Earlier this week, The Simpsons celebrated its 30th anniversary on the air.
That’s right, both The Simpsons AND The Phantom of the Opera started entertaining audiences in 1987.
The cartoon has 32 Emmys on its hand-drawn shelf and is also the longest-running scripted, primetime entertainment series of all time (and is guaranteed to run for at least two more seasons).
Whenever anything is this successful, but especially when it’s in the entertainment industry, I always take a few moments to dig into the story, in the hopes I’ll find something we can learn/borrow/steal for our playbooks.
Here are three takeaways from The Simpsons success story that we should pay attention to:
- It’s a cartoon that isn’t just for kids. Like most success stories, part of the key to its early success was how unique of a product it was. We had never seen anything like it. It was a cartoon that wasn’t on Saturday mornings. And while kids loved hearing Bart say “Cowabunga, dude!” and piss off his parents in each episode, adults loved it too. Potential audience size = doubled. Disney is a master at this as well, especially with their films, in creating something that parents can take their kids to and enjoy just as much as their younger counterparts do (School of Rock is another great example of this on Broadway).If you have a show that could attract a younger demographic, work extra hard that you still appeal to the parent-set, and you could find yourself with twice as much word-of-mouth and twice as long of a run.
- It incorporates the current. All great satires poke fun at what is currently happening in society. The Simpsons constantly wrote current events into its scripts, making it resonate that much more with an audience. In the press world, we call this newsjacking . . . you write a story based on another story that people are talking about and get that much more attention (and often press). In the entertainment industry, we just call this smart.And sure, it got themselves into some controversies from time to time, but that ain’t all that bad either.
Maybe your show is loose enough where you can literally call out current events (comedies like this one lend itself easily to that). But if you can’t, you should still endeavor to have your story contain an undercurrent of a theme that’s currently being talked about at water coolers around the world. Because it’ll make sure your show is being talked about at those coolers too.
- They used stars . . . as supporting players. Celebrity voices were common on The Simpsons for the past 30 years, but they were always supporting folks. The primary characters were voiced by actors you never heard of before, and the show actually made stars out of them.Audiences turned on The Simpsons for the show, not the stars, and got some celebrities as a bonus.
Remember, of the 10 longest running shows on Broadway, 9 of them debuted without stars. While in today’s day and age, it may feel safer to put a celebrity into your lead role, it’s not what leads to long-term success.