Archive for October, 2009


Quote of the Day

Treehouse of Horror II1

“I’ll make a wish that can’t backfire.  I wish for a turkey sandwich, on rye bread, with lettuce and mustard and-and I don’t want any zombie turkeys, I don’t want to turn into a turkey myself, and I don’t want any other weird surprises.  You got it? . . . Hey!  Hmmm, mmm, not bad, nice hot mustard, good bread, the turkey’s a little dry . . . the turkey’s a little dry!  Oh foul accursed thing!  What demon from the depths of hell created thee?” – Homer Simpson

Happy birthday Dan Castellaneta!


“Trilogy of Error” Makes Baby Jesus Cry

Mother Simpson2

“Hey Mom, look at me, look at what I can do!” – Homer Simpson
“I see you Homer, that’s very nice.” – Grandma Simpson

Season 12 was nothing if not a pageant of the trans-mundane and this episode fits right into its dull kaleidoscope.  In case you’ve forgotten, this is the episode where they tell three weird stories that are happening concurrently and link them together in various ways.  Listening to the commentary it’s very clear that the people behind the scenes were quite impressed with how well all the disparate little events tied together, and they’re right about that.  Stringing together all of this stuff into a twenty-two minute show, and having it mostly make sense (from a strictly could-this-all-have-happened-in-this-sequence point of view) is a triumph of skill.  What they ignore is that this is akin to bringing an intricately designed monster truck to a regatta.

I can appreciate the effort and skill that went into melding all these things together, but that’s not what The Simpsons is supposed to be about.  These kinds of gimmicks would make for arresting television if they were used in an episode of The Sopranos or Battlestar Galactica, or some other show where dramatic tension was useful.  Here they just waste your time.

Ten guys on this one, including Al Jean and Matt Groening.

1:30 – Talking about cribbing the plot structure from the movie Go.

2:30 – This could’ve been worse, the original Lisa plot had her getting on the short bus with a bunch of disabled kids whose disabilities were actually super powers.

4:00 – “It’s a pretty crazy first act, and you don’t know that there’s a huge, dramatic conceit to the show.  And the viewer must be like ‘Wow, this is a crazy stream of really nutty things happening at a really fast pace.  Is this a regular episode?’ I hope they’re saying, I’ll find out after the commercial.”  Let’s review this statement:

– “huge, dramatic conceit” – Taken individually none of these three words describe good Simpsons, combine them and it’s even worse.

– “crazy stream of really nutty things happening at a really fast pace” – They lost most of the audience at ‘crazy stream’, but ‘nutty things’ and ‘really fast pace’ don’t help.

– “find out after the commercial” – because if there’s one thing great Simpsons was known for, it was its cliffhangers.

4:35 – It gets worse.  They’re still discussing just how neat and peachy keen this plot structure is and then, “We went back and forth a lot on how much, at the beginning of each act, when you’re restarting the story, how many of the same jokes do you show again and again, they’re not going to be funny the second time, but they’ll say, ‘Hey viewer, loot at this, something’s up, you’re seeing this again!’”  I understand that it can’t have been easy to come up with a plot structure like this, at the same time, why would you do this?  This is the very definition of a gimmick.  Also, jokes on The Simpsons are funny the second time, and the third time, and the hundredth time, these can’t pass muster once.

5:45 – Still discussing how cool this plot is while more or less ignoring the fact that it’s mostly action and almost completely joke free.

6:50 – “It’s hard to make shows that are almost all plot funny.” I did not make that up.

7:30 – They’re really impressed with how gross the severed thumb looks.

7:45 – Robot head flies through sky: “This has to be surprising for the viewer at this point.” No, we’ve learned to just go limp through shit like this.

8:15 – These guys just laughed heartily at Marge yelling “Breakfast!”  I have no idea why.

10:00 – Patting themselves on the back, yet again, for how interconnected the plots are.

11:45 – Cross promotion with the kid from Malcolm in the Middle.

13:00 – Discussing the merits of Go versus Run, Lola Run, versus this.  Really, that’s all they seem to care about.

15:00 – Discussing how there aren’t any major continuity gaffs here and that “the internet” really loves this one.

16:30 – Devolving into silence as the Bart plot meanders around.

18:40 – Laughing at the stupidity of Bart’s wire.

20:30 – Long silence as whatever it is that’s the solution to this unfolds.

21:30 – Talking about how Mantegna is such a loyal voice over guy, he always wants to do the voice.  Sigh.  I wish Mantegna was here.

22:10 – They’re literally applauding themselves as the credits roll.  


Quote of the Day


“Homer, I’m impressed. You’re taking this quite well.” – Marge Simpson
“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill all of you!” – Homer Simpson


Ricky Gervais Tries to Praise Zombie Simpsons, Unintentionally Contradicts Himself

This interview with Ricky Gervais is exactly the kind of incestuous entertainment industry fellatio that has helped allow Zombie Simpsons to stagger forward year after year.  Here’s the opening paragraph, in which he employs perhaps the most cliched defense possible for why Zombie Simpsons should still be on the air:

The Simpsons is quite simply one of the best TV shows of all time. When people nitpick and say, "That wasn’t a very good season", I want to go, "No, it wasn’t the best season. But it was still the best thing on TV that year".

Ah, the old “it’s still better than other TV” excuse, that one will be with us forever.  Even if we’re willing to grant that Zombie Simpsons was one of the best shows on television last year (and quite frankly I don’t think there are a lot of people left who would say that), so what?  Television is almost entirely shitty, being the best piece of shit isn’t exactly cause for celebration. 

But wait, it gets better.  Right after saying that, Gervais goes on to discuss how great The Simpsons is by talking extensively about “And Maggie Makes Three” (Season 6) and “Secrets of a Successful Marriage” (Season 5).  That’s it.  He sings the praises of Zombie Simpsons and then immediately undermines his own statement by citing not one but two episodes from the before time and not mentioning anything from the last fifteen seasons

Obviously Gervais is speaking extemporaneously here, it’s not like this is something on which he spent a lot of time or thought.  But it’s still very telling that when he chose examples of why the show is great he reached back to the olden days.


Quote of the Day


“There were monsters on that ship, and truly we were them.” – Lisa Simpson
“Lisa, see what we mean when we say you’re too smart for your own good?” – Marge Simpson


DHS Book Review: The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

Ortved Book Cover “Marge, I’m bored.” – Homer Simpson
“Why don’t you read something?” – Marge Simpson
“Because I’m trying to reduce my boredom.” – Homer Simpson

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.


Spurlock Update: Enter Stan And Kyle

Kyle & StanVia Spurlock’s Twitter feed we find that yesterday he interviewed Matt Stone and Trey Parker.  There’s no specific word on whether or not this is for the Simpsons special, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned following Spurlock these last few months it’s that he’s involved in an enormous number of projects.  But it seems unlikely that he’d be interviewing the creators of the most successful non-Simpsons animated show for something other than his upcoming Simpsons thing.  So get ready for the obligatory quotes from Stone & Parker about how much The Simpsons meant for them, how it opened doors, how influential it’s been, etcetera. 


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