Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

30
Oct
14

Book Review: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets

Bart's Dog Gets an F10

“What’s your favorite subject?” – Dr. Hibbert
“Arithmetic.” – Lisa Simpson 
“Oh, arithmetic.  Now, before you know it, you will be back among your polygons, your hypotenuse, and your Euclidean algorithms.” – Dr. Hibbert 

As an academic subject, math has always stood at the extreme end, as the hardest of the “hard” sciences.  Even physics has uncertainty built right into it; math simply has things that have not yet been proven.  That’s all well and good for mathematicians when it comes to inter-disciplinary dick measuring contests, but it also makes math more abstract and difficult to explain to the uninitiated.  Worse still, that very “purity” makes math more resistant to analogy and simplification than any other field of study because the big things in math are irreducibly incomprehensible.

The physics of a black hole, the biochemistry of a chameleon, the geology of a volcano, years of study and graduate degrees lend the best possible understanding of them, but the basics can be grasped by anyone.  Textbooks, TV specials, and museum exhibits can contain simple diagrams and awe-inspiring pictures that make even hideously complicated events and processes seem kindergarten simple.  Math is too abstract for that kind of stuff.  You can come up with pretty visualizations of prime numbers, for example, but someone who doesn’t have a day-to-day familiarity with them or their underlying concepts isn’t going to understand it in the least.  Prime numbers can’t be analogized to anything else, nor can they be simplified (almost by definition), you simply have to use them a lot to really get them, and most people don’t.

That abstract unfamiliarity has always been the great bane of popular writing about math.  The most fundamental concepts exist only on sheets of paper or inside someone else’s mind, so all an expert writing for a lay audience can do is cite fun examples and hope that at least some of them click.  Wisely, Simon Singh’s The Simpsons And Their Mathematical Secrets follows exactly that template, and does so rather well.

SimpsonsMathematicalSecretsThe book isn’t a grand explanation of math or its history, it’s a collection of math concepts and back-stories that have surfaced in The Simpsons or Futurama over the years.  Singh naturally focuses on the many writers (of both shows) who have serious academic credentials, and we even get pictures of both Al Jean and Mike Reiss with their high school math clubs.

The best parts of the book are the ones that directly combine the shows and the numbers.  For example, in the chapter about pi, there’s a long discussion of Apu testifying against Marge in “Marge in Chains”.  When Apu says that he can recite pi to forty-thousand places, that was indeed the record for memorization of pi at the time.

Further, and I certainly didn’t know this, the 40,000th digit really is 1.  They literally sent away to a guy at NASA, who printed out the whole thing and mailed it to them.  (That, in turn, was referenced in “22 Short Films About Springfield”, when Moe sent away to NASA to calculate Barney’s bar tab.)  There’s a whole chapter about the various equations and numbers that pop up in the “Homer3” segment of “Treehouse of Horror VI”, and another dedicated to the smart kids in “Bart the Genius”.

Later in the book, Singh gets into Futurama and the many (many) math heavy jokes, references, and even entire plots they went through.  Like The Simpsons sections, some of these are dedicated to the general nerdery of the show, while others are about specific concepts and equations.  The best of them is about “The Prisoner of Benda”, the episode that famously led Ken Keeler to write a proof of the “brain switching” problem the writers created for themselves.  It’s a really clear explanation, and there’s even a picture of Keeler standing on the office couch, scribbling away on a white board.

Since the book is by necessity somewhat scattershot in the subjects it can broach, some parts are weaker than others.  In particular, one of the longest chapters in the book is little more than a rehash of Moneyball, (based on that crashingly dull Zombie Simpsons episode “MoneyBART“).  True, there’s math and the Simpsons here; but when the text gets to the 2002 Yankees buying up all the players, it’s wandered pretty far from the subject at hand.

Happily, though, most of the chapters are much shorter and on point.  The trickier concepts are explained cleanly, and illustrated where necessary or possible.  And Singh manages to walk the line of keeping the tone light while simultaneously keeping the math serious.  You can always tell someone is a real math and/or programming geek when they start things with 0 instead of 1, as confusing as that is to most people.  But while this book starts with “Chapter 0”, it also has an “Eπlogue”, and that balance is maintained throughout.

All in all, it’s a short and easy read that will either introduce (or refresh) a lot of mathematical ideas for casual readers.  And along the way you’ll even learn some Simpsons and Futurama trivia, what’s not to like?

