Creator Brian Volk-Weiss Interview: Icons Unearthed The Simpsons

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The Nacelle Company and Vice TV series Icons Unearthed is back for season 2 with Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons, which tells the story of the iconic series. Chronicling the rise of the television juggernaut The Simpsons, Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons starts at the beginning of the Fox television network and introduces The Simpsons creator Matt Groening as a boundary-pushing, underground artist. Given how mainstream The Simpsons has become in its 30+ year lifetime, Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons lends a layer of context that should only increase appreciation for the iconic show.

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Icons Unearthed was created by Brian Volk-Weiss, the founder of The Nacelle Company and creator behind hit shows The Toys That Made Us and The Movies That Made Us. Although Icons Unearthed has so far focused on film and television, Volk-Weiss noted in a recent interview with Screen Rant that the title was chosen to leave room for a wide range of subjects. For the time being, however, Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons looks poised to do exactly as its title suggests.

Related: The Simpsons Season 34 Future Prediction Gag Actually Worked

Brian Volk-Weiss spoke with Screen Rant about his love for The Simpsons, the people he spoke to for the series, and the impact the show had on the television industry.


Unearthing The Simpsons

Screen Rant: I feel like I just talked to you.

Brian Volk-Weiss: You took the words right out of my mouth.

How did this come together so fast?

Brian Volk-Weiss: It’s all… What do you call it? Performance-based. So, [Icons Unearthed:] Star Wars did well. We were already in the research and soft pre-pro with Simpsons, and as soon as we got the numbers, we kicked it into overdrive.

How long does it take you to put it together?

Brian Volk-Weiss: If we are starting from scratch, it usually takes eight to ten months. If we’re already in production and we’re just adding more, usually three to four months. Again, I don’t know if I’ve said this to you or not, but we’re basically using the exact same system and about seventy percent of the same people from Toys That Made Us. It’s just always the same people. Like if you look at the credits on The Simpsons, seventy to eighty percent of those people worked on Toys That Made Us and everything in between for the last six years. It’s very lucky.

I’ve seen the first episode, and I really love that it explains the landscape of television before The Simpsons existed. How did you know you wanted to start it there?

Brian Volk-Weiss: Well, I call it the bear print theory. You’re walking through the snow-covered woods, beautiful day, you come across a paw print in the snow, and it’s the biggest paw print you ever saw. Like, two feet wide. You’re looking at it, and you’re like, “Holy s***, this bear must weigh twenty thousand pounds. It must be fifty feet long.” And you take a picture of that print, and you post it on social media, people will probably be like, “Oh, wow, that’s crazy.” But if you put a dollar bill next to that print, and take that picture, and post that picture, people are going to go f—king crazy. Because you have to establish scale. You have to establish context. And by the way, we try to do that with everything we do.

But I knew with The Simpsons in particular, people do not understand how massively successful the show is. And even though they’re like thirty-four seasons in, and even though most people know it’s the longest-running TV show in history, and it beat Gunsmoke or Bonanza or whatever little soundbyte they memorize… people don’t understand how insanely huge this show is. I knew we needed to take the time at the beginning of the season to make sure people understood.

Every single thing they’re watching, the context is the cash flow from one show… Yes, Married… with Children did well, don’t get me wrong. But the cash flow from this series really did help build the fourth network, and it had a lot to do with why the cable industry took off, because they saw what was going on with Fox. That’s why I wanted to spend so much time. I feel like the unofficial name of this season could be Icons Unearthed, Season 2: The Simpsons… and the Rise of Fox. We really tried to show how this hit right at the fulcrum of what I think is now, including streaming, the modern entertainment world we live in.

I also loved that Matt Groening is introduced as a punk cartoonist because The Simpsons is now so mainstream. How much ground do you cover in The Simpsons‘ journey to becoming such a mainstream thing?

Brian Volk-Weiss: We organized this season in a different way than we ever have before. We’ve never organized anything like this, because it’s a TV series. Meaning it’s not a movie, and it’s not a toy, you know what I mean? If you’re doing a show about toys, you do an episode on Transformers, you do an episode on Barbie. But because this was a TV show, and to a certain degree because it was animated, we organize the show in a way that broke it down by what we viewed to be the most interesting variables of how the show got made.

So, we have an episode about the showrunners. We have an episode about the back-and-forth between Fox and Gracie Films. We really tried to give the show the context. I didn’t want to make a show that was all about the “Cowabunga, dude!” phenomenon. That’s been done to death. I didn’t want to do a show where at first Bart was the star, and then Homer became the star. I didn’t want to do a show about how The Simpsons was corrupting American society. All of that has been done before. I wanted to show how the writers and people like that were rewarded and penalized based on what it was like to work on a show like this that started off as basically, for lack of a better word, a quasi-accident, and then ended becoming one of the most valuable canons in the history of intellectual property.

Speaking of the writers, I remember for Icons Unearthed: Star Wars, you were happy about getting Marcia Lucas and Howard Kazanjian. Was there someone you were particularly excited to speak to for this?

Brian Volk-Weiss: Yeah, I mean there were a fair amount. We got Bill Oakley, who was one of the showrunners. We got almost all of the showrunners that are still alive. But we also got these interesting people that you may not have heard of. We got Garth Ancier, who was the executive working there [at Fox] when the show was greenlit. He had a front-row seat to everything. He was working for Barry Diller, he knew Rupert Murdoch, so he was able to show us what was going on inside of Fox. And to the best of my knowledge, that has really not been covered before.

One of my favorite things that I learned making this season is—and I cannot tell you how common this is as it relates to success—the main reason why The Simpsons got on the air. As you know, it started off as an interstitial on The Tracy Ullman Show, and the main reason why it got on the air was because Fox Studios were re-negotiating a second four-movie deal with James L. Brooks. To get that deal closed, Brooks forced them to pick up The Simpsons. That’s how it got on the air. Literally, this major cash cow that helped the entire network become what it became, they didn’t even want it. And only because James L. Brooks was able to leverage something else did the show get greenlit. So, we were able to capture stories like that because we got Garth Ancier.

Someone else we got that I’m still blown away by was Mimi Pond. She was the first female writer, and she was one of the only female writers for the first fifteen years the show was on. She gave us a completely unvarnished look at what the early days in the writing room. And we also got Mr. Csupó of Klasky-Csupo fame. To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think it’s as crazy as Marcia Lucas having never done an on-camera interview, but that guy never does interviews. We were hearing him talk about what it was like to be doing season 1 of The Simpsons, not to mention the pilot, and we also got a very honest answer as to why he and his company got fired.

Was there something that you stumbled across that made you want to do this in the first place? Or did you just know that because The Simpsons is such a juggernaut, it was worth exploring?

Brian Volk-Weiss: For whatever reason, growing up, I was a Fox kid. All my shows, from big stuff like Married… with Children of course, but like Herman’s Head, The Ben Stiller Show… All the shows I watched were on Fox. And I remember vividly seeing The Tracy Ullman Show, seeing The Simpsons interstitials. I’ll be completely honest with you, I never was like, “Oh, this is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,” but I remembered it. So, when I saw the first promo for the series, I was like, “How the hell are they going to turn that fifty-eight-second thing into a television show?”

And then I remember watching the first episode the day it aired with my mom and being like, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” And weirdly enough, I’m not a big animated guy. I’m not into Family Guy, I’m not into South Park, but The Simpsons has always resonated for me. And that’s the reason why. It’s that simple.

The first episode of Icons Unearthed: The Simpsons premieres October 5 on Vice TV.

Next: The Best Simpsons Future Was Bart’s Saddest Fate

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