Matt Groening’s a little confused

“Matt Groening? What’s he doing in a museum? He can barely draw.” – Homer Simpson

We just caught wind that Matt Groening was interviewed last week by the folks over at the A.V. Club. In the interview, Mr. Groening revealed his insights into the past and future of animation and humor, while pontificating about the meaning of heaven and earth. Well, he didn’t really discuss the last bit so much, but he did offer some choice words for critics of Zombie Simpsons, with which we naturally take issue. To wit:

“The criticism of the show, that it’s not as good as the show you remember when you were 9 years old, is probably true, but then no show is as good as the one you thought was probably the greatest when you were 9 years old. It’s the nature of comparing something to the thing you loved the most at the time. If the show had been cancelled after five seasons, it would be forgotten.”

Challenge. I was one of those 9-year-olds that grew up with the show. While I watched The Simpsons back then and was entertained by it on a baser level, it wasn’t until later in high school when I appreciated the show for what it was: a dense, multi-faceted comedy that rewarded thoughtful viewers with sharp, intelligent humor. At age 9, I thoroughly enjoyed the show’s slapstick tendencies and occasional puerile jokes (Buttzilla, anyone?) since the cultural references usually flew over my head. As I grew up, I fell in love with the show as subtle allusions to classic literature, film, and pop culture revealed themselves, while the edgy social satire suddenly made sense. This had the effect of making The Simpsons even richer; it was the show that kept on giving. Imagined nostalgia and hollow sentiment have nothing to do with why I love the first eight or so seasons. And I speak for all of us here at the Dead Homer Society when I say they will be treasured, not forgotten.

The bearded one continues:

“If The Simpsons came on now, having never been seen before, with those original episodes, I don’t think anyone would give them a second look, because they’re so crude and primitive in their execution. But like I said, styles change, and all I ask of critics—of online critics of the show that say ‘Oh, it hasn’t been good since season X’—is that, in the opinion of people who work on the show, that’s simply not true. I’m not saying that every episode is better than the previous, but I’m saying that to completely out-of-hand condemn a decade of the show is a very easy position to take, and the fact is, the show has done absolutely brilliant stuff consistently throughout its history. Like I said, I’m not defending every single joke in every single episode, but if we didn’t like what we were doing, we wouldn’t keep doing it.”

Admittedly, the original episodes were “crude and primitive in their execution” – no argument there. Then again, I would expect an episode produced in 2009 to look better than one produced in 1989. Aesthetics aside, the episodes in the first couple seasons were still well-written and the characters endearing, effortlessly setting the stage for the brilliance that characterized later seasons. The impact those seasons had on viewers is indelible and their critical reception is well-deserved. It’s a tough act to consistently prolong year after year.

While I can sense Mr. Groening’s brooding frustration at those who damn a body of work because of a few bad instances, I don’t think the show’s most sober critics are doing that. We’re not that simple-minded. It is disingenuous, however, to say that the show has “absolutely done brilliant stuff consistently throughout its history.” No way. It is a complete lack of consistency that is the hallmark of Zombie Simpsons. Plots have become lazier, gags cruder. Venerable characters have been redefined after years of careful development (notably, Homer’s perplexing transformation from oafish, loving father to obnoxious, injury-prone jackass), a perfect foil for the insufferable and foolish cavalcade of celebrity guest stars. The show that has, for all intents and purposes, defined modern comedy has slipped into the conventions that it used to boldly and routinely reject.

Accepting Zombie Simpsons for what it is, let’s go ahead take Mr. Groening’s assertion at face value, that is, the folks who work on the show continue to enjoy what they do and that’s why they keep doing it. Well, duh. Talk about an an easy ad hominem argument, which in the face of declining viewership and social relevance makes even less sense. It still prints money for those involved, but really, how fat do your coffers need to be?

Listen, none of us would be complaining if the show had soldiered on with contemporary ideas and quality intact. But, as Mr. Groening implies, it’s not reasonable to expect that. We agree. Twenty years is an eternity in television. We’ve been insistent that Zombie Simpsons as is bears little resemblance to the show that preceded it. So either fix it (improbable, now that we’re fumbling through the twentieth season), call it something else (pointless – a spade’s a spade), or just let it die. We’ve been happily endorsing the latter option and not just out of empty, callous spite. There’s simply no shame in admitting when enough’s enough.

Oh, and Matt – you have an open and standing invitation to speak with us whenever you’d like.

2 Responses to “Matt Groening’s a little confused”

  1. 1 Charlie Sweatpants
    1 April 2009 at 7:55 pm

    Groening’s taking a contradictory stance there, isn’t he? On the one hand he’s saying that the show wasn’t really as great as you remember it, but he’s also extolling how exceptional Simpsons is because it’s lasted so long. I don’t think he can have it both ways. Of course, the proof is in the DVDs and on the re-runs, I can compare new to old very easily and it’s not even a contest. Slap in any disc from the first six seasons, press random and you’ll be fine; try doing that with Season 11 and see where it gets you.

    To be fair, Groening is in kind of an impossible position though, isn’t he? It isn’t up to him whether or not the show stays on the air; so long as Fox thinks there’s profit to be had Zombie Simpsons will go on no matter what he says in public. At the same time he knows the people who write and otherwise produce the show, he’s probably friends with many of them, and if he said something derogatory it would amount to taking a big shit on them and their work. (And there’s the fact that he’s impossibly rich and many of them aren’t and could use the work.) All he can do is mouth platitudes.

    • 23 January 2010 at 1:23 am

      The worst Matt Groening could do to the Simpsons is cause a PR nightmare that might spark a scandal, or something, but he alone can’t end the show. He could just walk off the job and want his name taken out of the credits and the show would move onto the next subject. I *think* the only person(s) who could end the show whether it’s a vouluntary withdrawl off the air or outright cancellation is Al Jean, Jim Brooks, or whoever is in charge of programming at Fox headquarters.

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