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A Salute To 30 Years Of 'The Simpsons'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. FRESH AIR and "The Simpsons" have something in common. We're both celebrating our 30th anniversary. It's been 30 years since "The Simpsons" were introduced to America in a series of animated shorts on "The Tracey Ullman Show," a brand new variety series on a brand new TV network called Fox. That was in 1987. Three years later, "The Simpsons" had their own show, which has been running ever since.

Today, we'll listen back to interviews with some of the show's cast members, writer-producers and music composers. But we'll start where "The Simpsons" started, with cartoonist Matt Groening. He was the creator of the underground comic strip "Life In Hell" and was approached by "The Tracey Ullman Show" to devise some sort of short cartoon sequences that could serve as bumpers or separators between the show's other disconnected sketches.

As he explained to Terry Gross in 2003, he created an entire family, a family that eventually would fit nicely into its own sitcom format. In this early-season episode, a local children's TV host, Krusty the Clown, is invited for a meal at the Simpsons' dinner table.


JULIE KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Who wants to say Grace?

YEARDLEY SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Why don't we let our guest do it?

NANCY CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) Krusty, would you do the honors?

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Clown) Well, all right. I'm a little rusty, but I'll try. (Speaking Hebrew).

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson, laughing) He's talking funny talk.

SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) No, Dad, that's Hebrew. Krusty must be Jewish.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) A Jewish entertainer? Get out of here.

SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) Dad, there are many prominent Jewish entertainers, including Lauren Bacall, Dinah Shore, William Shatner and Mel Brooks.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Mel Brooks is Jewish?

CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Clown, laughing).



I want to ask you about some of the characters that didn't exist in the very beginning stages of "The Simpsons," starting with Krusty the Clown, who's this really funny character. I mean, he's basically like an old vaudevillian-type - you know, really bitter and, you know, Jewish, (laughter) like a lot of comics and, you know - but this is, like, an old-style Jewish comic dash clown. What did you think of Krusty when he was first created?

MATT GROENING: Well, Krusty was based on a TV show clown that - who I grew up with in Portland, Ore...


GROENING: ...Named Rusty Nails. Rusty Nails was a Christian clown. He was a - he had his own show. And he showed old "Three Stooges" shorts. And he was great. And he wasn't like Krusty at all. He was very nice guy and very sweet clown. But he had that name, Rusty Nails, which I found incredibly disturbing as a child 'cause, you know, you're supposed to avoid rusty nails (laughter). So the idea of a clown named Rusty Nails...

GROSS: You were a sensitive little kid.

GROENING: Well, you know, clowns are scary to begin with. And even though this was a nice clown, I was slightly perturbed by him.

GROSS: You know, we spoke just as "The Simpsons" was becoming - was coming into existence, starting first as a Tracey Ullman series. And I think we spoke just as it was about to be broadcast on its own. And a lot has happened since then (laughter).


GROSS: "The Simpsons" have taken over the world since then. I'm wondering how your vision of the characters as they are now compare with the vision you had when you were creating them?

GROENING: (Laughter) Well, here's the problem with doing a sitcom which has lasted more than 300 episodes is you're trying not to repeat yourself. You're trying to surprise the audience, and you're trying to keep everybody who works on the show surprised. As a result, the show has gone off in some very peculiar directions. Sometimes, I was alarmed. I'm like, oh, my God, we can't do this. We can't do this. And then it turns out to be OK. One of the great things we did last year was we parodied the Fox News Channel.

And we did the crawl along the bottom of the screen. And Fox fought against it and said that they would sue (laughter) - they would sue the show. And we just - we called their bluff 'cause we didn't think Rupert Murdoch would pay for Fox to sue itself. So we got away with it. But now Fox has a new rule that we can't do those little fake news crawls on the bottom of the screen in a cartoon because it might confuse the viewers into thinking it's real news.


GROSS: What are some of the other things that you have been threatened legally over or, you know, that have been really controversial, advertisers pulling out? Because let's face it, "The Simpsons" does a lot of satire about homosexuality, the church, you know, violence on television.

