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 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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