10 Things You Might Not Have Known About The Simpsons

Fox
Fox

The Simpsons has been a television institution for nearly 30 years. Since its debut on Fox in 1989, the series has accumulated a mountain of awards, worldwide acclaim, and an empire of merchandise. As the longest-running scripted show on TV, it's no surprise that the show's history is littered with interesting anecdotes, loads of cultural references, bizarre guest stars, offbeat writers, wild fan theories, and even a bit of drama. Dig a bit deeper into the history of television's favorite animated family with 10 things you might not have known about The Simpsons.

1. IT’S IVY LEAGUE COMEDY AT ITS FINEST.

The folks behind The Simpsons are smart. Incredibly smart. One look through the writers and producers who have passed through the show reveals graduates, scholars, and professors from some of the best universities on the planet. And many of them didn’t start out by studying writing.

Al Jean, who has been the show’s executive producer on more than 400 episodes, began studying mathematics at Harvard when he was just 16. Writer Jeff Westbrook was an algorithm researcher and attended both Harvard and Princeton before becoming a professor at Yale. Writer David X. Cohen graduated from Harvard with a physics degree and University of California, Berkeley with an M.S. in computer science. And this is just a sample of the brain power it takes to bring The Simpsons to life.

2. ONLY GOD HAS FIVE FINGERS.

The jaundiced residents of Springfield—like most other cartoon characters—are notable for only possessing eight fingers and eight toes. It’s an animation tradition, but one character bucks that trend: God. In the episode “Homer the Heretic,” Homer meets the big cheese, who sports a long white beard, flowing robe, and the standard five fingers on each hand. Just one of the perks of being in charge.

There is one inconsistency, though: Jesus is actually depicted with five fingers in the episode “Thank God It’s Doomsday,” but in subsequent appearances, he’s back to four. Whether this is some profound message or a simple animator slip-up is up to your own interpretation.

3. “KAMP KRUSTY” WAS ORIGINALLY ENVISIONED AS THE SIMPSONS MOVIE.

Though The Simpsons Movie premiered 20 years after the family debuted on The Tracey Ullman Show, the idea of doing a film was being floated during the show’s early days. The episode “Kamp Krusty,” from the show’s fourth season, was originally batted around as a potential plot for a film. In the episode, Bart, Lisa, and the other kids of Springfield go to Krusty the Clown’s shoddy sleepaway camp for the summer while Homer and Marge stay behind to rekindle their marriage. 

According to the DVD commentary, a feature-length script never came together. In fact, the writers had a hard enough time stretching the story out to a standard episode length, so an 80 or 90 minute film was out of the question.

4. THE SIMPSONS GOT INTO A PUBLIC WAR WITH THE BUSH FAMILY.

The very unlikely war between The Simpsons and the Bushes began in a 1990 issue of People Magazine, when then-First Lady Barbara Bush said of the show, “It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen.” Not looking to let that jab go unanswered, The Simpsons writing staff penned a pointed response to Mrs. Bush, but they wrote the letter in character as Marge Simpson.

The letter takes some good-natured shots at Mrs. Bush and pleasantly scolds her for the critique, including the line, “Ma'am, if we're the dumbest thing you ever saw, Washington must be a good deal different than what they teach me at the current events group at the church.”

The war was over … for a few months. Speaking at a convention for religious broadcasters in 1992, President George H.W. Bush vowed to strengthen American families, to make them "a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons."

A year later, Bush was out, Clinton was in, and it seemed like The Simpsons—which would eventually triple the length of The Waltons' nine-season run—could move on. Well the show wasn’t done with the former First Family yet.

In the episode “Two Bad Neighbors,” the Bushes move across the street from the Simpsons, and the former president engages in a battle of wits with Homer and Bart (and ends up with a rainbow wig glued to his head). Though the ex-president didn’t voice the character, it provided a definitive end to the feud, as the family eventually drove the Bushes out of Springfield through the same idiotic behavior Barbara Bush derided years earlier.

