Author Archive for Unpaid Guest



03
Jul
12

“Our Mickey Mouse Property” – The Moment a Fox Exec Told Me The Simpsons Were Doomed

By Bobak

When I was in undergrad in Los Angeles, I took classes in film/television at both my school (USC) and extension courses on the industry at UCLA.  (I’m now a lawyer in an unrelated field, so a lot of good that did.)  One of the UCLA courses I took was on marketing and always had a round table of execs from all the major Hollywood players, many from Fox which was just down the way in Century City.  A lot of times the execs would come in gushing about their latest productions–I remember the Disney people were all about Toy Story 2 and some really high up Fox exec was convinced Anna and the King was going to get a dozen nominations (lesson: movie execs are full of themselves and BS).

This was roughly 1999, and one day we had a Fox television marketing exec come in gushing about a major decision at Fox: she said the company had decided to take their embrace of The Simpsons to the next level and turn it into “our Mickey Mouse property” (her words, I will never forget how it was phrased). Fox wanted something as iconic as Mickey and went with the folks from Springfield. This was around the same time Fox began to seriously crack down on any unauthorized use of Simpsons clips or images on the web (I remember either the LA Times or Variety had an article about how they went after many fan sites).

At the time I heard this proclamation, I wasn’t sure what to think.  Mickey had been neutered by Disney in order to be their ultimate brand representative–how were The Simpsons going to fare?  As a fan since the Tracey Ullman days, I hoped the extra attention from the parent corp would help.  At the same time, that much additional investment could cause Fox to push forward with The Simpsons regardless of quality just to have their Mickey on the front line at all times.

Jump to 2000: I’m at a gathering with all my friends and someone says “hey, let’s watch the new Simpsons!”, so we do and no one laughed the entire episode. That was the moment I realized Fox’s commitment wasn’t for the better.

[Editor’s Note: If you’ve got something Simpsons related on your mind and think it might make a good guest post, drop us a line at deadhomersociety at gmail.  Tiny amounts of internet fame can be yours.]

20
Jun
12

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play: Enjoyed By All

By Hank Pumpkins

Let me start out by saying this: I both love to pretend, and am horrible at, being a journalist, a profession where my egocentrism is at odds with my sheer obliviousness. Which explains why I showed up to the Wooly Mammoth Theatre haughty with lofty perceptions of how I would craft my review-de-resistance—and also why I showed up looking like a sweaty bum, wearing a White Sox cap, my trusty Toms loafers, and a t-shirt of Boba Fett if he were a dog (“Boba Fetch”, a bartender explained to me later—like I said, oblivious). Were I a more conscious human being, I probably would have given half a thought to bringing a date, and dining with her there at the theatre (they had delicious looking food, surprise surprise), but I didn’t. So, instead, I pretended to be a journalist all night; which is to say, I grabbed beer as fast as possible and hid my awkwardness under the veil of "fly on the wall" integrity, to try and catch a slice of both play-house Americana as well as Simpson-neck-beard-fandom in the surprisingly funny and poignant Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play.

There was much less of the latter group than the former; I was a bit disappointed I didn’t spot any Geniuses At Work, as it were, though there were several people in the audience that had that decisive “I remember this episode and quote it fondly” loud laugh (which matched my own). The rest of the audience were the seasoned play-goers, people who were “down on the scene”, “with the haps”, and whatever other 60’s slang I can think of. The kind of people that don’t come in buzzed off their ass, whipping out their camera phone and snapping pictures until a friendly, though scared, attendant begs me to stop taking photos. Alas, I lost my only chance of someone saying “sir” without adding, “You’re making a scene.”

During intermission, the various different play-going demographics—suits, the elderly, cute girls in sun-dresses—parsed out the play with various success: they chattered about the meaning of The Simpsons in our society, pop-culture’s place in the future, and sometimes, rather simply, “Side-what Bob?”  I found it cute. 

The playwright, Anne Washburn, mentions in the booklet that The Simpsons was a serendipitous, though later obvious, symbolic pop-culture choice which the survivors of an unnamed apocalypse cobble together as a means of bonding and survival. Her play is at once hilarious and a bitter pill, as Washburn’s characters find light and grace in possibly the only piece of pop-culture that would survive a nuclear holocaust. Dear God, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s likely The Simpsons may be the cockroach that shakes off the radiation and survives us all.

It’s clear as the play progresses, however, that time changes us all, and particularly our memories. For Post-Electric is not just an excuse for actors to quote Homer, but also a rumination on memory and story-telling, and a thought-provoking perspective of a future where the hand-me-down stories of each generation were given to us from a boob-tube.

In the first act, the characters, days out of said apocalypse, hilariously string together “Cape Feare” as best as they can, and I have to admit, it was hard not to join in with these people palling about onstage sorting out the episode’s first sequence like a bunch of drunk friends on a couch. The writer mentions that these bits were fleshed out from bull sessions between the cast—and the light-hearted, real conversation shows. What made Act I such a draw for me was the genius in the simplicity of it all.  Of course, this is how I would react if the Apocalypse happened.

All The Simpsons talk works in great contrast with the dire circumstances of the world around the characters, which grows even more desperate and doomed as the play progresses. The characters’ understanding of The Simpsons—and television, and pop-culture, and, well, the past—all starts to fall apart, and the melting-pot of pop-culture references is a hilarious, but dark, game of roulette.  There’s a very prevalent sense that not even The Simpsons might be able to carry on to the next generation—at least in the form that we know it. As no TV and no beer make society something-something, the earlier “Cape Feare” bull-sessions whisk away into something unfamiliar: purple-monkey-dish-washer territory.

