Homer Simpson is not an easy man to interview. He belches, he farts, he scratches places that make you look away. And every time you do that, he jumps along to a different place on the sofa. It’s some kind of habit, like chain-chewing doughnuts while slurping beer. "I’ve always found that drinking helps calm my nerves," he mumbles, spraying flecks of foam and dough across the room. Then he swallows, and looks thoughtful. "But I realise that some people shouldn’t drink. Those people should give their drinks to me."
The sweet, sweet taste of Duff beer (“you can get free stuff if you mention a product in an interview”) has been imported for him. We’re in an anonymous hotel in London, where Mr Simpson has just belched again, loudly. “Heh heh!” His hair is thinner than it looks on screen, nothing more than a couple of wispy strands on that famous dome of a head. He is wearing an undersize Superman t-shirt, for some reason, and scratches the belly flopping out under it. “Do I have my pants on?” Er no, actually. But he doesn’t seem to hear the answer. “Perfect.”
The nerves are understandable. He is far from his home in Springfield USA, talking to The Independent on Sunday, the only British newspaper to get an interview on this trip. But he isn’t used to speaking in his own words, and clearly hasn’t got a clue why he’s doing it.
The Simpsons Movie is released this week, a big-screen version of what Time magazine called the best television show of the last century. It comes out on the same day as Transformers, in a summer packed with family blockbusters. That is why images of Mr Simpson have been everywhere over the last couple of weeks: his outline even appeared alongside that of the Cerne Abbas giant, to the fury of Dorset pagans. But the man himself knows nothing of any of this.
Twentieth Century Fox, who made the film, have kept him oblivious to it all, in a weird parallel with the lead character in the film The Truman Show. The one condition of this interview is that I am not allowed to ask about the film. “He thinks all this stuff is just his life,” said a press officer from Fox. Mr Simpson thinks he is in London because he won a competition at Kwik-E-Mart. It seems cruel, given that at least one member of his family is aware of being followed by the cameras (his son Bart writes on the class blackboard at the start of the film, “I will not illegally download this movie”) but Mr Simpson appears not to have any idea at all. Unless he’s playing a very clever game. With his track record, that seems unlikely: this is a man whose brain once allegedly quit his body in protest at his stupidity.
That story was told in one of the 400 episodes of The Simpsons, which has won 23 Emmy awards so far. With slapstick gags and sly, sophisticated dialogue, it appeals to both children and adults. The viewers of Channel 4 voted Homer the greatest television character of all time. But as far as he’s concerned, he’s just a regular joe living with his difficult family in Evergreen Terrace, Springfield USA, trying to keep love alive with his wife Marge. “You have to surprise her,” he tells me, “so things don’t get boring.” What does that mean? “Like on Valentine’s Day, she probably expects flowers. But you know what she doesn’t expect? You to jump out of the closet at 8am wearing a monster mask!”
This man laughing at his own joke on the sofa is slovenly, bad-tempered, drinks too much, gambles and regularly puts his family in danger – but he is still, somehow, endearing. Academics have asked why, and the consensus is that he’s an Everyman who never gives up, no matter what life and his own stupidity brings. Marge seems to love the boy she met at Springfield High. “Most women will tell you that you’re a fool to think you can change a man,” she once said. “But those women are quitters.”
The Simpsons have a son and two daughters: the child prodigy Lisa and the dummy-sucking baby Maggie. Homer screams at Bart often, but they still seem closer. When he talks about his boy, Mr Simp-son’s big round eyes get bigger. “I helped Bart in school one time, by letting him turn in a report that I wrote when I was a kid. He got a D, but it taught him an important lesson: never cheat off someone dumber than you.” And as he speaks, Mr Simpson gives a little sign that he may regret some of his more violent acts. “You can strangle a boy too much,” he says, shaking his hands in the air as if to throw off the guilt. Or loosen the wrists. “Hello, carpal tunnel syndrome.”
Their lives together first became public in 1987, when the cartoonist Matt Groening was asked to submit animated shorts to a sketch show starring the British singer and comedian Tracey Ullman. Groening made up a family based on his own: Marge and Homer were the names of his parents. The show was for the new Fox network, owned by the media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Groening was advised against it by Art Spiegelman, the Pullitzer Prize-winning cartoonist. “Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t work with those guys! They’re gangsters! They’re gonna take your rights away!”
