I just watched one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons with the commentary. It’s “Stark Raving Dad,” the one with Michael Jackson.
Listening to the team talking about the behind-the-scenes action of working with the superstar was fascinating. Jackson had reached out to them and asked to be involved, taking the entire team by surprise. He wrote the darling “Lisa, It’s Your Birthday” song in addition to handling one of the show’s heftiest guest spots. Apparently the whole studio was pretty starstruck by working with him, which is so sweet considering the levels of celebrity the team now has.
I’d never listened to the commentary on The Simpsons before, and I loved hearing about their process. They talked about working with animators, testing out different storylines, and, most interesting, about some of the choices they made for the final product. They looked back on their own work, oohing over some of the great visuals as the episode ran. It was such a natural response to frames that look just perfect. They noted the scene of Homer walking into the plant with his pink shirt and the slow downward shot of a sad Lisa at the kitchen table, reacting viscerally and joyfully to the imagery that they’d half-forgotten about. They’re scenes that are so good you don’t really notice they’re good. Julie Kavner also pointed out a moment where Bart plucks the cord of the phone while he’s talking to Homer. They debated who’d thought to add in the little action, something so simple that you wouldn’t feel it missing if it had been omitted, but it added volumes of interest and personality to the shot.
The devil really is in the details. Tiny moments, whether in the specific camera angles or the character actions, make a huge difference in the texture and tone of the show.
It’s also just delightful to hear the writers and producers laughing at the jokes, even after twenty years. Great humor really can be timeless.