The show takes a turn for the melodic in the strange third act, which works as a giant equals sign to the thoughts and build-up beforehand. The play shoots forward several decades, where The Simpsons as we know it has been deconstructed and smelted together with other lingering fragments of pop humanity, baked under the context of a world barely breathing after 80-some years of devastation and ruin. The final act was my least favorite, as we’re shoved down the rabbit-hole in this dream-like Simpsons facsimile. The whole thing is pretty much set to song, and deftly presented, but didn’t have the gritty punch the earlier acts did. Still, the steady dilution of “Cape Feare” into its end-of-the-world futuristic counterpart is an amazing trick to nail, and all hands on deck of the Pinafore do a remarkable job (as far as my understanding of critiquing plays go). I was clapping pretty hard at the end, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because I had been drinking.

What’s most surprising to me, though, is that it seemingly took as long as it did for someone to use The Simpsons in such a clever way. Directors like Quentin Tarantino are known for their ironic use of cotton-candy pop-culture conversations that belie the amorality and violence that bubbles around the chatter. Finally there’s a similar conversation happening with something so near and dear to me, a Gen-X variant on the ol’ post-apocalyptic “what makes us human” yarn—and a sci-fi future that accepts that The Simpsons is really effin’ important, damn it. After all, when the grids do go down, what’s humanity going to talk about? The Denver Broncos? Feh.

NOTE: I want to send a very hearty thanks to Charlie and especially the Wooly Mammoth, who all so graciously decided that me entering a place of culture and writing about it would be a good thing. I had an amazing time—if you’re in the DC area, check it out. If you’re not, be jealous, chummmmmmm…p.

Hank Pumpkins doesn’t just have the best nom-de-plume on the planet, he also writes miserable fiction and even more miserable personal accounts of his shlubby life over at Love in the Time of Sausage (www.littosonline.com). Love, Hank Pumpkins.

13
Jun
12

“English? Who Needs That?”: The Simpsons in the United Kingdom

By Wesley Mead

On Sunday 2nd September 1990, The Simpsons premiered in the UK, on a channel called Sky One. Sky One knew it would be a hit, surely. Advance press had been exhaustive and excited; buzz from the States was phenomenal. But I doubt even the most faithful of Simpsons fans at Sky in 1990 had any idea it would go on to be the show that saved the channel and defined their service for decades to come.

Maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. But it is difficult to overestimate the impact The Simpsons had on British multichannel television. To understand this, a bit of history is required. Let’s flashback to mid-1990 in the UK: Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting operate two competing satellite services, each with an array of exclusive channels. Most notably, BSB has Galaxy, and Sky has Sky One.

Original programming wasn’t really an option for either network, given the budget constraints of such niche channels, so both invested in repeats and imports. Galaxy acquired China Beach and Murphy Brown; Sky nabbed Moonlighting. So far, so good, though Sky were losing out in the (admittedly miniscule) ratings battle. But Sky’s savvy deal to acquire The Simpsons for a British audience – as Murdoch stablemates of Fox, this wasn’t too difficult a task – completely turned the tables. Garnering masses of attention in the mainstream media, including national newspapers and Sky’s own Sky Magazine, the show was almost certainly the highest-profile satellite acquisition to date, and the audience was clearly intrigued.

Thanks, Magazines Galore! Your JPEGs may be rat-like in appearance, but you are truly kings among men.

That first airing delivered tens of thousands of new viewers to the heretofore obscure channel. Given Sky’s extremely limited reach, the ratings had lived up to the hype. Its Sunday teatime scheduling undoubtedly contributed. The 6pm timeslot ensured the widest possible audience could tune in; particularly children, who would prove to comprise a significant component of the show’s viewership in the UK (arguably moreso than in the USA). But what really helped was the hype. Critics and commoners alike were raving about the show; magazines dedicated spreads to Bartmania; TV aficionados were spreading the word about the first “cartoon for adults” in decades. Everyone had heard about the show, and those with the means simply had to check it out. It was rare for a quality television show to be restricted to a niche, subscription channel on its first run; it was even rarer that said quality show was a cartoon about a yellow American family. The curiosity of the populace was piqued, and they found themselves enthralled and entertained in significant numbers. It was clear that the show was living up to the hype, as ratings consistently increased, and the British public really seemed to connect with the universal satire.

They may have been promoted with lousy commercials, but The Simpsons were on TV!

Within two months of its first episode airing, Sky One’s overall channel ratings had seen a double-digits percentage rise – amazingly, beating out those of BSB’s Galaxy. In a stunning turnabout, BSB merged with Sky by November – crucially, keeping the Sky branding. Pre-Simpsons, BSB had looked the inevitable winner of the UK satellite race, commanding higher advertising rates and drawing greater audience. But once The Simpsons had premiered? Sky were the clear winners, home to the highest-rated scripted show on satellite, and driving that Simpsons audience to the rest of their lineup while they could.

Buzz about the show reached fever pitch in the subsequent months. “Do the Bartman” made it to number one in the UK singles charts in January 1991, at a point when only a tiny – but increasing – percentage of the audience had access to the show. (The video’s airing on BBC1’s “Top of the Pops” was the first real free-to-air taste of the show.) Buzz among everyone from the media elite to the school playgrounds was that The Simpsons was the defining reason to upgrade to satellite or cable TV. T-shirt sales, as in the US, were through the roof; two-episode videotapes sold by the shedload, allowing non-satellite viewers their first access to the show proper.

