David Silverman has been a guiding light for The Simpsons since squigglier versions of Homer, Marge, and the kids first appeared in shorts that the animator helped make for The Tracey Ullman Show in the late ’80s. To prep for his keynote address at the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International, we asked Silverman to talk about the evolution of one of our hardiest comedy institutions through the lens of a suitably iconic image in a recent episode from the show’s 24th (!) season.
David says: “Some of the jokes in this episode [‘A Tree Grows in Springfield,’ which begins with Homer winning, then breaking his new ‘Mapple’ tablet] are as lazy as can be. We had ‘Steve Bobs’ instead of ‘Steve Jobs’ and ‘MyPad’ instead of ‘iPad.’ It’s a colossal wink to the audience: ‘We’re making fun of Steve Jobs—geddit?’ The joke is that we’re doing the laziest kind of parody.”
1. “The vividness of the colour palette is something you can trace back to the Tracey Ullman days. The colour stylist, Georgie Peluse, looked at the sketches and said, ‘Bart and Lisa and Maggie don’t have hairlines—what are we going to do? I’m not going to add a hairline, so I’ll make the Simpsons yellow.’ She didn’t want to ruin the purity of the original design, and you can buy yellow as a hair color and a skin colour. This was in the late ’80s, when vibrant colours were in, and she was big on that: purple tree trunks, Marge having blue hair and the walls being pink and the carpet being green. She didn’t continue on the show after the first season, but she set the stage in a way.”
2. “Wes Archer and I were the two guys directing [the shorts] on The Tracey Ullman Show, and we had very cinematic taste. We liked interesting angles and would try weird shots and transitions. There’s flat space and deep space. Flat space is one-point perspective, with flat walls, a very proscenium-like stage, and no perspective. Deep space has a two- or three-point perspective, with a very deep look, so we’d have a low-angle shot looking at Homer in the foreground, Bart deep in the distance, and a receding hallway.”
3. “Other deaths on the show seem to be more Wile E. Coyote–ish, but Ned has been more affected. [He became a widower when wife Maude Flanders was killed in a Season 11 accident involving Homer and a T-shirt cannon.] We felt, ‘Oh, he’s suffered long enough,’ so now he’s married to Ms. Krabappel. It’s never a tough decision to kill off a character, per se—it’s more like, ‘Let’s try it and see what happens.’ Sometimes we’ll do crazy things, like with Skinner and Principal Tamzarian [i.e., the much-loathed Season 9 twist when Principal Skinner was revealed to have gone missing in Vietnam and have been replaced by an impostor]. Most writers are mad about that episode so they mostly ignore it—it’s like it never happened!”
4. “One point of departure for The Simpsons was ’50s sitcoms like Father Knows Best. We were riffing on the era that people like [show creator] Matt Groening and I grew up in. There are things in it that don’t exist anywhere any more. For instance, Krusty the Klown is based on the idea of having local kids shows on TV—that’s a ’50s or ’60s concept that started disappearing in the ’70s. I knew a local guy in the Washington, D.C., area—he was this sea captain named Cap’n Tugg and he played Popeye cartoons. Matt was thinking about a clown in his area of Portland, Oregon, named Rusty Nail, which is a hilarious name. Dan Castellaneta based his voice on the Chicago version of Bozo the Clown. There are aspects of the show that are retro, and yet everybody buys it.”
5. “The merchandising and press in the first season were about Bart, but if you really looked at the shows, at least half were about Homer. I think it’s more people’s perception that the show’s emphasis shifted onto Homer. Remember, Homer is easier to write for. There are only so many times you can do stories about the kind of bad-boy, ain’t-I-cute mean little kid that Bart really is. And Bart’s universe is not as broad as Homer’s universe because he’s not an adult. So there’s never really a conscious choice about what direction the show is taking [in terms of which Simpson to emphasize]. The other thing is that Dan Castellaneta is hilarious [as Homer]. Not to take away from Nancy Cartwright or anybody else, but Dan has so many tools in his toolbox. He makes mediocre lines great and great lines fantastic.”
David Silverman delivers the keynote address at the Toronto Animation Arts Festival International on July 26. Corus Quay, 25 Dockside Dr., 647-785-8740, email@example.com.