GROENING: You know, at the beginning, virtually anything we did would get somebody upset. And now it seems like the people who are eager to be offended - and this country's full of people who are eager to be offended - they've given up on our show. We got into trouble a few years ago for Homer's watching an anti-drinking commercial and it said, warning, beer causes rectal cancer. And Homer responds by saying, mmm (ph) beer.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GROENING: Fox didn't want us to do that because beer advertisers are a big part of the Fox empire. And it turned out that the writer was able to track down the actual fact where some studies showed that, indeed, it does or did or has a tendency to. So we were able to keep that in. But that one (laughter) - that's the kind of thing we put up with.

GROSS: Let's talk about "Itchy And Scratchy." And this is the recurring cartoon that Bart and Lisa watch on TV. And it's the kind of, like, super violent version of all the cat and mouse kind of cartoons. How'd you come up with this?

GROENING: Well, it was from watching cat and mouse cartoons growing up, "Pixie And Dixie," the Hanna-Barbera mice and "Tom And Jerry," in particular. Very, very violent and very, very funny cartoons, MGM cartoons. And the fantasy was wanting these cartoons to extend their violence even more. So with "Itchy And Scratchy," it's as extreme as it can get for a cat and mouse cartoon. We've done so many of them that they're harder and harder to write.

And originally, of the actors, Harry Shearer, who's a sophisticated guy, seemed to laugh the hardest at "Itchy And Scratchy" during the table reads. I think he's - I don't know if he's the voice of Itchy or Scratchy. (Imitating Harry Shearer) But he's the voice of one of them. He talks like that. Dan Castellaneta is the voice of the other one.

GROSS: So did you - were you in on the writing of the "Itchy And Scratchy" theme song?

GROENING: Yeah, well - yeah, that was obvious. By the way, it's not - everybody thinks it's they fight and fight and fight and fight and fight. It's not. It's they fight and bite and fight and fight and bite.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, I think it's time to hear the "Itchy And Scratchy" theme song. Let's hear it.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing) They fight, they bite, they fight and fight and bite. Fight, fight, fight, bite, bite, bite. "The Itchy And Scratchy Show."

GROENING: The lyrics to that were written by Sam Simon, one of the original producers who developed the show, along with Jim Brooks, and basically set the tone for the show.

GROSS: One of the characters is Ned Flanders. He's the Simpsons' born-again neighbor. And, you know, so the kids in the Flanders household are being brought up very differently than the kids in the Simpsons household. Can you talk about the creation of Ned Flanders?

GROENING: Originally, Ned Flanders was just the wacky neighbor who was supposed to be just a complete annoyance to Homer for no good reason. And then we realized that he was an object of mirth with his strong religious feelings. We thought, how do we create a religious character who is not the usual stereotype? And we made him a truly good guy. And his beliefs are sometimes a little annoying. But he's not a hypocrite. He's real. And we get lots of fan mail for him.

And we get lots of photos of people who look exactly like Ned Flanders.


GROENING: Some people think Michael Medved is a Ned Flanders clone. So...

GROSS: That's funny.

GROENING: And I love the character. Harry Shearer does the voice. And he does a fantastic job with finding variations on okilly dokilly (ph). And I think we treat the character with some dignity.

BIANCULLI: Cartoonist Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," speaking with Terry Gross in 2003. Coming up, actress Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We continue our 30th anniversary salute to "The Simpsons" by revisiting Terry's 2003 interview with Nancy Cartwright, who has been the voice of Bart Simpson from the very start. She's aged over 30 years since she started doing Bart. But Bart remains a child and Cartwright remains convincing. When Terry spoke with Cartwright in 2003, she told Terry about auditioning for "The Simpsons."


CARTWRIGHT: So I went in and shook Matt Groening's hand. And I said, you know, I'm here to read for Lisa. But I saw the part for Bart and I'd rather read for him. Do you mind? And he said no, that's fine. So I gave him one shot, one take, one sound, one voice and that was it. (Imitating Bart Simpson) Blah - blah - blah - blah - blah - blah - blah - blah - blah. And Matt, his eyebrows went up, his tongue came out of his mouth, he's like, oh, my God, that's him. That's Bart. That's him. You got the part.

And I was given the part on the spot.

GROSS: So, is it - there's nothing conscious going on when you did the voice you just - it just came to you?

