Kind of funny how this and the last entry are both about the Simpsons when they really haven’t been relevant to me in over a decade (and in both cases, the focus of each project was on the first 10 or so years of the show), but here it is.
Last weekend I was able to see The Simpsons Take the Bowl, a live event honoring animations first family at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a three-night activation and I attended on the first night. Hosted, ostensibly, by Hank Azaria (busting out live his characters of Apu, Moe, and Wiggum, among others). He was joined by show creator Matt Groening who introduced the evening, and fellow cast members Nancy Cartwright (Bart, and others) and Yeardly Smith (Lisa). Guest stars included Beverly D’Angelo, Conan O’Brien, Jon Lovitz and more).
I was fairly worried that if they were trying to encapsulate the last 25 years of the show, I might be bored during the numbers I didn’t know, but if there was a song created on the show in the last ten years, I didn’t hear it. What I did hear were most of the greats over the show’s early run.
Azaria promised at the beginning that there would be screw-ups, as they had very little rehearsal time. On that count, as with most of the show, they did not disappoint. But with every flubbed line or tech issue or missed cue, it just reinforced the live nature of the show and only really seemed to add to the fun of the evening.
I had just seen a show at the bowl a few weeks prior and the biggest difference between that show and this was how well the Simpsons show utilized the entire stage. There was video projected on the stage surround, and the large video that went mostly unused on the prior show, was filled with content, both newly created for the weekend (bits satirizing the bowl experience, from the stacked parking to the commute between parking spot and seat), and classic bits from the TV series, movie and Oscar-nominated short. Every bit of content was good support for everything that was going on live. And the live show, with the help of the LA Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus, and, of all people Weird Al Yankovic, really delivered.
“Who Needs the Kwik-E Mart” is an odd choice for an opener, but it seemed to mainly be used to establish how the evening would go. Azaria acquitted himself nicely as all his characters, though I secretly hoped he would pull out a quick Frank Grimes.
The best song of the whole evening was “We Put the Spring in Springfield,” performed by guest stars Vaud and the Villains, a full band. Unlike all the other songs, this one had the benefit of a unique arrangement and a little bit more style than simply a reenactment. What the producers may not have realized or certainly didn’t do much to counter, was that most of these songs were created for television and are generally about thirty seconds long. That doesn’t make for quite a spectacle.
The song I was most looking forward to, and it was still rather exciting, was “The Monorail Song.” The writer of the episode the song appeared in, Conan O’Brien, stood in for Phil Hartman who sang it originally. It was certainly entertaining. But O’Brien’s introduction lasted twice as long as the performance. I think this one could’ve used a bit more added to it. Another stand-in for Hartman was his old friend Jon Lovitz, who did a surprisingly great rendition of the Planet of the Apes musical number.
The Gay Men’s Chorus headlined on two of the show’s greats “See My Vest,” and “We Do (the Stonecutters song).” Weird Al sang his rendition of “Homer and Marge” set to John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.” Beverly D’Angelo appeared kind of in character as Lurleen Lumpkin to a scratchy rendition of “Bagged Me a Homer.” This did highlight a few issues for me. If you have D’Angelo there, why not let her sing her other two songs (“Bunk With Me Tonight,” and “Your Wife Don’t Understand You”). It would’ve only added about a minute to the show. And with Lovitz there, there could’ve been a nod to the Streetcar episode he guest starred in.
I’ll give them credit though, they did get so much right. One of the best surprises was seeing the Michael Jackson impersonator (Kipp Lennon) who did the MJ singing in the episode Michael himself guest-starred in. He joined Nancy Cartwright in the first ever live rendition of “Happy Birthday, Lisa,” which was one of the TV series’ sweetest highlights.
Naturally, there were fireworks at the end, which was fine, if nothing spectacular. And for the finale, Nancy got up with everyone else that graced the stage that evening for a live rendition of “Do the Bartman.” It was certainly well performed, Cartwright was singing and dancing all over that stage like an old pro, but it was never a song that was too tied to the show itself. And twenty years later, it’s a fairly distant memory that never held up the way the songs did given how much the Simpsons dominates syndication. It was great, but kind of a weird way to end the evening.
Overall, despite my misgiving the overall feeling the entire night was one of pure, unadulterated joy. For a show that has a strong cynical side, they did a great job erring on the side of the positive. It was one of those evenings that reinforced a great benefit to living in this city.