10 Things You Might Not Have Known About The Simpsons

Fox
Fox

The Simpsons has been a television institution for nearly 30 years. Since its debut on Fox in 1989, the series has accumulated a mountain of awards, worldwide acclaim, and an empire of merchandise. As the longest-running scripted show on TV, it's no surprise that the show's history is littered with interesting anecdotes, loads of cultural references, bizarre guest stars, offbeat writers, wild fan theories, and even a bit of drama. Dig a bit deeper into the history of television's favorite animated family with 10 things you might not have known about The Simpsons.

1. IT’S IVY LEAGUE COMEDY AT ITS FINEST.

The folks behind The Simpsons are smart. Incredibly smart. One look through the writers and producers who have passed through the show reveals graduates, scholars, and professors from some of the best universities on the planet. And many of them didn’t start out by studying writing.

Al Jean, who has been the show’s executive producer on more than 400 episodes, began studying mathematics at Harvard when he was just 16. Writer Jeff Westbrook was an algorithm researcher and attended both Harvard and Princeton before becoming a professor at Yale. Writer David X. Cohen graduated from Harvard with a physics degree and University of California, Berkeley with an M.S. in computer science. And this is just a sample of the brain power it takes to bring The Simpsons to life.

2. ONLY GOD HAS FIVE FINGERS.

The jaundiced residents of Springfield—like most other cartoon characters—are notable for only possessing eight fingers and eight toes. It’s an animation tradition, but one character bucks that trend: God. In the episode “Homer the Heretic,” Homer meets the big cheese, who sports a long white beard, flowing robe, and the standard five fingers on each hand. Just one of the perks of being in charge.

There is one inconsistency, though: Jesus is actually depicted with five fingers in the episode “Thank God It’s Doomsday,” but in subsequent appearances, he’s back to four. Whether this is some profound message or a simple animator slip-up is up to your own interpretation.

3. “KAMP KRUSTY” WAS ORIGINALLY ENVISIONED AS THE SIMPSONS MOVIE.

Though The Simpsons Movie premiered 20 years after the family debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show, the idea of doing a film was being floated during the show’s early days. The episode “Kamp Krusty,” from the show’s fourth season, was originally batted around as a potential plot for a film. In the episode, Bart, Lisa, and the other kids of Springfield go to Krusty the Clown’s shoddy sleepaway camp for the summer while Homer and Marge stay behind to rekindle their marriage. 

According to the DVD commentary, a feature-length script never came together. In fact, the writers had a hard enough time stretching the story out to a standard episode length, so an 80 or 90 minute film was out of the question.

4. THE SIMPSONS GOT INTO A PUBLIC WAR WITH THE BUSH FAMILY.

The very unlikely war between The Simpsons and the Bushes began in a 1990 issue of People Magazine, when then-First Lady Barbara Bush said of the show, “It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen.” Not looking to let that jab go unanswered, The Simpsons writing staff penned a pointed response to Mrs. Bush, but they wrote the letter in character as Marge Simpson.

The letter takes some good-natured shots at Mrs. Bush and pleasantly scolds her for the critique, including the line, “Ma'am, if we're the dumbest thing you ever saw, Washington must be a good deal different than what they teach me at the current events group at the church.”

The war was over … for a few months. Speaking at a convention for religious broadcasters in 1992, President George H.W. Bush vowed to strengthen American families, to make them "a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons."

A year later, Bush was out, Clinton was in, and it seemed like The Simpsons—which would eventually triple the length of The Waltons' nine-season run—could move on. Well the show wasn’t done with the former First Family yet.

In the episode “Two Bad Neighbors,” the Bushes move across the street from the Simpsons, and the former president engages in a battle of wits with Homer and Bart (and ends up with a rainbow wig glued to his head). Though the ex-president didn’t voice the character, it provided a definitive end to the feud, as the family eventually drove the Bushes out of Springfield through the same idiotic behavior Barbara Bush derided years earlier.

