Documentarian Morgan Spurlock distinctly recalls the first time he saw The Simpsons.
“I was a freshman at USC when the show premiered,” said the man who would go on to produce and star in the movie Super Size Me, “and I actually found the show before that, or at least found The Simpsons before that when I was watching Tracey Ullman. My mom loved British comedy, so I grew up watching a lot of Monty Python, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, all these shows that literally helped shape my whole view of the world. Literally. When Tracey Ullman was coming to America, my mom and I were like front and center when that show aired.
“When this became a series the next when I was a freshman in college, it was like the first time for me that I remember in kind of my ‘adult life’ because I wasn’t living in my house anymore. We literally had appointment television. Me and my friends, all my roommates, literally every night we were there in front of the television watching this show. It was so smart. It was so different, and I think for me it was the first show that I’d ever seen in America that felt like a British show. It felt like something that was incredibly smart. It didn’t treat the audience like you stupid. It really gave you a little bit more than a lot of show, and I was blown away by it from the beginning.”
Now Spurlock is the man behind a half-hour special celebrating the show’s breaking all manner of longevity records. He admits it was a job he wasn’t expecting.
“I think I was picked because maybe everybody else was busy,” he jokes. “I was kind of the one that was left over. When [Supervising Producer] Al Jean and everybody called me up, they wanted to make a documentary that kind of looked at the series, but did it in a way that was a little different than kind of a pat on the back kind of show. They wanted to know what my take would be in terms of looking at the show through my eyes, which I thought was a cool and fun thing to get to do.
“With Matt Groening, I think both he and I look at the world with a tremendous amount of cynicism. We question a lot of things that are out there. I think that that’s why I was so attracted to…from the beginning is that it’s a show that has a very sarcastic look at the world, but at the same time, distrusts a lot of the things that we’re told or that we’re taught we should believe. I think that we’re kindred spirits possibly in that same way.”
More important, Groening and company gave Spurlock what was tantamount to editorial carte blanche.
“I sat down with Jim [Brooks], Matt and Al and asked them what would they want to see in the show and what types of things would they want to make sure that we touched on. I sat down and said, ‘well, here’s how I’d like to make the special. Here’s what I would envision.’
“Then it took us outside of America. We traveled around the world, meeting the people who literally have been the biggest supporters of this show and kept it on the air for decades. I really wanted to root the show in the people who kept it on the air, which ultimately, I think were fans. There’s a lot of focus on them and the people who have been champions of it for the last 20 years.”
Actually, Spurlock admits he really didn’t have to go too far to start the special. He actually began filming at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con.
“At Comic-Con it was great because that was kind of our first taste of the super-fans, the real fanatics. We had an open call. We had this open casting for people to come out, and that was when we first started meeting people with Simpsons tattoos, people who did voices, people came dressed up as characters to be in the special. Literally, that was kind of just my first foray into how crazed Simpsons fans are.
“From there it just mushroomed into something you couldn’t even anticipate. We traveled to Scotland and England, Argentina where when the Simpsons Movie came out, it was the biggest movie of the year. Some of the biggest fans in the world are in Argentina, which is hard to believe, but it’s huge down there. There are all of these rip-offs in Argentina. There’s a fantastic amount of copyright infringement in Argentina when it comes to the Simpsons. There are stores that literally have signage with Homer’s face on it. There’s a hotdog place called La Pancha de Moe… Moe’s hotdog stand. There is a guy down there who’s actually started starting brewing Duff beer in the middle of Argentina. It’s remarkable.”
Not that Groening, Brooks and crew didn’t have a request of their own.
“I think they wanted to make sure we talked to the people who have been the unsung heroes of the show, and that is the writers,” says Spurlock. “The writers on this show have been some of the smartest people to work in Hollywood. They’ve been people who have gone on to do incredible things in Hollywood, and so we wanted to make sure that we talked to these guys. [They] were some of the funniest interviews you’ll ever see. Conan O’Brien is among them. Of course, Al Jean and Mike Reiss and Mike Scully. We spoke to dozens of writers. It was great.”
