After 23 seasons of laughs, it's hard to imagine a world where 'The Simpsons' aren't on television. In addition to being the longest-running scripted series in TV history, 'Simpsons' quotes and references have become part of our daily vernacular. And yet, the show's storied history and the behind-the-scenes tales of how the characters came to life have been barely noticed in the large shadow its iconic characters have cast on the world.
'The Simpsons' hasn't just created a media and merchandising empire that has brought the world 500 TV episodes, a movie, countless toys and even a theme park ride. It has also launched the careers of some of the biggest names in comedy (Conan O'Brien, we'll always bow to you for the monorail episode) and turned its creator Matt Groening into a mainstream counterculture hero. So as the show reaches into its landmark 500th episode, it's worth noting some of the more interesting facts and figures behind Springfield's most famous residents.
Long before Groening became a giant in television, he made his living with the alternative newspaper comic strip 'Life in Hell,' a funny, bleak look at the world through the eyes of a depressed rabbit named Bongo. Groening's artwork caught the eye of Polly Platt, a production designer who worked on the Oscar-winning film 'Terms of Endearment' with 'Simpsons' co-creator James L. Brooks. According to the book 'The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History' by John Ortved, she wanted to thank Brooks for getting her an Oscar nomination and bought the original copy of one of Groening's 'Life in Hell' comic strips titled "The Los Angeles Way of Death" as a thank you gift. Ken Estin, a producer who worked with Brooks on 'Taxi,' also received a "Life in Hell" comic strip as a birthday gift during a retreat to brainstorm ideas for what would become the Fox sketch comedy series 'The Tracey Ullman Show.' The strips became the topic of conversation during the retreat and the decision was ultimately made to bring Groening on board to do short cartoons for the short-lived sketch series.
Groening was initially asked to make 'Life in Hell' cartoons for 'The Tracey Ullman Show,' but decided at the last minute that he didn't want to lose the merchandising rights to his offbeat comic strip. Instead, Groening dreamed up an idea on the fly moments before meeting James L. Brooks that involved a family very much like his own. (His dad's name is actually Homer, his mother Margaret and his younger sisters are named Lisa and Maggie.) So where did Bart come from? It's an anagram for "brat." (Groening has said the character is loosely based on himself and his brother Mark.) Fun fact: Groening's mom's maiden name is Wiggum.
While the ratings for 'The Tracey Ullman Show' weren't exactly gangbusters, 'The Simpsons' shorts were a huge hit with viewers. But that didn't stop Fox from wanting to scrap them. The cartoons cost around $15,000 each to produce and test audiences gave them low ratings. Thankfully, Brooks saw some deep potential in the cartoon family and when the network canceled 'Ullman,' he pushed for 'The Simpsons' to become a series of its own. So in essence, 'The Simpsons' is the most successful spin-off of all time.
In 1989, Brooks, Groening and writer/producer Sam Simon managed to convince Fox to turn 'The Simpsons' into a series, starting with the Christmas special 'Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.' The single episode netted Fox's biggest audience for a show at that time and turned the bizarre-looking family into a cultural touchstone. The show also attracted its fair share of controversy and criticism from parents who thought The Simpsons were a bad influence on children. Former First Lady Barbara Bush remarked to People Magazine in 1990 that she had seen the show and thought it "was the dumbest thing I had ever seen." Soon after the interview hit the stands, the White House received a personalized letter from Marge Simpson addressed to the First Lady. Marge admitted her family wasn't perfect but she told Mrs. Bush that she still tried to instill humility in her children and "believed in my heart that we have a great deal in common. Each of us [is] living our lives to serve an exceptional man." The letter so moved Mrs. Bush that she wrote a response apologizing for her remarks and complementing Marge for "setting a good example for the rest of the country."
