Why Zombie Simpsons Is Unkillable

Is it my imagination, or is TV getting worse?” – Lisa Simpson
“Enh, it’s about the same.” – Homer Simpson

NOTE: I’m in the process of shopping an expanded version of “Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead” to publishers. I don’t know whether or not it will ever make it to store shelves, but if it does, the following would be one of the new chapters. (If you end up reading it again in a bookstore a year from now, try to look surprised.) I’m publishing it today in light of Alf Clausen’s firing, which caused me to add a new paragraph last night. 

Feel free to smile and nod and link and share this page [stomps on your foot]. The more traffic and attention it gets, the better chance it has of becoming a real, dead-tree book at some point in the future. Also, on your way out, if you want to post it to /r/TheSimpsons, it would help me a lot. 

If the show has been so bad for so long, the natural question then becomes: why is it still on the air? The very short answer is that (just) enough people keep watching. The less short answer is that after crashing around the turn of the millennium, Zombie Simpsons has managed to lose viewers at a slightly slower rate than network television itself.

Broadcast network viewership has been declining for decades. In the 1990s, cable and satellite finally came into their own and gave people many (many, many) more channels to watch. Then the 2000s saw the internet transform from a geek curiosity into the rapidly mutating attention succubus we know today. Network audiences have been eroding the whole time. In 1983, the final episode of M.A.S.H. was watched by more than half of the total U.S. population. In 1993, the Cheers finale managed a little over a third. In 2004, the last episode of Friends pulled less than a fifth.*

*[ http://screenrant.com/highest-rated-series-finales-all-time-tv/ ]

Those were extraordinary events, and the night-in-night-out averages dropped right along with them. During the first full season of The Simpsons in 1990-91, a show needed well over 20 million viewers per week to make it into the Top 30 rated programs. By the 2000-01 season, that number had declined to 14 million weekly viewers. By the 2010-11 season, it was hovering around 10 million.* For the 2016-17 season, shows need less than 5 million viewers to crack the Top 30, a 75% decline in twenty-six years.

*[Nielsen numbers for 1990 & 2000 taken from Brooks & Marsh, 2010 numbers taken from http://deadline.com/2011/05/full-2010-11-season-series-rankers-135917/ ]

The Simpsons spent its 1990s creative peak hovering just above or below the Top 30 line. As the show collapsed in terms of quality, the ratings took a corresponding nosedive, and in the 2000s Zombie Simpsons usually pulled in somewhere between 50th and 60th. But instead of falling all the way off television, the rate of decline stabilized. Since Al Jean took over in Season 13, the show has lost viewers after all but two seasons, but the year-over-year drops themselves are relatively small, especially compared to network television overall.

Today, Zombie Simpsons is down to just 4 million weekly viewers on average, and routinely has individual episode that barely pull 2 million. (About six times per year the show gets a huge lead-in audience from a late NFL game, without which the average would be significantly lower.) Numbers like that would’ve seen the show swiftly cancelled even just ten years ago. But in the smoking crater that is modern television ratings, a slow decline counts as an almost Edenic refuge from the ongoing apocalypse. The current cliche in Hollywood is that “flat is the new up”.

Even that tenacious hold on survival level ratings probably wouldn’t be enough to keep Zombie Simpsons going if it was a typical live action program. But being animated not only carries great creative advantages, it also changes the economics of a long running show. On a normal, camera-and-actors network comedy, the people up on screen eventually become too old or too costly for the program to continue. Adult actors who play youthful parents or young professionals start to wrinkle and thicken. Child actors whose appeal rests on cuteness go through puberty and become potentially boring teenagers or adults.

More importantly, all of them become more expensive as the episodes stack up. To the audience, the lead actors of a hit show are inextricably linked with that show, and the agents who represent those actors are well aware of it. Once a program has established itself after two or three seasons and looks like it might have a long run ahead of it, retaining the main performers becomes the most important and expensive part of the production. After a few years, the core cast of any successful show is often making hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode, with a few individual stars crossing the million dollar line.

