Hollywood isn’t known for its stability (career or otherwise), which is why, breezing into its 400th episode, “The Simpsons” is such an anomaly.
Twenty years after its gestation, it has lasted 10 times longer than most men and women can stand to be in the same house together, let alone the same writers’ room and recording studio.
“If you’re going to devote (your life) to one thing, this is the thing,” says showrunner Al Jean, who has been on the series since its stand-alone primetime debut in 1989. “You get to do something you think is good, that lives forever, that the public enjoys. It couldn’t be better.”
That’s not to say, like many marriages, “The Simpsons” hasn’t had its ups and downs, most notably a salary showdown between the studio and the voice cast that brought them to the brink of Splitsville. But the partnership survived, and the parties in question seem relieved.
The group came together in humble circumstances, during the creation of a series of one-minute interstitials starting in 1987 for the Fox network sketch comedy “The Tracey Ullman Show.” The show didn’t even have money for a recording studio; the producers hung padded blankets in an engineer booth above Ullman’s stage.
“I come into this rinky-dink production that’s not even a show,” laughs Nancy Cartwright, the 49-year-old voice of 10-year-old Bart, “and I thought … ‘This is El Cheapo Productions. … These people have no idea what they’re doing!’
Then sobering, she adds, “(But) I kept my mouth shut. I’m very glad about that.”
Eventually, Springfield moved up in the world. “The Simpsons” got its own timeslot. Its own offices. Its own studio. And the writers settled into the comfort of everyday life. Which, of course, presented its own problems and conflicts.
“There was a time, six or seven years ago,” says Yeardley Smith (Lisa), “when I thought being so well known for this one character was keeping me from other jobs. I had to sit down with myself and say, ‘You may not be getting other work … but if you didn’t have this part, you couldn’t go off and audition or write.’
“I never had resentment. I just had a question about (whether it was) holding me back. And you know what? … So what? The benefits far outweigh the detriments.”
Indeed, the show’s cast and crew now speak with the gratitude and appreciation of longtime companions who’ve learned to live together while still keeping each day fresh.
“‘The Simpsons’ is one of the great team sports,” says executive producer James L. Brooks. “There’s not even one form of comedy. You could have a showrunner with particular tastes, and the show will follow where his tastes are. We can do romantic comedy, we can do physical comedy, we can do satire. … It keeps us current.”
The show’s staff currently consists of 20 writers, often divided into two rooms, many bouncing between the series, videogames, the upcoming movie and numerous other “Simpsons” projects.
The series “requires a commitment to quality you see in few shows,” says Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox TV, the studio behind the program. “The people on this show live with it day and night, year round, and they understand their characters and story structure in extraordinary ways.”
Sure enough, supervising producer Matt Warburton, who has been with the show six years and is still one of the newest people there, says he’s spent more time with “The Simpsons” writers than anyone else in his life.
“It’s like a submarine voyage that never ends,” he says.
“The most heated arguments (now) end up being where we’re going for lunch,” Warburton says. “But ‘The Simpsons’ is strong enough to survive.”
Current projects for the core voice cast of “The Simpsons”
DAN CASTELLANETA (Homer)
Aside from appearing on upcoming episodes of “Reno 911” and “Entourage,” Castellaneta (with his wife, Deb Lacusta) is writing “Empire Burlesque,” a musical-comedy look at the Spanish-American War.
NANCY CARTWRIGHT (Bart)
When the honorary mayor of Northridge, Calif., isn’t giving “way cool” motivational lectures to teens and students, she’s working on her passion project: opening a youth center for at-risk kids in the San Fernando Valley.
JULIE KAVNER (Marge)
Taking it easy.
YEARDLEY SMITH (Lisa)
Having just completed a four-week run starring in “Balancing Act” at the Falcon Theater, Smith is now shopping her tweener novel “I, Lorelei: The Mud Letters.”
(Chief Wiggum, etc.)
Azaria is readying his first major directing job (“Outsourced,” for Sony Pictures) and hopes to end up back on Broadway, where he appeared in “Monty Python’s Spamalot.”
HARRY SHEARER (Ned Flanders, etc.)
Shearer is dusting off his hairspray can while his alter ego Derek Smalls, bassist for the legendary Spinal Tap, finishes rehab for an Internet porn and gambling addiction. The faux rock band is headlining Al Gore’s Live Earth concert on July 7 at London’s Wembley Stadium. Shearer also is mixing a CD of comedy songs, preparing for the opening of “J. Edgar!,” his first full-length stage musical, and getting ready for the fall release of his first novel, “Not Enough Indians.”