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Brian Volk-Weiss: 'The Simpsons' demonstrates 'the delicateness of success'

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From left to right, Lisa, Homer, Marge and Bart Simpson have been on the air for 36 years. Photo courtesy of 20th Television
From left to right, Lisa, Homer, Marge and Bart Simpson have been on the air for 36 years. Photo courtesy of 20th Television

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 5 (UPI) -- Brian Volk-Weiss said his docuseries, Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons, premiering Wednesday on Vice TV, demonstrates what he calls "the delicateness of success."

The series traces the animated hit's origins from a segment on The Tracey Ullman Show through its ongoing series run on Fox, now in its 34th season.

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Interview subjects include Simpsons writer Bill Oakley and animation director Wes Archer, as well as Garth Ancier, the Fox Entertainment President when Fox debuted, and executive Rob Kenneally.

"We're really interested in the business story, the context and the politics of a situation," Volk-Weiss told UPI in a recent phone interview.

Volk-Weiss also created The Toys That Made Us, The Movies That Made Us and Behind the Attraction. The Simpsons may be the densest subject Volk-Weiss has tackled, because its 36 years of history includes more than 700 episodes, two seasons of sketches on Tracey Ullman, merchandise and more.

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"The Simpsons is so big, it's very, very hard to understand the scale of how big it is," Volk-Weiss said.

To convey the scale of The Simpsons, the Icons Unearthed series begins with the creation of the Fox network in 1986. Cartoonist Matt Groening created The Simpsons for Tracey Ullman because he did not want to sell his comic strip, Life in Hell, to the network.

Despite the cartoon's success on The Tracey Ullman Show, Fox founder Barry Diller was reluctant to order 13 full-length episodes of The Simpsons.

But Fox's movie division wanted to keep executive producer James L. Brooks happy. Brooks had made Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News for 20th Century Fox, and his deal was up.

"The feature division wanted four more movies from James L. Brooks," Volk-Weiss said. "James L. Brooks insisted on green-lighting the TV show. So, as a cost of doing business, they were able to get one of the most lucrative things in the history of human culture."

Later episodes of Icons will show how the success of The Simpsons complicated relationships between the animators, voice cast and the network. There were, for example, lawsuits over profit participation points owed to staff members under contract.

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"Nobody greenlights a show expecting it to last 34 years and beyond," Volk-Weiss said. "So a lot of the contracts that were created for the writers, the animators and everybody involved with the show were based on the way those contracts had worked for the prior 25 to maybe 50 years."

The Simpsons not only sold advertising for Fox, but episodes sold into syndication, and merchandise was just one of many of the ancillary revenue streams.

Creatively, Simpsons fans consider Seasons 3 to 10 the Golden Age of the show. Volk-Weiss said there was a showrunner change made those seasons so successful.

The late Sam Simon co-created The Simpsons with Brooks and Groening. Simon was the showrunner of The Simpsons' first two seasons, but turned showrunning duties over to Al Jean and Mike Reiss for Season 3. Jean is still co-showrunner with Matt Selman.

Volk-Weiss said that Simon's writing brought intelligence to the comedy, but that multiple interview subjects described him as a "control freak," taking on too many tasks. Subsequent showrunners maintained Simon's script standards, but involved more of the writers in more aspects of the process.

"It allowed the people who learned his good habits to continue those good habits, while maybe not replicating some of the not-good habits," Volk-Weiss said.

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Another demonstration of the enormity of The Simpsons, Volk-Weiss said, is the show's ensemble supporting cast. The Simpson family lives in Springfield, which is populated by hundreds of regular characters like Krusty the clown, Disco Stu, Hans Moleman, Chief Wiggum, Moe, the Crazy Cat Lady and more.

"If you had a family that was on an island by itself, I don't think The Simpsons makes it even three seasons.," Volk-Weiss said. "By putting them in this town where some of the characters are more normal and some of the characters are more wacky, that's how you bring out the comedy."

Guest stars contribute to longevity, too, Volk-Weiss said. Celebrities from Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor to Hugh Jackman and Brian Cox recently have lent their voices to Simpsons characters.

Volk-Weiss said Golden Age episodes like Jackson's still hold up. An uncredited Jackson played the voice of Homer Simpson's roommate in a mental institution who believed he was Jackson, and helped Bart write a birthday song for his sister, Lisa.

"I know Michael Jackson might not be the most popular guy in 2022, but my point is that episode had me crying like a baby," Volk-Weiss said. "Even in my mid-40s, I was crying. That's what those other characters bring to the show."

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Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT on Vice TV.

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