The Simpsons: Family Ties

The Simpsons: Family Ties
In a season crammed with the highest of high profile DVD releases (Godfather, Citizen Kane, Phantom Menace), for legions of gee… I mean animation fans, the event of this fall has been the arrival on DVD of the first 13 episodes of one of the longest running shows in television history. But early buzz pegged The Simpsons DVD as a bit of a disappointment — it is only the first season after all, when the series was still finding its legs, and early rumours of a complete un-aired episode proved false, but full-length commentaries on each (by creator Matt Groening, Executive Producer Jim Brooks, and various writers and directors) lend a revealing perspective on the evolution of the show.

It was a much more normal family then, strongly rooted in economic reality (facing neighbourly jealousy for the Flanders' RV), and marital stress (Marge's near-affair with smooth bowler Jacques). "There was a huge desire, starting from Jim Brooks, to make these characters believable as real people," says writer/producer Al Jean. "The reason why the show became so successful is you really did feel like this was a family dealing with stuff that was emotional and real. I think we may have gotten crazier just because of how many different shows we've done, but even this year, we want to reconnect with the characters, maybe not realistically but with real empathy for how these people have developed."
As "show runner" for upcoming seasons 13 and 14, Al Jean oversees the directors, animators and the 20-person team of writers responsible for the series. He co-wrote four of the first 13, was the show runner for seasons three and four, and his varied resume includes co-creating short-lived animation series The Critic, and writing for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Garry Shandling Show and Alf.

What the DVD serves to remind us is just how controversial the show was in its infancy — extras include a Fox news piece on Bart T-shirts being banned from California high schools (though Bart's "Underachiever and Proud Of It" is hardly Marilyn Manson), and how censors balked at certain plot points. "There definitely was resistance to doing a show where the wife is considering having an affair," Jean reveals. "There's also been much more nudity than you would normally get away with.

"Often the censors were not quite sure what to make of us," Jean continues. "We were one of the first shows to use the word ass. Bart's attitude was really sarcastic and we got some criticism for that. On the other hand, we did some subversive subject matter that just slipped by. As the years have progressed, we've moved into the middle, because things have gotten crazier. And [the censors] are more comfortable with us being a hit."
As the show's success grew, so too did interest in being involved. In two first season appearances (as the RV salesman and Jacques the bowler), actor/director Albert Brooks is credited alongside other voice actors simply as A. Brooks. Actor/director Penny Marshall appeared as a favour for friend Jim Brooks, as the Babysitter Bandit in the disastrously animated series premiere that almost killed the show. The original animation, before it was repaired, is what appears as the DVD's "un-aired" episode.
Though celebrities now line up to appear on the show, Jean says producers remain wary. "You can't get a celebrity to commit until they've seen a script, so we're reluctant to write an episode around someone. Danny DeVito wanted to do it," Jean reveals, and the part of Homer's brother was written for him, but other instances were not as smooth. "There was a celebrity for whom we wrote a script, and that celebrity turned it down. Fortunately, it wasn't so unique that only that person could have done it. I won't say who it was written for, but Phil Hartman wound up playing the part and it wasn't as Troy McClure or Lionel Hutz." (Our best guess is the "Bigger Brother" episode, but Jean provides no more hints as to the celeb's identity.)

In the dozen years that the show has been on the air, it's amassed a following probably unprecedented in TV history. "When I started I thought ‘Well, it's a good show, it's a cartoon, it will probably get some attention.' But it would be insane to think I'd still be talking about it some 12 years later. And the ratings are going up."

Jean may still be talking about it, but not as much as the fanatical followers who examine the show's minutiae daily online. (Just one example: mere minutes after the boy band parody aired this year, their "song" was available as an MP3 all over internet song-sharing sites.)

For even the most casual fan, there remain certain questions that, with an Executive Producer of one of the best shows ever made for television on the phone, simply had to be asked.

On the fate of the NYC episode, in which Homer's car is parked at the foot of the World Trade Center: "It's been pulled from syndication for now. My feeling is that those buildings existed and it would be tasteless to just ignore that they were ever there." On revealing Springfield's home state as Kentucky in the "Behind the Laughter" episode, after years of running gags keeping the state a secret: "Yeah, but when the show ran again, it said Idaho." On the DVD release plans: "The second season [commentary] has been recorded and should be released early next year. If the first two do well, I wouldn't be surprised if they want to continue, but there are no plans right now."

And the future of our favourite family? "You'll be happy to know that the Simpsons will be visiting Toronto this year in a show that airs February 10, 2002."