‘Icons Unearthed’ Season 2 Delves Into History and Lasting Impact of ‘The Simpsons’


Growing up, Brian Volk-Weiss considered himself a Fox kid — all his favorite shows were on the then-fledgling network. And as with many viewers checking out The Tracey Ullman Show, it was those interstitial animated shorts featuring a dysfunctional family that really caught his eye.

The popular bits grew into The Simpsons, first as a standalone special and then a primetime series that continues today, now in its 34th season. Volk-Weiss, the mastermind behind The Toys That Made Us and The Movies That Made Us, explores the history of this long-running show and its undeniable impact in Season 2 of Vice TV’s Icons Unearthed. Over the course of six episodes, voice actors, directors, writers, and network execs share their toon tales.

Here, Volk-Weiss tells us more about this passion project. Woo-hoo!

Along with Married…With Children, The Simpsons really was important to Fox’s survival and future — the first episode of your docuseries makes that abundantly clear.

Brian Volk-Weiss: Our unofficial joke while making the show was that the name of the show could be Rise of The Simpsons (and Fox Too). It’s a major plot point. The entire season, we really show the massive amounts of cash the show was generating from the original run, syndication, and merchandise. We show how that rise in money powered Fox, as well as the good and the bad that came out of that. In a weird way, The Simpsons could have only come from an upstart. There is no way The Simpsons would have happened on the three major networks at the time: ABC, NBC, and CBS…. Even though we have South Park, Family Guy, those deals. The way the business goes, those shows will never be as lucrative as The Simpsons because they are existing in a world built by them. Fox was able, in a large part, to build itself on that cash flow. [Creator] Matt Groening, [executive producer] James L. Brooks — a lot of people got insanely wealthy. You will never see that again. The Simpsons is bigger than just being the longest-running [scripted primetime] show in television history.

Wes Archer

Vice TV

Here and in your other series, I love the way you tackle topics. Even the aspects that might be considered complex, you manage to present them in an entertaining and digestible way.

We try to make it fun. We never want to punch down. We were recently offered the opportunity to produce a series based on an intellectual property I’m not a fan of, but its holder comes from one of the biggest studios. But I don’t like it at all. I turned it down because I’m not a fan of that show. I didn’t think I could make an honest series. It was a pretty fat budget too, but I just don’t want to make stuff I’m not excited about. This I was.

There is an eclectic mix of interview subjects, including Jon Vitti, Mimi Pond, Bill Oakley, Rich Moore, Phil Roman, and Garth Ancier. How was it getting them to open up about The Simpsons? Some of them go all the way back with the show to its inception more than 30 years ago.

Memory is a very interesting thing. We have many times interviewed five people who were in the same staff meeting. Five people like each other and worked together for decades and they are telling five completely different stories. We will even reinterview people to confirm. You’ll see the human brain process things differently. What was really unique to The Simpsons was [that] a lot of people we interviewed could be broken down into two categories: They were there for the first five years or the next 30 years. The people who were there in the beginning, to them, it was the Wild Wild West. Nobody understood what was going to happen.

What do you think Matt or James will think of the show?

I have no idea. When you make a show like The Simpsons, you spend so much time eating, sleeping, and breathing the world that a show exists in. I usually can get a really good feel for these people who are a part of making that show. To be honest with you, it was very hard to get an understanding of what James L. Brooks and Matt Groening are like as people. Part of the reason is we can do three interviews in a day. You would hear, over the course of six or seven hours, three completely different descriptions of the same people. We did what we always do in a situation like this: We present all sides of the story. We will with a voiceover make it very clear what we heard different things from different people.

What about Rupert Murdoch?

I was able to get a much better read on him as a person. He, in many ways, I believe got less ruthless as time went by. I think he was a mild supporter of The Simpsons for the cash reasons at the very beginning, [and then he went on] to actually become a very big Simpsons fan. I think he is extremely proud of The Simpsons. One of the things we heard a lot about was him watching every episode. I think for a guy who is not known as an emotionally cuddly dude, he has a soft spot for The Simpsons.

Mimi Pond

Vice TV

How do you think the show will change the way people look at The Simpsons?

We tried to pull off two things. First, to show the sheer scale of making this show. We go into tremendous detail about how big The Simpsons is. I guarantee you that when the accountants and the lawyers were going through Fox’s books for the sale to Disney, a staggering percentage of the value of Fox was The Simpsons.… The other thing we tried to show is the complexity of making a series like this…There are so many people involved with getting this to work. When people see a billboard or are flipping channels, I want them to see a still of Marge or Homer and be like, “Yeah, it’s f–kin’ nuts this show is still on the air based on what I know now.” I really want them to appreciate the accomplishment.

Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons, Series premiere, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 10/9c, Vice TV