As nice as the pay can be, the cast is also aware of the career warping effect that a popular and long running role can have. Any actor will tell you that working beats not working, but becoming tightly associated with a particular character can make other roles harder to get. Woody Harrelson made it to movies and Ted Danson eventually headlined another less popular sitcom, but most of the cast of Cheers never again reached anything like the career high they had on that show. Jennifer Aniston also made the leap to the big screen, but most of the Friends cast has faded from public view. Roles like those afforded by long running shows aren’t career killers – and there is all that money they pay – but the professional aftermath is a decidedly mixed blessing.

Finally, practical considerations come to bear as well. Shooting a live action show requires a great deal of coordination and time from those increasingly expensive actors. Everyone’s got to be in wardrobe and on set, often all at once, for weeks and months on end, year after year. By retail or food service standards, it’s not a taxing schedule, but it places strict limits on what kind of other roles the cast can accept. You can’t do a movie in London or a play in New York if you have to be in Los Angeles most of the time.

In short, as a show grows older, the interests of the studio and the cast gradually diverge. Production costs go up while the actors, who no longer really need the money, get restless and gradually age out of the roles they were originally chosen to play. Even if the audience is still there, live action network comedies have a built in expiration date that can only be postponed for so long. Animation, by contrast, neatly sidesteps those problems.

From the cast’s perspective, all of the negatives of staying on a long running show are absent when that show is animated. Since nobody’s face is actually shown, there’s no danger of being typecast. And since all that’s needed is an audio recording, scheduling is far more flexible. Actors can record their parts alone with no other cast members present, and the actual performance can happen anywhere with a sound booth, no costumes or makeup required.

That freedom and flexibility means the cast of an animated show can not only afford to take pay cuts, but might actually be willing to do so. And, in fact, that exact thing has now happened twice on Zombie Simpsons, first in 2011 and then (probably*) again in 2015.

(*I say “probably” because the reported salary numbers are never made public. Magazines, blogs, and other sites often state that the per episode salary of the Simpsons cast is between $300,000 and $400,000 per episode, but literally all of those numbers came from anonymous quotes from FOX. Since the actors themselves aren’t allowed to talk about what they make, and it’s in FOX’s interest to paint them as greedy and overpaid, the real salaries are almost certainly significantly lower.)

With ratings (and advertising rates) dwindling in 2011, FOX went to the cast and demanded a pay cut to continue the show. The internet was awash in cancellation rumors, many of which were poorly sourced or not sourced at all, but a deal was actually done fairly quickly for the obvious reason that both sides stood to make money. FOX doesn’t want to chance a new and potentially flop show, and the cast doesn’t want to give up a steady stream of very easy paychecks.

In 2015, the drama repeated itself, with FOX going so far as to publicly declare that they would replace Harry Shearer (voice of Flanders, Burns, Smithers, and many others). But, once again, self interest prevailed and both sides decided they’d rather keep getting paid.

Further evidence of cost cutting came in August of 2017 when the show abruptly fired Alf Clausen, its long time composer and music coordinator. Since Season 2, Clausen had written original music for every episode. Performed by a 35-piece orchestra, that kind of unique and expensive soundtrack helped make the show what it was, and the decision to scrap it was widely interpreted as a way to save money and keep the now lowly rated program in the black.

Boil away all the critiques, fan speculation, and internet rumors, and Zombie Simpsons is still on the air for two simple reasons:

1) It’s cheap to make, and…
2) It draws a reliable audience.

That audience shrinks every year, and a healthy chunk of it is folks who left their sets on after the Cowboys game, but thanks to the dire economics of modern television, it’s enough.

For fans who love the show, however, there’s a grimmer conclusion as well: the quality of what gets presented as “The Simpsons” has basically nothing to do with whether or not it stays on the air. New episodes don’t need to be brilliant or even funny, they just need to look and sound vaguely like The Simpsons for 20 minutes of screentime in between advertising breaks.

There are no longer comedic, satirical, or artistic reasons for the show to continue, but there is a financial one, and so it goes on forever, no matter how bland and bad it gets. That’s the dark, unspoken truth behind Al Jean’s now sixteen year reign as show runner, and it explains why Zombie Simpsons suffers from the same problems year after year.

Thanks for reading! Tell your friends (especially if they work in publishing).

21 Responses to “Why Zombie Simpsons Is Unkillable”

  1. 1 Anonymous
    1 September 2017 at 12:47 pm

    I’m in the process of shopping an expanded version of “Zombie Simpsons: How the Best Show Ever Became the Broadcasting Undead” to publishers.

