Synergy Works at Conde Nast Too

Yesterday I finished reading our free(!) copy of John Ortved’s new book “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History”.  Given that I am a long winded bastard and that there’s a lot to cover (for Simpsons fans and loathers of Zombie Simpsons) we’ll probably have some lengthy posts about it coming up.  The short verdict is that it’s mostly awesome and was a very fun read.  For today though we’re going to take a look at some of the synergistic on-line publicity the book has started to garner.  First up is The New Yorker which fills its word count by blathering pointlessly about Marge’s Playboy cover (the quote from the book is in bold because WordPress won’t let me double quote something):

Ortved quotes Brent Forrester, a writer and producer on the show, who identifies the episode as a turning point in the series’ history:

The conventional wisdom is that the show changed after the monorail episode, written by Conan O’Brien. Conan’s monorail episode was surreal, and the jokes were so good that it became irresistible for all the other writers to write that kind of comedy. And that’s when the tone of the show really took a rapid shift in the direction of the surreal.

Surreal is a good way to describe it. Mr. Burns inadvertently creates a radioactive squirrel, Principal Skinner is dismembered by the pincers of a giant, robotic ant, and an irascible Leonard Nimoy “beams” into the ether. These absurdities would come to define the show’s broader comedy, and reflect the persona that O’Brien would soon loose on the world.

I’ve never thought of “Marge vs. the Monorail” as any kind of turning point.  Granted I wasn’t working on the show, so maybe it felt like one from the inside.  But looking at the finished products it’s sure hard to see it as one, especially for bending the laws of nature by having a radioactive squirrel with laser eyes (which is hilarious, by the way).  In Season 3 a soap box derby racer goes so fast it glows from air resistance and then bursts into flames when it crashes.  In Season 2 there’s a man sized catfish that isn’t radioactive and a three eyed fish that is.  In Season 1 Homer is mistaken – by scientists – for Bigfoot.  All of those things are at least as insane as Nimoy beaming up.

Next is GQ which has a terrific list of five things it learned from the book.  It’s worth reading, but two of them need some additional comment:

1. When George H.W. Bush slammed The Simpsons for being “anti-family values”—onstage at the 1992 Republican National Convention, no less—the show’s animators launched an internal “most immoral Simpsons scene” contest. The winning sequence: Grandpa having sex with the infant Maggie, Lisa breaking it up, and Grandpa savagely beating her to death with his cane.

That’s right, Simpsons porn predates the internet.  I rather like that.  Also, is this really surprising?  I mean, this was done in 1929 (supposedly by Disney animators):

(Background information here by way of boingboing.)

People have been drawing fucking since the invention of both.  Here’s the second one:

3. Confirmed rumors: Sam Simon was a lunatic. James L. Brooks is kinda a dick. Groening gets more credit for the show than he probably ought to. Elizabeth Taylor is the most hated guest voice of all time.

Simon doesn’t, to me at least, come off as a lunatic in the book, at least no more than any of the other riotously funny people around.  That Groening gets more credit than he should isn’t really a confirmed rumor, at this point it’s basically general knowledge.  He’s said so himself (and it’s quoted in the book).  As for Brooks, well, yeah, he’s done some dickish things.  But he’s also repeatedly described as a “genius” and is the man whose enormous prestige and influence gave the show the breathing room it needed to become what it became.  So he’s not always a dick, just some of the time.  The difference between him and most people is that whole wealth and power thing, his fits of dickishness are allowed freer reign.

Speaking of Brooks, apparently he tried to get this whole book killed.  Ortved wrote a meta article about the book for The Daily Beast:

Finally, the word came back from Fox’s flaks: no go. There would be no cooperation. Why? James L. Brooks, whose company, Gracie Films, produces the show along with Fox, had heard I’d been asking questions about Sam Simon, the show’s exiled executive producer, and the kibosh was on.