CARTWRIGHT: Yeah, it just - no kidding. When I saw - when I saw the picture - it really helps when you get the visual image of what the character looks like 'cause sometimes, you might have a character whose jaw is sticking out a little bit more on the bottom than it is on the top and he's got this sort of, there's a placement there so you know that his lower teeth would be sticking out a little bit farther, so that would help in creating a character.

Or say you've got a 7-year-old kid who's got a split in his two front teeth or he's missing one of his teeth at age 7. (Imitating Mara Wilson) So he would be talking sort of like this. And you can put a sort of a sound in there sort of like that little actress that played on "Mrs. Doubtfire." So I can steal from, you know, Mara Wilson I think was that little actress' name. And I totally ripped that off from her. When I go to the mall or just, you know, people watching or I go to movies and watch television, I'm inspired by live action actors and recognizing sounds and trying to duplicate that.

So I come up with an arsenal of characters in my head. So then I can then, at the next audition, give them more options.

GROSS: Well why don't you describe who Nelson is and how you came up with his voice?

CARTWRIGHT: Well Nelson, he was a bad boy. And I had to read the script 'cause there's not much of a description in the script. It might say bad boy, but it just didn't go into detail on it. So by reading the script and, you know, putting that in context, I realized he was just this - he was a thug. He was bigger, physically than Bart. So he was also - I believe Nelson Muntz is a little bit older, even though he's in the fourth grade. But I just ended up coming up with a sound that - I think Nelson has sort of evolved.

And it came to the point where he (imitating Nelson Muntz) eventually got a really, really rough sound like that. And he has got a really, (imitating Nelson Muntz) really hard R's. And, I don't know, that's how that sound came. And the laugh, the ha ha - I'll just say it for (imitating Nelson Muntz) ha ha - that was written in the script as it just said - I think it actually just said ha ha. And I don't know any - if somebody else would have been cast as that, they would have come up with their own idea of what that would sound like.

But when I did that, it got an instant laugh and so that stuck. And because I think it got that laugh, the writers put a little asterisk or a little star beside that. And they know that later on, they could do that again and hopefully it'll continue to get a laugh. And it's through trial and error and through experimenting. I don't think anybody said, let's create a signature laugh for Nelson Muntz. Do you know what I mean? It's just something that sort of evolved.

And I find that fascinating too in looking at the development of "The Simpsons" that a lot of choices that we had the opportunity to make, they were just opportunities that we had. Nobody was going out there and saying, wow, when I do this, this is going to become a catchphrase. Next thing you know this is (imitating Nelson Muntz) smell you later - that people are going to be saying that, you know?


GROSS: When you do that that gruff, like, Nelson voice, does that hurt your vocal chords at all?

CARTWRIGHT: Yeah, he's...

GROSS: Like, is there a way of doing that without it hurting?

CARTWRIGHT: You know, he truly is my - he's the most challenging in terms of my vocal chords. But throughout the years, in the 400 plus episodes that we've done so far, Nelson has only really been a lead character or citizen in a, you know, in just maybe a couple or three. One of my favorite ones was when he - it was that tribute, when he came home and Marge really kind of took him under his wing. And he sang that song.

It was a tribute to - it was a play on "Yentl." (Imitating Nelson Muntz, singing) Pa - I don't know if I could do it. (Imitating Nelson Muntz, singing) Papa, can you hear me? Singing to his father 'cause his father, like...


CARTWRIGHT: ...Left to go get cigarettes or milk or something at the Kwik-E-Mart, and he never came - (imitating Nelson Muntz) Papa, is that you? Is that you? Oh, Papa.

GROSS: Is there ever a time when you're given a script and you're thinking, I really need to see a visual to get what's going on here, to get what Bart is actually experiencing?

CARTWRIGHT: Wow, that's another great question. No, actually, no. But I think partially is that - after especially after all these years, we could totally visualize what's going on. But you just have to do your homework. You've got to be prepared and know that if Bart is, you know, on a skateboard or he's, like, riding his bicycle over a cliff and down a hill that there's going to be (imitating Bart riding a bike) whoa. You know, I just visualize it and, like, how many seconds of this do you want?