    Best of luck, and I’ll be sure to buy a copy if you succeed.

    That said, this is a fairly dismal and depressing reminder of why the world will be plauged by yellow zombies for years to come, unless something drastic or miraculous happens. After reading the article about Alf Clausen getting fired and thinking about the declining ratings you’ve mentioned, I was starting to hope that this might be the beginning of the end for the show, and I still do, even if the odds don’t sound good. But I guess it’s like you said before, it’ll probably take the departure or unfortunate demise of one of the main VAs to cripple (if not kill) Zombie Simpsons irreparably, which is a grim thought. But it’s clear that as long as people can still make a dime off this thing, they will, and foolish old fans or naive new ones will keep watching.

    Thanks for reading! Tell your friends (especially if they work in publishing).

    I point people to this site now and again, but there’s only one friend who cares even half as much about the show as me (not bragging; just saying I’m the only one that obsessed), and with updates to this site mostly limited to QotD now, I can’t get much interest. I wish there was a ZS-free fan forum around, but it seems like internet forums are largely being abandoned these days for the Venus Flytrap that is social media.

  2. 2 Anonymous
    1 September 2017 at 2:07 pm

    Back during the Harry Shearer rumors, I remember reading a post that organized the cast based on how badly the loss of one actor (whether through retirement, death, or dispute) would damage the show. The consensus was…

    – Yeardley Smith voices one regular character, and she’s the least popular one. A good chunk of the audience would probably call it an improvement.
    – Hank Azaria voices about five reasonably important characters and a lot of gag characters, but none of them are central. It’ll be a loss to not have Moe’s Tavern or the Qwik-E-Mart or half of Lenny and Carl, but it’s not a killer.
    – Julie Kavner voices three regular characters, and one of them is central. The show can survive losing Patty and Selma, but losing Marge would be basically losing Maude to the power of ten. Probably the most likely person; she’s the oldest cast member, and you can tell from her voice the role has taken its toll.
    – Harry Shearer voices seven or eight major characters, and all of them are a big deal. No more Halloween specials, no more church, no more power plant, no more news reports, and no more Springfield Elementary. It’s basically going to be scooping out half of Springfield. He’s also 73, and he’s already had disputes.
    – Nancy Cartright voices Bart. It may not be 1991 anymore, but… it’s Bart. If nothing else, most of the other characters Cartright voices are also Bart’s peers, so cutting off the gangrenous limb isn’t impossible… but it is gonna castrate one of the biggest parts of the show.
    – If all the characters that Dan Castellaneta voices besides Homer left, it’s be a blow at least on par with Shearer. If just Homer left, it’d be a disaster. He has both. The show will not survive losing Dan; not unless he’s the very last person to do so.

    • 1 September 2017 at 3:46 pm

      Any of them leaving would be reason enough for me to give up on the show, had the shoddy writing not already done so in the early 2000s.

      Maybe losing Zombie Lisa wouldn’t be that big a deal, but losing the real Lisa would’ve been a massive blow.

      • 4 Anonymous
        2 September 2017 at 1:58 pm

        Maybe losing Zombie Lisa wouldn’t be that big a deal, but losing the real Lisa would’ve been a massive blow.

        So true, although reading that the other anon believes ZS viewers would count Zombie Lisa’s departure as an “improvement” really struck a nerve and made me realize just how badly they’ve butchered her character. Of course, those same people are perfectly willing to defend the almost unrecognizable Zombie Homer, who is understandably ranked here as the most important of the zombie horde, given that the show has been warped to revolve around him and his antics now.

        Damn, now I think I need to go watch a good Homer and Lisa episode to cheer myself up.

        • 5 Anonymous
          4 September 2017 at 4:08 pm

          My thinking is, bad dumb comedy is still dumb comedy. It’s hard to fuck up a kick to the balls. Bad moralizing or heart is a lot harder to work with.

    • 6 Brad
      2 September 2017 at 9:21 am

      Is this analysis assuming that the characters won’t be recast? I can easily imagine ZS going forward with Lisa or whoever played by a different voice actor (I guess that would make the spinoff showcase episode rather prescient), but it’s difficult for me to imagine how they’d ever be able to write one of the Simpsons out of the show.

