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Column: I saw the first draft of the first Simpsons episode – and it wasn’t very good

Marc Flanagan, a writer on The Tracey Ullman Show, recalls how a low-budget animated segment on that show grew legs and became an international phenomenon.

Marc Flanagan

APRIL 19, 1987 – 25 years ago this week – marked the first time that a yellow-skinned family named The Simpsons appeared on TV screens, as an interstitial feature on The Tracey Ullman Show.

Here Marc Flanagan, who was a writer on The Tracey Ullman Show, remembers the genesis of the short feature and how it grew to become such an international institution.

THE INTERESTING THING is that it could have been so different. The way The Tracey Ullman Show was laid out was to have three interstitial features between pieces, so we hired three animators, and Matt Groening was only one of those three. Matt had a strip in the LA Weekly, Life in Hell, and that’s how we were familiar with him. The reason the two main voices, Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner [Homer and Marge] do those voices is because they were on The Tracey Ullman Show.

I wasn’t involved in those discussions, but they were going to take Life in Hell and animate that, but 20th Century Fox came in and said, ‘No, no, do something original’ – because Life in Hell was owned by the syndicate that published the LA Weekly, and they wanted to own it.

We ran one of the other animators’ work just once, and I guess we didn’t like the third, so we just decided, ‘Let’s just stick with Matt’s cartoons because he’s great and reliable’. So Matt starting submitting these scripts and we’d look over them, and not really make any suggestions because it was his world, and we pretty much just let him go where he wanted to go. The little interstitials were 15-20 seconds, three or four per episode, and Matt would do a little story, in much in the same way he would do a comic strip.

I don’t think that we even had a name for them – we used to just call them ‘Matt’s shorts’ – but maybe in Matt’s mind he knew who they were, that they had a last name.

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It was never Matt who said, ‘I’d like this to become a half-hour show’. The shorts were on The Tracey Ullman Show for three years, and someone from the Fox studios said, ‘I love those cartoons – what if you took those, and turned them into a half-hour show?’ So they approached Jim Brooks, whose company is Gracie Films, and that’s how it happened.

Not even God himself could have imagined the remarkable success and endurance of the show. The shorts had worked very well in the context of what Tracey’s show was, because we had an audience and Tracey would do these stories (we never called them skits, because we wanted to distinguish ourselves from Saturday Night Live). It worked very well with the tone of the show – smart, and funny, and kind of arresting. So a lot of the Tracey Ullman writers – like Sam Simon and Wally Wolodarsky – went to work on The Simpsons.

I remember going down to Jim Brooks’ office and seeing the pencil test of the first episode [‘Some Enchanted Evening’, which after a troubled production sequence aired as the final episode of Season 1]. And it wasn’t very good. There was this long silence after it was over, and then Jim Brooks said, “Can you excuse us, everybody? Matt, Sam, you stay here.” Whatever the result of that meeting was, The Simpsons became The Simpsons after that.

A gamble that wasn’t a gamble

As far as Jim Brooks goes, it was only an artistic gamble. I think Jim felt comfortable with the writing team, because he’s a masterful storyteller. He would say, ‘You’ve gotta care about these people. Everything’s gotta have a beginning, a middle and end.’ And you could tell even from the interstitials that Matt had invested a lot in these characters.

I came quite close to being a Simpsons writer: myself and another guy wrote one episode about Bart being sent to military school and then causing a war. We were on the second draft of it when Operation Desert Storm started, and we had to abandon it. Real life beat us to it. But we realised when we were writing it: writing for animation is great, because you can take the next scene and put it anywhere.

If you’re doing a traditional show you can’t go back and say something didn’t happen, but on The Simpsons it’s the same people and history doesn’t play that big a role. When I was writing Murphy Brown a character had a baby and I made the child older than they should have been, because I wanted her to be able to talk to someone when she got home. But in animation, nobody ever gets a day older.

The Simpsons is such a unique example of longevity because television as a concept – as a very conceit – has only been mainstream in America since the early 1950s. So the medium has only been around for 60 years – and The Simpsons has been around for 25 of those years. It’s just amazing. There are comedy shows which are really running out of ideas by five or six years. And it seems like there’s an endless wellspring of ideas, and creativity, with that show.

‘Everybody fells they’re in a dysfunctional, lovable family’

I don’t notice any drop in quality. People will always be quick to say, ‘Well, it was so much better ten years ago.’ You know what? So were you. There’s a great quote, “There were no good old days – there’s only now.”

The first time I visited Dublin, about four years ago, down at the bottom of Grafton Street I saw this street artist – and he was doing the Simpsons. There were the Simpsons, on the street, in Ireland. I stood there, and thought, “This is so amazing.” I took a picture of it and sent it to Dan Castellaneta, but he probably gets those things all the time now.

People love the show. They used to give baseball jackets to the Simpsons and Tracey Ullman writers every year, so I had this Simpsons jacket with leatherette sleeves and a patch of Maggie on the sleeve (they would change the character every year). I have an actor friend who’s fanatical about the Simpsons, and I said to him: “I never wear this – would you like this?” He broke down into tears.

If it was to pick a single point why The Simpsons has lasted so long – his artistic decision was that he wanted to portray a family that was both dysfunctional and lovable. Everybody feels they’re in a dysfunctional, lovable family and I think that’s one of the reasons people identify with it. Everybody feels like they can see themselves in Lisa, or Bart, or any one of the legion of characters that live in Springfield.

As told to Gavan Reilly. Marc Flanagan was a writer on The Tracey Ullman Show, winning two Emmy awards for his work, and also served as a writer, consultant and executive producer on other series including Grace Under Fire, Suddenly Susan and Murphy Brown. He keeps an occasional blog at TheWrap.com.

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