John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History more than lives up to its billing. Through direct interviews or newspaper and magazine reports going back two decades, Ortved serves up plenty of dish on the making of television’s longest running sitcom — not to mention its cultural impact, the fights over who deserves proper credit (and sizable cash payouts on a several-billion-dollar franchise that has made creator Matt Groening a very, very rich man) and why the show attracted some of the brightest, craziest writers in the business. Ortved’s chewy oral history serves up a plethora of mind-blowing and fascinating information, such as:
1. Nancy Cartwright originally auditioned for the part of Lisa, but when she saw the mockup for what Bart was supposed to look like, she uttered “Oh man, yeah!” in a voice not far removed from one she’d used for The Snorks, an animated children’s show that had recently finished airing. Groening heard Cartwright and shouted, “that’s exactly it, that’s Bart!”
2. The Simpsons has made fun of religions and ethnicities of all stripes, but one they won’t touch is Scientology — because Cartwright is a card-carrying member. So much so that in 2009, she made robo-calls on behalf of the organization in Bart Simpson’s voice, which made current (and past) showrunner Al Jean hit the roof because Fox owns the rights to Bart’s voice. Eventually Cartwright gave up on the robo-calls.
3. John Swartzwelder, one of the members of the show’s legendary original writers room, was credited with more scripts — 59 — than any other staffer. His anarchic sense of humor and reclusive ways (he’s never granted an interview) emphasized his enigmatic status, even among his co-workers. Swartzwelder stopped writing for The Simpsons in 2004 and now writes novels like The Exploding Detective and The Time Machine Did It, which he distributes through his own company, Kennydale Books.
4. The Simpsons was almost grounded before it ever began. The lag time between script and animation is between six and eight months, in part because the grunt work was outsourced to South Korea. When the first episode came back, the verdict from Brooks, Groening, Simon and the Fox network heads was unanimous: “awful”, “unfilmable” and a waste of the hundreds of thousands of dollars it cost to produce. (Even Jim Brooks recalled thinking that the show was in serious trouble because “you couldn’t call the emperor anything but naked at that moment.”) They managed to salvage the episode by airing it later and pushing back the premiere date so that another script could be filmed — much more successfully.
5. Sam Simon, the showrunner for the first three seasons and considered to be the unsung genius who put James L. Brooks’ production and Matt Groening’s creation into day-to-day brilliance, was married to actress Jennifer Tilly from 1984 to 1991. The exes are still friends and still share a love of Texas Hold ‘Em Poker (Tilly won the third World Poker Tour Ladies Invitational Tournament in 2005, and Simon has placed well in his outings.)
6. The person responsible for the Simpsons’ signature color design — yellow skin, Marge’s blue hair — was Gyorgyi Peluce, a Hungarian émigré who worked for Klasky-Csupo, the animation company that worked on the show for the first three seasons. Peluce’s rationale: “I wanted to give them a color that didn’t look like anything else that had come before.”
7. Both Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner (who voice Homer and Marge, respectively) started off as regulars on the Tracey Ullman Show, the variety show where The Simpsons got its start as one-minute segments. Marge’s rasp, by the way, is Kavner’s normal voice, almost uninflected.
8. “Do the Bartman”, the 1990 song that became a monster hit in The Simpsons’ first season, was co-written and co-produced by Michael Jackson. The late entertainer had a couple of cameos on the show, most notably as a mental patient who thinks he’s Michael Jackson (interestingly, when the character sings a part of “Man in the Mirror”, it’s actually a Jackson stand-in, not Jackson himself.)
9. The writers’ room has been predominantly made up of Ivy Leaguers, especially those who cut their college teeth on The Harvard Lampoon. Conan O’Brien (who wrote for the show from 1991-1993) is the most famous, but other Lampoon alumni include Josh Weinstein & Bill Oakley, who became showrunners for the sixth season.
10. Merchandising revenues from the first year of The Simpsons were estimated to be $750 million — outpaced only by New Kids on the Block and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. There were t-shirts with classic Bart slogans, bubble gum, snow boots, notebooks, underwear, even Simpsons pasta. And of course, Butterfinger used the Simpsons as their spokespeople (“you don’t lay a finger on my Butterfinger.”)