetarian-themed episode written to draw in McCartney) "I thought, ‘Oh great, this will force Paul McCartney. He can’t say no to it. We flew to England and [hung out] and he played the actual chimes to ‘Penny Lane.’ I was in love. I’m actually thrilled that he’s available again … When he agreed to do the part, he made it a requirement that Lisa stay a vegetarian. It comes up from time to time when writing."
A few other tidbits from the evening:
– Jon Bon Jovi had an episode written for him to guest star, but backed out once he read it. Apparently, the writers had his character covered with melted cheese at one point and insult Richie Sambora at another point in the script.
– Groening believes one of the most bizarre Simpsons piece of merchandising is a Bart Simpson asthma inhaler.
– One of the early episodes that spoofed the rolling boulder scene from Indiana Jones had an easy time when Steven Spielberg readily gave the show the rights to the music. Years later at a party, Groening ran into the Oscar-winning director, who told him, "Yeah, and later I asked for Simpsons rights for Tiny Toons and you said no."
– The show maintains its creative autonomy because they don’t get notes from the studio or network.
– The writers love the character Gil Gunderson, but his lines or scenes are often cut. It’s not a huge loss because, according to Executive Producer Tim Long, "America doesn’t love Gil."
The 18th season finale and 400th episode will air sometime in May. On July 27, The Simpsons movie will be released.