While most of the press around Disney's acquisition of Fox focused on the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, Marvel's "First Family," coming home, another iconic family joined the House of Mouse — a yellow one. By acquiring Fox, Disney now has more than 600 episodes of The Simpsons spanning more than 30 seasons, and every single one of them will be streaming on Disney+ on launch day.
Naturally, the new addition to the Disney family had its very own panel at the annual Disney fan expo, D23. Although the Saturday panel was competing against the Disney Studios live action panel, which featured brand new Star Wars, Pixar and Marvel announcements, the giant D23 Arena was still packed with Simpsons fans.
Yeardley Smith, voice of Lisa Simpson, acted as moderator, and she welcomed Nancy Cartwright (Bart, Nelson, Ralph Wiggum, and bunches of others) and writer/producers/smart people Matt Groening, Al Jean, Mike Anderson, and Matt Selman to the stage.
To celebrate their new overlords The Simpsons team started off the panel with a clip reel of the many times they've skewered Disney on the show over the years, including digs at Snow White with a druggie musical number Ho-Hi, Santa's Little Helper spoofing Lady and Tramp's spaghetti scene, their version of Mary Poppins getting sucked into a jet engine, and even the "Steamboat Willie" nod in an episode of Itchy and Scratchy.
Having tempted fate, the panel began in earnest. Cartwright did a medley of her different voices, from Bart to Nelson to Ralph Wiggum (“I'm a walking non sequitur!”) and it was more than a little surreal to hear Smith jump in as Lisa to have a conversation with Bart right there on the spot.
Groening fielded a question about his father, a cartoonist named Homer. Did he nurture Groening into the animation creative he is today? Not really, it turns out. Homer Groening tried to warn his kids off of the industry.
“Animation is too hard,” said Groening, recalling the words of his father. “Don't do it, but if you do, get other people to do the hard work. That is the secret of it all!”
A more serious moment came once Smith turned to the audience for questions. A young kid asked if Apu was going to stay in the show because he was his favorite character. You could feel the audience tense up, as it was the first time the controversy surround Apu — who has been heavily criticized for being a stereotypical depiction of Indian-Americans — came up.
Groening flipped through his oversized sketch pad and held up a sketch of Apu before giving his answer. Was Apu going to stay in the show? “Yes,” Groening said and gave the kid his sketch of Apu.
That's not all, as this coming Treehouse of Horror will ironically mark the 666th episode of the series. Not only are the Treehouses the most fun to work on for the crew, but they are also the most challenging, especially from an animation perspective because each segment has its own look and requires building so much from the ground up.
They asked if we wanted to see a bit from this upcoming Treehouse of Horror and that “bit” ended up being the full segment called "Danger Things," a Stranger Things spoof that puts Milhouse in the Will Byers role and Bart and Lisa have to rescue him from “The Overunder.”
I don't want to spoil too much of this, but I will say The Simpsons team takes a great amount of pleasure in poking fun at the '80s nostalgia aspect of Stranger Things. The Atari E.T. video game gets some love, I'll say that much. And we do get a good look at the town of Springfield “Overunderfied” with Demogorgons running amock, some looking wildly familiar. You may or may not see a Comic Book Guy Demogorgon is what I'm saying.
When the lights came back up and we were back with the creators they once again circled back to being in the Disney family. Even though they poke fun at the Disney machine a whole lot throughout the history of The Simpsons, the show owes a lot to Disney.
Groening said he distinctly remembered an article he read about the design genius of Mickey Mouse, how he has the two round ears and even when he turns in profile the distinctive round ears stay put. It's unnatural, but it taught Groening the importance of designing his characters with an eye towards silhouette. If you look at the shapes of all the main Simpsons characters you'll know who you're looking at just from their outline. That came from Mickey.
Another thing that came from the Mouse House was something he noticed at the beginning of The Mickey Mouse Club. The animated intro always ended with Donald Duck banging a gong and every episode had a different gag associated with that gong hit. That's where the seed of the couch gag at the beginning of every Simpsons episode came from.
Groening also sheepishly admitted he lifted quite a bit from a Donald Duck cartoon called 'Modern Inventions' for the Futurama pilot. That short had Donald interacting with a Bender-like angry robot.
Before closing with a clip from The Simpsons Movie that once more poked fun at Disney, The Simpsons team expressed their excitement that every single episode of The Simpsons was going to be available on Disney+ at launch. Groening said the show has been on so long that he hears of fathers watching with their kids and now with Disney+ he expects even more family bonding time around his creation.