The show remained a significant draw for Sky One throughout the early ’90s. The Sunday-evening episodes were must-watch events. Backlash from wary parents was limited, and the backlash that did take place only heightened popularity among kids. By 1993, Sky began to see the value in “stripping” the show across multiple days of the week – similar to syndication in the USA – and these saturation repeats played a key role in heightening its popularity here, as viewers just getting interested in the show could catch up on past editions more readily.

By 1993, Sky One had invested in a copy of cloud.jpg.

But as Sky and Fox aired its fourth, fifth, sixth, even seventh season, the majority of the country – the 50 million without subscription TV – were wondering when they’d get their chance to catch up on this yellow American family. Sky and cable had increased market share significantly – and it’s fair to say that The Simpsons played a reasonable role in that takeup – but penetration had only gone from 4% to 20%. That left a whole lot of viewers without The Simpsons in their lives. In 1996, though, that majority finally got their answer, as the BBC – the UK’s public service broadcaster, funded by public money and airing no commercials – announced they’d acquired the terrestrial rights to the show. (In the ’90s in the UK, “terrestrial” referred to the four or five main channels accessible to anyone with a TV: BBC One, BBC Two, ITV, Channel 4, and later Channel 5.)

The Simpsons finally got its long-awaited terrestrial debut on Saturday, November 23rd, 1996. The channel: BBC One. The time: 5:30pm. The episode: There’s No Disgrace Like Home. The ratings: …actually, surprisingly underwhelming. Only five million viewers tuned in. Naturally, this was orders of magnitude greater than the ratings on Sky One, but BBC was available to everyone in the country; considering the great British public had been waiting over six years for this free-to-air, commercial-free premiere, it’s hard to say these results were a success.

To be fair, 5:30pm Saturday wasn’t the greatest timeslot. It had the benefit of being kid-friendly, but it was rather earlier than most Saturday-evening high-profile programming. (It had previously been home to repeats of ’70s sitcom Dad’s Army – not exactly prestigious.) But when ITV started airing new episodes of Sabrina the Teenage Witch opposite it, and drawing greater viewership, it was clear something wasn’t right. Could consumer demand have died off prematurely? Could most of those interested in the show have converted to Sky long ago? The Sky episodes were still drawing relatively good numbers, so it was hard to blame the show itself. The BBC couldn’t really risk burning off the sixty-one episodes they’d made a deal for (every show through early season four) with such relatively poor ratings, so they pulled the show, and had a strategic rethink.

The Simpsons returned, after six weeks’ hiatus, in March 1997. This time, though, things were a bit different. It was airing on BBC2. BBC2 had already played home to an array of US hits, from The X-Files to Ren & Stimpy, and it seemed like a logical home for the show. Mondays at 6pm saw new episodes air, followed by new-to-terrestrial airings of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (a combination so potent that 70,000 Facebook fans still remember it); Fridays saw a double-bill of classic episodes, airing until 6:45pm. This time, the ratings were stronger: not in raw terms, as BBC2 weekdays was more of a niche slot; but proportionately, The Simpsons was quite a hit, garnering ratings around 4 million during this period. Its positioning against news on both BBC1 and ITV saw younger and more tech-savvy audiences gravitate towards it, while its early-evening timeslot also allowed children of all ages to tune in, too. Internet buzz among diehards about censorship drew some criticism to the slot (older fans naturally wanted unedited episodes in later timeslots) but the cuts were generally minimal (a “bastard” here, some bloody Treehouse of Horror violence there) and ensured the show could retain the crucial child audience.

None of your fancy store-bought fonts for the BBC.

The late ’90s and early 2000s saw the show peak in audience reach in the UK: between strong ratings for new episodes on Sky and great performance of terrestrial premieres on BBC, The Simpsons was at its commercial zenith in Britain. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this is in BBC2’s move, in March 2002, to strip the show across five nights a week. They’d dabbled with three nights before – Mon, Wed and Fri – in 2000 and 2001, but every weeknight? Terrestrial saturation of an American show was uncommon at this point; some were concerned that the general audience would begin to suffer Simpsons burnout. Typically, there would be an episode at 6pm on BBC, then two or four on Sky One; add in the occasional dabbling with morning and post-watershed slots for the show on Sky, as well as its regular presence on Saturday and Sunday evenings, and some weeks in 2000 saw thirty-plus episodes of the show air. But critics be damned: the figures held up, the eyeballs continued to tune in, and the BBC’s 6pm weeknights slot remained permanent for the next four years. With a healthy catalogue of classic episodes that still hadn’t been aired on terrestrial, the BBC were in a great position, as they were able to “premiere” multiple seasons within a single calendar year (though as a condition of Sky’s contract, they remained at least four seasons behind the US at all times).

Domino’s Pizza sponsored The Simpsons on Sky One for many years. Alas, in 2008, the partnership came to an end, as UK regulations made it more difficult for fast food companies to sponsor shows that lots of children watch. (In a bid to recreate the successful partnership, Pizza Hut sponsored the show on Channel 4, too. That didn’t work out. So now, Shockwaves hair products sponsor the show. Yeah, I dunno either.)