Homer Simpson has a distinctive voice, a mix of Walter Matthau and voice actor Dan Castellaneta's own father. TomTom hired Castellaneta in 2009 to record directions for a Homer voice that customers could download for their GPS devices along with other TV icons like SpongeBob SquarePants, Bert and Ernie from 'Sesame Street' and KITT from 'Knight Rider.' The Homer voice has become the most downloaded SAT NAV voice in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It has been downloaded for TomToms 128,500 times in the U.S. alone, which accounts for more than 40% of GPS devices in the world. The sales of the Homer voice was so successful that TomTom recently hired co-stars Julie Kavner to record a Marge Simpson GPS voice and Harry Shearer to record a Mr. Burns voice.
The season three episode 'Lisa the Greek,' one of the sweeter moments between the oafish Homer and the brainy Lisa, featured the pair spending quality time by betting on NFL football games thanks to Lisa's never-fail system for picking a winner. The episode was timed to air just before Super Bowl XXVI between the Washington Redskins and the Buffalo Bills. Lisa realizes that Homer only wanted to hang out with her so he could bet on the winner. So the hurt Lisa predicts that Washington will win, but if she subconsciously doesn't love him and wants him to lose, Buffalo will win. According to the DVD commentary, the cast rerecorded the lines to coincide with the next two Super Bowls with the episode airing before each game. Showrunner Al Jean said Lisa not only correctly predicted the outcome of three big games, but he also bet against Lisa's picks in the Gracie Films' notoriously competitive office pool and lost.
Fox and Pepsi got together to offer the ultimate collectible for 'Simpsons' fans: a real world replica of the family's colorful home in a subdivision in Henderson, Nevada, just outside Las Vegas. The winner, however, opted to take the cash prize instead of the home and the eerily accurate house became a tourist stop for 'Simpsons' fans. The four bedroom, two-bath home stayed in its traditional TV colors until 2001 when the subdivision started to fill with other residents. The developers had it repainted to fit the neighborhood's scheme and stripped it of all of its 'Simpsons'-esque props and furnishings. Today, it looks just like any other home on the block but it does retain one 'Simpsons' reference: it's located in the Springfield subdivision.
The Simpsons have always faced some form of controversy since their skyrocketing popularity turned them into a ratings and merchandising juggernaut. Iran, however, has taken a rather extreme method of addressing their concerns over the show's sarcastic, counterculture attitudes. The nation's Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults recently issued an edict that forbade the sale of any Simpsons toys in any Iranian store. The nation banned the toys for their ability to promote Western culture and the "destructive cultural and social consequences" they supposedly promote. Iran has also placed Barbie dolls on the same list, opting instead for a line of dolls that promote more traditional Iranian, state-approved styles of dressing. Al Jean responded to the ban by telling the Los Angeles Times, "This means war."
Some of the show's more iconic characters might seem like figments of some very talented imaginations, but they actually come from some real people. The gruff, gravelly-voiced Moe Szyslak is based on the similarly gruff, gravelly-voiced comedian Rich Hall who used to work with 'Simpsons' writer George Meyer on the '80s comedy series 'Not Necessarily the News.' Waylon Smithers, Mr. Burns' overly devoted assistant, is actually based on 'Simpsons' associate producer Richard Sakai, though reportedly somewhat out of spite. According to 'The Simpsons Uncensored,' Sakai started on the show as an assistant for Brooks. Estin claims in the book that everyone liked Sakai, but noted he was seen as a guy who was fiercely loyal to Brooks so the writers modeled his behavior around the office for Smithers' devotion to Burns.
'The Simpsons' have infiltrated just about every aspect of modern culture, but perhaps it's most impressive in its ability to worm its way into our language. The Oxford English Dictionary announced in 2001 that Homer's most frequent utterance, "D'oh!," would earn a spot in its dictionary along with several other pop-culture phrases and words. The OED defines it as "Expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish." However, when it first appeared in a 'Simpsons' script, the phrase was written as "annoyed grunt." Dan Castellaneta came up with the signature catchphrase, which he claims to have borrowed from 'Laurel and Hardy' star Jimmy Finlayson who would utter "D'oooooh" in a state of frustration. Groening had him shorten it since the early shorts were only a minute long and "D'oh!" was easier to animate.