Well, make it a little bit longer. Do it again, but make it longer. And, Nancy, you know what? This isn't a show about him riding, you know, his bicycle over a cliff. Just cut it. Like, you have to cut that about - just give me about a tenth of that. OK, good, no problem - because I don't know about the length of time for the animation.

GROSS: You said earlier that, you know, when, like, a lot of friends of yours who have children or, you know, people you're just meeting have children will introduce the kids to you and say, this is Nancy Cartwright, and she does the voice of Bart. And then they'll expect you to do the voice of Bart for the kids. What about your own kids? I mean, they grew up while you were doing "The Simpsons." Did they do like, Mommy, Mommy do Bart for us?

CARTWRIGHT: As a parent, you kind of wonder what kind of influence you have on your kids in everything that you're doing, whether it's traveling, you know, to different countries or whatever. But when my son Jack was 2 years old, they had come out with a Bart Simpson - it was a prototype to see if, like, a talking Bart doll would work. But the string on the thing was a little short, so it sort of sounded like Bart on helium 'cause it would be like (imitating Bart Simpson) don't have a cow, man. Don't have a cow, man.

But my son would pull the string, and it would say that. And he'd look at the string and then he'd look at me. Then he'd pull it again, (imitating Bart Simpson) don't have a cow, man. And then he'd look at me. And he said to me, mommy, I don't see you in there. I don't see you in there. (Laughter) He's 2 years old. I'm telling you, that is the concept. Parents will come up to me and, you know, I know that they really - they want to hear me do the voice, but there's a 3-year-old clutching on to mama's skirt. And they're saying, could you do it for Sally? Could you do it? And I'm thinking, I'll just tell the parent I don't have any - I don't have anything vested in this for a 3-year-old kid that looks scared to death. If I was to lean down and say (imitating Bart Simpson) hi, I'm Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?

You think that kid is going to like it?

GROSS: (Laughter).

CARTWRIGHT: Kids look at me like I'm, you know, an alien or ah, they get upset. So I'll just say, look, I'll do it for you, but I'm not going to do it for your child, I just think that that's wrong. It's too big of a concept.

GROSS: Why do the kids get so upset?

CARTWRIGHT: Well, it's just - it's too big of a concept. They're looking at this woman who - they might watch "The Simpsons," but a child - I don't - I really think that they are watching it through a child's eyes, and they enjoy the colors. And they like the different expressions and emotions that they see, whereas a, you know, a teenager will call something totally different out of that. They will start to recognize references. And, of course, adults - I mean, we can get the satire, and we can get more, you know, of the history and even more references than a teenager would get.

So there's a whole cross-generational span of "The Simpsons" that entertains those audiences. But a kid, I don't know, man. I don't know how old I was before I realized that those sounds came from actors. It's a concept that's pretty, you know, I'd say 5 and under - this is a gross generalization. There are exceptions to the rule, no doubt about it. But generally speaking, I use some discretion on who I just throw that voice to.

GROSS: Well, Nancy Cartwright, it's just been so much fun to talk with you. Thank you so very much.

CARTWRIGHT: Yeah. You bet.

BIANCULLI: Actress Nancy Cartwright speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. For 30 years, Nancy has played Bart Simpson. And for just as long, our next guest, Julie Kavner, has provided the voice of Bart's mother, Marge Simpson. Terry spoke with her in 1994.


GROSS: So, how do you change your voice to become Marge?

KAVNER: I roughen it up, and I raise it a bit. I raise it an octave or so.

GROSS: Can you do a little?

KAVNER: (Imitating Marge Simpson) It's just kind of up there like that and a little more tired.

GROSS: Right. Now does it - does it hurt your voice to do that?

KAVNER: Not at all. The sisters, on the other hand, the two twin sisters are an octave lower. Do I have a range or what Terry?


GROSS: You want to do one of the sisters?

KAVNER: (Imitating Patty and Selma) They happen to be my favorites.


GROSS: Oh, that's great! You have a wonderful voice. Was your voice husky when you were young?

KAVNER: Yeah, I was born this way. I came out of my mom and said, hello, Rose, hello, Dave.


GROSS: But did you have a deep voice when you were young?

KAVNER: Yeah. They used to send me home. They always used to think I had laryngitis.

GROSS: Who the nurses or...