Sky were experimenting with expanding the show’s foothold on their schedule, too. Double-bills had been the order of the day for a couple of years; in late 1999, they looked to use the show as the launchpad for “Skyrocket” (please, forgive the pun), a three-hour Saturday evening animation marathon. Alas, the project was doomed, as Futurama and Family Guy had not yet grown into the cult sensations they would become, and The PJs and King of the Hill lacked a strong UK fanbase. Nevertheless, Sky persevered, trying out Simpsons-only marathons on every Bank Holiday they could find; Christmas 1999 saw six episodes on Christmas Day, seven on Boxing Day, and a seven-episode “Viewer’s Choice” on Christmas Eve. They ran the show at 7:30 and 8am on weekdays for a period; weekend mornings also saw the occasional jaunt. In 2000, they toyed with a pre-King of the Hill 10pm slot for the show, which they occasionally used to show uncut versions of more risque episodes (“Natural Born Kissers”, “Grampa vs Sexual Inadequacy”). It was plain to any observer that The Simpsons was the lynchpin of Sky One’s schedule during this period.

And who could blame them? The show was a seriously hot cultural property in Britain during this period. Dozens of four-episode VHS compilations were released here between 1998 and 2002, typically at a rate of four per year. My data is incomplete, but I understand that each and every one landed in the UK top 10 video chart. The Simpsons video games released during that period were strong sellers, despite oft-derisory critical reception (“The Simpsons Wrestling” got a very weak 5/10 score in the Official UK Playstation Magazine, but it still sold by the shedload here). The comics, rebranded for the UK, sold excellently. Citing heavy appeal to kids, BBC One aired season one episodes of the show as part of their Live & Kicking Saturday morning strand (usually home to Rugrats). Multiple UK-targeted unofficial episode guides were published – compared to the USA, which hadn’t seen any such references printed since the early part of the decade, it was clear Simpsons mania was enjoying a second wind in Britain. As the tenth anniversary of the show’s UK premiere loomed, The Simpsons had greater cultural penetration in the UK than ever before.

I paid £12.99 for these four episodes on video. (Still better value than £12.99 for a whole season of Zombie Simpsons, mind.)

Both BBC and Sky saw fit to celebrate a decade of the UK’s favourite family. The BBC actually got in on the game first; their celebratory evening on 23rd June 2000 included two strong documentaries and a plethora of episodes classic and new (well, new to terrestrial). But from a scheduling perspective, Sky’s weekend-long celebration in August was more revealing, as the weekend culminated in the UK premiere of Malcolm in the Middle, a show they would dub the “live-action Simpsons”.

Some questioned the logic in concluding a Simpsons weekend with a completely unrelated show, but it actually worked effectively. As Sky continued to pair Malcolm with The Simpsons, Malcolm became a breakout hit here in its early years, retaining a significant percentage of The Simpsons’ audience, and actually remained a more consistent performer in Britain than it did during its later years in the USA.

Throughout the 2000s, new episodes of The Simpsons typically declined in performance, despite continued uptake of Sky and cable services ensuring more and more viewers had access to the show. Maybe it was a case of over-saturation; maybe it was a case of Zombie Simpsons beginning to dilute the odds of finding a classic. But as cultural elder statesman, the show remained an integral part of the Sky brand. In deference to the key role it played in defining their brand – and playing a key role in their subscriber stats – thousands of Sky engineer vans across the country were plastered with images of the Simpson family throughout the latter half of the 2000s and early 2010s. As the decade came to a close, The Simpsons, still a steady performer among an increasingly fractured viewership, was used to lead off Modern Family, The Middle and Raising Hope, turning them into moderate hits for the station. It’s perhaps in this way that Sky now gets the most value from the show: it’s no longer the pop-culture behemoth it was in the 1990s, driving potential subscribers to choose Sky; instead, it’s a utility player that’s earned its face on the walls – and vans – of fame. Repeats don’t air quite as much these days – there are none on Saturdays, sometimes only one on Fridays – and Sky spend far more on advertising for Modern Family than they do for OFF. Regardless, though, it’s an integral part of the Sky lineup.

They didn’t even get the blackboard font right. Damn you, Sky!

But what of terrestrial? The most significant event of the show’s scheduling in the ’00s was its move from BBC2 to Channel 4. In terms of audience share and target audience, the two networks were quite similar, with BBC2 perhaps slightly more upmarket. But significantly, Channel 4 was a commercial network: while it had public service responsibilities similar to BBC, it had to earn its own money, through advertising. It was this key difference to allowed Channel 4 to pick up the show when BBC could no longer afford to; as ratings plateaued, BBC could no longer justify spending increasing amounts of public money on the show. (By this point, even terrestrial runs commanded a stunning £700,000 per episode.) It was with clear regret that the BBC had to give up on the show – it contributed towards a shocking 10% drop in their 2004 ratings compared to the year prior – but it seemed the sums were unworkable. So, in November 2004, after a six-month break from terrestrial (BBC had concluded their run back in spring), The Simpsons were back on terrestrial TV.

Channel 4’s scheduling of the show over the past eight years has proved relatively uneventful. After early dalliances with new episodes airing between 9pm and 10pm on Friday (similar to their previous flagship US import Friends), C4 soon found that the comfortable 6pm repeats – scheduled in the same way as the BBC’s had been for the previous four years – were actually out-rating the prime-time episodes; in later years, new-to-terrestrial seasons simply aired in those same 6pm slots. In the early days, the channel attempted a few “events”: alongside the expected “Simpsons Night” on the day they acquired the show, they used The Simpsons as the hosts of their 2004 “Alternative Christmas Message” – an offbeat alternative to the traditional Christmas Day’s Queen’s Speech in Britain, which rated well.

