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The Simpsons and Me: A Secret History

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I suspect some people are disappointed that Homer Simpson is now
appearing on TV commercials for a credit card company. They'll say it's one
more case of a counter-culture hero corrupted by his own fame and selling
out to the highest bidder.

It's sad, but not surprising. I saw this coming long ago. After a
series becomes a hit by taking risks and breaking rules, there's always a
moment when the producers look at each other and say, "What next? Do we
seek out new boundaries to cross, or play it safe and reap the monetary
rewards of mainstream popularity?"

Had I joined the show as planned back in the early '90s, the Simpsons
would not have gone soft around the edges and coasted into their current
status as America's most beloved screwball suburbanites. For me, great
innovative television doesn't involve comfort and reassurance. It's all
about grabbing the viewers by their collective throat and squeezing hard,
week after week.

By the end of the fifth season, it was obvious the Simpsons had pretty
much used up their inventory of freakish foibles. Major overhauling was
needed for the show to stay true to its subversive roots. One day I picked
up the phone to call Matt Groening, the Simpsons' creator. Until then we'd
never had an actual conversation, but from listening to various interviews I
had no doubt we'd be on the same page once I explained my ideas and he
perceived the myriad benefits.

The changes would be simple and swift. Homer would be wrongly convicted
of a crime and sent to prison, leaving Marge in the role of single parent.
Real world storylines would advance character development in real time.
Bart, Lisa, and Maggie would finally grow up, experience adolescence, and
eventually enter the job market while their father struggled to survive in a
community ruled by fear and desperation.

As I was about to dial the operator and get Matt's home number, another
crucial factor occurred to me. I know the realities of Hollywood. As an
outsider, my sudden involvement with the show could be perceived as some
kind of subtle power play rather than an act of creative altruism.

I needed a partner with instant credibility at street level and
corporate media boardrooms. As I ran down a list of potential candidates in
my mind, one named loomed above all the others: Steve Martin.

I'd followed Steve's career since the early days when he was playing a
banjo at Knott's Berry Farm. Our combined talent would be far greater than
the sum of the parts. I also knew Steve would be flattered to learn that
he's the main character in Steve Martin: Galactic Sleuth, one of my
numerous unpublished novels that's still being shopped around the science
fiction market.

One aspect of my plan was definitely going to raise a few hackles with
the old guard. I wanted the animation to have a completely different look
for the prison scenes. It would be a great way to jolt the audience every
time the plot shifted to Homer inside his milieu of bleak confinement, a
visual form of screaming, "We're not in Springfield anymore!"

I needed someone to create an alarming, disorienting style. The logical
person, the only choice really, was underground legend S. Clay Wilson.
Like many American teenagers in the late 1960s, I was forever changed by my
exposure to his deranged creations leaping from the pages of Zap comics.

That bizarre universe, featuring the Checkered Demon, maniacal
motorcycle gangs, and a seemingly endless parade of anatomically appalling
pirates, created an atmosphere of cheerful depravity that I wanted
permeating every detail of Homer's cellblock lifestyle.

As I ruminated on whether to have Steve make the opening gambit to S.
Clay Wilson or do it myself, the doorbell rang. Tallguy, my neighbor, was
standing on the porch. I call him Tallguy because I can never remember his
real name. It might be Tony.

Anyway, Tallguy said, "I just turned off your lawn sprinkler. It's been
running since yesterday. I figured you forgot about it."

"Thanks," I said. "I'm a bit distracted because I've been totally
focused on a truly exciting project." In abbreviated form, I explained
the Simpson plan and then asked, "What do you think?"

"Well," he replied, "if I was those Simpson folks, and a guy showed up
out of the blue and did all the stuff you just told me about, there's a good
possibility somebody would end up under arrest, or in a lunatic asylum."

Tallguy walked away, leaving behind a significant insight for me to
contend with. As a natural optimist, I tend to overlook the possibility of
negative consequences that can hide inside the framework of every good
intention.

When I thought about my plan in a context of complete, unbiased
honestly, the truth was inevitable: Once I was fully in charge of The
Simpsons, Matt Groening would have to be let go. Tallguy was right. The
stress Matt would experience with the shift in leadership might be too much
for him to endure. It could cause him to snap, and perhaps act unlawfully.
That wouldn't be fair to him, or me.

I also had to consider the fact that my actions could affect the
extended families of staff members, including young children and frail,
elderly grandparents. Once Matt was dismissed, how much emotional
collateral damage would the ripple effects inflict? Some ego-driven
entertainment hotshots might charge ahead in that situation, but not me.

Now, all these years later, I have no regrets. The Simpsons could have
chartered a vast sea of unknown creative waters if I'd been able to take
charge. Instead, I walked away from the show, and they opted for a lot of
slow sailing along familiar shorelines. Homer stayed out of jail, the kids
never got any older, and everyone's made tons of money.

Steve Martin did well for himself, too. Very smart cookie. My instincts
about him were right on target. I'm proud of what we might have
accomplished.

If anybody from the Fox Network wants to get in touch someday and thank
me for stepping aside and letting the chips fall where they did, that'd be
dandy. Credit where credit is due seems logical, but you won't find me
camped beside my phone waiting for the call. I'm too much of a realist for
that.