The Simpsons is hardly the first show to air live, but it’s undoubtedly the first animated program to do so. The episode itself revolved, fittingly enough, around Homer taking an improv class to get over his fear of public speaking. The last three minutes were given over to Homer answering questions live while animators triggered pre-programmed animations in sync with his words.
One of the dirty little secrets of improv is that improvisers are much too lazy to memorize scripts. So, if you’re wondering whether or not Dan Castellaneta actually made up mildly amusing answers to rigorously screened calls matched to choppy animation reminiscent of early, Tracy Ullman-era Simpsons, the answer is almost certainly yes, because it would take just as much work to fake the mistimed fade-ins and awkward cell phone talkovers than it would to just do it live.
The animation surrounding a seated Homer was the same on both coasts: Lisa holding up a “WE PARKED IN BILL O'REILLY’S SPOT” sign, Bart taking off Homer’s pants, Mr. Burns being dragged away by a butterfly caught in his net. Both episodes had the same opening and closing bits written: Homer joking that this was the last Simpsons episode at the beginning and that any additional questions would be answered by the cast of Empire on Wednesday – though Castellaneta seemed to have misplaced his script and stumbled over the gag on the West Coast.
The “proof” that the show was live — on the East Coast, “On Saturday Night Live last night, Drake was terrible;” on the West Coast, “The Texas Rangers beat the Toronto Blue Jays today by a technical knockout.”
Highlights include a caller asking what kind of car Homer drives: “I drive a hybrid, which is a combination of ‘old’ and 'terrible.’” And, in response to a caller asking if a Donald Trump presidency would make him move to Canada, Homer says that Canada doesn’t want him. “That’s why I’m for Bernie Sanders: I love his chicken. But out of respect, we should refer to him as The Colonel.”
How accurate a peek into the world of improvisation is the show? Maybe more than you’d expect; once you account for the needs of a half-hour sitcom (a scene is rarely made up entirely of a single-sentence pun), it’s pretty dead on.
Truth #1: Terrible group names. The name of the first troupe in the episode is “Off the Cuff.” A quick internet search reveals at least six separate improv groups going by that name. Homer’s team fares better — there don’t appear to be any current teams called “Premises, Premises,” but there was a Second City revue in the '70s by that name featuring future comedy legend Harold Ramis.
Lie #1: The five-person team has two black people and two women. While concerted efforts have been made in many places to increase diversity in improv, it’s still mostly white dudes.
Truth #2: Professor Frink offers the suggestion, “ 40.7° north latitude, 74º west longitude.” Audience members trying to trip up improvisers with deliberately arcane suggestions are frighteningly common — though that’s probably just how Frink thinks (those are actually the coordinates of New York).
Truth #3: Lenny puts off Carl with his over-intellectualization of improv. You can find this sort of person in any audience: Just look for the person whose lips are moving during a show. They’re mouthing what the person on stage, in their mind, should have said.
Truth #4: $500 bucks a class? Yep, in New York, that’s about what a class at the Upright Citizens Brigade can go for.
Truth-ish #5: The “Rules of Improv” on the whiteboard in class are really more like guidelines, but they’re largely correct. 1) Never deny; 2) Believe in the premise; 3) When in doubt, pretend to make a salad.
Truth #6: The “Acceptable Stereotypes,” however, are 100 percent spot on. Person of color, choreographer (which is usually code for flamboyantly gay), and drunk Irishman are all comedy death. Nerds, however, are totally acceptable to make fun of.
Lie #2: Improv shows in bars are universally terrible and are never well-attended.
Lie #3: The back and forth about the improv critic, reporter, and think piece writer is pure bunk. Oh, they definitely all exist, but not in print: They’re all bloggers.
Lie #4: The whole point of scenic improv is collaboration, so one-person improv is exceedingly rare.
Truth-ish #7: Del Close is considered the godfather of long-form improvisation, he did co-author a book called Truth in Comedy that is often used (and unread) as a textbook in improv curricula, though he probably would not say, “Do like Moe says and shut the hell up.”
Lie #5: Homer’s blazer/tie ensemble is much more reminiscent of the '80s stand-up scene — which his improvising (especially the microphone) much more closely resembles. Most improvisers wear plaid shirts, jeans, and a hoodie.
Truth #8: Dated references — like Homer’s 1992 Marlon Brando — are the hallmark of desperate improvisers.
Truth #9: This image pretty much sums up everything you need to become an improv genius. For $500, someone will explain it to you.
The Simpsons airs Sundays at 8 p.m. on Fox.