The Simpsons

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

The Simpsons is thirty. Wow. NPR’s Fresh Air had an episode that featured interviews through the years with different contributors. It was a fun trip down memory lane for someone – me – who grew up with that show. I was amazed that my parents even let me watch it, much less supported it when I parrotted an argument from the show.

I also remember passing around a 3.5″ floppy disc with sound effects from the show. This was years before Napster, not that it would have mattered with a dial-up connection. But getting your hands on those sounds felt so cool. The most popular one?

What a show. Onto the notes.

The Simpsons started as an experiment, appearing first in segments on the Tracey Ullman show. The creators soon realized they had something that could stand on its own.

Accurately predicting what will work, especially in art or technology startups is hard. Experimentation was a hallmark for example, of the Intelligent Fanatics. Ken Fisher too praised the importance of experiments:

“”I’ve been prepared to operate by trial and error, you can do a huge amount of small things on a small scale, test them and see if they work, and if they work do them on a bigger scale and if they don’t work move on to the next one.”

Nancy Cartwright originally went in to read for the part of Lisa but liked the lines for Bart more. She read them and Matt Groening immediately awarded her the part. Cartwright went on to do the voices for Nelson, Ralph Wiggum, and Todd Flanders. How does Cartwright have the ability to do all this? She copies life.

“Or say you’ve got a 7-year-old kid who’s got a split in his two front teeth or he’s missing one of his teeth at age 7. (Imitating Mara Wilson) So he would be talking sort of like this. And you can put a sort of a sound in there sort of like that little actress that played on “Mrs. Doubtfire.” So I can steal from, you know, Mara Wilson I think was that little actress’ name. And I totally ripped that off from her. When I go to the mall or just, you know, people watching or I go to movies and watch television, I’m inspired by live action actors and recognizing sounds and trying to duplicate that.”

Inspiration through imitation is a great place to start wrote Stephen King:

“You may find yourself adopting a style you find particularly exciting, and there’s nothing wrong with that. When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury – everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia.”

It’s why this blog exists! Find the things that worked, try them, keep what works for you. Charley Ellis and David Salem both spoke about David Swensen at Yale. They agreed – in separate podcasts – you can imitate Swensen’s processes but not his results.

Julie Kavner does the voice of Marge Simpson along with her sisters and said:

GROSS: Oh, that’s great! You have a wonderful voice. Was your voice husky when you were young?

KAVNER: Yeah, I was born this way. I came out of my mom and said, hello, Rose, hello, Dave.


GROSS: But did you have a deep voice when you were young?

KAVNER: Yeah. They used to send me home. They always used to think I had laryngitis.

Kavner was born with a deep voice, something we might think is a weakness until it is turned into a strength. This applies to organizations too. Clayton Christensen wrote, “An organization’s capabilities become its disabilities when disruption is afoot.” Ben Thompson and Bill Gurley both mention that Facebook’s strength, its network size, is also its weakness. One teen told Gurley that Facebook is to them as LinkedIn is to us.

Hank Azaria wasn’t the original voice for Mo the bartender.

“And I was 22 years old – this was a long time ago. I’m 40 now. I was 22 years old, and I hadn’t worked much. There was an original voice of Moe the Bartender that I guess they weren’t too happy with and wanted to replace”

He got the role and started to do more voices, like Apu. Terry Gross asks how he came up with the voice for Apu and Azaria said:

“He really is just an Indian guy. I mean, in Los Angeles pretty much every 7-Eleven or convenience store worker is either Indian or Pakistani or from this area. And when I first moved to LA, these were the people I really interacted with, mostly, because I didn’t know anybody. So I would talk to these guys.”

Looking back, The Simpsons is a cultural monolith. The show prospered in an era of limited competition. The fragmentation of entertainment – not necessarily a bad thing – means we’ll probably not see another show like it. Tyler Cowen likes to point out that he’s lived in a sweet spot for infovores. He grew up reading physical books and developing his thinking in a quieter world. Now those abilities and habits help him navigate in a louder place.

Even though we won’t see something like this again, we can still apply the principles. Success isn’t formulaic, it takes experimentation and/or imitation. People need roles that play to their strengths. Sometimes this means finding something once considered a weakness.


Thank you for reading,

If you liked this post you’ll probably like this one too: How Louis C.K. made Horace and Pete.

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