5. MATT GROENING REMOVED HIS NAME FROM THE EPISODE “A STAR IS BURNS.”

For a show that’s been on the air for close to 30 years, The Simpsons hasn’t endured much public drama outside of the occasional cast salary negotiations. But one of the show’s most memorable feuds went straight to the press, and it concerned the 1995 episode “A Star is Burns,” which featured the character Jay Sherman (voiced by John Lovitz) from the series The Critic coming to Springfield.

Feeling that the episode was just a cheap crossover, The Simpsons creator Matt Groening removed his name from the episode’s opening credits, the first and only time his name wasn’t associated with the series. This led to a very brief—but surprisingly brutal—war of words between Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks.

"The two reasons I am opposed to this crossover is that I don't want any credit or blame for The Critic and I feel this (encroachment of another cartoon character) violates the Simpsons' universe," Groening told the Los Angeles Times. "The Critic has nothing to do with The Simpsons' world."

"This has been my worst fear ... that the Matt we know privately is going public," Brooks said. "He is a gifted, adorable, cuddly ingrate. But his behavior right now is rotten. And it's not pretty when a rich man acts like this."

It would be nearly 20 years before The Simpsons hosted another cast of characters in one of its episodes. However, this time it was another Groening creation—Futurama—stopping by for an episode in 2014’s “Simpsorama.”

6. ELIZABETH TAYLOR VOICED MAGGIE FOR ONE WORD.

Maggie is famous for her pacifier and 28-season vow of silence, but she did utter one word during the fourth season in the episode “Lisa’s First Word.” And the voice behind Maggie was none other than Elizabeth Taylor, who was hired to say one thing: “Daddy.”

The scene takes place at the end of the episode once Homer leaves Maggie’s room after tucking her in, so of course no one hears her. To get the line just right, producer Al Jean requested a number of takes from the Hollywood icon, culminating in Taylor telling Jean, “F--- you,” in her Maggie voice while the tapes were still rolling.

Taylor reappeared on the show toward the end of the fourth season in the episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled." She had a bit more to say here, but laying claim to Maggie’s first word cemented her legacy in Springfield.

7. THE SHOW HAS LANDED BOTH BANKSY AND THOMAS PYNCHON.

No one knows what Banksy’s real name is, and the mystery surrounding reclusive author Thomas Pynchon has endured for decades. Yet somehow, they both contributed to The Simpsons—Banksy with a couch gag and Pynchon as a guest-voice.

Pynchon appears (with a paper bag over his head to preserve his mystique) in two episodes, “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife,” where he endorses Marge’s book, and “All’s Fair in Oven War,” where he eats some chicken wings she made. He even edited his own dialogue for the show, removing a line where he was supposed to call Homer a fat ass. His reason? “Homer is my role model and I can't speak ill of him,” he told the producers.

Banksy’s couch gag was one of the show’s most shocking, depicting Fox as a vile corporate cesspool that runs on employee misery. Al Jean said he was a little concerned with the nature of the couch gag at first, but he and Groening agreed to leave it in with minimal changes. And no, nobody on The Simpsons ever met Banksy. In both cases, the reclusive artists were tracked down by casting director Bonnie Pietila.

8. HOMER MAKES LESS THAN $25,000 A YEAR AT THE NUCLEAR PLANT.

The Simpson family finances are ... complex. In some episodes, they have to forego fancy quilted toilet paper to make ends meet and, in others, Homer can pull wads of money out of his wallet if the plot calls for it. It’s all part of the show’s famous "rubber band reality," where continuity never lines up episode-to-episode (or scene-to-scene).

One of the only concrete pieces of evidence we have of the family’s financial situation comes in the episode “Much Apu About Nothing,” when we get a glimpse of Homer’s weekly paycheck from the nuclear plant.

Apparently Homer takes home $479. 60 before taxes ($362.19 after taxes) for a full work week, which averages out to just about $11.99 an hour. That’s $24,395 per year, and $37,416 when you adjust for inflation, according to Vox.

