'Simpsons' hits 300th episode
LOS ANGELES — The characters may be yellow but "The Simpsons" hasn't mellowed as it marks its 300th episode Sunday.
If anything, the Fox animated comedy born in 1989 is more boldly iconoclastic in the 21st century. Given that timidity is programmed into television's very DNA, how does "The Simpsons" thrive?
By being very good at being naughty, so much so that Fox simply can't afford to tinker with success. In its 14th season, the series can still field top 20 episodes and is the heart of a merchandising empire.
Fox just renewed the program for two more seasons, which will carry it at least through May 2005 and make it the longest-running sitcom ever (with "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet" set to fall to second).
The pattern of commerce trumping controversy was set early, when the show helped fledgling Fox establish itself as a brash alternative to the big three networks.
"There were many reasons the show was successful, one of which was we were in the right place at the right time," said series creator Matt Groening. "I don't think 'The Simpsons' could be on any other network, even today."
At the beginning, the clout of James L. Brooks smoothed the way. Brooks, a force in TV ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi") and movies ("Terms of Endearment") brought "The Simpsons" to Fox. Brooks, Groening and Al Jean have been the show's executive producers since its beginning.
The animated format also helped the series zoom below Fox's radar. The mustard-hued Simpsons, including dimwitted dad Homer, patient mom Marge, and children Bart, Lisa and Maggie, got away with cartoon murder.
"There's nothing glamorous about a network executive peering over the shoulders of people making goofy drawings," said Groening. "They'd rather hang around the edges of a sitcom set and say an actress needs to have a more revealing blouse."
That unusual TV freedom has resulted in comedy and satire of often breathtaking proportions, especially since the show's creators and actors pride themselves on their democratic approach to targets.
"We go after everyone," said Yeardley Smith, who provides the voice of brainy Lisa. "Nobody's safe."
The series has mocked capitalism (through the evil empire of industrialist C. Montgomery Burns), entire cities (Rio de Janeiro threatened to sue over its depiction) and the news media (anchors may itch to sue over shallow Kent Brockman). "Welcome to Atlanta — Home of Ted Turner's mood swings," a sign read in one episode.
"We haven't figured out a way to take on George W. Bush because he's such an obvious target," said Groening. In a previous episode, Bart accidentally shredded the memoirs of former President Bush, and the show has toyed with bringing the current president in to avenge dad.
"But the writers decided Homer and George W. would become really good friends. They're so much alike," said Groening, who delivers such zingers in the mildest of tones.
Religion doesn't get a pass. In last Sunday's episode, Homer won a personal injury lawsuit against the First Church of Springfield, was awarded the deed to the church and took up residence.
In the end, Homer provoked the wrath of God and was forced to repent. Faith prevailed again in "The Simpsons," which has been praised by some religious commentators for its realistic depiction of American devotion.
Such consistently provocative material, however, inevitably draws criticism.
"Periodically we get in trouble," acknowledged Groening. "We offend somebody and Fox feels intimidated by them." Turns out the riskiest targets are closest to home: The network doesn't like to see itself, its properties or its advertisers slammed.
Fox howled one year when "The Simpsons" included a scene in which a bus drove by bearing an ad for "Mad About You" — the NBC sitcom airing opposite "The Simpsons" at the time.
"They said it was Fox policy not to promote competing shows," Groening recounted, dryly.
Apparently, it's also Fox policy not to denigrate a fellow corporate property.
"We have an upcoming show in which we poke gentle fun at the Fox News Channel. It's such an easy target the jokes write themselves," Groening said. "There was some murmuring in the executive offices."
While Fox endures such barbs, it reaps impressive returns from "The Simpsons." The show is widely syndicated and is seen in overseas markets including ones in Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa.
A marketing push has reinvigorated the multimillion-dollar "Simpsons" brand of products in the last several years, said Peter Byrne, executive vice president of Fox licensing and merchandising. About 500 companies worldwide sell an array of items including figurines, board games, apparel and snacks.
"It's one of the company's biggest assets" and one of television's biggest when counting in video, interactive, licensing and syndication, Byrne said. Fox declined to provide figures.
Such rewards render the network mute as a censor and, presumably, contentedly so. Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of Fox parent News Corp., has been sport enough to give voice to his cartoon depiction on the series.
Fox's good humor could diminish if the audience dips, Groening said. (He spoke theoretically: Viewership has risen this season by 12 percent.)
"If ratings started slipping, I think you'd see some tweaking of the show that would be awful. When Bart starts combing his hair in every episode, you'll know we've succumbed to the evils of network notes."
"The Simpsons" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Fox