It's Monday morning in America. You know the drill.
Go gently moping into work, grab some coffee, then get on with your work life. Crankily. Onward into the rat race. And watch out for that rut.Well, some workplaces are different. And some working stiffs are lucky, indeed.
Like the friendly band of casually dressed workers, associates, visitors and family members gathering on this leisurely, sun-dappled Monday morning at the 20th Century Fox studios in Century City, Calif.
They know how to count their blessings at "The Simpsons."
"This is the greatest job. I really, truly believe this is the best gig in America," says Julie Kavner, the actress who used to play Rhoda's sister in another sitcom life but who is now the memorable voice of Marge Simpson.
And that's what is happening here today: It's an assemblage of larynxes that carry a mythic pop zing. The talented people who create the voices and personalities for Marge, Homer, Bart, Lisa, Mr. Burns, Krusty the Clown and all the rest are coming together in relaxed fashion to record an episode of "The Simpsons."
It's fun to be happily attached to a hit TV show, one still comedically sharp as it moves into its eighth season. And with something as imaginatively nutty as Matt Groen-ing's smart, cockeyed social satire, it's even more enjoyable. You earn nice money to play make-believe.
"The acting and writing is much more communal and down-to-earth," said Josh Weinstein, one of the show's executive producers. "We're just a bunch of happy `Simp-sons' nerds."
Nancy Cartwright, a short, energetic mother of two who is the hilariously impudent voice for a brat named Bart, wins the award for under-statement: "It's not a job that's horrible to come to," she said, smiling. "I'm getting paid to have a good time."
But Harry Shearer, whose most notable of many "Simpsons" voices belongs to that churlish geezer and scheming moneybags Mont-gom-ery Burns, is more to the point. "What this gives me is the ability to turn down a lot of crappy stuff," he said of his nicely compensated voice work on "The Simpsons."
Shearer is a veteran writer-comic-raconteur whose acting resume includes everything from "This Is Spinal Tap" to "Saturday Night Live." And he is equally sardonic and succinct about the reasons he initially sought a career in entertainment. Said Shearer, "I got into this business for the laughs."
On this Monday morning, beginning around 10, the laughs are generously available.
In a routine repeated each week for five months, the cast of "The Simpsons" gathers around a long, brown, Formica-topped table in a comfy, nondescript recording studio in a low-slung building on the Fox lot. The dress code is similarly comfortable: jeans, sneakers, T-shirts, sweatshirts and ballcaps.
Several members of the first-rate writing-and-producing staff, a boys' club of witty, highly educated young men in their 20s and 30s, a number of them with Harvard Lam-poon roots, sip coffee from Styrofoam cups. They're seated on old couches up against a wall near the table where producer Wein-stein leads cast members on a laugh-punctuated first read-through of "The Simpsons" script they'll record later the same day.
Kavner, Cartwright and Shearer are joined at the table by Dan Cas-tellaneta, a slim, droll man who is the lovably doltish voice of Homer Simpson, and Yeardley Smith, an actress whose soft, quirky real-life voice sounds very much like her animated alter ego, the philosophical and sometimes melancholy Lisa Simpson.
Hank Azaria, who does the voices for bar owner Moe, convenience store clerk Apu, Police Chief Wiggum and others, is away on a family matter. He'll record his lines for the episode later in the week.
In fact, the episode being vocally recorded, "My Sister, My Sitter," a story in which Lisa is disastrously left at home to sit with Bart and Maggie while Homer and Marge visit Springfield's trendy new Squidstreet Seaport, hasn't been drawn and animated yet.
"They animate to the voices," Kavner said. "And sometimes the artist will come down here and watch us as we record the script."
Nope, this isn't the bland reading the bland.
Castellaneta is especially physical in his vocal performances during the actual recording sessions, which follow the lively, low-key read-through and a short break. Whether he's doing Homer, Grandpa Simpson or Krusty the Clown, Castellaneta's liable to make distracting hand gestures and move about.
"That's the reason they put a screen up between Dan and Nancy because he gets so demonstrative," a smiling "Simpsons" staffer said.
The actors are situated in a large semicircle for the recording session, seated on swivel high chairs or standing at their microphones, their scripts on music stands before them. Each scene, with script rewrites coming constantly from the creative staff in different colored pages, often is recorded several times to test different line readings and inflections.
The actors also are given the freedom to verbally wing it. "We count on them for ad-libbing," Weinstein said. "They're talented. And they give us free jokes."
The writers are happy to get those ad-lib freebies from the cast.
Unlike the actors, who have a two-day work week that totals about nine hours, the writers are highly paid gerbils on a nonstop Hollywood treadmill. They often work 52 weeks a year to produce 24 episodes of "The Simpsons." "It's sort of like a nightmare of 14-hour days," said the 30-year-old Weinstein. From the creation of an individual script to the airing of the completed episode on Fox, it takes about eight months.
For an actor, working on "The Simpsons" has the feel of paradise.
"This job, you can be pregnant or whatever, and it's cool," said Cartwright. "And you don't have to memorize lines."