Homer-palooza...from a Harvard perspective
The glowing hum of the television set calms momentarily, starting abruptly seconds later, this time heralding a tune as familiar as the Ed Sullivan Show's opening jingle must have been in its heyday.
The Simpsons' familiar opening vignette focuses on Springfield, as hundreds of dedicated fans on campus settle into place.
In Springfield, life is different: It is blanketed with a fine shade of Crimson.
For one, the snooty businessmen and sociopathic killers are all Yale graduates.
Now into their second generation, Harvard alumni have occupied the majority of positions on The Simpsons writing staff since the show's inception as a short-running segment on the Tracy Ullman Show.
The writers, all graduates from the College during the mid-1980s, have included ever-increasing references to Harvard--whether obvious or obscure--during the last three seasons.
In one early episode, Homer discovers he has a rich half-brother, Herb Powell (voiced by Danny DeVito), the president of automobile manufacturer Powell Motors.
During a meeting Herb turns to his staff and asks "Why did I ever hire you Harvard deadheads?"
"Because you went there, sir," an employee responds.
"Yeah, but my mommy and daddy didn't pay my way," said DeVito. "I worked my way through washing your dishes and scrubbing your toilets."
"Oh, yeah, now I remember you."
And this season there have been several humorous references to Harvard--one obvious, one subtle, and some nearly subliminal.
Homer forms a bowling team but is forced to throw Otto, the burn-out bus driver, off the team in favor of Mr. Burns--who funded the team.
Otto occupies himself with an arcade-style game in which the player attempts to grab stuffed animals and trinkets from a bin using a large mechanical hook.
"Whoah, I can't believe I got booted off the team for Mr. Businessman," Otto grumbles as he turns to play the game. "I'll bet I get a little respect once I get that Harvard diploma." And there, among the stuffed toys, is a rolled-up Harvard diploma tied in a red ribbon.
But not all the Harvard-related jokes have been one-liners.
An on-going character, Mr. Burns, the snooty nuclear plant owner, has been recently exposed as a Yale man, as has Sideshow Bob, Bart's sociopathic nemesis.
More subtly, in a reference that perhaps was not caught by the non-Harvard world, the Springfield Town historian who was introduced this season, was named "Hollis Hurlbut."
And in a truly inside joke that would not be caught by anyone without a VCR and an acquaintance with the Lampoon, Principal Skinner receives an airline ticket in an envelope addressed to "Springfield Elementary School, 18 Plympton Street" and when Bart and Lisa discover that Homer's long-lost mother has a collection of phony drivers' licenses, one lists her address as 44 Bow Street.
"The show has a lot of freeze-frame jokes...where you have to have a VCR," says William L. Oakley '88, the show's executive producer. "There's lot's of things that go by too quick for you to see them."
Both 18 Plympton Street and 44 Bow Street are addresses for the Lampoon Castle.
From the inception of the show seven years ago, The Simpsons had a core of writers that graduated from Harvard and were editors at the Lampoon, a semi-secret Bow St. social organization that occasionally publishes a so-called humor magazine.
Michael L. Reiss '81 and his writing partner from Leverett House, Alfred E. Jean III '81, were two of the show's four executive producers through the first four seasons.
Another Leveritte, Jeff S. Martin '82, Jonathan M. Vitti '81 and Conan O'Brien '85 also wrote for the show in its early years.
In the last three seasons, however, a younger generation of 'poonsters has taken over the reigns of the show.
For the last two seasons, the Simpsons has been run by Oakley and his childhood friend and writing partner Josh Weinstein, a Stanford graduate who is an honorary member of the Harvard Lampoon because of the summers he spent with Oakley in Cambridge working on the Lampoon's occasional parodies of better known publications.
Oakley joined long-time writers George A. Meyer '78, Jonathan K. Collier '83 and Kenneth C. Keeler '83 on the show.
"We've been running the show for the seventh and eighth season--the seventh season has just about finished airing but the eighth season is in production now," says Oakley.