Note: Thanks go to Diana Morgan at Ruth Killick Publicity for sending me a copy all the way from merry old England.

01
Mar
14

Unfortunately, Agreeing With Us Isn’t Enough

Guess Who's Coming to Criticize Dinner8

“Well, what do you think?” – Homer Simpson
“This is a joke, right?” – Springfield Shopper Editor

Thought Catalog is one of those small, independent new media outlets that’s trying to make its place in this brave new on-line publishing world.  Their about page is full of noble sentiments and phrases like “an experimental media group”, “We believe all thinking is relevant”, and “help shape culture by empowering you”.  Their shtick is to be “value neutral” editorially, which means that you can publish a piece there about whatever the hell’s on your mind provided that you can string two words together.

This approach has its positives and its negatives, but inarguably manages to expose a wide array of viewpoints to the internet’s unflinching gaze.  So you’ve got Snow Days: The Ultimate Example Of White Privilege just a few spots down from Sluts With Daddy Issues And Stockholm Syndrome and Here’s How Porn Makes You A Rapist, all of which is interspersed with the near obligatory link bait parade of titles with numbers in them: The 8 Men Who Taught Me What I Don’t Want In A Relationship, 11 Things You Didn’t Know About Taco Bell, and 7 Artists You Should Absolutely Hear Now.

There is, of course, criticism of this method, expressed neatly in a post published there a couple weeks back, Dear Thought Catalog, I Still Love You:

Criticism of Thought Catalog and other similar websites is insightful. But I still love to read it.
Yes, you do have a moment. Just Google “Thought Catalog criticism”. The auto-detector spells it out for you before you finish typing the search term. You may find some interesting writers that argue against this forum.

[…]

Words are thrown about like: entitlement, over-privileged, hate-reading, trolling and best of all, smug.

And Google does indeed think of those as the prime critiques.  This one is from Gawker two years ago:

Me-centric angst dump Thought Catalog is like some superhuman internet time-wasting android, rotely performing ever more jaw-dropping feats of repetitive navel-gazing as we wait nervously for the moment that it will become self-aware and DESTROY US ALL.
Rest easy; self-awareness is not coming any time soon.

First of all, let’s just stop for a second and marvel at Gawker(!) criticizing anyone for time wasting, navel gazing, and a lack of self awareness.  Nick Denton’s occasionally impressive monstrosity doesn’t have half a pixel to stand on in any one of those categories.  That does not, however, mean that they are wrong about Thought Catalog and the things they publish being unaware to the point of self ruin.

Case in point would be a new Simpsons ebook by Justin Sedgwick titled “We Put The Spring in Springfield: Chronicling the Golden Era of The Simpsons“.  The ebook, an ambitiously priced five bucks at Amazon, is an earnest exploration of the best years of the show and what made it so popular and endearing.  It’s got chapters on some of the brightest and biggest guest stars, Halloween episodes, musical numbers, and all that other fun stuff.  It’s a little light on research (O’Brien, Reiss and Jean are the only writers mentioned in more than passing) and a little heavy on personal assertion for proving this or that the best thing the show ever did, but it’s a Simpsons geek unabashedly geeking, so neither of those are fatal flaws.

The problem is that whatever fun that can be had along the way is impossibly buried behind a seemingly endless stream of half formed sentences, gross misquotes, and other basic problems.  Some of the sentences, if that is the right word, are so hopelessly mangled that they read as if translated to Japanese and back again by Google.  A few random examples:

– “Last Exit” seemed as some sort of wonderful experiment in taking every single possible reference and offhand gag the writers could get their grasp on and blending it into a delicious Simpsons stew.

– But in “Stark Raving Dad”, Jackson isn’t voicing an animated version of himself or a stranger, but a fat white bald character who is so utterly convinced and convincing that he is truly Michael Jackson despite all the evidence contrary.

– Only until the family captures the doll do they realize that Krusty has been accidentally switched to the “evil” setting.

– “A Fish Called Selma” is the episode most divergent of common Simpsons storytelling but still arises to be one of the best.

In between great white whales of editorial fail like those are plenty of glaringly obvious grammatical problems: erratic capitalization, splattershot apostrophes and commas, near miss homophones, straight up incorrect words (“implore” instead of “explore”, “skimpy” instead of “skinny”) . . . and it goes on like this.  The carelessness is everywhere on display, including in numerous misquotes of the show:

– “Truckosaurus the movie, starring Marlon Brando as Truckosaurus” (Actual quote: “Coming soon, it’s Truckosaurus the Movie, starring Marlon Brando as the voice of John Truckosaurus.”)

