How 'The Simpsons' Has Stayed on Top

"Marge, cartoons don't have any deep meaning," Homer Simpson tells his wife. "They're just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh," he explains, his rear end exposed above his pants.

And yet, The Simpsons, an animated sitcom, has been on the air for 13 years, achieving a rare combination of cult status and mainstream popularity. It is the longest-running sitcom currently on the air.

How has an irreverent cartoon managed to stay on top in the turbulent world of prime-time television? 20/20's Chris Cuomo went behind the scenes — and into the Simpsons' animated home — to find out what makes the show's characters and creators tick.

Nothing Is Off Limits

Back in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush was running for re-election, he used the show's characters as an example of a dysfunctional household with poor values. He told voters he wanted "to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons."

It's rare that a cartoon evokes such passionate responses from a world leader, but The Simpsons is no ordinary cartoon. The show is notorious for making a mockery of all that is sacred. No one and nothing is off limits to the family, including Fox, the network that pays the show's bills — and even 20/20's Barbara Walters, who's been parodied along with her View co-hosts.

Though criticism has followed the show's outrageous irreverence — allegations from corrupting America's youth to even causing the decline of Western civilization — the show is a hit. Time magazine called it the best TV show of the 20th century. Loyal fans have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for anything Simpsonian, annually spending millions on collectibles.

The show has its own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and has even been responsible for additions to the English language like Homer's "D'oh!" (Last year, the Oxford English Dictionary added Homer's favorite exclamation, defining it as "expressing frustration at the realization that things have turned out badly or not as planned, or that one has just said or done something foolish.")

It's now seen in 60 countries, and in a recent poll in Great Britain, the Simpsons were voted more popular than the royal family.

"It's slapstick satire," said Matt Roush, a critic for TV Guide. "The slapstick works for the kids. The satire works for the adults."

Simpsons creator Matt Groening said it's all about the characters: "I think that even Homer, as bad as he is to his family, and to himself, and to the world at large, he's a likable guy."

From a Comic Strip to TV Show

Groening was best known for his syndicated cartoon called Life in Hell when the creator of The Tracey Ullman Show asked him to create some animated shorts for them in 1986.

"I was going to do my cartoons," recalled Groening. "Then I found out that whatever I showed them, Fox would own. And I said, 'Forget that!'"

Not willing to risk his "good stuff," the cartoonist invented the Simpson family on the spot: Homer as the family's patriarch and bumbling idiot; Marge as his long-suffering wife; naughty 10-year-old Bart; precocious, world-weary 8-year-old Lisa; and pacifer-sucking baby Maggie.

He named them after members of his own family, with one exception. "I thought if I named the main character Matt, it would be too obvious. So it's Bart," said Groening, adding that his own family is nothing like the Simpsons.

The crude drawings were so popular that, in 1989, Fox gave the Simpsons a show of their own.

"We wanted to make it real, and we wanted to establish a reality," said Jim Brooks, who worked with Groening to develop The Simpsons.

So they placed the dysfunctional middle-class family in a kind of Everytown USA ("Springfield," no state identified) with an incompetent police chief, a pompous TV newscaster, a sinister billionaire and dozens of other characters.

"These characters now are alive," said Groening.

The Humanity Within

While the more than 200 animators, 30 writers, and 35-piece orchestra help bring the characters to life, it is the actors who do the characters' voices who create a history and psychology for them.

Dan Castellenata developed Homer's voice by studying the crude drawings. Before speaking, he said, his IQ drops about 70 points.

"It's like being a kid, a 9- or 10-year-old kid in a man's body but trying to deal with the fact that now he's an adult," said Castellanata, who came up with Homer's famous "D'oh!," based on a Laurel and Hardy character.

Like Castellenata, Hank Azaria does numerous voices on the show, including the endearing convenience store clerk, Apu.

"You start out with a stereotype," said Azaria, "then you start peeling away the layers of this person to see what they're really like underneath."

When Cuomo asked how the Indian-American's last name is spelled, Azaria answered, "I don't see why people have such a hard time … It's spelled like it sounds, sounds like it's spelled." (According to fans, it's spelled Nahasapeemapetilon.)

Spoofing stereotypes while finding the humanity underneath is the job of the writing staff, which is double the size of an average live action sitcom. They spend months on just one episode, carefully crafting each word so the characters push all kinds of buttons that few real people could get away with.

Asked whether the show has a purpose, executive producer George Meyer, said, "It's to get people to re-examine their world, and specifically the authority figures in their world."

If the show weren't a cartoon, he said, it "would just make people flip."

Cuomo's Cartoon Cameo

And perhaps if it weren't a cartoon, celebrities — including 20/20's Cuomo — wouldn't be lining up to poke fun at themselves by appearing with the Simpsons as animated characters. The list of past guest stars includes Elizabeth Taylor, Mel Gibson, U2, Britney Spears and Richard Gere.

"The fact that Richard Gere could use The Simpsons to make fun of … his own deeply held beliefs in Buddhism," said Roush, "that's just a very refreshing thing."

But ultimately the success of the show rides on the main characters, especially Homer. After months of intense negotiation, he finally agreed to speak with 20/20. For the animated interview, Cuomo was actually drawn into the show.

"Homer, I'm so glad you took the time to meet with us," an animated Cuomo said.

"Is this one of those things where you ask me to taste two colas and tell which one is better?" asked Homer.

"No, this is a newsmagazine," answered Cuomo.

"Well, you tell your investigators not to look into the years 1983 to 1995, and not to look into my freezer or garage. I said freezer, right?"

OK, Homer, whatever you say. After all, you're the one who's gotten the attention of millions of viewers around the world.