LAST Saturday, the tiny Vermont town of Springfield (pop. 9,084) celebrated its biggest news since local hero Isaac Fischer Jr. got a patent for sandpaper back in 1834. This time around the excitement was decidedly more glamorous, right down to rolling out the red carpet: the premiere of "The Simpsons Movie," an honor that involved beating out 13 other U.S. cities with the same name. The Simpsons, of course, live in a place called Springfield and now Vermonters are gleefully claiming the Velveeta-hued family as their own.
Yeah, right, like Bart Simpson could find the sixth smallest state on a map.
As fitting as it might be for the birthplace of sandpaper to be home to Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie, the denizens of their cartoon town live and die right here in Southern California -- in Century City to be more precise, where the film that opens nationwide this Friday was assembled over the last 43 months (yes, that would be nearly four years).
Go to the 20th Century Fox lot and ask for directions to Pamela Anderson's old trailer, the one she used on "Busted." That show's name is still on the door but inside you'll find the animators who draw the bug-eyed icons of the longest-running comedy in the history of television. Walk out of that trailer, wander north and look around for a giant yellow hand holding a pink-frosted doughnut the size of tractor tire. Across from it is a shabby little room with cheap furniture, a balky air conditioner and coffee stains on the floor. This is the writer's room for Homer's odyssey, which began 18 years ago, and the town square of the true Simpsonian Springfield.
On a recent afternoon, three stalwarts of "The Simpsons' " creative team gave a tour of the room. There was James L. Brooks, the wisecracking and gentle rabbi/executive producer of "The Simpsons" since Day 1 -- as close as you get to a conscience for the show; Al Jean, the writer and producer who has anxiously worked seven-day weeks for a year to finish the film and keep the series going; and Richard Sakai, the taciturn producer who streamlined the animation process, making it possible to even contemplate, for the first time in the show's history, doing a film and television series at the same time.
The tour didn't take long. Jean: "This is the chair where I proposed to my wife, which is either sweet or pretty pathetic." Brooks: "This poster on the wall is a famous thing -- our touchstone. It shows all the characters in Springfield." Sakai: "Yeah, that poster is great." Jean: "They spent all the money on animation, not on the room."
Wow, heady stuff.
But then again, the same things that make "The Simpsons" so fundamentally unglamorous are also what make the franchise so special. The actors who play the main characters can walk down the street without being recognized. The characters on the screen are, in the words of Jean, "drawn in a very simple style." In the writer's room the pencils last longer than most of the scribes. But all of this keeps the humor agile and surprisingly edgy for an enterprise verging on voting age.
One of the most interesting traits of this studio-lot Springfield is that the people logging the longest hours often lose sight of the iconic nature of their creation: "You get working here and you forget that it's seen all over the world -- until you go all over the world," Jean said. "You just do your job here and try to make the people you work with laugh. And you forget. Then it's like, 'Oh right, this is a cultural phenomenon.' "
Making bigger better
On another morning, Brooks slid into a booth at the Hotel Bel-Air's restaurant and ordered some poached eggs and a heaping bowl of blueberries. He was asked if there was apprehension about making the movie -- after all, the TV show is largely defined by its comparatively primitive art, of-the-moment humor and a certain humility. Did he fret that super-sizing it would sabotage its singular charm?
"Just for about 16 years," he deadpanned. "I think everything you mentioned we cared about enormously. So with the movie we started with the old gang of writers and we kept on shifting our personalities and new people would come in.... Some of us were always at the table no matter what and it was a very long period of time. A lot of it was to shake loose of what everyone was saying about the show" -- here he put on the voice of a haughty and wheezy critic -- 'This show, after all these years....' The main thing is we wanted to have fun. And make a movie we could be proud of."