KAVNER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You have a very New-York voice, but you grew up in Los Angeles. So...

KAVNER: Well, Rose and Dave, who I just mentioned to you, my parents...

GROSS: Your parents? Yeah...

KAVNER: They're from New York and they taught me how to speak English, you see. So that's why I sound like this (imitating British accent) as opposed to something lovely.


BIANCULLI: Julie Kavner, the voice of Marge Simpson, speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. After a break, we'll continue our 30th-anniversary salute to "The Simpsons," by revisiting several more FRESH AIR interviews and movie critic David Edelstein reviews the newest entry in the "Alien" movie franchise, "Alien: Covenant." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Live from Springfield, the entertainment capital of this state, the Krusty comeback special!

CASTELLANETA: (As Krusty the Clown, singing) Send in the clowns. Those daffy, laughy clowns. Send in those soulful and doleful, schmoltz-by-the-bowlful clowns. Send in the clowns.

CASTELLANETA: (As Sideshow Mel, singing) They're already here!.


CASTELLANETA: (As Sideshow Mel) I love you, Krusty.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross continuing our salute to "The Simpsons," those lovable and durable orange-skin characters who first appeared 30 years ago in 1987 on Fox's "The Tracey Ullman Show." They were featured as interstitial animated shorts meant to serve as bumpers between the variety programs, live-action comedy sketches and musical segments. Three years later in 1990, the weekly series known as "The Simpsons" was launched as a spinoff. Six hundred and seventeen episodes later, they're still with us. Next up is Hank Azaria. This month, he wrapped up the first successful season of his own new, live-action sitcom, playing a baseball announcer on the IFC series "Brockmire." When Terry spoke with him in 2004, it was to discuss his many memorable roles on "The Simpsons."


GROSS: How did you get to be on "The Simpsons?" And two of the voices you do are Moe the Bartender and Apu, who runs the convenience store the Kwik-E-Mart.

HANK AZARIA: (Imitating Moe the Bartender) Yes. That's correct. Moe is the first voice I did. There's a little Moe for you there. (Imitating Apu) And Apu is actually the third voice, I believe, I did.

And I was 22 years old - this was a long time ago. I'm 40 now. I was 22 years old, and I hadn't worked much. There was an original voice of Moe the Bartender that I guess they weren't too happy with and wanted to replace. And I did this voice, and I was doing a play at the time in LA where I was playing a drug dealer. And I was sort of doing a bad Al Pacino impression in the play...

GROSS: (Laughter).

AZARIA: ...from "Dog Day Afternoon." I was sort of talking (imitating Al Pacino) like this - like kind of how Al kind of sounded in "Dog Day Afternoon."

And I said, what about that voice? They're like, well, we want Moe to be gravelly. So I just made (imitating Moe the Bartender) that voice gravelly. And it sounded like that.

The next week, I did Wiggum. (Imitating Chief Wiggum) Chief Wiggum, chief of police, talks like this.

And then I did Apu. And then after - about midway through the second season, they made me - they gave me a contract that made me a regular. By that point, I was doing like five or 10 voices.

GROSS: Do you have a favorite Moe scene?

AZARIA: Favorite Moe scene - there's been a lot. He's one of my favorite characters. You know, one of my favorite times is when Moe is asking a girl out. And he says to her that he's (imitating Moe the Bartender) going to go out and buy her a steak the size of a toilet seat.

GROSS: (Laughter).

AZARIA: That one sort of stayed with me.

GROSS: How did you come up with the voice of Apu? He's an Indian in America who runs the Kwik-E-Mart.

AZARIA: (Imitating Apu) Correct. He really is just an Indian guy. I mean, in Los Angeles pretty much every 7-Eleven or convenience store worker is either Indian or Pakistani or from this area. And when I first moved to LA, these were the people I really interacted with, mostly, because I didn't know anybody. So I would talk to these guys.

He's also kind of loosely based on Peter Sellers' character from the film "The Party." Peter Sellers' in that movie - plays a character named Hrundi V. Bakshi. And he's a very open, sweet, kind, innocent guy. So sort of Apu's personality is kind of based on that character.

GROSS: You've had to sing as Apu?