5. MATT GROENING REMOVED HIS NAME FROM THE EPISODE “A STAR IS BURNS.”

For a show that’s been on the air for close to 30 years, The Simpsons hasn’t endured much public drama outside of the occasional cast salary negotiations. But one of the show’s most memorable feuds went straight to the press, and it concerned the 1995 episode “A Star is Burns,” which featured the character Jay Sherman (voiced by John Lovitz) from the series The Critic coming to Springfield.

Feeling that the episode was just a cheap crossover, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening removed his name from the episode’s opening credits, the first and only time his name wasn’t associated with the series. This led to a very brief—but surprisingly brutal—war of words between Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks.

"The two reasons I am opposed to this crossover is that I don't want any credit or blame for The Critic and I feel this (encroachment of another cartoon character) violates the Simpsons' universe," Groening told the Los Angeles Times. "The Critic has nothing to do with The Simpsons' world."

"This has been my worst fear ... that the Matt we know privately is going public," Brooks said. "He is a gifted, adorable, cuddly ingrate. But his behavior right now is rotten. And it's not pretty when a rich man acts like this."

It would be nearly 20 years before The Simpsons hosted another cast of characters in one of its episodes. However, this time it was another Groening creation—Futurama—stopping by for an episode in 2014’s “Simpsorama.”

6. ELIZABETH TAYLOR VOICED MAGGIE FOR ONE WORD.

Maggie is famous for her pacifier and 28-season vow of silence, but she did utter one word during the fourth season in the episode “Lisa’s First Word.” And the voice behind Maggie was none other than Elizabeth Taylor, who was hired to say one thing: “Daddy.”

The scene takes place at the end of the episode once Homer leaves Maggie’s room after tucking her in, so of course no one hears her. To get the line just right, producer Al Jean requested a number of takes from the Hollywood icon, culminating in Taylor telling Jean, “F--- you,” in her Maggie voice while the tapes were still rolling.

Taylor reappeared on the show toward the end of the fourth season in the episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled." She had a bit more to say here, but laying claim to Maggie’s first word cemented her legacy in Springfield.

7. THE SHOW HAS LANDED BOTH BANKSY AND THOMAS PYNCHON.

No one knows what Banksy’s real name is, and the mystery surrounding reclusive author Thomas Pynchon has endured for decades. Yet somehow, they both contributed to The Simpsons—Banksy with a couch gag and Pynchon as a guest-voice.

Pynchon appears (with a paper bag over his head to preserve his mystique) in two episodes, “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife,” where he endorses Marge’s book, and “All’s Fair in Oven War,” where he eats some chicken wings she made. He even edited his own dialogue for the show, removing a line where he was supposed to call Homer a fat ass. His reason? “Homer is my role model and I can't speak ill of him,” he told the producers.

Banksy’s couch gag was one of the show’s most shocking, depicting Fox as a vile corporate cesspool that runs on employee misery. Al Jean said he was a little concerned with the nature of the couch gag at first, but he and Groening agreed to leave it in with minimal changes. And no, nobody on The Simpsons ever met Banksy. In both cases, the reclusive artists were tracked down by casting director Bonnie Pietila.

8. HOMER MAKES LESS THAN $25,000 A YEAR AT THE NUCLEAR PLANT.

The Simpson family finances are ... complex. In some episodes, they have to forego fancy quilted toilet paper to make ends meet and, in others, Homer can pull wads of money out of his wallet if the plot calls for it. It’s all part of the show’s famous "rubber band reality," where continuity never lines up episode-to-episode (or scene-to-scene).

One of the only concrete pieces of evidence we have of the family’s financial situation comes in the episode “Much Apu About Nothing,” when we get a glimpse of Homer’s weekly paycheck from the nuclear plant.

Apparently Homer takes home $479. 60 before taxes ($362.19 after taxes) for a full work week, which averages out to just about $11.99 an hour. That’s $24,395 per year, and $37,416 when you adjust for inflation, according to Vox.