So yeah, according to that Christmas message, Lisa is a Cornish nationalist. Yeah.. I don’t really know why they did that either.

In recent years, the channel has settled into a comfortable, but successful pattern of the stripped 6pm weekday slot sitting alongside a Sunday afternoon double-bill. They remain four years behind Sky (and Fox), premiering season 20 later this year. Viewing figures have been unexciting but fair; typically around the 1.5 million mark in summer and 2 million in winter, down around 500,000 on five years ago. That doesn’t sound so impressive on paper, but it comfortably outrates the shows C4 had previously had in that slot (including Futurama and Home Improvement in the late ’90s) and most episodes end up in Channel 4’s weekly top 20. Increased penetration of Sky and cable should also be taken into account – nowadays, the majority of people can see new episodes four years before they air on Channel 4 – and with so many more channels now available even on the free-to-view Freeview platform, viewership has fractured significantly.

While the new episodes may lack the “event” feel – and the corresponding viewership figures – the punters, the loyal fans, are still willing to fly their fan flag high on special occasions. Case in point: The Simpsons Movie. It earned a phenomenal £13.6 million in its first weekend at the UK box-office, accounting for a staggering 2.6m admissions. According to box-office analyst Charles Gant, a movie typically generates in British pounds one-tenth of what it earns in US dollars; based on those rough guidelines, The Simpsons Movie did disproportionately better in Britain by nearly 80%. (That £13.6m opening figure? Only 15% less than barnstorming four-quadrant megahit The Avengers in its first weekend – and taking into account ticket price inflation and 3D uplifts, The Simpsons Movie almost definitely saw greater numbers turn out to watch). Between that performance, the series’ continued role in shepherding new US imports to cult-hit status on Sky, and its now-permanent 6pm Channel 4 slot delivering consistent figures every day of the week, it’s perhaps interesting to note that in its autumn years (boy, do I hope they’re autumn years), The Simpsons is holding up – commercially, at least – much more resiliently than in its homeland. Yes, there have been ratings declines, and DVD sales have decreased – when you’re talking about a show that’s creatively declined as much as Zombie Simpsons, it’s inevitable – but on the whole, the franchise remains a significant player over here. It often seems like Britain continues to embrace the show even more than the USA.

Considering the fact that the show wasn’t even available to eighty percent of the country during its seven greatest seasons, I’d call that a success.

15
Sep
11

10 Heartbreaking Simpsons Moments

– By Andreas

astarisburns1

“Don’t cry for me; I’m already dead.” – Barney

Back in June, I composed a list of “10 Scary Simpsons Moments.” This is a companion piece of sorts, demonstrating the show’s emotional breadth with ten of the sweetest, tenderest, and most touching moments of the show’s run. Although renowned for its cynicism and satire, The Simpsons always had powerful, James L. Brooks-influenced emotion at its core. It was never just about hollow laughs; instead, each episode was invested in relationships, families, and the oft-painful quirks of human behavior.

But it also never took the typical sitcom shortcut of cheap schmaltz: its emotional arcs were steeped in character development and real-life resonances. The Simpsons, at its best, was about well-rounded human beings with foibles, feelings, and heartbreaks. Here are ten tear-jerking, heartstring-tugging examples…

10) “Dog of Death”

dogofdeath3
This episode has a twofer: its first act confronts the agonizing facts of pet mortality (and middle-class penny-pinching), while the rest is devoted to Bart searching for the lost, brainwashed Santa’s Little Helper. It climaxes with a montage celebrating pet/child rapports and the merciful restoration of the status quo, reaffirming the lesson of Old Yeller and all those Lassie movies: few emotional forces are more potent than the relationship between a boy and his dog.

9) “Lisa on Ice”

lisaonice2
Bart and Lisa’s sibling rivalry was a staple of the show’s B-plots, but no other episode exploited their love/hate relationship as skillfully as “Lisa on Ice.” Most of the episode teeters toward the “hate” end of that dynamic, but as with “Dog of Death,” all that conflict leads to a hug-it-out climax and an adorable montage of Bart and Lisa’s shared childhood. This being The Simpsons, though, their heartfelt reconciliation plays out with a hockey riot raging in the background.

8) “I Married Marge”

imarriedmarge2
The flashback episodes are gold mines of masterfully orchestrated sentiment. “And Maggie Makes Three,” with its “DO IT FOR HER” ending, nearly made this list, as did “The Way We Was” for Homer’s closing monologue. But “I Married Marge” has Homer and Marge’s tragic separation as newlyweds when Homer goes off to become a man, and their reunion in the Gulp ‘n’ Blow drive-thru with the words “Pour vous.” It’s a note-perfect, bittersweet back story for Our Favorite Family.

7) ” ‘Round Springfield”

roundspringfield1
Poor Lisa, condemned to lose every positive male role model (see #2). The loss of Bleeding Gums Murphy really hurts; he’s such a gently paternal presence, and he’s Lisa’s only mentor as a jazz saxophonist. (Mr. Largo, his passion dulled by years in the public school system, could never come close.) Unlike a certain gimmicky, ratings-grabbing death from Season 11, Murphy’s passing is handled with tact and humor, making it all the more painful.

