The Simpsons are a beloved TV family that has become all but synonymous with American middle-class culture. Debuting over thirty years ago on December 17, 1989, the show is now the longest-running American sitcom ever (animated or otherwise), iconic even on a global scale. How has an animated series become so successful that Homer’s “D’oh!” catchphrase is recognized the world over?
Mike Reiss, a Harvard graduate who’s been with The Simpsons since its very first table read, has put pen to paper (together with author Mathew Klickstein) for an insider’s account of the show’s incredible journey. The result is Springfield Confidential. If you’re a fan of The Simpsons, Reiss certainly doesn’t skimp on the backstage secrets (or the dry wit).
If you’re in business, there’s a lot to learn from a show with 33 Primetime Emmy Awards, a show celebrities clamber to guest star in, a show with longevity other series can only dream of. Hard to believe all that came out of a project no one believed in.
“Nobody wanted to work on The Simpsons,” Reiss recalls. “There hadn’t been a cartoon in prime time since The Flintstones, a generation before. Worse yet, the show would be on the Fox network, a new enterprise that no one was even sure would last.”
So how did The Simpsons manage to not only survive, but thrive?
Channeling Team Dynamics
Reiss introduces his long-time writing partner Al Jean: “When someone asks what’s the secret of a great writing team, I say, ‘Find a brilliant partner and make him do all the work.’”
Reiss is (at least partly) joking here. In fact, he’s never slow to dole out praise and credit to The Simpsons writers, actors, or producers. That’s not to say that everyone gets along in the writers’ room. Office politics happen everywhere—it’s how tension is handled that can make or break a team.
Such tension arose between Simpsons co-creators Matt Groening and Sam Simon, the latter of whom received almost no fame for his considerable contribution to the show. While other teams may have let this bad blood fester, The Simpsons writers channeled it into the scripts, resulting in some of the highest-rated episodes ever (including the classic “Flaming Moe’s,” in which bartender Moe receives disproportionate acclaim for Homer’s cocktail creation).
Finding positive outlets for internal conflicts and giving credit where credit is due are both essential lessons in leadership.
As a comedy show, The Simpsons has had its share of controversial jokes, but it doesn’t sacrifice reality for a good punchline. Staying true to facts makes The Simpsons a reliable source of true satire—something they’ve been committed to since the beginning. It’s part of their branding.
Reiss remembers how co-developer and showrunner Sam Simon “decreed when we were staring the series, ‘If you hear a fact on The Simpsons, it has to be true.’ Whether the characters are speaking Albanian or discussing the finer points of Hindu theology, the show gets it right.”
The temptation to blur the lines and take shortcuts is strong for any product seeking to overtake its competition. Customers learn to trust a brand that resists that temptation, leading to the longevity of a brand’s success.
Over the years, The Simpsons has smartly adapted to market trends and shifting cultural sensitivities—important influences, even for a satirical show with an irreverent sense of humor. Reiss explains how some single-scene cardboard stand-ins were developed into beloved characters thanks to positive audience response (such as the super nerd pop culture critic Comic Book Guy). Meanwhile, other long-running characters were phased out as target audiences began to question the portrayal of ethnicity in the media (famously, convenience store clerk and Indian stereotype Apu).
With the world growing ever more connected, this level of adaptability is an important lesson for any business. Organizations are expected to keep up with the times and show awareness of the wants and needs of different customer segments.
Quality…at Home and Abroad
The Simpsons, a show about a middle-class American family, is now on TV in almost every country in the world. Reiss himself has traveled to 113 countries, and his accounts show how The Simpsons have touched the hearts of people in unexpected places, from Israel to Iraq, the Czech Republic to Colombia.
This didn’t happen by character charm or witty jokes alone. Products moving into foreign markets need to adapt to new target audiences, or else run the very real risk of becoming nothing more than a short-lived fad…or even a flop. The Simpsons had a few tricks that helped achieve overseas success, such as having a writer supervise the selection of voice actors for dubbing to ensure the soul of each character remained intact.
Reiss sums up the result of this attention to detail: “[South Americans] see the show dubbed into Spanish by a Mexican cast, and many of them believe The Simpsons is a show about a Mexican family.”
In fact, the efforts to bring The Simpsons to the world have paid off in all but one big market.
To find out why, and to get further insights into one of one of television’s most successful series ever, Springfield Confidential is definitely worth a read.