I don’t have much to say about the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons. I have the feeling that if the show had been canceled 10 years ago, we’d now be making much more of a fuss over its 20th anniversary reunion special. But now it is, like Law and Order, something that’s always been there, hasn’t been in its prime for a long time, but hasn’t gotten bad enough to provoke “how did it get so bad” articles. So we get last night’s slightly desultory special, where the selection of clips seemed to acknowledge that most of the great moments are from the first eight seasons. (In a gesture of fairness, I chose a recent clip to place at the top of this post.) Also, an eerie moment where Conan O’Brien talked about being sent off to an island to write Mr. Burns jokes for a dollar a day. This was taped before it looked like he’d be searching for work. But while there’s not much left to say about The Simpsons, I think I can say one thing about its greatest achievement:
What The Simpsons did, more than any show in television history, was demonstrate how background and bit characters can be developed into truly memorable characters. Obviously, almost none of the characters apart from The Simpsons themselves were part of the show’s original universe (on The Tracey Ullman Show). Most of the supporting cast began as bit characters delivering or provoking exposition (Moe was there to say “What’s the matter, Homer?” and get a prank call from Bart). One of the few characters who really looked like he was being set up as a big showy supporting player was Dr. Marvin Monroe, and hardly anybody liked him. All these bit characters were developed into people capable of carrying their own jokes and even episodes.
The Simpsons managed this, in part, by taking advantage of the animation format. They didn’t need to hire new actors for every part — they could instead assign them to their regular voice actors. So they could bring almost any character back whenever they wanted. The producers played on this by coming up with new ideas for every character every time they came back, adding to what was already known and opening up new possibilities. When Dan Castellaneta had to read two lines for the school groundskeeper, he (according to the commentary) asked showrunner Sam Simon “who is this guy?” Simon suggested he try it with an accent. He tried it Scandinavian and it didn’t work; he tried it with a Scottish accent and it was funny (“You’ll be back! You haven’t seen the last o’ Willie!”). Then when the character came back, he was a tough, ornery guy muttering insults, which turned into a habit of directly insulting Principal Skinner (first under his breath, then to his face). He ripped off his shirt to reveal he was unusually ripped. He revealed that he could wrestle a wolf. He cared more about his school grounds than about the zombies popping out of them. He fell in love with his power mower and then with a hot Scottish lass who appeared for no reason. All of this happened between his first appearance (mid season two) and season four. Just by bringing him back and finding something different for him to do each time, they built a funny character out of two meaningless lines.
This is something that can’t really be done in most other types of TV. It can be done in drama to a certain extent, but dramas need to have such large casts — regulars and guest characters — that they can’t exactly afford to have a zillion bit players come back every week. (Also, never forget: in most live-action shows, the groundskeeper wouldn’t even talk. Not for two lines, anyway. It costs a lot more money to pay someone for a speaking onscreen role than to pay him for extra voices.) Multi-camera sitcoms usually can’t do it because they are plays, taking place in a small number of places; the only people who can be fully developed are the ones who are in the foreground — shows like NewsRadio made jokes about the fact that no one really knew anything about any of the office workers who weren’t regulars.
But single-camera comedies, which aren’t as big as dramas or as small as multi-cam sitcoms, can at least try to do what The Simpsons did, and one of them did it very successfully: The Office (US version) is the most famous modern example of a show that took a bunch of undefined bit players and turned them into stars. Basically they did it by taking characters who would have been non-speaking extras on any other office sitcom, and asking the same questions The Simpsons did: who is Toby, what is he like, why does he look so sad, why does Michael seem so hostile to him, how does he feel about Pam, etc. Arrested Development did some of this, and My Name is Earl tried, though less successfully. The Simpsons, you could say, democratized comedy by proving that it didn’t have to be all about the stars or a few particularly eccentric supporting players; everybody could pitch in and be a famous, beloved character.