6) “Bart Sells His Soul”

bartsellshissoul31
This episode topped my “scary” list, and the same spiritual fears that feed its horror also make it an emotionally heavy experience. Bart’s prayer at the end is a tour de force for Nancy Cartwright; she cuts right through his “underachiever and proud of it” schtick, revealing the lost little boy underneath. “Bart Sells His Soul” delves into the anxiety and loneliness that constitute dark side of childhood, and the redemption that lies just beyond.

5) “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily”

homesweethomediddlydumdoodily2
After a diabolically brilliant first act that degenerates into a nightmare, “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily” tests the Simpson family’s mettle like no episode before or since. But the intensity of their trial by social services fire makes the resolution that much more gratifying (and emotionally overwhelming), and Marge’s climactic line can still bring tears to my eyes: “Oh, Maggie, you’re a Simpson again!”

4) “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”

onefishtwofishblowfishbluefish3
When Homer ingests some potentially deadly sushi, he gets put through the existential wringer: as Dr. Hibbert informs him, he only has 22 hours to wrap up his life on earth. His attempts to do so are tragicomic, as he earnestly carries out some tasks while botching others; however, the episode goes all-out emotionally for Homer’s last night. Sitting awake in the living room, he’s no longer a wacky TV dad. He’s just a working stiff, staring into the abyss. Powerful stuff.

3) “Like Father, Like Clown”

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You’d think that estranged parents and Jewish culture, thorny topics for any show, would prove impossible for an animated sitcom. But leave it to The Simpsons to entangle the two in its hilarious, heartfelt riff on The Jazz Singer. The ending is utterly moving, as Krusty and his father join in singing “O Mein Papa”—just the kind of big, emotional finale you’d expect from a larger-than-life showbiz figure like Krusty.

2) “Lisa’s Substitute”

lisassubstitute3
“You are Lisa Simpson.” Such a simple sentence, but it rings so true. Coupled with Dustin Hoffman’s understated performance as Mr. Bergstrom, it’s enough to put a lump in my throat every time I watch the phenomenal “Lisa’s Substitute.” A touchstone for brainy kids everywhere, the episode makes the tragic acknowledgment that loss is part of personal growth, but no easier for it. We’ll miss you, Mr. Bergstrom.

1) “Mother Simpson”

mothersimpson5
The other episodes on this list tell some pretty heartrending stories about loss and reconciliation, but nothing can match the emotional scope, gravity, and finesse of “Mother Simpson.” Homer’s long-lost mother may disappear again, but he learns that she loves him, and that’s enough. The ending, with Homer pensively stargazing, is both a model of restraint and a signal to start crying. It’s a sobering reminder of how powerful silence can be.

01
Sep
11

They’ll Never Stop “The Simpsons” (But Someone Really Should)

From Nightmare to Reality

– By Matt Mackinnon

Everyone is aware of the vast difference in quality between the first ten seasons of The Simpsons and the ten seasons of Zombie Simpsons that followed. But you don’t have to reach as far back as Season 5 to find huge dips in the quality of the show. No. In fact, you can see a huge drop off in the quality of the show within Zombie Simpsons itself. In fact, it might be time to divide Zombie Simpsons into two different categories. A zombie divided against itself, cannot stand! (That’s a George Costanza reference . . . anyhoo.)

In “Gump Roast” (Season 13), The Simpsons was already in full swing Zombie mode. But little did we know just how bad it was going to get in the years to come. So bad in fact, that one particular recent episode makes “Gump Roast” look like it was part of the golden era. At the end of “Gump Roast”, there is a song called “You’ll never stop the Simpsons”, a parody of the Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Despite this being an episode of Zombie Simpsons, the song parody was good — very, very good. Van Johnson good.

Near the end of the song they list a bunch of gag stories that could be coming in years to come, such as Marge becomes a robot, Moe gets a cell phone, and Bart owns a bear. This was back when Zombie Simpsons was still hip enough to have a sense of humor about itself and would occasionally poke fun at the fact that they had perhaps stayed on the air one or two years too many. One joke in particular stands out like a cockroach on a wedding cake.

It features Grampa, Patty and Selma involved in a “crazy wedding”. At the time this was clearly meant to be a jab at the series’ many attempts to find Selma a man. And that eventually, if the show stayed on the air long enough, they would run out of potential husbands for her and would be forced to pair her up with Grampa. The very idea of Grampa, Homer’s father, being romantically involved with Selma, Marge’s sister, was considered “crazy”.

Well, fast forward five short seasons to Season 18’s “Rome-Old and Juli-eh”, and you’ll find that, lo and behold, Grampa and Selma are romantically involved. I didn’t see this episode when it first aired, but I happened to catch it recently and instantly thought of that Billy Joel parody. (So I am fully aware that I may not be the first to pick up on this.) At first I thought, there’s no way the writers could have forgotten that they made fun of this very premise just a few short seasons ago. This had to be an inside joke aimed at fans who nit-pick everything to death. But it wasn’t.

There is nothing in the episode that points in that direction. They could have had any character use the phrase “crazy wedding” and we would have all instantly known what they were going for. But there was nothing like that. So what was originally considered a crazy throw away gag in a parody song became, a few seasons later, a full episode. Which means in the years to come we can all look forward to Marge becoming a robot and Bart getting a bear. Wait. Scratch that. In fact, they actually did that episode recently. Just replace bear with cow.

I’m sure I’m not the first to notice the Selma-Grampa goof. So I’m sorry if this is not the most original article. But have no fear, we’ll have essays like this for years.

