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''Not exactly a minor addition,'' Mr. Groening said. ''When we watched it, we sat in the dark for about two minutes in silence. Then we ran for the door. I thought my career in animation had sunk to the bottom of the sea. Had that gotten on the air, there would be no show today.''

The director and culpable animators were summarily dismissed and the order of the shows had to be hastily shuffled. The initial episode was not broadcast until Dec. 17. Another month lapsed before the second show appeared, forcing some merchandisers to postpone shipping Simpsons products.

The problems triggered by that false start have put almost unbearable strains on the staff. ''The after-effects of that disastrous first show are being felt to this day,'' Mr. Groening said.

Keeping up with the inordinately difficult process of creating an animated show - from idea to finished product, an entire episode takes six months to complete - has required slavish work habits. To cope with next season, the staff has been appreciably increased. There are now six writers helping the executive producers and some 50 animators, compared with just Mr. Groening as the writer and two animators for the Tracey Ullman bits.

Still, the workload is onerous. ''We just work like crazy,'' Mr. Groening said. ''It takes about 52 weeks to do 22 episodes. So we have to figure out another solution.''

Now the question is will the show endure. ''We think we have something very special,'' Mr. Groening said. ''If we can do good things with it, we'll do them. But we don't just want to do things to do them. Most of all, I'm in this business to have fun.''

AIR FRESHENERS, GUM AND TALKING DOLLS

Merchandisers have been frustrated at getting adequate Simpsons products, though shortly the variety will grow. Within a few weeks, for instance, Chesapeake Consumer Products, a party-goods maker, will be introducing Simpsons paper plates, cups, napkins, horns and other party supplies.

''We really have shied away from licenses in general because so many of them have had short fuses,'' said Bill Heeter, the company's vice president. ''We know some marketers will take anything that looks cross-eyed at them. But the process of getting the artwork ready and approved can take three to six months. The cycle of when something is hot and then turns down can be that same three to six months. But in this case I know 5- and 6-year-olds who love them. There are several people in the office who are in their 20's and 30's who have Simpsons parties.''

How about an air freshener for the rear-view mirror of your car depicting the Simpsons pursuing one of their favorite pastimes: choking Bart? In a couple of weeks, it can be yours.

Medo Industries, which describes itself as the country's biggest seller of car air fresheners, will be marketing the Simpsons freshener. Mark Owens, Medo's president, has improved the smell in millions of cars with an Alf freshener and even more vehicles with the California Raisins freshener. He said the Raisins model sold 5 million to 6 million units when it came out four years ago and continues to sell a million fresheners a year at about $1 apiece. And the Simpsons? ''If the item is as successful as we think, it could be 4 or 5 million the first year,'' Mr. Owens said.

Dan Dee Imports, a doll maker, is bringing out a variety of Simpsons rag dolls and bean bags this summer. For the Christmas shopping season, it will unveil what it expects to be its biggest seller, a Bart talking doll. It will be capable of six different expressions, including, ''Au contraire'' and ''Kids of TV-land, you're being duped.''

Of course, it is necessary to have Bart bubble gum. Amurol Products, a division of the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company, will introduce it beginning in June. Gary Schuetz, the vice president of marketing for Amurol, explained that the company tested three versions of Bart gum with its Candy Taster Club, which consists of 1,500 youngsters it draws on to sample new gum. Normally, it would go ahead and sell the one that chewed best. ''All three Bart gums tested so well that we're bringing them all out,'' Mr. Schuetz said. ''There is Bartmania out there. The show has almost become the 'Ed Sullivan Show' of the 1990's.''

THEY CAN'T GET ENOUGH

Probably no retailing chain is selling more Simpsons merchandise right now than the J.C. Penney Company. ''Our only problem is getting enough merchandise in,'' said Nancy Overfield-Delmar, the company's special events manager. ''As soon as it comes in, it sells off the shelves.''

The big retailing chain is in the process of establishing Simpsons shops in the children's departments in more than 1,000 of its 1,400 stores.

The retailer has also hired Willy Bietak Productions, which holds the license to perform live Simpsons skits in shopping malls and at fairs and arenas, to do 15-minute shows at its stores. These shows, in which actors will don costumes so they resemble the wacky-looking members of the Simpsons family, are expected to begin soon.

Penney's is of two minds over Fox's desire to control the number of Simpsons products appearing on the market. ''I understand how Fox wants to make sure this lasts as long as possible,'' Ms. Overfield-Delmar said. ''If you throw too much out, it can dilute the value of the license. On the other hand, we want as much merchandise as possible.''

Drawing: the Simpons; photos: Simpon logo merchandise (pg. 1); making Simpsons T-shirts at an Indiana clothing factory (The New York Times/Mary Ann Carter); graph: where the Simpons ranked among the prime time TV shows, Dec. 17-, 1989- April 22, 1990 (Source: Nielsen Media Research News)