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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Book review: A laugh-out-loud account of how 'The Simpsons' came to be

Writer Mike Reiss offers behind-the-scenes account of television’s first family

"Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons," by Mike Reiss with Mathew Klickstein. Dey Street Books via AP
"Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons," by Mike Reiss with Mathew Klickstein. Dey Street Books via AP

When television’s longest-running cartoon show first hit the airwaves nearly three decades ago, most of its writers and producers gave it six weeks at best. The one optimist in the crew figured it might last 13 weeks.

That was some 640 episodes ago. As the first prime-time cartoon show since Hanna-Barbera’s The Flintstones, The Simpsons has managed to maintain solid ratings, offer creatively offbeat humour and entertain millions of viewers in dozens of countries.

Writer Mike Reiss was among those who held out little hope for the show’s prospects when he signed on in the late 1980s for want of better options to advance his comedy career. But concerns that the fledgling Fox Network might cancel the show vanished after it won effusive praise from critics and fans alike.

Reiss, a winner of four Emmy awards who has been with The Simpsons for most of his career, gives readers a laugh-out-loud account of how the show came to be, the way episodes are developed, the voices behind the characters and a raft of Simpson trivia that may surprise the dysfunctional family’s most loyal fans.

Reiss, colleague Al Jean and a handful of other writers, came to the show with a Harvard education and an immersion in comedy through their work on the Harvard Lampoon. While creator Matt Groening received the acclaim for the show’s success, Reiss credits the late Sam Simon for assembling the writers and setting the tone of The Simpsons.

Click to watch a clip from The Simpsons:

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Reiss’s book takes readers inside the writers’ room, where about a half-dozen people spend the workday pitching jokes. It’s part of a prolonged process that begins with a 45-page script and goes through the recordings by cast members, animation, editing and musical scoring. Each episode requires nine months and eight full rewrites to complete.

The author is often asked how a network as conservative as Fox came to embrace a show that can seem “liberal to the point of anarchy”. He says that Fox, as a daring newcomer when the show made its debut, gave the writers immense freedom. It also didn’t hurt that The Simpsons raked in big profits and that network founder Rupert Murdoch was a big fan.

The book is a treasure trove of anecdotes and interesting details about the show, which has even become a subject of study at many colleges. Half the production budget, or about $2 million (Dh7.34 million) per show, goes to cast members.

A full orchestra participates in each week’s production, even though it would be cheaper to simulate sound with a synthesiser. The most popular foreign market for The Simpsons is Latin America, where it is dubbed into Spanish by a Mexican cast.

Over the years, the 725 guest stars have ranged from Stephen Hawking and three of The Beatles to Larry King, Joe Frazier and Elizabeth Taylor. The few who have turned down an invitation include Bruce Springsteen, Tom Cruise and every US president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama.

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Reiss wades into the recent blowup over Apu, the Hindu convenience store clerk whose sing-song accent made the show a target amid allegations of racial stereotyping. The author suggests that “maybe after three decades, time has run out for Apu”.

Most of the show’s famous catchphrases are uttered by Bart – “cowabunga”, “eat my shorts”, “ay caramba” and “don’t have a cow” – but the most popular is Homer’s “D’oh!” which came about by chance. It was written in scripts as (ANNOYED GRUNT), but cast member Dan Castellaneta read it as “D’oh!” The rest is history.

This entertaining book is certain to resonate with devotees and even those who only watch the show sporadically. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to know why the characters are yellow or which of the nation’s many Springfields can claim the Simpson family as its own?

The Simpsons is rooted in the principles of family and folly, says Reiss, who is often peppered with questions about the show’s enduring popularity and when its long run might finally end. His reply: “The day people all over the world start treating each other with love, respect and intelligence.”