THEY’RE the most famous family on the planet and now they’re set to break in to the record books.
When the 14th season of The Simpsons returns this month it will become the longest running sitcom in television history.
Watched by fans in more than 100 countries the show has captured the imagination and hearts of presidents and pop stars, royals and ordinary families.
It’s a phenomena which crosses language barriers, too. Homer’s catchphrase “D’oh” is recognised in every continent. That dreamy blue sky dotted with clouds and the trademark tones of the Springfield choir in the opening credits is just as likely to raisea smile in Glasgow as Genoa or Japan.
Rumours last year that the show was going to be axed provoked an outcry with desperate fans pleading with the show’s creators Fox for the popular cartoon to continue. Now it’s back for a fresh run we can look forward to a quirky new series where top ofthe bill is an episode when Bart vows to divorce his parents.
Bart finds out that dad Homer has squandered the fortune he earned as a two-year-old for an ad for Baby-Stink Breath. Bart tells a court he has “irreconcilable differences” with his long-suffering parents.
Plots like that have had us all hooked since The Simpsons was first shown on British TV an incredible 13 years ago when Sky snapped the show after the BBC turned it down – “D’oh!”
The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening could never have imagined how successful the show was to become when he first set to work on some storyboards in a US studio.
It was 1987 and he had been asked to create a series of 30-second cartoon spots for The Tracey Ullman Show.
Matt was already well known for his cartoon strip Life in Hell which had appeared in many newspapers. But dreaming up an entire cartoon family was a new challenge.
Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson were born 15 minutes before the first production meeting. He took inspiration from what he knew best – his own family.
Homer was named after his film-maker dad, mum is Margaret, though friends call her Marge and his sisters are Maggie and Lisa. Bart is an anagram of brat.
Meanwhile, Homer’s famous cry “D’oh!” was hastily borrowed from Laurel and Hardy.
The formula was an overnight success and in 1990, The Simpsons hit the small screen as a show in its own right. Since then the show’s influence has spread throughout the world.
In 1991 Bart topped the charts in Britain with a song (Do The Bartman) penned by Michael Jackson.
And in America, some universities are running courses on the cartoon.
The Simpsons have also earned its creator 15 Emmys and many millions of dollars.
But Matt paid a much higher price when his obsession cost him his 15-year marriage to Deborah.
The show has also totally transformed the lives of the actors behind TV’s most dysfunctional family.
Dan Castellaneta, who also provides voices for Krusty, Grampa Simpson, Barney Gumble and Mayor Quimby, has been the voice of Homer since the beer- swilling, doughnut-munching dad was a sketch on Matt’s drawing board. Having worked as an actor andcomedian, he saw The Simpsons as a job to go alongside his other work, not realising what a success it would become.
He says: “Anything I’d ever done that I thought was going to be a hit turned out not to be, so maybe I just don’t know what the public wants.
“Once the show took off I hoped it would last five years and I was incredibly surprised by its success. Now I believe I’ll be Homer until I die.”
Nancy Cartwright was just an ordinary mum of two before she signed up to play Bart Simpson.
She also provides the voices for Ralph Wiggum, Nelson Muntz, Kearney, Todd Flanders and Database, but says playing America’s naughtiest 10-year- old has given her the most fun.
In her autobiography Nancy retells how she felt on that audition day.
“I ended up reading for Bart,” she says. “I hadn’t practised but this voice just popped out: `I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?’ The creator, Matt Groening, totally cracked up. He said, `That’s it! That’ s Bart!’ I was hired on the spot.”
Today, Nancy and the rest of the cast earn around pounds 70,000 each an episode. And it’s a tribute to their popularity that when they jetted in to Scotland for a single show in Edinburgh in 2000 it was the hottest ticket of the Festival, selling out injust 50 minutes.
Celebrities have also queued up over the years for a chance to be on the top- rated show. Last year, Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is a huge fan, was invited to appear as a guest.
If he had accepted, he would have joined the ranks of the 150 celebrities who have already put their voices to characters in Springfield.
In one show, Bette Midler joined Elizabeth Taylor and Hugh Hefner for a celebrity benefit to help relaunch the career of Bart’s favourite, Krusty the Clown. Elton John once appeared in a Simpsons episode to dedicate an ode to Manjula, wife of Apu theconvenience store owner and, demonstrating a healthy sense of humour, Britney Spears cleverly spoofed herself as a co- presenter at an awards ceremony.
Each fan has their own favourite episode – Who Shot Mr Burns? and Marj’s Boob Job were memorable.
But it’s hard to highlight just a few Homer-ous Simpson moments. He was even presented with his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, blurring the line between reality and fiction.
Death, divorce, betrayal and even executions have all formed part of the Simpson’s repertoire and you can see the show on several different levels.
The river leading from the local nuclear power station is teeming with three-eyed fish, the mayor sounds uncannily like JFK and is forever caught with his trousers down and Homer’s advice to his unruly kids is wicked Simpson satire.
Explaining work ethics to his daughter he says: “Lisa, if you don’ t like your job, you don’t strike. You just go in every day and do it really half- assed. It’s the American way!”
The cult cartoon has sparked its fair share of controversy, but curiously the family has also been held up as a role model.
Dr Kris Jozajtis, of Stirling University, recently claimed the Simpsons represented the ideal family unit and that Homer was a model dad.
But others are far less comfortable with the messages the programme conveys. George Bush pledged in 1992 to make the American family ” more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons”. And last year, furious tourism bosses in Brazil threatened to sueafter an episode poked fun at Rio de Janeiro depicting it as crime- ridden, poverty- stricken and packed with bisexual men.
The tourism chiefs feared that single show, Blame It On Lisa, could wreck an dollars 18million bid to attract US tourists. Eventually, the show’s producers had to back down, apologising for the doh- plomatic incident.
Previous shows have also poked fun at the French, Australians and Japanese.
The British have not escaped either. We were shown as being snobs with bad teeth.
Even God hasn’t escaped the animators’ storyboards. When he appeared on the show he had five fingers while everyone else has four.
In fact, for many, The Simpsons has become almost a religion. Declan Donohoe, from Ireland, loves the cartoon so much that he’s got a Homer tattoo emblazoned on his backside.
Blissfully, there is no end in sight, as it has been extended to at least 2005. There are even rumours that a movie could be on the way – aye carumba!
LISA ADAMS, Bart and Co are the world’s longest-running sitcom. , Daily Record, 02-01-2003, pp 31.