Beloved cartoon character Milhouse Van Houten might have began life as part of an unsuccessful pitch for a Saturday morning cartoon.
In a discussion on Twitter last week, Simpsons superdirector David Silverman clarified some things about Milhouse’s origins, shooting down rumors he’s just a rip-off of Paul Pfeiffer from The Wonder Years (come on dudes, he’s pretty much just Akbar/Jeff with hair and glasses). He also shared a little more behind-the-scenes information about his first appearance. It’s been known that Milhouse first appeared in a pre-series Simpsons Butterfinger commercial – in 2000, Simpsons creator Matt Groening told TV Guide he “needed to give Bart someone to talk to in the school cafeteria” – but until now it was believed he was created specifically for that commercial.
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Yes, it’s true. For the first time ever, you will be able to buy t-shirts with Matt Groening characters on them.
How did we get here? For decades, Groening has been adamant in his refusal to merchandise his highly popular creations (outside of book collections and DVD releases). He has rejected countless offers to license his characters, turning down billions of dollars in the process. After spending years battling his syndicate, he announced his decision to end his long-running comic strip Life in Hell in 1995. Pent-up demand for officially licensed Simpsons merchandise lead to a boom in bootleg car decals featuring Bart Simpson urinating on various logos, which is now a million-dollar industry despite its questionable legality. The ever-reclusive cartoonist has made virtually no public appearances since the famous incident at the Fox network upfront presentations in 1998, when he declared money to be the root of all evil and ran out the auditorium during the announcement of Futurama.
His anti-commercial martyrdom took its toll on his personal life. After his divorce in 1999, Groening retreated to a yurt in central Oregon and cut off all ties with his close friends, including Lynda Barry, creator of the mega-popular Fox sitcom Marly’s, and Gary Panter, who took over Peanuts in 2000. After seven years in isolation, Groening re-emerged with The Mean Little Kids, a dense 16 x 21 inch 20,000-page graphic novel that bankrupted its publisher, Buenaventura Press, upon its release.
So what changed his mind? “Well, I had a lot of time to think about it,” he told The New Yorker. “I figure a few pieces of merchandise here and there couldn’t hurt, as long as I oversee all aspects of their production and donate the profits to charity. I want my signature to become synonymous with high quality and social responsibility.”
The “PLAY IN HELL” series of T-shirts will be available in Comme de Garcons stores starting next week. [On the Runway]
The Simpsons turn 20 today (that is, if you don’t count the Christmas special as the first episode and completely ignore the original shorts from The Tracey Ullman Show), and there’s been a number of retrospectives to mark the occasion. An oft-repeated claim in many histories is that creator Matt Groening, fearing the loss of his Life in Hell characters, came up with the Simpsons in fifteen minutes before a meeting with Ullman producer James L. Brooks. But the characters actually originated nearly 40 years ago, in an unpublished novel Groening wrote in high school:
Chat Transcript (April 6, 1999):
Question hobgoblin: How old were you when you first came up with the idea for “The Simpsons”? I know that the show has been on for a long time.
Matt_G “The Simpsons” originated in high school.
Matt_G I wrote a bleak little novel called “The Mean Little Kids” starring a teenage Bart Simpson with buckteeth and a very bad complexion.
Interview with Robert William Kubey, published in Creating Television: Conversations with the People Behind 50 Years of American TV (Late 1991):
How quickly did The Simpsons gel in your mind?
I needed to come up with an idea really quickly. In the back of my mind was the idea of doing something that might possibly end up spinning off into its own TV show, so I created a family which I thought would lend itself to a lot of different kinds of stories. In high school I had written a novel, a sort of a very sour Catcher in the Rye, self pitying, adolescent novel starring Bart Simpson as a very troubled teenager. I took that family and transferred it, made them younger, and then drew. It took about 15 minutes to design the characters the first time out.
Were they all the same characters that we now know and love?
Yes, but they’ve been transformed.
Why didn’t you leave Bart as an adolescent?
TV does children really badly, and I thought there was room for something different. Teenagers are already running rampant on television, but kids are done very unrealistically in sitcoms. Sometimes, a particular character gels with an audience and becomes the star.
Was Bart at the center all along?
Yeah. The rest of the Simpsons in my original conception were in a struggle to be normal and Bart was the one who thought that being normal was boring.
And now you know… the rest of the story.