9. MICHAEL JACKSON VOICED A CHARACTER BUT HAD AN IMPRESSIONIST DO THE SINGING.

One of the most important parts of the early success of The Simpsons was the roster of A-list celebrities that provided guest voices for the series. This was at a time when a prime-time animated show wasn’t given much respect in show business, so having the likes of Dustin Hoffman, James Earl Jones, Larry King, Penny Marshall, and Phil Hartman lend their vocal talents to the show gave it an air of respectability that it needed.

Perhaps the biggest coup came during season three, when the show landed Michael Jackson as a guest. In “Stark Raving Dead,” Jackson plays a heavy-set, white mental patient who believes he’s the King of Pop and befriends the family after being Homer’s sanitarium cellmate. Jackson was a big Simpsons fan, so he was happy to lend his voice to the show. His speaking voice, that is.

Jackson refused to sing on the show when it came time for the episode’s musical number, instead leaving that up to a soundalike. When the cast discovered this during the episode’s table read, Harry Shearer (voice of Mr. Burns and many others) looked over at Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson) and said, “We’ve paid just enough for the speaking Michael Jackson but we can’t afford the singing Michael Jackson.”

When Jean asked why exactly Jackson didn’t want to sing on the show, the music legend told him, “I’m playing a joke on my brothers” with no further explanation.

Don’t go looking for Jackson’s name in the show’s closing credits, though. He appeared under the pseudonym John Jay Smith, which, again, was never explained. 

10. THE SHOW’S MOST PROLIFIC WRITER IS NOTORIOUSLY RECLUSIVE.

The Simpsons has churned out a number of great comedy writers who have gone on to mainstream success—Conan O’Brien and The Office creator Greg Daniels among them—but there’s one whose legend eclipses nearly everyone else. Casual fans might not know him, but among Simpsons die-hards, the name John Swartzwelder is met with hushed awe. Multiple members of The Simpsons staff have declared him the best writer the show has ever seen, with former show writer Dan Greaney proclaiming him, "the greatest writer in the English language in any form."

Google his name and you’ll end up with more questions than answers. Most of the details of his life boil down to second- and third-hand accounts, as he never does interviews, refuses to lend his voice to DVD commentary tracks, and rarely pops up in photos (there are a handful on Google and none look any more recent than the ‘90s).

The one time that show producers tried to call him during a commentary recording, the man on the other end of the line ended the awkward conversation with, “It's too bad this isn’t really John Swartzwelder,” leaving fans to wonder what they just listened to. Despite that, the man wrote 59 episodes of the show during its first 15 seasons, with many of them ranking among the series’ most popular, like "Bart Gets an Elephant," "Radioactive Man," and "Homer's Enemy."

When other writers would talk about him in DVD commentaries, he's described as a serious Libertarian who is a “self-declared anti-environmentalist,” and would go on tangents about how there is more rainforest now than there was 100 years ago. And when describing a recycling center in one of his scripts, he called it "a couple of hippies surrounded by garbage." That didn't stop Swartzwelder from writing some of the show’s most environmentally conscious episodes, including “Whacking Day” and “The Old Man and the Lisa.”

How deep does Swartzwelder’s quirky legend go? During the commentary for “Grade School Confidential,” Groening told a story about how Swartzwelder would usually write his Simpsons scripts alone in a diner while smoking cigarettes and guzzling coffee. When California outlawed smoking in restaurants, Swartzwelder simply bought the booth, had it installed in his home, and continued to work in the exact same manner. And once smoking was banned in The Simpsons writers room, he rarely showed his face there again. The closest thing fans have gotten to actually seeing Swartzwelder is the handful of “cameos” he makes in animated form throughout the series’ history.

Though he’s been out of television since 2003, he has since authored a series of 11 novels, all of which retain his genius—and infinitely absurd—humor.

Additional sources: More Simpsons DVD commentaries than anyone should listen to in a lifetime.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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