9. MICHAEL JACKSON VOICED A CHARACTER BUT HAD AN IMPRESSIONIST DO THE SINGING.

One of the most important parts of the early success of The Simpsons was the roster of A-list celebrities that provided guest voices for the series. This was at a time when a prime-time animated show wasn’t given much respect in show business, so having the likes of Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones, Larry King, Penny Marshall, and Phil Hartman lend their vocal talents to the show gave it an air of respectability that it needed.

Perhaps the biggest coup came during season three, when the show landed Michael Jackson as a guest. In “Stark Raving Dead,” Jackson plays a heavy-set, white mental patient who believes he’s the King of Pop and befriends the family after being Homer’s sanitarium cellmate. Jackson was a big Simpsons fan, so he was happy to lend his voice to the show. His speaking voice, that is.

Jackson refused to sing on the show when it came time for the episode’s musical number, instead leaving that up to a soundalike. When the cast discovered this during the episode’s table read, Harry Shearer (voice of Mr. Burns and many others) looked over at Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson) and said, “We’ve paid just enough for the speaking Michael Jackson but we can’t afford the singing Michael Jackson.”

When Jean asked why exactly Jackson didn’t want to sing on the show, the music legend told him, “I’m playing a joke on my brothers” with no further explanation.

Don’t go looking for Jackson’s name in the show’s closing credits, though. He appeared under the pseudonym John Jay Smith, which, again, was never explained. 

10. THE SHOW’S MOST PROLIFIC WRITER IS NOTORIOUSLY RECLUSIVE.

The Simpsons has churned out a number of great comedy writers who have gone on to mainstream success—Conan O’Brien and The Office creator Greg Daniels among them—but there’s one whose legend eclipses nearly everyone else. Casual fans might not know him, but among Simpsons die-hards, the name John Swartzwelder is met with hushed awe. Multiple members of The Simpsons staff have declared him the best writer the show has ever seen, with former show writer Dan Greaney proclaiming him, "the greatest writer in the English language in any form."

Google his name and you’ll end up with more questions than answers. Most of the details of his life boil down to second- and third-hand accounts, as he never does interviews, refuses to lend his voice to DVD commentary tracks, and rarely pops up in photos (there are a handful on Google and none look any more recent than the ‘90s).

The one time that show producers tried to call him during a commentary recording, the man on the other end of the line ended the awkward conversation with, “It's too bad this isn’t really John Swartzwelder,” leaving fans to wonder what they just listened to. Despite that, the man wrote 59 episodes of the show during its first 15 seasons, with many of them ranking among the series’ most popular, like "Bart Gets an Elephant," "Radioactive Man," and "Homer's Enemy."

When other writers would talk about him in DVD commentaries, he's described as a serious Libertarian who is a “self-declared anti-environmentalist,” and would go on tangents about how there is more rainforest now than there was 100 years ago. And when describing a recycling center in one of his scripts, he called it "a couple of hippies surrounded by garbage." That didn't stop Swartzwelder from writing some of the show’s most environmentally conscious episodes, including “Whacking Day” and “The Old Man and the Lisa.”

How deep does Swartzwelder’s quirky legend go? During the commentary for “Grade School Confidential,” Groening told a story about how Swartzwelder would usually write his Simpsons scripts alone in a diner while smoking cigarettes and guzzling coffee. When California outlawed smoking in restaurants, Swartzwelder simply bought the booth, had it installed in his home, and continued to work in the exact same manner. And once smoking was banned in The Simpsons writers room, he rarely showed his face there again. The closest thing fans have gotten to actually seeing Swartzwelder is the handful of “cameos” he makes in animated form throughout the series’ history.

Though he’s been out of television since 2003, he has since authored a series of 11 novels, all of which retain his genius—and infinitely absurd—humor.

Additional sources: More Simpsons DVD commentaries than anyone should listen to in a lifetime.

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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