AZARIA: (Imitating Apu) I have had to sing as Apu. It's true.

GROSS: Is it hard to sing in character?

AZARIA: It's much easier for me to sing in character. It's much more difficult for me to sing in my own voice. It's much easier for me to sing as Wiggum or as Apu or even as Moe.

GROSS: Why is that?

AZARIA: I think I'm just more comfortable with, you know, the mask - you know, the vocal mask. (Imitating Chief Wiggum) You know, Chief Wiggum's like this. (Singing) It's sort of easier to sing like this...

GROSS: (Laughter).

AZARIA: ...Than it is to sing - I'm just - I'm not embarrassed to do that, but I'd be embarrassed to do the same thing in my own singing voice. It's weird.

BIANCULLI: That's Hank Azaria from his 2004 interview on FRESH AIR. One of the classic episodes of "The Simpsons," which has been a favorite in the FRESH AIR office, is about Marge's crusade against cartoon violence. Here she is writing a letter to a TV executive played by Alex Rocco, who played Moe Greene in "The Godfather."


KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Dear purveyors of senseless violence, I know this may sound silly at first, but I believe that the cartoons you show to our children are influencing their behavior in a negative way. Please try to tone down the psychotic violence in your otherwise fine programming. Yours truly, Marge Simpson.

ALEX ROCCO: (As Mr. Meyers) Take a letter, Miss White. Dear valued viewer, thank you for taking an interest in the "Itchy And Scratchy" program. Enclosed is a personally autographed photo of America's favorite cat and mouse team to add to your collection. In regards to your specific comments about the show, our research indicates that one person cannot make a difference no matter how big a screwball she is. So let me close by saying...

KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) And the horse I rode in on? I'll show them what one screwball can do!.

BIANCULLI: Terry asked about that episode of "The Simpsons" when she interviewed Al Jean and Mike Reiss in 1992. They're two of the original writers on the show and quickly became producers and showrunners. She asked why the writers had Marge campaign against cartoon violence.


AL JEAN: The cartoons that they watched on "The Simpsons," the "Itchy And Scratchy Show," were extremely violent, so she led a crusade and actually got them to tone down their violence. And the cartoons were really pathetic without violence. They were really lame, so kids didn't watch them. And then they went out, and they started you know, riding bikes, and building things and having fun.

And, you know, it seemed like a golden age, but then Michelangelo's David was going to tour Springfield. And then the same people that wanted to censor the cartoons wanted to put pants on the statue. And Marge realized that you can't really censor one thing without saying that censorship is OK in all forms. For a children's show - or, you know, quote, unquote, "a children's show" - it really had a lot to say.

GROSS: Is it...

MIKE REISS: And it also - it's sort of typical of a "Simpsons" episode, which is it made a lot of points that all canceled each other out. The show really doesn't have a platform.

JEAN: The other thing is we're sort of crusading against violent cartoons, but, of course, we got the show about 10 minutes of very violent cartoons. So we were kind of playing both ends against the middle.

GROSS: Well, the violent cartoons that you show are "Itchy And Scratchy," which kind of regularly appear in the series. And, I mean, it's - all they do is just kind of, like, beat on each other with a hammer. I mean, that's the whole - there is no plot or - there's not even as much plot as there is in a "Road Runner" cartoon. It's just hitting each other.

JEAN: No, in fact usually they average about six-seconds long.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JEAN: So if it was a real cartoon, you really wouldn't, you know, get much out of them.

REISS: We also - we generally even spend longer writing the title of the cartoon than writing the rest of it. Something like "Bang The Cat Slowly"...

GROSS: (Laughter).

REISS: ...Was one title. And that took about two hours, and the rest of the cartoon was pretty easy to do.

GROSS: Now, how do you work with the animators? Do you write the scripts first and then hand it over to them?

JEAN: Yeah, the first thing we do is write the script and then record the audio track with the cast.

REISS: We record it like a radio show. It takes about eight hours. And we cut it down to about 19 minutes of audio track. And then that is sent to the animators who expand it to about 24 minutes.

JEAN: We have a team of six guys, who are terrific. They - you know, they direct the way a movie director directs a feature. And, you know, they take the script, and they pretty much stage the whole thing, design the characters. And then we see a real rough version in black and white called an animatic. We do some rewrites there. And then we send the whole thing to Korea. And thats where the actual color animation is done. It comes back about three months later.