25
Aug
11

Simpsons Go Canyonero: The Indifference of Selling Out

– By Hank Pumpkins of Love in the Time of Sausage

“I’m so hungry, I could eat at Arby’s”. That one line, delivered by Sherri—or maybe Terri—worked wonders on my young, impressionable mind, and only nearly eight years later, on a dare in college, did I finally try Arby’s. It turns out, the fries are pretty good. There’s a secret shame in admitting that The Simpsons held such political sway over my taste-buds, but in the years since, I’ve come to see I haven’t been the only one—which makes me wonder if there was a marginal dip in sales after “Das Bus” came out.

It’s probably overstated that The Simpsons has always had a cache of consumer power, both as an economic consumer power and as a commentator of consumerism. From its early days the show has been keenly aware of dual-life it led as a biting satire on American economics while also being prostituted out on everything from t-shirts to “blues” records to Butterfinger bars. For a show with such sheer size and success, unparalleled with, well, pretty much any other television show, ever, they did a fine line of playing both roles, though looking back at the last thirteen years, it seems inevitable that the show would eventually teeter, then topple on one side.

It’s not surprising which side that ended up being.

Season 9 is about as good a place as any to see the axis tilt on The Simpsons for a variety of reasons, but what concerns me are the ominous signs that point to the philosophical sea-change which, to me, signaled the point where The Simpsons lost their bite and settled down into somewhat inspired, but mostly mediocre entertainment filler.

Season 9’s plots seem to constantly revolve around battles for integrity. Homer needs to choose between buying a saxophone or an air conditioner; Lisa fights the town on the angel; Homer gets into a brawl over a sports car while Marge struggles to make a sale; Bart burns down the Christmas tree, including the sausage for little Homer; Homer and Bart become carnies and learn their wicked carnie games; Movementarians; and, to cut basically a list of all of the season’s episodes short, “The Last Temptation of Krust”, which literally revolves around Krusty realizing he is, has been, and always will operate not as a comedian, but as a shill. In a season rife with issues of integrity, and a show already feeling the strain of its own success and legacy, “The Last Temptation of Krust” feels like a breaking point where the show seemed to run completely out of steam. Krusty’s conflict was his battle with integrity, and his resolution is a quiet, somewhat disconcerting acceptance that he is a whore. Doubtful that the writers were mirroring their own show, or being prescient about the lazy, belabored comedy to come in years hence, but as The Canyonero commercial plays, and drags on and on, it’s difficult for Future Me to watch and wonder, “Oh. That explains it.”

Compare Krusty in season 9 with another episode dealing with integrity over money: “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy”, aired four years prior, where in the end, Malibu Stacy seemingly wins—except for the one girl who takes the Lisa Lionheart doll and cherishes it. We get the usual cynical Simpsons nod that our world is run by money, and baseless corporate greed which slakes its thirst on the naïve and unwitting, but at least there’s a sentimental twist to the end (which is pretty well earned, I’ll add).

There aren’t many times I bother to check in on The Simpsons anymore, but when Banksy’s guest couch gag went viral, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. True to Banksy form, it had a nasty anti-consumer bend, but it felt out of place as a Simpsons gag. The show had long ago lost its teeth, and instead of being a purveyor of biting satire, it felt like an outsider was just doling out a blow, and the show could care less, as long as it got the ratings boost. In the past thirteen years, The Simpsons lost a lot of credit and value it once so richly earned. When the tight walk between sharp consumer satire and consumer salesman gave way, the show gave a weary, resigned “meh”. And now, it’s just a truck with four wheel drive, smells like a steak and seats thirty-five.

Lisa Lionheart is dead; all hail Malibu Stacy.

18
Aug
11

Anyone But Steve Allen OR 10 Gifts The Simpsons Gave To Comedy

– By Django Gold, head curator at mcgarnagle.com

The Simpsons was a special show, and like any other popular creative work that found a large audience, it was only a matter of time before its influence started popping up elsewhere. It’s been over twenty years since the show debuted, and in that time a generation of comedy writers who grew up watching, re-watching, and quoting the show has made their own bones in show business. What follows is a sampling of certain aspects of The Simpsons that have since shown up in countless other comedy bits.

I’m not claiming The Simpsons actually invented any of the following ideas. I’m no historian, and people were of course telling jokes a long ways before Groening & co. got to work. But I will argue that the show’s creators advanced and modernized these joke-telling methods better than anyone else, and in crafting them so well inspired others to adapt them to fit their own ideas (or just flat-out steal them). So, like I was saying…

1. Repetition/Extra Beats (Sideshow Bob and the rake)

1

Airtime is expensive, and in 1993 it was a risky move to blow 30 seconds of it for the sake of a repeated slapstick joke that might not hold up. Luckily, in “Cape Feare”, it did, mostly because of the enduring funniness of Sideshow Bob’s dry grimaces of pain (“Hey Hal, pie job for Lord Autumnbottom there!”). As literary review Entertainment Weekly put it: “If ever there was a gag genius in its repetitive stupidity (progressing from funny to not so funny to the funniest thing ever), this is it.” Years later, many shows have attempted to replicate this type of extended joke whose humor draws on the audacity of its length, to varying degrees of success. Family Guy, of course, pulls it off constantly (the bruised knee scene, et al), but anytime I see a comedian attempt to stretch a sprint into a marathon, Terwilliger’s scowl comes to mind.

