In countless discussions with other Simpsons fans over the years the one question that always seems to come up is “Why?”, as in “Why did the show get so bad?” I’ve heard a lot of different theories which always seem to boil down to something overly simple, ‘this guy left’, ‘that guy took over as show runner’, ‘they just ran out of topics/ideas’. The reality, as John Ortved documents exhaustively in his new book “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History”, is that it is a question without a straight line answer. No one decision ever set the show irrevocably on a course for mediocrity. Nor was there one incident or feud that destroyed whatever it was that made The Simpsons unique. It was a wild and chaotic ride from the start and the real miracle isn’t that the show has lasted for two decades; it’s that it was as good as it was for as long as it was.
Ortved calls his book an “oral history” and that’s as good a description as any. He’s done an enormous amount of interviews with people who were instrumental to the show, from writers to animators to people who knew James L. Brooks and Matt Groening way back when. For the folks he couldn’t interview, Groening and Brooks included, he combed through old interviews they had given to other media outlets and quotes them within the context of what he’s asking. This tactic, while understandable and effective, creates some odd juxtapositions. It doesn’t quite flow to have a quote from Groening (or someone else who wouldn’t grant an interview) that was uttered when the show as in its infancy right next to something someone may have said in 2007 or later. I don’t see any way this could have been avoided, but it does make for strange reading from time to time.
The interviews Ortved has conducted are absolute gold though, and they make up the bulk of the book. Here are the first hand accounts of how the animation process was begun, how the people who worked on The Tracey Ullman Show thought the Simpsons stacked up against the other bits, how the writing staff viewed what they were doing. It’s a treasure trove of information, gossip and hilarious war stories.
Ortved has divided his book into eighteen chapters, but it breaks relatively cleanly into three main sections. The first and, for me at least, the most informative is about the deep background of the show. This includes sections on Groening’s “Life in Hell” comic strip, the chaotic beginnings of the FOX network and the pre-Simpsons history of James Brooks’ Gracie Films. The ramshackle and frightfully coincidental nature of the earliest Simpsons work is on full display and it really makes one appreciate just how lucky we really are to have ever gotten The Simpsons in the form we did. The number and variety of unrelated elements that all had to fall into exquisite place and click together is astonishing.
The second part of the book is by far the funniest for the simple reason that it recounts what Ortved refers to as the “golden age” of the show (by his count roughly Seasons 2-8). It should come as a surprise to no one that for that much brilliant, insane and funny stuff to show up on your teevee a great deal of brilliant, insane and funny stuff had to happen behind the scenes. The highlights of this part, and really of the whole book, are the chapter about Conan O’Brian and the chapter about George Meyer and John Swartzwelder. There are multiple stories contained in those chapters, and a few in the ones around them, that are so funny I had to put the book down for a moment to get a hold of myself.
But, like the golden age of the show itself, the good times can’t last and sure enough the story becomes considerably less enjoyable, though no less informative, as it begins to wind to a close. Ortved dutifully recounts contract negotiations with Fox, gives a run down of various guest stars that have appeared on the show and takes a look at the show’s place in history. These chapters aren’t bad reading, they’re full of interesting stories and Ortved keeps things moving briskly, but they’re a definite come down from the highs in the middle of the book.
This part is also about as close as we’re ever going to get to answering the question of “Why?” and the short answer is that things change. More and more of the old hands burned out or left for other pastures, some on good terms some less so. What the stories make clear, especially when you read them all together like this, is that it never could’ve lasted. Even if there’d never been a disagreement over money, even if tempers had never run high in the writers’ room, even if everyone from Season 2-6 had stayed indefinitely, it still would’ve gone downhill. Creating it in the first place was a borderline miracle, sustaining it forever was never possible.
The book does have two real flaws, and while both of them are minor they need to be brought up. The first is that it does whiff occasionally on basic Simpsons info, the most glaring of which is the misspelling of Mr. Smithers first name, which is “Waylon” not “Wayland” as it appears repeatedly in the text. But there are also times when the book misidentifies in which season an episode occurred and other small missteps. These things aren’t important, but if you’re a serious Simpsons fan (and I’m not sure who else would be reading this book) encountering one does knock you out of the narrative a little.
The second problem, and though it only occurs a few times it is much more distracting, is when Ortved strays from The Simpsons to try and discuss some of its successors. There are long discourses on The Critic, Futurama, Family Guy, and even South Park that read like the kind of third rate television criticism you’d see in TV Guide or Newsweek. When Ortved writes similar tracts about whatever aspect of The Simpsons he’s discussing they tend to be about very specific topics and involve a lot of quotes from the people who were there. These, on the other hand, are mostly just him opining on each show’s relative merits.
But those parts are brief and shouldn’t detract from what has been done here, which is to tell the tale of The Simpsons about as well as it can probably be told. As Ortved notes at the beginning, there’s no way to ever know the “true” tale of how the show came to be. Everyone remembers things a little differently and it’s not like anyone was taking minutes in the writers’ room. But this is the next best thing.
What it is, as I said a few weeks ago, is a book that’s mostly awesome. The amount of detail is astonishing and while none of the big names come out smelling like roses the simple fact is that everyone involved did at least something right because The Simpsons was much greater than the sum of its parts. No one is going to revoke your Simpsons fandom if don’t read this book, but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than Zombie Simpsons. In fact, if you’re planning on buying the upcoming Season 20 set, or if you know someone who is, save some cash and buy this book instead. As of this writing Ortved’s book on Amazon is barely half the price of Season 20 on DVD and having been through both of them I can tell you that the book is much, much funnier.