In December of 1989, a star was born in the form of a dysfunctional, irreverent and yellow family of five.
Fox’s “The Simpsons,” created by writer and cartoonist Matt Groening, went on to become both a prime-time success and cultural icon of sorts. Now, 20 years and 450 episodes later, the sitcom is still going strong, and to celebrate its brilliant aging, Fox is airing a 20th anniversary special program on Jan. 10 right after the 450th episode.
The program, called “The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special: In 3-D! On Ice!” was directed by documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (“Supersize Me,” “30 Days”), and was a testament to the show’s success and influence on popular culture.
“”˜The Simpsons’ certainly clicked with the public because I think that it had so many iconic and archetype characters that we all know,” said Mike Anderson, a UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television alumnus and current supervising director for “The Simpsons.”
“They seem to have absconded with every characteristic of every human being on this planet and put it into Springfield. … Its popularity has transcended the word. It’s just everywhere you go.”
Anderson was just one of the many people Spurlock interviewed for the documentary-style anniversary special, and has seen some of Spurlock’s footage.
“(The special) is an exploration of how ingrained “˜The Simpsons’ is in society,” Anderson said, “You’ll see a lot of people (in the special) that do impressions of the Simpsons, people that are zealots and collectors, that have the most Simpsons stuff in the universe. And I think you’ll be pretty dazzled at just how deeply rooted “˜The Simpsons’ is in all of our lives after 20 years of laughing with it.”
Anderson is one of three UCLA alumni who directed episodes of “The Simpsons” that were chosen by TV Guide as among the top 20 Simpsons episodes of all time. Alumni David Silverman, Chuck Sheetz and Anderson’s respective episodes make up five of the TV Guide’s top picks. Anderson described the special as including documentation of both avid Simpsons fans and the creative minds behind the show.
Both Anderson and Sheetz spoke of the enduring passion of the writers and artists as being key to the shows’ success.
“One of the things about working on it for so long, for 20 years, is that I feel like I’m still in art school, like I’m working with a bunch of kids that are crazy,” Anderson said.
“People draw on their walls and wear silly stuff and pull jokes on each other. Basically it’s kind of a youthful environment where people do crazy things. … Occasionally a new toy will come out and half of the artists are gone in the morning because they have to get it the day it comes out,” Anderson said. “And these are grown adults, so it’s kind of wacky. I think part of it has to do with the humor. Humor keeps you young. It really does.”
With a creative team resembling the most enthusiastic of fanboys, the humor and enthusiasm in the making of the show translates to the final product, which is a show that has made audiences laugh for 20 years. With its 21st season currently airing, plans are currently underway for the 22nd season.
“The level of sophistication really forced other writers on other sitcoms to certainly work a little bit harder,” said Sheetz, an animation professor at UCLA and director of episodes of “The Simpsons.” “It raised the bar for everything.”
Sheetz reflected on the reason the show has managed to remain on the air for so long.
The initial creativity of the show’s humor and tone set it apart from other programs at the time of its debut, Sheetz said.
“One of the things that helped get it on the air is … it was more willing to experiment,” he said. “Early on, they really started to write things that were just more smarter stuff than what you were getting on (other shows).”
Anderson pointed out “The Simpsons” apparent rise in popularity and interest in recent years. With “The Simpsons” movie in 2007 and a rise in ratings, the 20th anniversary certainly seems worthy of celebration.
“It remains a very popular show and is a great springboard for other Fox shows too, so it works on a business level and it works on an entertainment level,” Anderson said. “So I don’t see an end in sight, to be honest.”