A curious Simpsons tale, on its 30th birthday
The Simpsons family’s first on-screen appearance happened 30 years ago today, on the April 19, 1987 edition of The Tracey Ullman Show. On this special day, we’re taking a look at one of the most interesting episodes in its early history: the season 3 premiere Stark Raving Dad.
In this episode, Homer enters a psychological institute where he encounters a 300lb white man who thinks he’s Michael Jackson, but is actually a brick-layer called Leon Kompowsky. In Kompowsky’s real voice, he’s played by Hank Azaria, but his MJ voice was played by the real-life Michael Jackson under the pseudonym John Jay Smith – and his singing MJ voice was portrayed by someone else entirely (a guy called Kipp Lennon, of the folk-rock band Venice). It’s as weird a tale as it sounds: here’s how it all came about, according to the creators of the show themselves.
According to the DVD commentary for season 3, Jackson pitched several story ideas for the episode – including the bit where Bart tells the whole town that Jackson is coming to his house. He also requested changes to the script, asking for a joke about Prince be changed to one about Elvis Presley. He also asked for a scene where he and Bart wrote a song together.
Dan Castellaneta, who plays Homer among others, says: “Michael Jackson was a fan of the show and wanted to do it and we had to figure a way. It wasn’t like your typical ‘Michael Jackson?!’ where he shows up and does the show for the charity or the fifth grade concert or whatever. They really figured a great way of having him on the show, so we had a big 300lb white guy who thinks he’s Michael Jackson, and Homer meets him and Homer gets committed because he wore a pink shirt to work. It’s such an odd show. And the story was great because even though he was this crazy guy who thought he was Michael Jackson, he actually helped Bart write a song for Lisa’s birthday. It had warmth, it was absurd, it hit on every level.”
The table read
The first table read was a bit of a disaster, because Dan Castellaneta was half an hour late. There was no talking for 30 minutes.
He recalls: “I was supposed to be there at a certain time and I thought I had more time – I was in Hollywood sitting with a friend trying to kill time… I was afraid to go there early and nobody would be there. Turns out I was half an hour late and I walk in there and I made a joke: ‘Oh sorry I’m late, it’s a good thing I decided to show up early’. They told me later that Michael Jackson had timed it so that he could sit down at the table and read because he didn’t want to sit and talk with other people, he’s that shy, so he sat down at the specific time and I wasn’t there, and a whole half-hour nobody said anything. It was really quiet and everybody was mad at me because it was a half hour of discomfort.”
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Harry Shearer (who voices Mr Burns and others) remembers the long, awkward wait: “The read-through was supposed to start at 7.30pm, and precisely at 7.30 Michael walks in, sits down at the dining room table and looks at his lap waiting for the thing to begin. And we’re all there except Dan Castellaneta for some reason – maybe the traffic was bad, or he got lost – so we wait for a long time for Dan. And normally in that situation conversation would break out, as people do when they’re waiting for someone, but Michael was just such an uncomfortable presence that it’s the longest silence I’ve ever experienced in showbusiness as we sat and waited for Dan.”
The second table read
The first table read was on Thursday night. The following Monday, they had another, and this is when the cast members found out Michael Jackson would not be singing his own parts.
“We’re at Fox recording the show,” Shearer recalls, “and Michael is there with us. In those days we did an additional read-through before we started recording. If you remember the show, he played a white 300lb mental patient who was under the delusion that he was Michael Jackson, which of course as it turns out is nothing compared to the delusion Michael Jackson was really under. So he’s doing the lines of dialogue, but at some point the character breaks into song singing special lyrics to the old Michael Jackson song ‘Ben’ and at that point Michael sits back and gives a little, almost imperceptible nod of his head and across the table a white guy starts singing – a perfect Michael Jackson soundalike. I leaned over and said to Yeardley Smith (Lisa): ‘We’ve paid just enough for the speaking Michael Jackson but we can’t afford the singing Michael Jackson.’
Writer Al Jean adds: “I tried to find out what the story was and he said: ‘I’m playing a joke on my brothers.’”
Al Jean still doesn’t know why MJ wanted to be credited as John Jay Smith.
“People thought it’d be slumming it to do a cartoon, or an in-joke to do it but not use your name,” he says. “[Writer/producer] Jim [L. Brooks] said: ‘After Michael Jackson, that’s it, if people wanna do the show we’ve gotta use their name’ because it was so hard to publicise it without saying it was him. It was just weird.” That makes MJ the last celebrity to appear on the show under a pseudonym.
Jackson wrote ‘Lisa It’s Your Birthday’ but left singing it to Kipp Lennon. He also produced ‘Do the Bartman’, which was part of the 1991 album ‘The Simpsons Sing the Blues’.
Nancy Cartwright (Bart) recalls: “The thing that I remember most was that Michael produced ‘Do The Bartman’. He was a huge Bart Simpson fan. Not just Simpsons but Bart, he loved Bart. And I found this out and I got a talking Bart dolls, I signed it and brought it with me. We went in the studio and he directed me. And that was really really fun. He was so low-key and so easygoing.”