Going Up Against 'Simpsons' at the Emmys

Taking on Perennial Winner Are Animated Series 'South Park,' 'SpongeBob SquarePants,' 'Avatar,' 'Robot Chicken'

In its 18 years on Fox's air, "The Simpsons" has the enviable track record of claiming the Emmy Award literally 50 percent of the time, including its win last year for animated series under an hour.

And with the recent much-ballyhooed opening of "The Simpsons Movie," the long-running series, with its beloved Marge, Homer, Bart and Lisa, is certainly top of mind for members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' animation peer group, which votes on the award.

"No matter who you are or how odd you think you are, we have a character for you," said Al Jean, executive producer of "The Simpsons." "People come from families that are not perfect, and when they see the show they realize that maybe not perfect is normal and it's not so bad. We work hard on being funny and sharp."

The Emmy-nominated episode, "The Haw-Hawed Couple," centers on Bart befriending schoolyard bully Nelson while Homer tries to prevent Lisa from finding out about the death of one of her favorite characters in a "Harry Potter"-like book.

"I think ultimately it's really at its heart an incredibly well-written, family-oriented sitcom. It really is something you can watch with your kids, really layered, and something multiple generations can appreciate," said Claudia Katz, a partner in animation house Rough Draft. "They've had seven years of President Bush in the White House; the writers keep it really fresh. Ultimately it's incredibly relatable.

"It's sort of dependable, in that you know for this half-hour you're going to be entertained by these characters and this story," she added. "There's such a level of consistency, it's a crowd pleaser. The family dynamic works well as a template to work within, everyone's got one, and so there is instant relatability."

In recent years, the competition for the Emmy has often come down to the inhabitants of the fictional town of Springfield versus the residents of South Park, Colo. "South Park" took home the trophy in 2005 and has been nominated five times during its 10-year run on Comedy Central.

In the Emmy-nominated episode "Make Love, Not Warcraft," Cartman, Kenny, Kyle and Stan struggle to find a way to stop a mad gamer who is destroying "World of Warcraft," their favorite online role-playing game. It depicts the boys literally living at their computers for weeks on end -- and sends up the utter addictiveness of computer gaming.

"In terms of writing, I feel 'South Park' and 'The Simpsons' are in the same category. They're both very adult shows," said Lauren Corrao, Comedy Central's executive VP of original programming and development. "But 'South Park' has the ability to jump on something in an instant, the unheard-of ability [in animation] to be as timely and topical to capture whatever is happening in the zeitgeist and satirize it in the way that they do."

Ms. Carrao said the series boasts an amazing seven-day turnaround time, compared with other animated series, whose production time can range from four weeks to eight months to a full year for "The Simpsons."

Another example of "South Park's" topicality last season was an episode spoofing comedian Michael Richards apologizing to Rev. Jesse Jackson for using the n-word repeatedly on-stage at a comedy club, which aired shortly after the actual events took place.

"When the show is best is when everyone is talking about it and it feels incredibly relevant," Ms. Corrao said. "But the ones about the kids are also incredibly relevant. All series sort of ebb and flow, but this series has been consistent all the way through."

"South Park" and "The Simpsons" are up against Nickelodeon children's shows "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and Cartoon Network's adult-targeted "Robot Chicken."

The one-hour animated series category has a somewhat spotty past, according to Ms. Katz. In previous years, she said, there were not enough entries to fill out the category, and thus several times the award was not given. But this year, it's a different story.

"People have decided, 'This is the category to get into for easier winning.' Everyone got this idea at once. There were 10 to 15 possible things to nominate this year. That's a huge change," said Ms. Katz.

The shows in contention are Cartoon Network's "Good Wilt Hunting," an episode of "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends," and "Where's Lazlo," an episode of "Camp Lazlo?"; "Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms," which aired on Starz; and Discovery Channel's "Secrets of the Deep."

"'Good Wilt Hunting' and 'Lazlo' are normally half-hour shows that run on Cartoon Network. Their demographic is 8-12," Ms. Katz said. "'Hellboy Animated' is a straight-to-DVD movie that aired as a feature, and Discovery Channel has those dinosaur specials that have historically been represented in this category, so that's not unusual or surprising."

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