GROSS: You're really working far ahead.

REISS: It's sort of a good thing which is if - we throw in some topical allusions, but I think it's going to make the show a little more - it'll be a little timeless because we can't ride every current thing and get a quick laugh off of something that's in the news right now.

JEAN: A bad thing that happens is we'll use a name like Rex Harrison or somebody, and then he'll die before the show airs, so we have to change it. It's sort of like there's a curse. And then we did a big joke about the Soviet Union, and it died.


JEAN: So we have to just kind of be careful.

REISS: We did a little thing where Jackie Mason appeared on the show, and they flew to New York to record him. And he just made some reference to Isaac Bashevis Singer. And then a couple of months later we're reading the paper, Isaac Bashevis Singer dies. Isaac Bashevis Singer dies? Oh, no. We had to fly back to New York and get them to replace the line with Saul Bellow. And then for the next two months, we were praying Saul Bellow please don't die. And, you know, these prayers were going out to him, and I think he didn't know why.

GROSS: As professional comedy writers, do you quip a lot around the house like characters in sitcoms always do?

JEAN: At home, it's more like, oh, I'm so tired.


JEAN: There's the baby. I'd better go say hello. We do have a lot of laughs around the office, but it's never about the script.

REISS: Yeah.

JEAN: The fun stuff is always just talking about, you know, the elections or, you know, things that when we're wasting time, and we're not, you know, doing things that are connected with the show, that's fun.

REISS: It's really as funny as it gets. It will be rolling in, and everyone's laughing. And then someone's got to say, well, let's get back to the damn "Simpsons."

BIANCULLI: "Simpsons" writers Al Jean and Mike Reese spoke with Terry Gross in 1992. Coming up, "Who Needs The Kwik-E-Mart?" "A Fish Called Selma," "Trash Of The Titans," "Chief Wiggum P.I." and "Streetcar The Musical." We'll hear from Alf Clausen who writes most of the music for "The Simpsons." That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.




HARRY SHEARER: (As Ned Flanders, singing) Stella. Stella. Can't you hear me' yella? You're putting me through hella. Stella, Stella.

KAVNER: (As Marge Simpson) Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You can always depend on the kindness of strangers to pluck up your spirit and shield you from dangers.

KAVNER: (As Marge Simpsons) Now here's a tip from Blanche you won't regret.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) A stranger's just a friend you haven't met. You haven't met. Streetcar.

BIANCULLI: "Oh, Streetcar!" is one of the many terrific song parodies written by Alf Clausen who composes and arranges most of the music on "The Simpsons." In 1997, Terry asked him how he works with the writers of "The Simpsons" who come up with the lyrics.


ALF CLAUSEN: It's a collaborative effort in creating the songs. I'm usually given a set of script pages that contain the lyric, and I'm usually given enough pages in front of the lyric and behind the lyric, so that I know what the setup of the scene is supposed to be. And once I'm given the lyric, I'll be in conference with the producers. And I'll get a scan from them as to the pacing of the lyric, what the intent of the scene is, what the ambience of the song should be.

GROSS: Let me move to another track on "The Simpsons'" "Songs In The Key Of Springfield" CD. And you wrote a theme for the Springfield - new show on Springfield with Kent Brockman.


GROSS: Tell me about writing this theme and what you think of TV themes and news themes that you hear.

CLAUSEN: I think that my take on TV news themes in general now is that somewhere along the way, there has been a god of rock 'n' roll that has reached down and grabbed every news director by the neck and said our news theme must contain rock 'n' roll. And our news theme must be synthesized because that's what the public relates to now. It gives us all this excitement, and that's what I tried to reach for in the "Eye On Springfield" theme. The rock groove plus the electronic synthesized music that everybody has come to know and love.

GROSS: Well, let's hear your version of this, "Eye On Springfield" theme with Kent Brockman.


SHEARER: (As Kent Brockman) Hello. I'm Kent Brockman, and this is "Eye On Springfield."