Not that the writers are the only stars. In fact, one thing that apparently pleased Spurlock is the number of other media personalities willing to talk all things Springfield, USA.
“They’re from John Waters to Sting to Moby, Norah Jones, Jerry Springer,” Spurlock crows. “Who better to talk about a dysfunctional family than Jerry Springer? We really covered the gamut and talked to a lot of different people that we thought could cover different topics that the show had talked about over the years.
“One of my favorite things that come out of this is Moby, who is an incredible musician, is a huge, huge fan. In Moby’s spare time, when he’s out on the road and just is kicking it around, he does Mr. Plow remixes. Moby is a huge Mr. Plow fan, loves the Mr. Plow episode, thinks that little haiku of a theme song to Mr. Plow is brilliant. We have seven different versions that we’re most likely going to be putting out before the special airs and that we also have in the special from a punk rock version to an old-school hip-hop to a psychedelic version. It’s phenomenal what he’s done, but he is the perfect example of the super-fan who just kind of lets that show embrace his own creative spirit to go off and do other things.
“We were in Glasgow and Aberdeen,” Spurlock continues. “They are two cities that fighting over Groundskeeper Willie. They’re arguing over who can claim the right of [him] being the native son, so we went there. We shot in Patchway which is right outside of Bristol where the world’s largest Simpsons collector. He’s got about 30,000 pieces. We went to Rio where there was a tremendous amount of protests when the ‘Blame it on Lisa’ episode aired, and Buenos Aires where all of the real crazed Argentinean fans are.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be a true Simpsons special without some quotes from the voice cast.
“Dan Castellaneta’s in the show as is Hank Azaria, Julie Kavner, Yeardley Smith,” says Spurlock. “It was great talking to all these people because these are people whose lives also have been transformed over the last 20 years by this show. Hank Azaria talks about how when they first asked him to be a series regular, he said ‘I don’t want to be a regular on this show. I want to be an actor. I want to have a career.’ Because of this show, it’s enabled him to do so much more than he ever though he would be able to in his life. I think everybody looks at what an incredible gift this was that was given to them with this program, and it’s been a huge thrill for all of them.”
“I’d say the majority of it is live [action]. Of course, there are clips that we make reference to from episodes over the last 20 years within the show. When it comes to original animation, there is very, very little original animation in the show, probably less than 30 seconds original animation in the whole piece, but in terms of stuff that we’ve shot that’s in there, what’s the ratio? I would say probably 85% of the special is live action and new stuff, interviews, people that we’ve all over the planet.”
There is even a reference to Spurlock’s Super Size Me. To complete the film though, Spurlock also got testimonials from a number of animators who credit their careers to Homer, Marge and the kids.
“We speak to Seth McFarlane, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Mike Judge; three different sets of people who really benefitted from the success of the Simpsons. Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill, all of the Seth’s shows; these things wouldn’t be on television were it not for the The Simpsons,” says Spurlock.
“I think what this show did was it finally took animation away from being something that was deemed as being kids’ entertainment, [and said] listen, you can have something that’s smart, that’s challenging, that’s for adults. Brad Bird talks about this a lot in the special. Brad, who worked on the show for years and then went on to win two Academy Awards with Ratatouille and The Incredibles, he said here’s a show that really took what used to be relegated as a Saturday morning show and said we can be just as smart, just as engaging, just as challenging as any sitcom or any show that’s on primetime television.
“They made a conscious decision when they made the show not to put a laugh track on it, like The Flintstones used to have. When they basically hired out to make the music for the show, they said we want it to feel like a movie. We want to score this like a movie. It’s not some guy sitting at a Casio. It’s amazing the breadth and the depth of what they envision this show to be, and I think all those little things mattered. It really helped to make it something bigger than a cartoon.”
As is now well known, The Simpsons has now become the longest running “scripted” domestic series in the history of U.S. television. Spurlock’s special, entitled The Simpson’s 20th Anniversary Special in 3-D on Ice will air this Sunday at 8:30 p.m. eastern. It will be preceded by the 450th episode of the series.
When you think about it, that’s as sweet as one of Homer’s jelly donuts.