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With an impressive 28 seasons under its belt, and a 29th and 30th run recently commissioned, The Simpsons is an incredible example of primetime television show longevity. It will leave Gunsmoke holstering its weapon as it takes the record for the most episodes of a scripted television series.
The Simpsons’ appeal lies in the affectionate mockery of its characters’ “everyman” qualities. Most of us can identify with elements of this family set-up – the dysfunction, the flaws and the character traits, whether that’s Marge’s warm moral centre, or Homer’s weak, venal, selfish immaturity which exists to some degree in all of us. Watching Homer gives us a chance to acknowledge this crappy, least admirable version of ourselves, and creates myriad opportunities for humour and in-jokes that remind us that we are all only human.
Life in Hell comic book illustrator Matt Groening created The Simpsons back in 1987 for James L. Brook’s The Tracey Ullman Show. It started life as a run of short cartoon stings between the live action sketches, before graduating to its own full series in 1989.
The early animation work was crude, but the premise was intriguing enough to be developed further by Groening and Brooks. They were later joined by the late Sam Simon, who brought on board the initial team of writers and encouraged the voice artists to record the dialogue tracks together, rather than remotely. Simon’s influence and development of the show was significant, even though he would later leave due to creative differences.
The early episodes are tonally and visually different from the show now, although its heart prevails. Initially, the focus was on Bart Simpson, who seemed like the most bankable “star”. However, as time went on, Homer Simpson, superbly voiced by Dan Castellaneta, a jobbing actor from Illinois, became the main focus of attention. The casting of the voice talent on this show cannot be underestimated.
The animation style is unique, and heavily influenced by Matt Groening’s technique. This was honed on his self-published comic Life in Hell, which depicted life in Los Angeles to his friends, and was first published in the late 1970s. Again, although quite simple in their execution, the character designs in the strip shone through. The rather deceptive low-fi look and framing of the comic clearly had a major influence on the early animation work of The Simpsons.
In the comic, his characters are distinctive, but are constructed from basic inked open-line or “ligne claire” illustrations such as those pioneered by Hergé, creator of Tintin. The lettering dominates Groening’s early strips, showing how important the dialogue is in his work. The stories are snappy, gag-based, observational vignettes on life. The “camera angles” employed in the comic are set at a three-quarter viewpoint for the characters and the environments, something which is common in The Simpsons TV series, too.
People may be surprised to learn that there is now a very strict style guide for animators on The Simpsons, based on some of the rules Groening set out in Life in Hell and the early Simpsons episodes. The stylised construction of the characters from geometric shapes, betrays the actual complexities of the characters. They are not actually that easy to draw consistently.
When teaching animation, I often refer to Storyboarding The Simpsons Way by former Simpsons animator and storyboard artist Chris Roman. This practical guide was given to the artists working on the show. Even though it is aimed at the production team of The Simpsons, some of the rules created for the show are just as relevant to other animation production work.
Again, these guidelines are deceptively simple, but much harder to implement. Roman goes into great detail of the type of shots to use, the transitions, continuity and staying on the good side of the camera line. What is fantastic about this how-to guide is that it is delivered through the visual medium; it reads like a comic strip itself. The storytelling and message is clear, much like the television show. It is a guide every young animator or filmmaker should read.
So why has the show lasted for so long? The key factor is the quality of the writing. As with any long-running show, some complain that it is “not as good as it used to be”. But sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Because the show is now ubiquitous, viewers and critics alike can become complacent, spoiled even. When you average 22 episodes per season, there will always be dips in the quality.
But over the years the references to pop culture, the characterisation and the quickfire gags have maintained the interest of the mainstream audience. The show can still surprise even the most cynical viewer and it does not look like it is going to disappear from our screens any time soon. What other show could have predicted a world where Donald Trump was President of the United States, 16 years before it actually happened? Long may The Simpsons continue.