Sunday, January 09, 2000

Bart Simpson, overachiever


10 reasons why the bad boy's show still rules after 10 years

BY JOHN KIESEWETTER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Don't have a cow, man, but The Simpsons celebrate their 10th anniversary this week.

        A decade ago after Bart Simpson t-shirts were banned from schools, the cartoon family comedy reigns TV's longest-running current sitcom.

        It's also the longest-running prime-time animated series in TV history, and, for me, still the funniest, inventive show on the air today.

BEST OF BART
  The 10 best things written by Bart on the blackboard:
  • This punishment is not boring and pointless
  • I will not yell "she's dead' during roll call.
  • Cursive writing does not mean what I think it means
  • The Christmas pageant does not stink
  • I will not aim for the head
  • I will finish what I sta
  • I did not learn everything I need to know in kindergarten
  • The boys room is not a waterpark.
  • Beans are neither fruit nor musical
  • Indian burns are not our cultural heritage
10 FUNNIEST SIGHT GAGS
  • License plate: I H8 Bart
  • Movie: Star Trek XII: So Very Tired
 
• Sign in Lisa's college dorm: Rolling Stone's Steel Wheelchair Tour 2010.
  • Las Vegas casino: Newark, Newark
  • Sign on Adult Education building: “We Take The "Dolt' Out Of A-Dolt Education.'”
  • Bookstore window sign: “$1.99 Per Pound Special on Michner.”
  • Polystar Pictures studio entrance sign: “No artistic integrity beyond this point.”
  • Springfield Pet Shop sign: “All of our pets are flushable.”
  • Lionel Hutz's law firm: “I Can't Believe It's A Law Firm.”
  • X-Rated movie marquee: For Your Thighs Only, Crocodile Done Me, Dr. Strangepants, Sperms of Endearment
        Aye carumba!

        While Seinfeld and other comedies ran out of gags in the sixth or seventh season, The Simpsons scripts are as fresh and creative now as when they premiered as a weekly series during the Bush administration on Jan. 14, 1990.

        On the 10th anniversary Friday, creator Matt Groening and the cast will watch the unveiling of a star for The Simpsons on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

        “Yeah, I'm surprised,” Mr. Groening says about the longevity. “I guess I didn't think it through. If it's successful, it just doesn't stop. It's strange.”

        To celebrate 10 great years, here are 10 reasons why The Simpsons is one of the greatest shows in TV history.

        Outta my way, man, here they come:

        • Family comedy: Homer and Marge Simpson and their three kids put the fun in dysfunctional. At its heart, The Simpsons is a traditional loving TV family with an idiot father, smart-alec kids and the wise and patient mother who keeps things together.

        “As much fun is the show is for the fans, I think the biggest fans of the show are its writers and animators,” says Mr. Groening, who created The Simpsons as a 30-second short for Fox's Tracey Ullman Show in 1987.

        “We want it to be great. The show has a very high quality standard,” says executive producer Mike Scully, who joined the show in 1993. “And it still makes us laugh.” Watch it!

        • They never age: Bart Simpson, noted “Under-achiever and proud of it,” is still in the fourth grade. Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson haven't grown up and moved out, which plagued My Three Sons, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Home Improvement and every other sitcom.

        “We don't have to worry about things like Urkel's 5 o'clock shadow,” says Mr. Scully, referring to Jaleel White's Family Matters.

        And, no, dad Homer Simpsons hasn't gotten any smarter after 240 episodes. D'Oh!

        • More jokes: The Simpsons scripts can be 25 per cent thicker than other sitcoms because of the additional scenes and sight gags. The Simpsons aren't confined by the same settings every week, like the Cheers bar and office, or Fraiser's living room and studio, or the Friends' apartment and coffeehouse. The Simpsons go anywhere with anyone at any time.

        “We can go to China. If China isn't funny, we can erase it and go somewhere else,” Mr. Scully says. No problemo!

        • More time: Animation's nine-month turn-around allows writers to punch up the punch lines for weeks or months, while “live action” sitcoms grind out shows every seven days.

        “The joke per page rate is much higher (on The Simpsons) because so much is going on in one page, compared to live action,” Mr. Scully says.

        At the same time, The Simpsons can be extremely topical. Producers have dubbed in last-minute topical about special prosecutor Ken Starr and the president, subbing a line to match a character's flapping lips. Cool, man.

