Last week at the MTV Youth Marketing Forum 2016 in New Delhi, The Many Me Project, which hopes to study young people across demographics, was launched. The event brought together some of the most influential voices in arts and entertainment from around the world. Among the speakers was Mike Reiss, one of the co-creators, writers and producers of the legendary animated series The Simpsons.
With 31 Emmy awards, 30 Annie awards and a Peabody Award over a remarkable 27-season run, Matt Groening’s creation is timeless TV. It is a part of popular culture, with Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie and the other residents of Springfield satirising life, society and American culture. A show that may have seemed improbable at the start, The Simpsons is an inevitable and inescapable cultural phenomenon.
Reiss has been associated with the show right from season one, barring a brief period when he took a break to create and write the animated series The Critic. The Simpsons are relevant at any given time, but how have its creators retained the attention span of viewers who are constantly looking for change?
“We’re never going to change the show to cater to a certain audience,” Reiss said. “We know how to make our show the way we make it. I kept expecting at one point that something newer would come along. I figured the market would decide when young people stop watching the show – and it hasn’t really happened. It’s pretty perpetual.”
The Simpsons has never been aimed at young and typically fickle viewers in any case, Reiss added. “I don’t even understand young people,” he said. “I’m very much a creature of the 1980s, the 1990s, but I’m glad people still like my work.”
The Simpsons premiered on Fox in 1989 and was an instant success. The series has proven remarkably prescient about such events as the outbreak of the Ebola virus, 9/11, the very annoying Facebook app Farmville and even a probable Trump presidency, much before life started to imitate art to a level of eerie accuracy.
But one trend that The Simpsons is not on-board with is the binge format.
“I know that people can binge on The Simpsons and they even did it in America when they showed every single episode back to back for two solid weeks,” Reiss said. “We work very hard to keep them (the episodes) different and exciting and dense with new material, but I don’t like bingeing. Bingeing anything is terrible – binge drinking, binge eating and binge watching. They are all not good for you.”
One of the show’s unchanging elements, and of particular interests to Indians, is Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an immigrant who runs Kwik-E-Mart, a convenience store in Springfield. His Indian clerk characterisation may have been a cliché back in the ’80s, but it wasn’t written that way. Apu, who is voiced by Hank Azaria, became an Indian quite by accident, Reiss revealed.
“The first time he (Apu) appeared in the script, he was just called ‘clerk’,” Resis said. “I actually wrote in the script in capital letters ‘He is not an Indian’ and when we got to the reading, when the cast got together, the actor read the line with an Indian accent and everyone laughed. And that’s how Apu became an Indian.”
Keeping up with the clichés would probably make Apu a techie now, but back then, he was the only Indian on American television.
“I asked my friend after he’s been on The Simpsons for about seven or eight years, ‘What do you think of Apu?’ and she said, ‘He’s the only Indian on American TV,”’ Reiss said.”Now there are a lot of Indians on American TV, but for at least 15 years he was the only Indian face you saw on television. Apu is a comical character. He is the character I most respect on the show. He is the only person on The Simpsons who works hard, who cares about his job. Everyone else is lazy and inept.”
Apu is a personal favourite, too, second only to Lisa, the moral and intellectual compass of the Simpson family. The episode Lisa the Skeptic in Season 9 is Reiss’s favourite episode, one that he admits he had nothing to do with.
“It was about faith, and religion versus science,” Reiss said. “I didn’t know where it’s going to go, and how they would resolve it. I thought it was everything The Simpsons does well.”