By Scott Chernoff
Editor's Note: In celebration of this week's release of The Simpsons: The Movie, StarWars.com reaches into the archives and presents this feature article that first ran in Star Wars Insider #38, way back in 1998. Outdated? Definitely, but here it is for your enjoyment.
If I had to get into a schoolyard fist fight over what was the funniest TV show of all time, I'd go to the mat for The Simpsons. No show has stayed so consistently brilliant for such a sustained period of time (production is under way on the show's 10th season), nor has any show sent me into so many uncontrollable fits of laughter. I don't know about you, but I've never made it through an episode of The Simpsons without laughing. Hard. Several times. That's thanks not only to the show's incredible cast of voice actors but also to its heroic writing staff, who over the years have used the animated citizens of Springfield USA to analyze and satirize nearly every aspect of American society and culture. Each episode of the Fox powerhouse is crammed with so many jokes and ideas that fans are richly rewarded with new laughs for every repeat viewing, and every story is played out by characters that have become more beloved -- and real -- to viewers than most of their live-action counterparts. Indeed, Homer's oft-repeated cry of "D'oh" has become as ubiquitous a phrase in the pop culture pantheon as "May the Force be with you."
All of which makes it that much cooler when Homer, declaring his love to wife Marge in the third season, uses Star Wars as his model of goodness, declaring her "as pretty as Princess Leia and as smart as Yoda." Coolest of all is that in the same episode, "I Married Marge," we learn in a flashback that young hellion Bart Simpson was conceived the night Homer and Marge saw The Empire Strikes Back. (Leaving the theater, Homer ruins the movie's big surprise for everyone waiting in line when he complains, "I can't believe Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father.")
Delivered unto the world by creator Matt Groening and his fellow executive producers James L. Brooks and Sam Simon in December, 1989 (after two years of short Simpsons cartoons on The Tracey Ullman Show, which Brooks and Simon also produced), The Simpsons has become almost as popular and iconic as Star Wars itself, and it seems only right that these two powerful pop cultural phenomena have joined Forces on occasion, with The Simpsons slipping in occasional, hilarious Star Wars references and ultimately collaborating with Lucasfilm on a THX Digital Sound System trailer -- not to mention this issue's awesome cover. "Most of us working not only on the show but also on the Simpsons comic grew up with Star Wars," said Bill Morrison, editor/writer/art director at Groening's Bongo Comics and a designer/contributing artist for the must-read HarperPerennial book The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to our Favorite Family. Like the series, Bongo's Simpsons comics have also included many Star Wars references. "Star Wars came out the year I graduated high school, and I didn't have a summer job, so I ended up seeing Star Wars 25 times," Morrison continued. "I wanted to be a sci-fi illustrator at one point."
Jason Grode, Simpsons comics writer/managing editor added, "I was nine when Star Wars came out. I remember vividly seeing the trailer and going home and telling my mother, 'There's this science-fiction movie coming and it's got this guy, and he's like evil or something, and there's this girl, and there's this monkey guy and they travel around' -- I was so excited. I saw it 36 times. I was a science fiction fan before, but that really put me over the edge."
Matt Selman, a story editor for The Simpsons told the Insider that while the show has included references to obscure favorites like Twin Peaks and Schoolhouse Rock that may have passed right by many oblivious viewers, there is no question about whether viewers will recognize a Star Wars joke. "There is not going to be an argument over 'Is anyone gonna get this' when you are putting in a Star Wars reference," he said.
But the writer who says he's the biggest Star Wars fan on the current writing staff, insisted, "There is no explicit Star Wars agenda on the show. The best episodes are the ones where you have a really good, emotional story for the family, and you pile on the crazy stuff around that. Nothing works if you're trying to cram in something that doesn't belong there."
Said Bongo's Morrison, "It's such a part of our culture that the references come at you, and there's no plan. You're writing a story, and a Star Wars joke pops into your head. Star Wars is full of so many great lines that it's just a treasure trove of gags. There's a lot of stuff to mine." Selman, who's in his second season writing for The Simpsons, noted, "The guys who probably put in the most Star Wars stuff were AI Jean and Mike Reiss, who ran the show during the third and fourth seasons." In addition to the Empire Strikes Back episode above, highlights from this period include Mayor Quimby mistakenly telling Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy, "May the Force be with you" in the classic episode "Marge vs. the Monorail"; a landspeeder-like vehicle cruising by in "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie"; and one episode, "Lisa the Beauty Queen," that featured both a caricature artist's rendering of Darth Vader in the background and a montage of Lisa trying on the hairdos of Marge, Grace Jones, Bo Derek -- and Princess Leia.
And then there's the first and foremost Star Wars moment in Simpsons history: in the show's fifth episode, "Bart the General," written by John Swartzwelder, Bart closes the show by informing the audience "There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: The American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars trilogy."
Simpsons comics Star Wars jokes have ranged from slipping in stormtrooper cameos when least expected to having Mr. Burns paraphrase Grand Moff Tarkin by barking, "Evacuate -- in my moment of triumph?! I think you overestimate their destructive capabilities." Said Grode, "If you don't know Star Wars, it's still funny on its own, but if you're a fan, there's that little extra. A lot of comics fans are science fiction and Star Wars fans, so it's giving just that much extra to the fans."
The joke worked, Morrison said, because the line "fits Tarkin as much as it does Burns." Indeed, Burns is every bit as evil an archetype as Tarkin and Emperor Palpatine, to whom he bears more than a passing resemblance, not to mention a fondness for the catch phrase "Excellent." The Simpsons even once used its own version of John Williams' "Imperial March" to underscore Burns' villainy. But Mr. Burns is just one of the many timeless characters who populate Springfield. Like Star Wars, writer Selman said, "We have a rich universe to fall back on."