How does a crudely drawn animated sketch about a brutish slob with a lowbrow family who regularly strangles his delinquent son turn into TV's longest-running primetime show after 20 years and 450 episodes?
Morgan Spurlock, the director of the acerbic documentary Super Size Me, explains The Simpsons' landmark status as the victory of a show that never talked down to its audience.
"It felt like something that was incredibly smart ... (and) didn't treat the audience like you were stupid," said Spurlock, a fan of the characters since they debuted as a series of short pieces on Fox-TV's long-gone Tracey Ullman Show. "It really kind of gave you a little bit more than a lot of show, and I was blown away by it from the beginning."
Spurlock has since crafted a loving documentary tribute to the series airing at 8:30 p.m. Sunday dubbed — with tongue firmly in cheek — The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!
The hourlong worshipful trek through Simpsons lore features appearances from Sting, Dan Rather, Hugh Hefner and former Simpsons writer Conan O'Brien, among many, many others.
Spurlock's film debuts after the 8 p.m. airing of the show's 450th episode and includes cool factoids (the family's hometown, Springfield, is based on Portland, Ore.; DJ/producer/performer Moby has written seven different interpretations of the show's sidesplitting "Mr. Plow" theme) and great quotes ("To see something like this rise out of the manure pile that was animation at the time, was amazing," said King of the Hill/Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge).
Trace the seeds of The Simpsons' success and you see a convergence of circumstance and talent so singular it makes a double lightning strike look like a daily visit from the mailman.
Here's a short list of the reasons why we're still digging The Simpsons:
It's funny. Yeah, it's not as funny as the years of Mr. Plow or Homer almost jumping across a ravine on a skateboard. But Sunday's episode, featuring TV burnout Krusty the Clown falling for a new female sidekick, still has tons of great sight gags and laugh lines. "Five minutes of The Simpsons is still funnier than five seasons of most comedies," said Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson.
It's animated. The cast doesn't age, the sets don't look dated, the stories can go anywhere, the costs are lower, their edgy antics are more acceptable, the characters have spawned billions in merchandising and the show looks like nothing else on television.
It's evolved. On Ullman's 1987 show, the family was brutish and stupid, a mean parody of typical family sitcoms that still felt edgy and fresh. Producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment) gave the 1989 TV series a more palatable heart, as a dysfunctional family who somehow still loved each other. Years later, the show found new life focusing on dopey dad Homer instead of bratty delinquent Bart.
It has its cake and satirizes it, too. Every week, The Simpsons pokes wicked fun at America's over-consumerized, fast-food-eating, junk-culture-craving society. Yet it has also spawned a billion-dollar commercial machine that churns out everything from Simpsons-style Happy Meals to the unfortunately titled The Simpsons Sing the Blues album. Creator Matt Groening, a self-styled leftist underground artist, allowed his characters to fuel a fourth TV network that funneled billions to one of the world's most rapacious media moguls, Rupert Murdoch. "I find it much more shameless than (merchandising) Hannah Montana," said Thompson. "The Simpsons do it and try to tell you they somehow don't really mean it."