GROSS: I want to get to another song on "The Simpsons" CD. This is actually a parody of a song from "Schoolhouse Rock," the song "I'm Just A Bill On Capitol Hill." And this is a song written by Dave Frishberg that's supposed to describe - I mean, that does describe how a bill becomes a law. And this is a really clever parody of that by a demagogue...


GROSS: ...You know, sung in the persona of a demagogue and Jack Sheldon who - the trumpeter who sang the original version sings this one as well. Tell us how this one came about.

CLAUSEN: Well, again, the lyric originated as part of the script. And when I was given the sample of it that this was supposed to follow, when I heard the original, my first comment was, well, that's Jack Sheldon singing. And the producer said do you know him? And I said, oh, yes, he's a friend of mine. He's worked for me many times in the past. He worked for me on "Moonlighting" playing some of his beautiful, beautiful trumpet solos. He's one of the best jazz trumpet players in the world.

And I said wouldn't it be funny if we could get Jack to sing on our parody as well as the original? And the comment was made of do you think we'd be able to get him? And I said, sure, let me make the call. I call Jack, and Jack said I'd be glad to do this, so it really, I think, makes it come that much closer to home and gives the bite that much more significance.

GROSS: What did you have to do musically to make it not exactly what the original song is? I mean, Dave Frishberg who wrote the original probably wasn't going to sue you, but is that the kind of thing you have to worry about?

CLAUSEN: It's an interesting challenge. By the way, Dave's an old friend of mine. He and I used to play casuals together when I was still playing, and before he...

GROSS: Casuals?

CLAUSEN: Casuals, you know, weddings, dances, stuff like that.

GROSS: Oh, no kidding.

CLAUSEN: I was a bass player. He was a piano player, and we played some jobs together before he moved to New York and became a famous songwriter. It's always an interesting challenge to try to walk the line of creating an homage to someone, but not duplicating it note for note. Obviously, I'm always concerned about the fact that what I want to do is original, but nevertheless brings back the ambience of the selected parody piece. It's tricky, but I think we got it to work.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the parody of "I'm Just A Bill." The parody's called "The Amendment Song," and this is from an episode of "The Simpsons" called "The Day The Violence Died."


PAMELA HAYDEN: (As Boy) Hey. Who left all this garbage on the steps of Congress?

JACK SHELDON: (As Amendment) I'm not garbage. (Singing) I'm an amendment to be, yes, an amendment to be. And I'm hoping that they'll ratify me. There's a lot of flag burners who have got too much freedom. I want to make it legal for policemen to beat them 'cause there's limits to our liberties, at least I hope and pray that there are 'cause those liberal freaks go too far.

HAYDEN: (As Boy) But why can't we just make a law against flag burning?

SHELDON: (As Amendment) Because that law would be unconstitutional. But if we changed the Constitution...

HAYDEN: (As Boy) Then we could make all sorts of crazy laws.

SHELDON: (As Amendment) Now you're catching on.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) What the hell is this?

SMITH: (As Lisa Simpson) It's one of those campy '70s throwbacks that appeal to Generation Xers.

CARTWRIGHT: (As Bart Simpson) We need another Vietnam, thin out their ranks a little.

HAYDEN: (As Boy) What if people say you're not good enough to be in the Constitution?

SHELDON: (As Amendment, singing) Then I'll crush all opposition to me, and I'll make Ted Kennedy pay. If he fights back, I'll say that he's gay.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Good news, Amendment. They ratified you. You're in the U.S. Constitution.

SHELDON: (As Amendment) Oh, yeah. Door's open, boys.


GROSS: When you're writing a song parody are you trying to write it as if it were serious, as if it were really a Broadway show or really a movie theme?

CLAUSEN: Absolutely, not only in creating the songs, but in creating the underscore music for "The Simpsons" and trying to give credence to the emotional content of what the characters are saying. I'm always extremely serious, and I think what happens is that the the listener and observer gets pulled into the situation more effectively once the music is serious, so that when the gag finally comes, the gag then becomes twice as funny.

BIANCULLI: Alf Clausen, composer and arranger of most of the music on "The Simpsons." Matt Groening's animated "Simpsons" family members made their first appearance 30 years ago on Fox's "The Tracey Ullman Show" and have had their own weekly half-hour comedy series since 1990. Happy anniversary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.