Although Reiss, Jean, Vitti, Martin and Gregory M. Daniels '85 have all moved on to other writing assignments, and O'Brien has his own late-night talk show, Richard J. Appel '85, who is a Crimson editor, Daniel J. Greaney '86, Daniel A. McGrath '86-'87, Steven R. Tompkins '87-'88 and David S. Cohen '88 have all joined the show, bringing the Harvard contingent to eight of the show's 12 regular writers.
"The interesting thing is that it all shifted," Oakley says. "It was originally a large group of guys who were all friends in the early 1980s who were running the show, and now it's a group of people from the late 1980s."
"It's basically the entire staff of the USA Today parody," Oakley says, referring to a 1986 Lampoon publication.
Despite the common College background of the Harvard writers, their postgraduation career paths took them in very different directions before meeting again in Hollywood.
"We have all professions on our writing staff except writers," says Cohen, who worked as a physicist for the Harvard Robotics Laboratory before coming to The Simpsons.
But Cohen is not the only "rocket-scientist" on staff.
According to Cohen, Keeler received an applied mathematics doctorate from Harvard and worked for Bell Labs in New Jersey.
"It has got to be the only show on television with two different writers who have both published articles in Discrete Applied Mathematics," said Cohen.
Unlike Cohen and Keeler, Greany and Appel have degrees from Harvard Law.
Greany gave up a career in corporate law in New York City to join the show last year and Appel was a federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
Itchy and Scratchy
In an episode from the fourth season of the show, the Simpson's writers had a little fun at their own expense.
Bart and Lisa submit a script to their favorite TV program, the "Itchy & Scratchy Show" which is a brutally violent parody of the "Tom & Jerry" cartoons.
Roger Myers, the President of "Itchy & Scratchy International" likes the script by Bart and Lisa so much he fires his staff of regular writers from Harvard.
One of the writers protests, "But sir, at Harvard they taught us.."
"Oh at Harvard they taught you?" Myers interjects. "Hit the streets, egghead. You should have majored in not getting fired!"
The producer then further taunts the cartoon writer, who according to the current writers is a dead ringer for Vitti who was then a writer on the show.
"Hey egghead, sing 'fair Harvard' for me."
When the cartoon writer begins to sing his boss throws a crumpled paper into his mouth muffling him.
"You sir, have the boorish manners of a Yalie," says the indignant writer.
"Here's a witty rejoinda for ya'" retorts the boss, hitting him in the head with a heavy-looking desktop nameplate.
The hapless writer comes back later in search of his Harvard mug and gets smacked in the head with his bosses' nameplate yet again.
The boss hires Bart and Lisa's grandfather under the mistaken impression he is a writer, he tells the assembled staff.
"I want you to see what a good writer looks like. He's got something you couldn't get at your fancy school: life experience."
A writer responds, "Actually, you know I wrote my thesis on life experience," and starts to expound on it before being told to shut up.
Cohen says that next season, The Simpsons' eighth, will likely revive the plot line that involves the Itchy and Scratchy writers, bringing back the Harvard graduates.
"I'm writing an episode right now that revolves around the Itchy and Scratchy show," says Cohen, who adds that the episode will likely include Oakley as a character. "It uses the writers several times... but it's the kind of a thing, once I hand the script in [that can change]."
Oakley says that his staff is working on a show in which Burns attends the Harvard-Yale game and complains that Harvard wins all the time.
"There's a really good line," Oakley says. "Burns says something like 'ah, let Harvard have its football and academics. Yale will always be first in gentlemanly club life.'"
Working roughly 12 hours each day, for 51 weeks per year, the writers of the show say their job is tough--but they can't complain.
"Since it takes 10 months from when the script is written to animate the show, we are in production 51 weeks per year," says Oakley.
"According to people who are in a position to know, this is the most difficult show to work on and run in all of television," he says.
During those long hours, the writers spend the vast majority of their time working as a group to revise and improve drafts of scripts that have been submitted.
"It is pretty bizarre that you graduate and then years later find yourself sitting in a room with the same people," says Cohen.
"The idea that television writing is a viable profession and that's what people are in college to learn was taking off right when I was graduating," Cohen says. "No one thought of [the Lampoon] as the golden road to Hollywood employment or anything."