The icing on the Simpsons' cake

IT SEEMS STRANGE that The Simpsons, a TV show about a family of losers, should be such a huge success.

Conan O'Brien

THIS six-foot-four-inches-tall redhead towers over The Simpsons’ other backroom boys. O’Brien was a wonderfully-successful writer whose two-year stint in Seasons 4 and 5 (1991-1992) witnessed classic episodes such as Marge Versus the Monorail and Treehouse of Horror VI - in which Homer sells his soul to the devil for a frosted doughnut. O’Brien also became famous enough as a chat show host to appear in The Simpsons as a guest star.

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A magna-cum-laude graduate of Harvard University, he shocked the television industry when, in 1993, he took over from David Letterman as the host of the Late Night show. The following year The Simpsons paid tribute to one of their own by having Bart appear on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. While Bart jockeyed for a bigger role: "You know, Conan, I have a lot to say. I’m not just a one-line wonder. Did you know that a section of rain forest the size of Kansas is burned every single..." Conan replied: "Just do the line."

Earlier this year it was announced that O’Brien would take over Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show in 2009, allowing him the opportunity, if the show is still running, to welcome Homer on to the sofa.

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David Mirkin

EXECUTIVE producer David Mirkin is often mocked as a Monty Burns look-a-like, if, that is, the owner of Springfield’s nuclear power plant took to wearing the bushy moustache of a Victorian villain. His personal tastes, however, are closer to Homer’s, both sharing a love of "Mmmmmm ... forbidden donuts." But while he is still involved in overseeing the residents of Springfield, Mirkin has moved on to the big screen as writer and director of movies such as Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (1997) which starred Lisa Kudrow and Mira Sorvino. His most recent movie was Heartbreakers (2001) which starred Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt, and he’s currently developing a sequel, Heartbroken.

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James L Brooks

IF MATT Groening is the genius behind The Simpsons, James L Brooks is the man who ensured the cartoon went on air. As executive producer of The Tracey Ullman Show, he invited Groening to develop The Simpsons as a regular five-minute short, then shepherded the show into its own series and the phenomenon it remains today.

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A consummate writer, producer and director, Brooks reinvigorated the American sitcom in 1970 when he created The Mary Tyler Moore Show and won an Oscar for Terms of Endearment in 1983 while Groening was still doodling in his notebooks. Although credited as one of the show’s creators, Brooks has maintained a discreet distance. He remains the only executive producer never to have written a single episode of The Simpsons, which is surprising considering his skill with scripts. He has since gone on to write and direct the Oscar-winning As Good As It Gets, starring Jack Nicholson. Brooks’ latest movie Spanglish, stars Adam Sandler as a top chef struggling with the language barrier between him and his Mexican maid, is released this month.

Brad Bird

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"OUR secret weapon" was how the executives of The Simpsons introduced Brad Bird to the cartoon’s staff when he joined in 1990. "I often kick myself that I didn’t take that as my title," he says. Bird emerged in Season 2 when shots used by Stanley Kubrick began to appear.

An avid animator from the age of 11, when he made his own version of The Tortoise and the Hare, Bird served his apprenticeship at Disney, before going on to write Batteries Not Included, a children’s film for Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. After he bowed out of The Simpsons, having created characters such as Krusty the Clown, he developed the critically acclaimed, though poorly attended, The Iron Giant, a feature-length cartoon based on the children’s book by Ted Hughes.

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Argumentative and exacting, Bird had a string of bust-ups with movie executives before discovering a natural home at Pixar, who embraced his idea about a family of retired superheroes, and giving rise to this winter’s smash-hit animation film, The Incredibles. Fans of The Simpsons like to look upon Mr Incredible and his expansive girth as a subtle homage to Homer.

Hank Azaria

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WHAT is it about Hank Azaria and bikini briefs? Perhaps it’s the fact that as an actor best known for providing the voices to The Simpsons’ characters such as Moe, Chief Wiggum and Apu, he feels an overwhelming need to flaunt his physical presence on the big screen. In The Birdcage, he stole the picture as the central characters’ thong-wearing Guatemalan house-boy. While in Along Came Polly, his French, bikini-clad ‘scooba’ instructor was the best thing in a bad movie.

Today, however, Azaria has found critical acclaim in his role in Huff, a new American TV series in which he plays a psychologist, Dr Craig ‘Huff’ Huffstodt. Yet he is unlikely to give up his $100,000-an-episode Simpsons’ pay cheque.

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And the rest...

UNTIL Huff pushed Hank Azaria ahead by a single hit TV show, Harry Shearer, above left, was perhaps the highest-profile voice of The Simpsons. As Flanders, Monty Burns and his simpering sidekick, Smithers, Shearer still carries the cult status associated with his role as Derek Smalls, the bassist in This is Spinal Tap. Yet now, like actors such as Dan Castellaneta, who plays Homer, and Julie Kavner, who plays Marge, Shearer’s success remains firmly attached to Springfield.

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Only Nancy Cartwright seems intent on exporting her persona abroad. The author of the best-selling memoir, My Life as a Ten-Year-Old Boy, she adapted it into a one-woman show and dragged it to the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, only to be skewered by the critics. D’oh, as Homer would say.