But Groening did. And he is still with Fox. After getting its own series in 1988 The Simpsons was a huge hit that saved the network. First it went up against the mighty Cosby Show and won. Then it was sold to more than 60 countries, becoming the most watched animated television series in history. By 1992 the Simpsons were so big here and in America – with a Bart single on top of the charts and catchphrases like “eat my shorts” in every playground – that the President of the United States, George Bush Sr, felt compelled to promise to strengthen traditional values to help families become “a lot more like the Waltons, and a lot less like the Simpsons”.
It was Bart who responded, in the episode broadcast only a few days later. “Hey! We’re just like the Waltons,” he said, referring to the cosy drama set in the Thirties. “We’re praying for an end to the Depression too.”
The Simpsons was superb for several series, because of quick topical wit and an emotional reality no other cartoon had. But the politics were too sharp for Rupert Murdoch. “It had a couple a years there where it grew a bit dark,” he tells the latest Vanity Fair magazine. “We sort of got them out of that.”
Guest stars seemed to become the point of the show for a while, as everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Tony Blair got involved. Fox tried to replace members of the original voice cast in a dispute over pay, but had to give in. Rupert Murdoch says “the voices” now get more than $100,000 an episode each. “I’m not saying whether they’re worth it or not.”
Having reached its 18th season, The Simpsons TV show just isn’t as funny any more. Now that every comedy from South Park to The Office shows traces of its influence, the original looks ordinary. But many of the writers who were there before it got bloated have been recruited again for the film, led by James L Brooks, who made Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News. They promise it will be more cinematic. The world is in danger, not just Springfield. The president is Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bart gets naked, Marge gets angry, Homer gets lynched (and falls in love with a pig). But as Homer himself says in the opening moments, why should we pay for what we’re already getting for free on TV?
The film website comes in 64 languages and the movie is being marketed all over the world, but it did cost a reported $100m to make. The last sitcom to earn back that much in a switch to cinema was The Addams Family back in 1991. The peak of the show’s popularity was a decade ago – so wouldn’t that have been a better time for a film?
I can’t ask Mr Simpson. His eyes have glazed over anyway. So I wonder how old he is instead. Homer Jay Simpson was born on 12 May 1956, apparently, but the writers seem to think he is perpetually 38. Bart still looks like a defiant, skateboarding pre-teen, despite having been born in 1980. Lisa and Maggie are both stunted too, and Marge eternally youthful under her blue beehive (it’s dye. Her hair is really grey). Maybe it’s the radiation.
That must also be why they’re all yellow. I don’t have the nerve to mention this as he sits there glowing, but the people of Springfield live next door to the world’s worst nuclear power station. Mr Simpson, a safety inspector, has been personally responsible for 17 meltdowns. He should surely go to jail.
Disaster looms once again in the film, when he does “the worst thing he’s ever done” according to Fox, with a new pet pig and a leaky silo. Asked how he knows which button to press in an emergency, he says: “It’s usually the one next to the one I pushed that started the emergency.”
I wonder if he’s coping better with London than he did last time he was here, when he dressed in a loud Hawaiian shirt and barked at a hotel receptionist: “We’re big-shot tourists from everybody’s favourite country, the USA. We saved your ass in Vietnam and shared our prostitutes with Hugh Grant. So gimme some free maps, and none of that dry British wit.”
Mr Simpson is capable of a burst of lucidity at least once every 22 minutes, which by happy coincidence is the length of a television episode. But after driving across the London traffic – “I’m acting the way America acts best. Unilaterally.” – he smashed into a golden carriage carrying the Queen. She let him out of the Tower eventually – but only if he took Madonna back to the US with him.
He is hungry now. The dozen doughnuts I brought as a gift have gone. He misses Marge’s pork chops. “I think of myself as a second-hand vegetarian,” he tells me. “Cows eat grass, I eat cows.”
We’re getting on fine. It’s time to risk a reference to films. So, Mr Simpson, who is your favourite movie star? “I like The Thing [from the Fantastic Four movies]. We have a lot in common. We’re both bald, we’re both angry, and we both have movies coming out this summer …”
What? He just made a reference to his film. But before I can ask him about that, large men in suits and shades burst through the door, lift him up by the armpits and carry him out. “Hey!” he shouts as he goes, “My beer! D’oh!”
Shocked, I wonder: does he actually know? Could he break out, like Truman? The muffled sounds from the next room suggest he wouldn’t get far. Rupert Murdoch is in charge. Everyone from Homer Simpson to Tony Blair knows you don’t argue with him.
Further reading Simpson Family Values in ‘Vanity Fair’, August 2007