      • 7 Anonymous
        4 September 2017 at 4:12 pm

        I think it’s entirely dependent on how they leave, honestly. If it’s a death, they’ll likely retire the character. If it’s a retirement, they might be able to spin it as “ENTITLED ASSHOLE ACTOR doesn’t want YOU to see MR BURNS anymore!”

      • 8 Anonymous
        4 September 2017 at 4:13 pm

        To me, it’s entirely dependent on how they leave the show. If it’s for death or health problems or something similar, the role will most likely be retired. If they just quit, then Fox will probably try to spin it as “ENTITLED LAYABOUT ACTOR DOESN’T WANT YOU TO HAVE ANY MORE MR. BURNS!” and try to recast the role.

    • 10 Dman
      3 September 2017 at 8:53 am

      It’ll be a loss to not have Moe’s Tavern or the Qwik-E-Mart or half of Lenny and Carl, but it’s not a killer.

      “You can close down Moe’s or the Quik-E-Mart, and nobody would care….”

  3. 11 Al Gore Doll
    1 September 2017 at 2:50 pm

    Good post. Really puts the TV industry in perspective.

  4. 14 Bleeding Gums Murphy
    1 September 2017 at 5:33 pm

    Not letting Clausen work for the movie was already a huge middle finger tbh.

  5. 15 NES Boy
    1 September 2017 at 8:51 pm

    I think another thing Zombie Simpsons does with increasing frequency is caption humor, and it nearly always happens during a lull in dialogue or action. To name three examples:

    1. In Season 28’s “Havana Wild Weekend”, a retired soldier recommends Grampa to go to Cuba to get the medical treatment he needs at a smaller cost. When Grampa asks how much cheaper it is in Cuba, the soldier responds that what costs $2,000 in America is $6 in Cuba. At this point, the caption humor kicks in, vouching for the soldier’s economic comparison and commanding the viewers to go to Cuba. While this is happening, the characters just stand there, staring at each other. The episode doesn’t move on to Marge suggesting Canada as a less dangerous alternative to Cuba until the caption disappears.
    2. During “How Lisa Got Her Marge Back” from Season 27, when Lisa learns that The Bad News Bears had been adapted as a stage musical, she laments, “Is there nothing so beautiful that they won’t keep exploiting until it’s worthless?” This cues an on-screen caption to disrupt the progression of the episode again to promote Zombie Simpsons’ Complete Seventeenth Season DVD.
    3. Returning to Season 28, near the end of “Kamp Krustier” is Bart expressing relief that all is well, right before the pacing gets killed by two screens worth of captions hyping up a supposed Season 52 episode called “Kamp Krustiest” and its projected ratings, while Bart, Lisa, and the “kid” they were looking for remain frozen for the duration of the joke.

    This needs to be addressed in your book, along with other ways Zombie Simpsons’ humor is different from The Simpsons.

    • 16 Anonymous
      2 September 2017 at 2:08 pm

      when Lisa learns that The Bad News Bears had been adapted as a stage musical, she laments, “Is there nothing so beautiful that they won’t keep exploiting until it’s worthless?” This cues an on-screen caption to disrupt the progression of the episode again to promote Zombie Simpsons’ Complete Seventeenth Season DVD.

      I feel the need to laugh and scream simultaneously. Same goes for the rest of what you mentioned, especially #3, because just reading the Behind Us Forever about that episode made me rage. They think making half-assed “jokes” and outright acknowledgements about the show being bad excuses how terrible it is now while making absolutely zero effort to improve it.

  6. 17 timharrod
    1 September 2017 at 10:20 pm

    Good writing! My only note would be the redundancy of “even just ten years ago.” (Lose ‘even’ or ‘just.’)

  7. 18 Sarah J
    2 September 2017 at 6:27 pm

    If your book gets published, I will gladly buy a copy!

  8. 20 Alicia Sammon
    4 September 2017 at 1:25 pm

    Oh, isn’t that cute? Someone trying to get into the publishing game with a pop culture analysis book. Before you do anything, I recommend you read this: http://absolutewrite.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?4-Discussion (it will help you in getting your book publisher ready if you want to go mainstream or alternatives to publishing, like small press or independent publishers, which is the direction a lot of these pop culture books go). Also, I’d like you to take a look at your future through this forum I found: https://kiwifarms.net/threads/bob-moviebob-chipman.5873/page-6

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