        • Brilliant satire: While kids enjoy the silly slapstick humor, adults love the biting social commentary and wicked satire.

        Perfect example: A musical Mary Poppins spoof ended with her floating into the air with his umbrella — and being sucked into a jet airline engine.

        Last Halloween, a space ship loaded with annoying Americans — Tom Arnold, Paulie Shore, Spike Lee, Dr. Laura Schlessinger — crashed and burned on the Sun. The cartoonists also have spoofed King Kong, Citizen Kane, Thelma & Louise, One Flew Over a Cuckoo's Nest and Star Wars, A Streetcar Named Desire and The Graduate.

        The fall season opened with Mel Gibson remaking Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as an action film with a bloody shoot-out in the U.S. Senate. Also filming on the same lot: Saving Irene Ryan.

        • Great cast: The six talented cast members literally provide a cast of thousands. Saturday Night Live alum Harry Shearer has 20 characters, including Mr. Burns, Principal Skinner, neighbor Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy and anchorman Kent Brockman.

        Dayton native Nancy Cartwright gives voice to Bart, neighbors Rod and Todd Flanders and four others. She credits the “terrific” writing staff for the show's success. And she's not surprised that Bart is celebrating his 10th birthday for a 10th time. She figured America would embrace the show, despite the firestorm over the first season.

        “I never, never had any doubts in my mind, once the public saw it,” she Ms. Cartwright, who originally auditioned for brainy Lisa, but won Bart with her bad attitude. Many of Bart's trademark phrases were her ad-libs. Eat my shorts, man.

        • Great guests: From Johnny Carson to James Woods, from scientist Stephen Hawking to astronaut Edwin Aldrin — not to mention three Beatles — no sitcom can beat the stellar guest list from The Simpsons.

        Producers have a long list of famous fans who have volunteered to get animated on the show. Or they call up baseball star Mark McGwire out of the blue.

        “Sometimes we're surprised to find out they're Simpsons fans, and that they'll do the stuff we ask them to do,” Mr. Scully says. “If they have kids, like Mark McGwire, that's a big plus. The kids are really excited to see dad on the show.”

        Don't have a cow, man.

        • Hidden gems: Writers may slave hours over background signs for nuts (like me) who tape the show and freeze-frame scenes for hidden jokes.

        Like the Las Vegas casino called “Newark, Newark.” Or this Adult Education building sign: “We Take The "Dolt' Out Of A-Dolt Education.'”

        Some fans collect the writ and wisdom Bart scribbles on the blackboard for a few fleeting seconds in every show opening. (Whoa, man, slow down!)

        My favorite: “Cursive writing does not mean what I think it means.”

        • Worth repeating: So much is packed into a half-hour cartoon, that Simpsons addicts often see something new on reruns. After even the creator laughs out loud at old shows.

        “There have been so many episodes,” Mr. Groening says, “that I can actually watch the show in syndication and be delightfully surprised by jokes, because I've forgotten about them.

        I find myself flipping over to The Simpsons during commercials in the 11 p.m. news — and forgetting to tune back to the newscasts. D'Oh!

        • Ageless wonder: The Simpsons have survived and thrived, while many cartoon imitators have been erased from history: Family Dog, The Critic, Fish Police, Capitol Critters, Home Movies, Beavis & Butt-Head.

        Bart, Homer and family have been around so long that they've inspired the creator of Fox's Family Guy and other cartoons.

        “It's kind of scary that The Simpsons generation of children is growing up. The people we influenced are turning into adults,” jokes Al Jean, a long-time Simpsons writer.

        Despite the buzz about Nickelodeon's Rugrats orComedy Central's crude South Park, The Simpsons reachmillions more viewers. It averages 8.29 million TV homes a week as Fox's No. 3 show and No. 40 overall in the Nielsen season-to-date rankings. Rugrats averages about 2.5 million.

        The Simpsons remain as outrageous as ever, although the humor has become increasingly mainstream. I'll argue that society has changed, not The Simpsons.Now we're worried about kids having guns and bombs in school, not Bart Simpson T-shirts.

        It's hard to imagine South Park or another cartoon surpassing the longevity of The Simpsons, which has been renewed through 12 seasons (2001-2002). It's hard to imagine The Simpsons ever ending.

        “It's got two more years,” Mr. Groening has often joked. “A year to coast, and a year to just drive it right into the ground.”

        Aye carumba!

        John Kiesewetter is Cincinnati Enquirer TV critic.

       

       



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