Tuesday, September 17

Betting big on ‘The Simpsons’


Betting big on ‘The Simpsons’

Already the top show in syndication, ‘The Simpsons,’ has
transcended the role of television sitcom and become an American
icon. For Executive Producer David Mirkin, however, things aren’t
that much different from the days when he worked on ‘Get a
Life.’

By Robert Stevens

Daily Bruin Senior Staff

The executive producer of "The Simpsons," David Mirkin, knows a
secret about vice president and family man Al Gore.

Nielsen ratings beware, the second-in-command does not watch
"Murder She Wrote" at 8 p.m. on Sunday nights ­ and he isn’t
reading the Bible either.

Gore, Mirkin reveals, is a huge "Simpsons" fan, an enormous
aficionado of that beer drinking, toxin spilling Homer Simpson.

"Once we did a thing about Al Gore ­ sort of on the fact
that he’s not exactly Mr. Excitement ­ and his office calls
us" says Mirkin, who speaks tonight at UCLA Extension. "They
actually just wanted a copy of the tape. But since then it’s been
ominously quiet."

"His office said that he’s a gigantic fan of the show. It’s one
of the shows that he likes his kids to watch, a show that he
watches with them."

Yep, after six years of prime time exposure and nearly one year
in syndication, "The Simpsons" is that big.

And apparently the execs at Fox have noticed.

Today, Mirkin sits comfortably in his simple, Spanish villa
style office in the center of the 20th Century Fox lot in Century
City. Mirkin’s office, once occupied by the biggest stars in the
business ­ Marilyn Monroe, Will Rogers, Shirley Temple and
Frank Sinatra among others ­ is a token of appreciation to the
man who has helped make "The Simpsons" the top show in syndication
and a studio centerpiece.

"’The Simpsons’ has a huge following because it works on so many
levels," Mirkin says. "Children like it because it’s a cartoon and
has some bright colors and some physical humor in it ­ and
then there’s references that go all the way up to Ph.D. professors
everywhere. It’s incredibly obscure but then incredibly broad at
the same time. It’s the most accepted thing in cartooning."

Watching Mirkin talk about "The Simpsons" leaves no doubt where
the show’s energy comes from. The producer, whose ultra-wide eyes
and bushy mustache make him look like one of his own cartoon
characters, gesticulates while he speaks and laughs frequently. He
speaks with passion, often breaking into character voices to prove
his points and is, for lack of a better word ­ animated.

And why shouldn’t he be so happy?

The team of writers and producers for "The Simpsons" can create
any story at any intelligence level, make any character do
anything, and bash government officials who love every minute of it
­ officials who watch these railings with their kids no less.
Talk about having your cake and eating it too.

No characters on the show are safe either. "Nobody is an icon,"
he says. "Though everybody generally feels superior to Homer. So
even if he is there drinking beer and watching TV and there is a
certain similarity to the viewer ­ the viewer is still saying,
‘Hey, I ain’t as dumb as him.’"

"’The Simpsons’ goes after everybody with an equal vengeance, so
no one can really complain because there’s nobody who’s left
untouched."

But the complaints do come nonetheless. Any time a particular
group gets made fun of Mirkin is sure to get a letter about it.

Mirkin describes a situation in an episode in which the Scottish
groundskeeper Willie is caught filming Homer from behind some
bushes.

Here Mirkin imitates Willie’s thick Scottish accent at the time
when the groundskeeper gets caught. "’I’m always taping something,
Homer,’" Willie says. "’BUT EVERY SINGLE SCOTTISH PERSON DOES
IT!’"

He drops the accent.

"So it basically said that every single Scottish person is
constantly video taping people from behind bushes. And it was such
an insane line ­ such an over-the-top, horrible race
denigration that we thought it was funny."

But one Scottish person did write in saying, "’You wouldn’t say
that about anyone else. The Scottish, we’ve certainly had our
share!’

"It was funny to me because obviously if Scottish people were
the only people we went after I’d feel bad about it.

"But we’ll make a joke about any group any time. It’s hard to
complain about any kind of minority character in the show because
the character that gets the worst is Homer, who is a white,
Anglo-Saxon male."

Subtracting the main four family members, there are about 56
other characters to insult or even create story-lines about per
episode. No character is every truly minor ­ one of the
beauties of the Simpson universe being that any one character is
open for development.

Developing a story is no small task either. With all the
animation and writing the entire process for one episode takes
eight months.

All this is a little new to Mirkin, who on "Get a Life," a
sitcom about a 30-year-old loser that he created, directed and head
wrote for, only had two days to shoot an episode.

"’Get a Life’ and the ‘Simpsons’ were actually very similar. The
difference is that people are much more willing to accept very very
bizarre behavior from a cartoon. ‘Get a Life’ was like a
live-action cartoon where Chris (Elliot) would often get killed in
every episode.

"A lot of the stuff on ‘Get a Life’ is over a lot of people’s
heads," Mirkin says. "I had friends working on ‘The Simpsons’ at
the same time I was writing ‘Get a Life’ and they’d call me up and
say, ‘you just did what we were going to do and now we can’t do it.
We were kind of writing similar things early on; Chris was like
Homer, Homer was like Chris."

As a kid Mirkin had a friend who let him in free at the movie
theater. There he would see films like The Exorcist 25 times. It’s
always been easy to let little pieces of his film and TV memories
slip into scripts.

"’Get a Life,’ like ‘The Simpsons,’ was full of movie references
­ every type of reference ­ but it was not as noticed by
as many people. Because they couldn’t get over, well, they just
couldn’t get over Chris most of the time."

Sometimes, figuring out allusions in "The Simpsons" can be a
bigger draw than the plot. These references have become almost as
important as the characters.

But these parodies only arise after the story has been written
"We only do that if it’s integral to the story," he says. "We don’t
ever try to jam anything in there because then you could tell."

In the episode when Bart gets his first girlfriend, played
wickedly by Meryl Streep, she and Bart decide to go out for the
evening. This sequence bears a striking resemblance to a certain
Oscar-nominee.

"When the two of them first get together they kind of go out on
a slightly evil night on the town. So we did it like Pulp Fiction,"
Mirkin says. "We did the music from Pulp Fiction, everything ­
but it was integral to the story."

But that’s just it. The formula to the success of "The Simpsons"
is to have no set formula ­ only to dedicate the time and
effort into putting out the highest quality show.

Ed Scharlach, producer of some of the most popular shows in
history ­ "Happy Days," "Mork and Mindy" and "The Odd Couple,"
says he picked Mirkin to speak through the UCLA Extension Program
on comedy writing for a specific reason.

"Out of the 24 people I interviewed to speak he was the only one
who started his career not as a comedy writer but an electronics
engineer," Scharlach says. "He’s not only extremely interested in
the writing, but in the technical and production sides as
well."

Mirkin’s well-rounded background has helped lead "The Simpsons"
to three additional years on the air ­ with perhaps more to
come.

"After that it’s always a matter of maintaining the quality of
the show," Mirkin says. "That’s something that everybody is
interested in doing ­ if we don’t feel that that will be the
case then the show will stop. It’s incredibly lucrative now, but I
still think that the quality aspect of it will reign over the
monetary aspect."

"Hopefully ‘The Simpsons’ will end at the proper time and never
wear out its welcome ­ I hate when a series does that."

SPEAKER: "The Simpsons’" David Mirkin speaks at UCLA Extension’s
"Tune In Tonight" in Haines 220 at 7 p.m. $5 for UCLA students and
faculty with I.D., $30 general public. For more info call (310)
825-9415.

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