It goes on from there.  Apparently the book metastasized from an article Ortved wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007. (Vanity Fair, like GQ and The New Yorker, isof course – a Conde Nast publication, mmmm synergy) .  I’ve not read it yet, but you can if you click here.  Just giving it a quick scan it looks a lot like the book (duh), which is to say that it’s chalk full of gooey Simpsons goodness.

4 Responses to “Synergy Works at Conde Nast Too”

  1. 1 Cassidy
    15 October 2009 at 4:42 pm

    The Vanity Fair article is quite excellent. It includes links to a Q&A with O’Brien and a top ten episode list. I have to say I liked the O’Brien interview but wasn’t too impressed with their top ten list. A Zombie episode even makes it on there!

    “In Season 2 there’s a man sized catfish that isn’t radioactive”

    And don’t forget the catfish also broke the fourth wall by winking at the audience at the end of the scene. Groening remarked on the commentary how much he hated that.

  2. 2 Ryan W. Mead
    15 October 2009 at 7:05 pm

    The book comments a little bit about how “zany” the show could get, mainly the dispute between Matt Groening and the writers: Groening was concerned about jokes such as Nemoy’s beam-up as well as the famous cliff fall, yet at the same time he had the idea that Marge had rabbit ears under her hair, which everyone thought was even more ridiculous.

    I agree with you that the book is a good read, although I disagree with a few of the author’s comments (there is no way that “When You Dish Upon A Star” is a better episode than “22 Short Films About Springfield”) and there are a few errors here and there (The Post, not the more liberalDaily News, is NYC’s conservative paper that ran the “Surrender Monkeys” headline about withdrawing from Iraq- and also happens to be owned by News Corporation, interestingly enough- and I think there might have been a couple of Simpson-related factual errors). But other than that, it’s a fun book- and not published by a Conde Nast subsidiary, thankfully enough for synergy-haters.

  3. 15 October 2009 at 10:44 pm

    I never thought of “Marge vs the Monorail” as turning point either (I’ve only ever really seen it as one of the funniest Simpsons episodes ever), but now that I think about it, perhaps it did lead to the increasing zaniness and surreal humour of season 5 onwards. But wasn’t it around that time that a fair few of the writers of seasons 1-4 bowed out (Jean & Reiss, Kogen & Wolodarsky, David Stern, Jon Vitti, etc) and, with an influx of new writers, the show started to branch out into increasing wackiness (perhaps influenced by Conan, as mentioned above)? Although as Charlie has said, there were moments of insane, sureal humour in the first few seasons – I guess they were just few and far between compared to season 5 onwards.

    The whole Sam Simon thing is interesting (http://www.nohomers.net/archive/index.php/t-64727.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/04/magazine/homer-s-odyssey.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=5 has a little more on it, although much of the first link is fan speculation).

    • 4 Charlie Sweatpants
      15 October 2009 at 11:30 pm

      I read that Times article when it came out, but I forgot the quote from Kogen, “The big story at the time was ‘Cartoonist breaks through into TV.’ It could also have been, just as easily, ‘Old-time TV producer breaks through into TV.’ ”.” There’s an extremely similar quote in the book, probably from him though I don’t feel like checking at the moment. The book version goes on to point out that the “cartoonist” story line is a lot more compelling (and therefore a lot more marketable) than the “producer” one. And I think that’s pretty much the explanation for how Groening came to be the face of the show: he was a much better story than anyone else. The book quotes this from LA Weekly:

      I’m one of those people who gets more credit than I deserve.’ So I go, ‘Well . . . very few people have that experience! It’s very nice!’ So do I feel guilty? Yes. Do I admit it? Yes. And then I move on.”

      And that’s really all there is to it. Once he became the face of the show there wasn’t really anything he could do.

      Oh, by the way, WordPress sent us an e-mail asking to “approve” D.N.’s comment. I assume it was because he included more than one link. Whatever. We’ll approve any comment that isn’t a dick pills or Nigerian princes. I mention it only to explain why it didn’t post when it says it does, and to point out that many of us are in vastly different time zones so we’re not always watching the blog when you are, but all comments are welcome.

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