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Video Reviews: DVD boxes 'Simpsons' first season; Fox about to launch No. 13

Friday, October 05, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Bill Gates has nothing on Al Jean.

Jean also is a Harvard man (and he actually graduated, in 1981). Even better, he is showrunner for "The Simpsons." That means he's responsible for the overall vision of the Fox series, along with supervising the writing, guest stars and animation directors who create Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and the relatives, pals, co-workers and strangers who wackily wander into their lives each Sunday.

"Bill Gates was at Harvard about three years before me. I didn't know him. I knew people who went to work for Microsoft," while Jean opted for writing and television. "So, I might have made a mistake but I think it's too late to fix it," he laughs, adding, "Oh, believe me, I'm very lucky."

Jean, whose degree was in math, has worked on "The Simpsons" since it became a series, graduating from its short segments on "The Tracey Ullman Show" to Fox linchpin and cult favorite. "You just go with your gut. You try to work on what looks good to you. Of course, I'd be lying if I said I thought 12 years later" the show would still be going strong and earning Emmy nominations.

Now showrunner and executive producer, he has a credit on 200-plus episodes. Among the ones he wrote or co-wrote: "Moaning Lisa," in which a blue Lisa meets jazz musician Bleeding Gums Murphy; "The Way We Was," a flashback to 1974; "Stark Raving Dad," when Homer is committed to the New Bedlam Rest Home for the Emotionally Interesting; and "Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(annoyed grunt)cious," in which the Simpsons hire a nanny.

Jean knew he had picked a winner the day he went to Disney World wearing one of the first "Simpsons" jackets in existence, only to be greeted by questions about where the other park patrons could get one and how much they had liked the show. At that point, the debut episode called "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" had aired on Dec. 17, 1989, to healthy ratings and reviews.

In the opener, Christmas was almost ruined when Marge had to spend the family's gift money on having Bart's new tattoo removed. Homer, smarting from the lack of a holiday bonus from the plant, became a department-store Santa. He lost his meager earnings at the track but gained a dog named Santa's Little Helper.

"I usually worked on the last-place show in the ratings, so I was very unused to that sort of reaction for something I had done. Then, I thought this is really beyond what I had expected. That first year you couldn't go anywhere without hearing about it or reading about it," Jean said, by phone from Los Angeles.

"The Simpsons" is now part of the TV firmament, preparing for the launch of its 13th season on Nov. 4. Due to a delay in the TV season and World Series telecasts, the annual Halloween howler will air belatedly, on Nov. 6. In that episode, the Simpsons get a computer that runs everything in their house, develops a crush on Marge and tries to kill Homer.

More newsworthy, though, is last week's release of "The Simpsons Season One Collector's Edition DVD Box Set."

The three-disc set, which has a suggested retail price of $39.98, has 13 episodes along with commentary from creator Matt Groening, interviews with key players, outtakes from an unaired version of "Some Enchanted Evening," Albert Brooks ad-libs from the episode "Life on the Fast Lane" plus other extras.

"Some Enchanted Evening," about the Babysitter Bandit (voice of Penny Marshall) unwittingly hired to watch the kids, had been scheduled to be the premiere. As DVD watchers will see, "The original animation was not great and they delayed its airing. It turned out the Christmas show came back really, really well, and it became the first one that aired," Paul recalls.

The DVD set hit shelves just as 20th Century Fox announced it was pulling from syndication "The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson" episode which had opened the 1997-98 TV season. In that half-hour, Barney steals Homer's car and leaves it illegally parked between the Twin Towers, forcing the Simpsons to go to New York to retrieve it.

It is being yanked from reruns but just temporarily, Jean says. "On the one hand, I don't think you should rewrite history," and act as if the landmark never existed before being attacked by terrorists. "On the other, for six months or a year, you think it would be better to avoid anything that might make people upset."

Continuing the debate taking place in entertainment offices everywhere, he says, "The remake of 'King Kong' was set in the World Trade Center. It was in the skyline of numerous movies. You can't undo history. ... Let's take a movie like 'Sleepless in Seattle.' If something happened to the Empire State Building -- God forbid -- should that movie be forever banned?"

All of which leads to the natural question: Will it be harder to make people laugh this season?

"I can only talk as a viewer. I thought David Letterman did an admirable job in New York," talking about the tragedy and creeping back toward his regular format. "I think there's so much news and so many terrible things you can read, I think that given an appropriate time, people do want an alternative."

This season, viewers will find some diverting and (it sounds) potentially delightful episodes: Lisa goes to an academy much like the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. A judge (voice of Jane Kaczmarek) punishes Bart for a crime by shackling him to Homer.

Mr. Burns gets a girlfriend with the voice of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Jon Lovitz returns as the suitor Marge rejected years ago. Homer gets addicted to medicinal marijuana after his eyes are pecked by crows ("it's actually an anti-drug message"), while Lisa converts to Buddhism in an episode featuring Richard Gere, as himself.

In another movie takeoff, Ben Stiller speaks for an evil sugar executive and Marge becomes a crusader like Erin Brockovich. And Reese Witherspoon is a rich girl with a crush on Bart, who likes going to her house because her family has a nice TV.

What a comfort to know that on "The Simpsons," some things never change.

Jean confesses a fondness for the Homer-Lisa episodes, since he has a 10-year-old daughter. "She was born about a year into the run of the show. She's gotten to do a lot of great things, thanks to the show, no question. She pitches ideas to me sometimes. I watch it with her. She likes the show."

It's been about six or eight months since Jean was approached about this first DVD package. "The people like me who had worked on the first season obviously just wanted to take the opportunity to reminisce and talk about what it had been like. It was kind of like a reunion. There were people I hadn't seen in 10 years."

And there is no immediate end in sight for "The Simpsons." Season 13 is a month away, and a second-season DVD set is being readied.

"I used to think 10 years might be the end, but honestly, the ratings are going up and we've signed the actors for this year plus two more. I don't know," he says, although with 296 episodes either completed or mapped out, fresh ideas are harder to come by.

But viewer allegiance never flags. "What we have, blessedly, is this very large, loyal fan base. We've never been No. 1 but we've been big enough to succeed and they really stick with us."

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