Cathy's World: Simpsons-style families

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  Feb. 19, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- "The Simpsons" reached its 300th-episode milestone Sunday, and Fox just renewed it for two more seasons, making the misadventures of the outlandish cartoon family the longest running primetime series in TV history, surpassing such venerable classics as "Bonanza" and "Ozzie & Harriet."

Although everyone would agree that some shows are better than others, "The Simpsons" has not grown stale; it continues to add to the pop culture lexicon. Homer's description of the appeasing French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" is currently being tossed about on various Internet blogs.

And then there's Homer's classic "D'oh!" always written as "annoyed grunt" in "Simpsons" scripts.

Dan Castellaneta, who voices Homer, asked creator Matt Groening what an "annoyed grunt" was the first time he saw the words. Groening responded, "I don't know -- whatever you want."

Castellaneta recalled an actor who used to yell out a drawn-out "D'ooooh!" in old Laurel & Hardy films, probably as a euphemism for "damn" -- a word definitely banned in those yesterdays.

"Matt said, 'This is animation, you've got to go faster,'" Castellaneta explained. "And so, sped up, it's 'D'oh!'"

Naturally, there are some overly involved Comic Book Guy-like viewers who have misty, water-colored memories of the early "Simpsons" years. Groening once predicted rather wearily that "The Simpsons" will still be on in the year 3000, but there will be "fans on the Internet complaining that the last 500 shows haven't been as good."

Was the 300th episode among "The Simpsons" best? Well, no. I actually preferred the repeat lead-in, in which an even lazier than usual Homer veges out in front of the tube.

"I can't believe they took 'Monkey Trauma Center' off the air for this!" he wails at the cancellation of a favorite TV show.

And the live table reading last month where I saw "The Simpsons" cast do an old episode in which Lisa and Nelson (the bully) have a romance, is one of the all-time best -- not least because it gives some of the best lines to those indelible minor characters.

"My 'H' has been stolen!" yells Superintendent Chalmers, seeing that his car has been vandalized in the school parking lot. "What's the point of having a Honda if you can't show it off?" Upon which the ever-toady Principal Skinner pries the "H" off a nearby Hyundai and hands it to him.

"One of the things that's kept the show on for 14 years is you have a universe of about 50 or 60 characters," said current show runner Al Jean at the Fox news conference, explaining that the writers therefore don't have to worry about creating new story arcs and characters -- say a girlfriend for Bart -- to keep the show fresh.

Another thing is that voice actors can't make the same salary demands as live-action TV stars. Although "The Simpsons" cast is apparently paid very well - about $100,000 an episode, according to one insider.

"But, I would say that altogether we don't make as much as one 'Friend,'" lamented Castellaneta.

Sunday's episode -- in which Bart divorces his family and Homer wins him back by besting skateboarding legend Tony Hawk -- did end on a high note.

"I represent Viagray, for bald, impotent men (possible side effects include loss of scalp and penis)," says an unctuous marketing rep, approaching Homer to be a spokesman. "Well...I am bald and important," muses Homer thoughtfully.

"The Simpsons" has paved the way for all sorts of wacky, envelope-pushing family comedies over the years. Most don't work. One that does is the very funny "Grounded For Life," which was under-appreciated on Fox for the past couple of years and moves to the WB network for its midseason premiere Feb. 28.

In typical post-"Simpsons" style, this live-action show has a buffoonish dad, a wise earthy mom, and three smart-aleck kids. Unlike many "Simpsons" imitators, "Grounded" -- about a working class, Staten Island family headed by parents who married as teenagers -- is grounded in reality.

"The Simpsons," for instance, handles the problem of kids and media violence with those nasty Itchy & Scratchy cartoons -- always my least favorite part of the show. In an upcoming "Grounded," the mom (Megyn Price) takes away a particularly gruesome game from her two sons and then becomes addicted herself.

"Do you even know what happens when you hit Level 17?" she wails to her husband. "You can replace your arms with flame throwers and use them to cook people and eat them! I find myself driving down the road wondering how many points I get for running over the Fed Ex guy!"

"That one hit really close to home," said "Grounded" co-creator and executive producer Bill Martin, about his own family. "We're not letting (our kids) play them anymore."

"These aren't cartoon people," added Martin's writing partner, Mike Schiff, noting that the kids on the show aren't always respectful to their parents. "We're always careful that it's something we feel is appropriate."

Donal Logue, who plays the show's Irish-American dad, noted that although his character may make mistakes, he always tries to do his best.

"To have a father who was just blasé about being a bad dad is a form of humor I never related to," Logue said. "I never was into the 'Married With Children' kind of humor, like 'Oh, God, the kid's in the trunk.'"

He added that it may be just as well that "Grounded," which was never a breakout hit on Fox, will have less ratings pressure on the smaller WB network.

"If I was on a top five show, where I felt like I was being compromised into hambone comic situations all the time, I wouldn't want to be there," noted Logue, whose big break came in the independent feature film "The Tao of Steve."

"And it would probably be career death anyway," he added. "We want to be on a show that feels really real."

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