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Behind the scenes secrets from The Simpsons – from why Smithers changed colour to ‘secret feud’ behind famous episode

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THEY’RE telly’s most dysfunctional family - and now a new documentary series lifts the lid on what goes on behind the scenes of The Simpsons.

The hit animated sitcom first aired in 1989 and is the longest-running scripted show in history – which at times has appeared to predict the future.

Brian Volk-Weiss, director of the new six-part documentary series Icons Unearthed: Simpsons tells the Sun: “What surprised me is that, there’s never been a real documentary about The Simpsons.

“We could have made 10 episodes, there’s that much material.”

Here we reveal some of the show’s most surprising revelations – including why the characters are yellow.

Early inspiration

TV producer and screenwriter Ken Estin got the idea to hire underground cartoonist Matt Groening after receiving a birthday card of his Life in Hell comic strip, which features anthropomorphic rabbits.

Ken wanted to turn it into a series of animated bumpers that aired between scenes on The Tracey Ullman Show, which he co-created with director and screenwriter James L. Brooks.

But Matt wasn’t happy to give up the rights to his popular comic strip to the network Fox.

While in the waiting room about to have a meeting with the network, he came up with the “sitcom family from hell” idea.

Homer, Marge, Lisa, and Maggie were all named after his own family. His mum even had a beehive hairdo like Marge. Maggie’s stuffed bunny is actually the main character from Life In Hell.

Fox initially wasn’t keen on buying 13 full-length episodes.

But award-winning director and screenwriter James L. Brooks wasn’t taking no for an answer.

At the time he had a film deal with the company due to be renewed, and he used this as leverage to push the network into picking up The Simpsons.

Brian recalls: “He had just directed four movies for Fox and every single one of them was staggeringly profitable. He was their huge shining star.

“They couldn’t get this deal done. Brooks said to his lawyer, ‘I got a solution. Tell the lawyers if they greenlight The Simpsons, then I’ll close my deal for the four movies.’”

Garth Ancier, then the founding entertainment president for Fox, reveals in the documentary that he told a “little white lie” to management to get The Simpsons over the line.

He told boss Barry Diller, who he calls “the one guy you don’t lie to”, that the network ABC had offered The Simpsons six episodes. Although he is still unsure whether it worked.

He adds: “In fairness, because I do think Barry has an extraordinary bulls**t metre, I think he knew it was a lie and he went along with it anyway knowing this was a good idea.”

Smithers was originally black

When Mr Burns’ assistant Smithers made his first appearance, he was black with blue hair – but he was meant to be yellow.

The reason for the glitch? Issues with a fax machine.

American animation studio Klasky Csupo made The Simpsons in the US but outsourced the final stage of animation to a studio in Korea.

Back then the internet was still in its infancy, so a fax machine was used to send the drawings to animators.

Brian says: “The fax machine was not in colour. There were little arrows pointed at each thing, each character, with what colour they were.

“One of the major problems with fax machines is that if there was any movement while the paper was going through the scanner, it would glitch.

“What happened with Smithers is that the panel moved and the handwritten note with the colour smudged.

“So they just made a guess – and they guessed incorrectly.

“Two months later they put the tape in the VCR and all of a sudden it’s like, ‘that is not what we ordered’.”

They were so low on funds they couldn’t afford a retake.

Brian adds: “The solution was, they bought this extremely expensive colour printer – like the kind of stuff only NASA had – and they colour print pictures and then airmail these to Korea.

“We’re pretty sure that The Simpsons was one of the first shows – at least the first animated show – to start using the internet.

“This was a big part in how they were drastically able to improve their quality.”

Homer got fan mail

While Bart was originally The Simpsons’ main character, Homer soon became the fan favourite.

Brian says: “Bart was always supposed to be the star, but all of a sudden Homer started getting more fan mail.

“I’m talking about Homer, and not Dan Castellaneta who voices him. He was getting millions and millions of letters every month.

“We saw some of these letters and they’re in one of the episodes. People were saying things like, ‘we love you, you’re an inspiration, you make me feel better about my life’.

“People are always like, ‘what’s the secret to The Simpsons’ success, how can a show run for more than 30 years?’ And this is a case in point. You have a show that had a massive star with Bart. But they’re paying attention to the mail. And all of a sudden, they kind of flipped it.

“Starting around season six or seven, Homer became the flagship character of the show. And that’s highly unusual, for a change like that to happen.

“I think that’s at the heart of why The Simpsons has lasted so long – it evolves.”

Why characters are yellow

There have been many theories as to why The Simpsons are yellow and whose idea it was.

Creator Matt Groening is often credited, but the documentary reveals it was, in fact, animation colourist Gyorgyi Peluce – and she chose yellow purely because she liked the colour.

Brian says: “So much of what made the show iconic, it just all happened kind of randomly.

“So they ended up with this real artist, and, instead of just doing whatever it was that could make it like ‘okay’ – ‘it’s just a job, whatever’, they put their heart and soul into the show.

“There were three big leaders making the show – that was not any of their ideas.

“And yet, this arbitrary decision to make them yellow, that’s a big part of why somebody who has never watched an episode of The Simpsons can identify Bart or Homer or Lisa.”

Rivalry and wrestling

As well as Matt Groening, Sam Simon was a major creative force behind the show.

But a rift developed between the pair, with producer Ken Estin dubbing them “like oil and water”.

He says: “They could just not come together… Matt got all the credit and no one mentioned Sam and that made him furious.”

Referencing to an episode called Flaming Moe’s, where Homer creates a new successful cocktail that Moe the barman takes credit for, actor and producer Cooper Barnes says: “There’s a rumour that episode is Sam Simon telling the audience about his experience on The Simpsons.”

Sam, who left the show after its fourth season and died in 2015, is said to have created the characters Mr Burns and his put-upon assistant based on James L. Brooks and his right hand-man Richard Sakai, dubbed “the taskmaster”.

Former production assistant Joe Russo adds: “I heard that Smithers was an exaggerated-version of the relationship that Richard had with James L. Brooks.”

He reveals Hungarian born animator Gábor Csupó encouraged the team to wrestle to settle their creative differences. Joe adds: “He said something to the effect of, ‘In my country, in order to save face, you must wrestle.’ And we started wrestling. Looking back, it was crazy.”