2. Guest Stars Making Fun Of Themselves (“Now I’m gonna grab me something sweet.”)

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Though you could argue that Dick Nixon started this trend on Laugh In in ’68, The Simpsons perfected the idea of bringing on guest stars so that they could send themselves up. While celebrity cameos don’t generally go beyond allowing a photogenic guest star to preen for the camera, Leonard Nimoy, George H. W. Bush, Sting, several major leaguers, Ernest Borgnine, Gerry Cooney, Rodney Dangerfield (doesn’t really count), and, of course, Dennis Franz weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Examples of this are too numerous to list, so I guess I’ll go with Neil Patrick Harris (“Where do you want it, Skinner?”) in Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle and move on.

3. Writers Making Fun Of The Network (“We are watching Fox.”)

3

Similarly, The Simpsons was never afraid to bite the hand that feeds when it came to pointing out how desperately crappy Fox Broadcasting Co. was in the 90s. This is of course easy to do when your show is pretty much the only thing holding the network up. You see this same sort of gentle ribbing on Comedy Central pillars The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and Family Guy also continues the proud tradition now that The Simpsons is off the air.

4. “By X, I Mean Y” (Judge Snyder’s dog/son)

4

I have not managed to find any concrete examples of the Judge Snyder construct in recent comedy, but if my own personal experience is any judge, it is ubiquitous. The Simpsons generation (that’s us) has taken an excellent Lionel Hutz line and turned it into a device for sarcasm; by substituting whatever zany mad-libs you like into an otherwise straight-forward expression, hilarity results. Though the X becomes Y construct pops up on the Internet constantly, I couldn’t possibly solve the mystery of coming up with any mainstream examples. Can you?

5. Intentional Monotony (Canada Stalls On Trade Pact)

5

Television is a flashy, fast-paced medium, so its rare moments of silence can do a lot to change things up. The Simpsons creators were masters of using intentionally tedious pacing to get laughs, and the box factory manager’s uproariously uninteresting speech in “Bart Gets Famous” is a perfect example of this. Though he got started in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Ben Stein made a career out of this after being a hack economist didn’t work.  Notable post-Simpsons examples include South Park (when Cartman is forced to watch the serial killer’s slide show) and, naturally, Family Guy’s occasional burst into deliberate boredom (Conway Twitty).

6. Old-Timey References (the onion and the belt)

6

Here, I’m specifically looking at any pre-Great Depression references that the Simpsons writers so enjoyed tossing in, usually through Monty Burns or Abe Simpson. As in the previous example, the use of antiquated, often-misremembered cultural references in The Simpsons succeeds largely because it goes against context. Instead of being entertained with the latest and greatest, the audience is presented with the ridiculous, largely irrelevant relics of a bygone era. Modern-day humorists love poking fun at our country’s creaky past: Conan O’Brien’s beloved “old-timey” baseball game sketch, for example.

7. The Selfish Assumption (“Like people, some of them are just jerks.”)

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As The Itchy & Scratchy Show demonstrated in its brief period of docility in “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”, kindness and camaraderie are all well and good when it comes to lemonade consumption, but it just isn’t funny. No, selfishness and needless cruelty pay the bills when it comes to good comedy, and the Simpsons writers understood this. Now, I want to emphasize that I’m not claiming The Simpsons invented the notion of meanness being funny. But I will make the argument that they did the best job of casually imbuing the Springfield citizenry with the kinds of character flaws that gave rise to laughs. Carl’s answer to how the pastry spinner works, Quimby’s muscle-memory embezzlement, Marge’s cryptic theft of Milhouse’s teeth…these and constant other acts demonstrate how much funnier it is when someone behaves badly. Tons of modern shows pull off this kind of casual meanness, but shows like Strangers With Candy and Children’s Hospital take it to a new level.

8. Freeze-Frame Jokes (“where the buyer is our chum”)

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One of the reasons for The Simpsons’ rewatchability is the sheer volume of its jokes makes it impossible to catch and process everything in a single sitting—it takes time to appreciate what the writers are laying down. I remember one of the show’s creators calling The Simpsons the first-ever VHS show (or something like that), as it was the first show that rewarded re-viewings (hence the show’s immense success in syndication). From an artistic standpoint, packing the jokes in like this is just good common sense; but it’s also a valuable commercial tool, as it makes people more likely to watch again, buy the DVDs, etc. Many, many shows have tapped into this joke-a-second type of pacing. Archer, Futurama, Parks and Rec, you name it.

9. Film Homages (Debbie Does Springfield)

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Once the show’s artists found their groove, The Simpsons was able to pull off the kind of animation tricks that no other show could dream of at the time. This included the ability to capture scenes much in the same way that filmmakers did with different “camera” angles and framing techniques…which also allowed the writers to throw in homages to their favorite films. Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and various Hitchcock films got their due, and the shot-for-shot remake approach is now a comedic trope, in animated and live-action shows alike.

10. A Cast Of Thousands (“We’ve given the word ‘mob’ a bad name.”)

10

Large casts are expensive to maintain for a live-action show, but it’s a pretty thrifty option for a cartoon, especially if most of them are voiced by the same six people. The huge ensemble cast that filled Springfield allowed the show’s writers to move beyond the core Simpson family members and flesh out those minor characters that we the viewers would eventually come to know just as well. Apu living with the Simpsons? It happened…and shows like Arrested Development and The Office took advantage of the example.

Agree? Disagree? Got some other examples to give? Sound off in the comments.




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