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What goes into making an episode of The Simpsons

01:00 Mon 23rd Dec 2002 |
What we see is a seamless 22 minutes (count 'em!) of animated magic, followed by 'the credits' - scores of names scrolling through at breakneck speed.

300 episodes old
To mark the 300th episode (showing in the US early in the New Year, a few weeks later on Sky in the UK and thereafter being played somewhere in the world at pretty much any time of day or night) we take a look behind the scenes of the Simpsons and the people responsible for them.

Start at the beginning

Scene One, Frame One: an ordinary-looking room on the lot at Fox Studios in Santa Monica, California, known to those gathered there as "the room". More even than Evergreen Terrace, the Kwik-E-Mart or the nuclear power plant, this is the centre of the Simpsons' universe, the place where the show's writers meet to... write, under the supervision of the show's producers - who all write too. Here they pitch new episodes, review work in progress and thrash out the finer points of finished scripts.

Though each episode is credited to one, two or three writers, this group of as many as 20 individuals may have contributed by the end. Who are they Nearly all men, average age 30, many of them former contributors to leading college magazine the Harvard Lampoon, "highly paid gerbils on a nonstop Hollywood treadmill" as they have been memorably described.

I thought The Simpsons was created by Matt Groening
They were, and he's still at the hub of the whole enterprise, but Groening hasn't had a writer's credit on the show since 1996, and only ever wrote four episodes. (John Swartzwelder, by contrast, has written 55). 19 different writers and 14 different directors got credits on the 22 episodes broadcast last season.

For many years George Meyer was the unseen, unknown fulcrum of the writing team, though he appears to have left the show this year. He was around from the early days along with friends like Jon Vitti and Swartzwelder (they all worked on a seminal, smallscale magazine called Army Man). Serious students of Simpsonalia suggest that Meyer had as much if not more influence on the show and characters as anyone did - including Groening.

And don't forget the "co-creators" of the show: three-time Academy Award-winner James L. Brooks, who has a track record stretching from Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Terms of Endearment to As Good as It Gets. Sam Simon, the show's other original creator and the man who recruited most of the writers, appears to have moved on. One website lists his acting credentials: two appearances as a Phone-A-Friend for Celebrity Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in the States.

Meanwhile, what's happening to our episode
With a complete (but not yet completed) script, we move from "the room" to a single story, comfortable recording studio elsewhere on the Fox lot. Writers and producers have now been joined by the actors who voice the characters. There's a morning run-through (the "table reading": legend has it the table is brown and Formica-topped, if you're being obsessive about these things) before recording takes place in the afternoon.

The actors - the six regulars plus occasional contributors - gather in a large semi-circle for the recording. Guest stars don't always record their parts at this time, though many do, being fans of the show and its stars themselves. Dan (Homer) Castellaneta is partially hidden by a screen - he gets so animated (ha!) during recording that he can put off his colleagues. Nothing's finished at this stage: re-writes and alternative scripts are recorded too, just in case.

So the voices are recorded first
The animation is still a way off. The voice track is taken next to animators at Film Roman, in North Hollywood. Background layouts and new characters are drawn, creating a storyboard of the whole episode - some 200 pages long. Once, they would have been sent from here to Korea where the actual animation took place.

But things are changing at The Simpsons, as executive producer Al Jean revealed to a group of Finnish schoolchildren in a rare online interview a couple of months ago: "This year, the show will be entirely animated by computer, like Futurama... Prior to this year, all drawing and coloring was done by hand."

The show's very own composer, Alf Clausen, will be writing, arranging and recording all-new original music at the same time.

This all seems to be taking forever
Months and months. In fact, the writers use this time-lag to sharpen up the gags, and the actors are called on to voice frequent updates.

Having said that, they can move quickly when they want to. When then President George Bush (Dubya's dad) criticised the Simpsons, the writers, producers, actors, animators and editors managed to ready a response that was broadcast just two days later on 30 January 1992.

They're good at it
You could say. The show airs in 160 countries around the world and you have to go along way to avoid bumping into some piece of Simpsons merchandise or other. It's a billion-dollar franchise.

They've been doing it for a while

...since 1987, when the Simpsons first appeared in a series of 30-second spots on the Tracey Ullman Show. Or should that be 17 Dec 1989, when the first full-length episode (Simpson's Roasting on a Open Fire) debuted on Fox TV. or perhaps January 14, 1990 when the first series began its first run. Or perhaps as long ago as 15 February 1954, when creator Matt Groening was born in Portland, Oregon, to parents Homer and Margaret (not Marge!), with sisters Lisa and Maggie...

I want to see my favourite episode again!
With up to 300 of them to choose from, it does feel like 250 of them never get an airing anymore, doesn't it Let Sky One or BBC2 know. Good luck!

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