Writers join the fray on 'The Simpsons'
Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 10:27 p.m.
Tom Wolfe is screaming. He screams softly, this Southern gentleman, his trademark white suit unwrinkled, his spats unwavering even as a giant granite boulder hurtles down upon him. It looks to be the end of the pioneering New Journalism author of "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."
"Aaaaaaaahh! Wait, no, that wasn't good, let me start over."
"How did you scream last time a boulder was hurtling toward you?" asks Carolyn Omine, executive producer of "The Simpsons."
"Why don't you try, 'Aaaaahhhh, my suit!'" suggests a rail-thin, nerdy-looking writer, from the front of the Fox recording studio.
"Ahhhhh, my suit! It's gabardine!" wails Wolfe, toward the microphone. "Well, but cops wear gabardine."
Slowly, Wolfe transforms. Even now, this episode's director, Mark Kirkland, is circling Wolfe, snapping pictures. Soon, a team of animators will render Wolfe bug-eyed and yellow-skinned. A year from now he'll appear on television alongside Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and the bartender Moe in an episode of "The Simpsons" parodying highfalutin literary culture.
"We started with the idea of Moe as Charles Bukowski," explains Matt Warburton, who wrote the episode. "We brought Lisa in as the person who discovers in scuzzy, barfly Moe something that we've never seen before: a poet." Antics ensue, with Wolfe and fellow guest stars Gore Vidal, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen voicing themselves. All were thrilled to participate.
"This is the only show of any sort that I watch on television," Wolfe says, sitting in the greenroom after recording. The immaculately dressed author is surrounded by a group of scruffy Harvard-educated "Simpsons" writers, hanging on his every word. "My son, Tommy, who's now 20, one of his first words was (Homer's trademark exclamation) 'D'oh!' And now any conversation he has with anybody, he'll reference 'The Simpsons.'"
The writers laugh knowingly. This isn't uncommon. The show is in the "Guinness Book of World Records" for the most guest voices of any animated series, and invitees are often begged to participate by their children or younger friends who see it as akin to nabbing the Nobel Prize. Past guests include actors (Kirk Douglas, Drew Barrymore), musicians (U2, the Who) athletes (Andre Agassi, Magic Johnson), politicians (Tony Blair) and even the most reclusive of writers (Thomas Pynchon lent his voice twice, and faxed in a list of jokes beforehand).
"The fastest 'yes' I ever received was Elizabeth Taylor," says Bonnie Pietila, the producer in charge of casting. "I hung up the phone after leaving a message and she called back five minutes later." Some celebrities are so eager to appear on the show "that they have a representative call us on a monthly basis," Pietila says. "But we only have 22 episodes each season." Al Gore is one of the few to have turned "The Simpsons" down.
On a stiflingly hot Monday afternoon, Franzen and Chabon drive onto the Fox lot together. They convene with producers in the greenroom and sit on couches surrounding a wide swath of sandwich makings, jumbo cookies and fruit that nobody ever seems to touch.
"My kids and my father are very excited," Chabon says. He's not kidding. Reached later by phone, his father, Robert Chabon, said that he always expected Michael to win a Pulitzer (which he did in 2001 for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"). "And I still think he's going to win the National Book Award," said the Kansas City, Kan., pediatrician. "But him being on 'The Simpsons' is beyond my wildest dreams. You envision certain successes for your children, but this kind of success - I never envisioned."
Sometimes the show seems to be instigated by a vast conspiracy of children. "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening strolls into the greenroom and once again tells Chabon that his kids are big Chabon fans. "That's great," Chabon says, grinning. "My kids were very excited when I told them that Matt Groening's kids know who their father is."
The script calls for Chabon and Franzen to brawl during a dispute about their literary influences, and standing next to each other in the recording room, the friends ready themselves for a fight. Franzen complains loudly that he has fewer lines than Chabon - "Only 38 words!" - to which Chabon responds, "I see there's a little counting going on in the Franzenian corner."
Dan Castellaneta, the voice of many "Simpsons" characters, including Homer, Barney, Krusty the Clown and Groundskeeper Willie, sits on a swivel chair nearby, wearing sunglasses and smiling at the amateurs. Then Groening arrives, a red light glows and recording begins.
Franzen need not have worried about counting words. The session's Emmy-worthy performances are wordless strings of yelps and grunts. After reading and rereading their lines, the writers take turns making fight noises like "urrrrrg!" and "ugh!" and "ouch!" Chabon throws his whole body into it, lunging at the microphone, while Franzen keeps a dry, acerbic cool. Omine, the producer, reads them their cues, and writers sitting around the room toss out ideas as they occur.
Franzen: "Gaa! Dajjjmit! Ach! Rrrr!"
Writer: "How about, 'Nooo! My prescription-less glasses, the ones I wear to look smart!'"
Franzen: "My trademark glasses!"
Omine: "Let's continue with Jonathan, because you have to whack Michael with a chair. Some more pain sounds, please."
Writer: "How about saying, 'You fight like Anne Rice!' "
Eventually, it's time to encounter that same runaway granite chunk that flattened Tom Wolfe. Franzen's scream has a hint of falsetto; Chabon writhes as he lets out an anguished moan.
It's over in less than an hour; but echoes of those recordings will stick with you, says Amy Tan, author of the 1990 book "The Joy Luck Club," who voiced herself on the show five years ago. "Among a certain group of mostly younger people, I'm like a movie star of cartoons," she says. "People who are not impressed with anything else are very impressed that I was in 'The Simpsons.' I don't know what the equivalent would be. Like I was playing with the Rolling Stones or something. It's as though I actually know Homer and Marge and the kids."
Being on the show doesn't improve a writer's salability, says Sandra Dijkstra, Tan's literary agent. "I don't think it does anything for their careers. My impression is that it's simply fun. 'The Simpsons' is countercultural and subversive and it makes important statements about America today. Good writers want to be subversive, and they want to be on 'The Simpsons.' "
If there were a trophy for hipsterism, it might well be in the shape of Homer's head. The series that Time magazine dubbed "the best show in the history of television" has for 17 years spawned conversations on playgrounds and at cocktail parties. It's the focus of university classes and doctoraltheses. And it long ago infiltrated the lingo of today's high school kids, who don't know a Simpson-less world. ("D'oh!" was included in the 2001 Oxford Dictionary.)
But despite its cultural saturation, Gore Vidal hasn't watched the show. "I live in Italy," he says, walking with a cane toward a lone chair in the recording studio. "I don't see much American TV."
Vidal puffs out his chest and begins, imbuing his lines with the solemn dignity of a Shakespearean actor. Each syllable receives its share of attention. Groening watches intently from a couch, smiling. Vidal doesn't sound like a Simpson. He sounds like Gore Vidal.
It's a wrap. Vidal says that he "can't wait" to see the episode and that transforming into a yellow-skinned character is a return of sorts: "After all, I had jaundice as a kid." On the way out, he segues into a favorite topic and tells the producers, "There's a White House plan to destabilize California like they've destabilized Iraq or Iran." Then he leaves the studio. Alive. Vidal is the only one of these authors to escape a cartoon death.
The show is in the "Guinness Book of World Records" for the most guest voices of any animated series.
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