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Keeping up with The Simpsons

While many long-running shows slip into a creative coma after only a few years, The Simpsons has managed to stay fresh and funny for eight seasons. Even people who don't watch the show are aware of the dysfunctional family living in small-town Springfield, U.S.A.: Homer, a faithful but oafish father who works at the local nuclear power plant; Marge, the socially conscious mom; Bart, the mischievous 10-year-old; Lisa, the bright, sensitive daughter; and baby Maggie, who's only ever spoken one word ("Daddy").

The show, created by cartoonist Matt Groening ("Life in Hell"), had its humble beginnings as a short weekly segment on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. Two years later The Simpsons debuted on Fox, giving the fledgling network its first real hit. Since then, the show has spawned its own culture - hit songs ("Do the Bartman"), T-shirts ("Don't Have a Cow, Man") and language ("Aye Carumba!"). Today, The Simpsons still pulls in good ratings and continues to surprise us with its clever, twisted take on everyday life.

TV Guide talked to the creative team behind The Simpsons and discovered 10 rules for keeping a TV family on top:

1. Always be real

"One thing about The Simpsons," says executive producer Josh Weinstein, is that "even though it's a cartoon, in a lot of ways it's more realistic than a lot of sitcoms."
And that's how it must be, says Groening, who keeps close tabs on his characters. A few years back, Homer lurched violently out of character and Groening had to pull things back into reality. "What I try to do is remind everybody on the show that we have to stick to certain rules," he says. "We're the only cartoon show where, when people hit the ground, they're actually bruised and bloody."

2. Never tell the same joke twice

The producers boast that their show has twice as many jokes as the average sitcom. "We've done tens of thousands of jokes," says Weinstein. "And we never do the same joke twice."

Sometimes, you have to watch an episode twice to catch a joke - which is a good thing, says Groening. "There are the obvious jokes, the visual sight-gags, the subtle literary allusions and at the most subtle, what we call the freeze frame gags - jokes you can only get if you videotape the show and play it back in freeze frame. What we try to do is reward people for paying attention."

3. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite

"We rewrite every show on average five to seven times, and they have to make us laugh at every stage," says executive producer Bill Oakley. "When we edit the show, we go through it another 10 times. Every time it's got to make us laugh or it's got to be changed."

Groening hears some jokes 40 or 50 times. "Generally, if a joke makes it on the air," he says, "it means that we are pretty happy with it."

4. Don't hire sitcom writers

"We don't like to hire people who have worked on sitcoms," says Oakley. "We like to get them from weirder areas - variety shows like Letterman or Conan O'Brien that tend to do a lot more experimental stuff. We want people who are not ruined by the standard sitcom form."

5. Banish the network brass

"Network TV goes through a 'blandifying' process," says Weinstein, who claims that The Simpsons is virtually tamper-proof. "We never get notes from the network saying 'We don't get this reference to [former U.S. president] Grover Cleveland.' They're not allowed to have any input at all." Adds Oakley, "Other shows, like Seinfeld, have similar deals."

Groening confirms that the suits at Fox have kept their distance. "I think it's partly because they didn't understand animation, so they didn't know how to interfere with it," he says. "Second of all, it's no fun to hang around on the set, because there is no set. You can't come down and flirt with beautiful young starlets, because there aren't any. Although, you know, I'm pretty good lookin'."

6. Think big, within reason

"Every episode can have the look of a $50- or $60- million dollar movie," says Oakley, "because we can have an unlimited number of sets. The family can go to Australia or even into space and it doesn't cost any more than having them sit in their living room."

There are still some restrictions, says Groening. "The animators have begged us, please, don't have any more circus trains crash into passing parades and spilling over into the zoo. The director had to go on a long vacation after that show."

7. Use the whole town

"Over eight years, we've developed a town full of characters," says Oakley. "Apu became a fully fleshed out, real person a few years ago. Moe the bartender, Mr. Burns or Principal Skinner can also provide the engines for stories." Adds Dan Castellaneta, who provides the voice of Homer, "it's such a rich place to mine. You can certainly never be at a loss to do something."

8. Treat guests stars like family

Many Hollywood stars have jumped at the chance to appear in cartoon form on The Simpsons, including Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman and Michelle Pfeiffer. Paul and Linda McCartney have guest-starred, as have David Duchovny, Rodney Dangerfield and the Smashing Pumpkins. But even stars have to follow the script.

"I'm not very fond of us having the celebrity come on and play him or herself," says Groening, although he does feel honored that "these luminaries agree to help our little show."

"On lousy sitcoms," adds Oakley, "they'll write in a star and go 'Elizabeth Taylor will come on and promote her perfume.' We never write around a star, but if we have a new character that's a big role, we often go after a star." Like they did with Taylor, who spoke baby Maggie's one and only word.

9. Draw the laughs

While the emphasis is on the writing, Castellaneta says that "the animators add a huge percentage of the laughs. The timing and the facial expressions adds a lot more dimension."

Much of the credit lies with cartoon veteran Phil Roman, whose studio has meticulously animated the series since the start of the fourth season. "There are changes made at every point," he says. "It's more like doing 22 or 24 half-hour features a season in terms of the quality and the demands."

10. Be clever, not nasty

Finally, if you think of The Simpsons as simply Bart saying, "Eat my shorts," think again. While this has always been a 'toon with 'tude, Groening feels that people who see the show simply as subversive and anarchistic just don't get it. "My goal from the very beginning has been to not get mired in this kind of sour, 'ain't like horrible' kind of humor that is the hip stance these days.

"I think we're able to get away with some fairly dark comments about our culture by leavening it with lightness. The fact is, the show is a celebration - that's been my main goal from the very beginning."