– “Surely no man who speaks German could be evil” (Actual quote: “No one who speaks German could be an evil man.”)

– “the bee bit my bum, now my bum is big!” (Actual quote: “The bee bit my bottom, now my bottom’s big!”)

Those are perfectly understandable mistakes if you’re sitting around quoting the show with friends, but to publish them in a book for which you’re charging real dollars bespeaks a woeful sloppiness.  Nobody should have to pay to read things like this:

“When Burns finally surmises to the hands of Homer, he lets out a phrase that would sum up the inevitable mistake of all of Homer’s enemies in the future: “I’m starting to think Homer Simpson isn’t the brilliant tactician that I thought he was.””

That’s enough to make even the most embittered and alcoholic English teacher cringe, and that’s before you get to the mangled quote, which two minutes with a Simpsons DVD could’ve easily corrected: “Smithers, I’m beginning to think that Homer Simpson was not the brilliant tactician I thought he was”.  Even the most basic editorial review should catch sentences like that, but from the text it isn’t clear that anyone except the author actually read it before Thought Catalog (a publishing company complete with full time employees) slapped a price tag on it.

So, what’s underneath that thick carapace of typos, misquotes and middle school grammatical mistakes?  It’s hard to say for sure.  It’s a mildly interesting Simpsons book that would serve as a decent refresher course for a casual fan on some of the show’s highlights, but, with one exception, doesn’t touch on any topics that are likely to be new or terribly interesting to actual Simpsons geeks. 

That exception pops up at the beginning and end of the book: the way The Simpsons helps people relate to each other.  The first involves young Sedgwick as a fresh arrival in New York City making friends with shared Simpsons quotes.  The second is father-son bonding on Sunday evenings, even through the toughest of times.  They are moments of genuine affect that touch on heartfelt realities that should’ve been the core of the book.  More like them, and a broader look at why that happens between so very many people, would’ve been welcome.

Whatever those are worth, however, doesn’t begin to make up for the unreadable shambles that is the rest of the text.  In its current condition, this book isn’t worth five cents, much less five dollars.  It isn’t doomed to stay that way forever, of course, and really feels more like a first draft than a completed product anyway.  And that’s the beauty of ebooks, you can revise and edit and make updates, which is exactly what Thought Catalog and Sedgwick should do.  Put it through the wringer a couple more times (and fix all those grotesquely broken sentences) and they’d have something worth selling.

Or they could pull it from Amazon.  It’s their call, but leaving the book up for sale in its current condition is an all around shitty thing to do and would reflect even worse on author and imprint than the decision to go ahead with an obviously unfinished tract in the first place.  Sedgwick is a first time author, Thought Catalog is but four years old, both could have promising futures.  But they won’t if they keep trying to sell incomplete work like this.  After all, it’s okay to put yourself at the center of a story; it’s not okay do a half assed job of it.

12
Apr
13

Reading Digest: Retroactive Conan O’Brien Edition

Bart Gets Famous8

“You know, Conan, I have a lot to say.  I’m not just a one line wonder.  Did you know that a section of rain forest the size of Kansas is burned every single-” – Bart Simpson
“Just do the line.” – Conan O’Brien

We’ve got two links to the tall Irishman today, one from the man himself.  O’Brien got Jean, Reiss, Jay Kogen and Jeff Martin to sit down and talk about the show.  The link we have is just the preview, but the whole thing will be up on Monday.  The other O’Brien link is a look back at his various career stops on account of the whole getting-dumped-for-Leno-and-now-Fallon thing.  In addition to that, we’ve also got a Ringo link, a whole bunch of direct and indirect usage, a “First Annual” chili cook off (sort of), a couple of lists, and Australian comic, and some really cool fake ancient art.

Enjoy.

Pont’s Comics: Simpsons Illustrated, Vol 1 (1991) – That blog I linked last week that’s looking at old comics?  The Simpsons got skipped to the front of the line and it’s Smooth Charlie’s Link of the Week:

The first series of Simpsons Illustrated comics were published between 1991 and 1993, and read half as a fan magazine, and half as a publication within the Simpsons universe, including mock advertisements, news articles and fake products.

There is a ton to love here, including the grade school seating chart and the 19-year-old in Alaska who got Bart shaved – and bleached! – into the back of his head every three days.  But the best has to be this tip for surviving school:

Fighting Back
A Three-Step Approach

1. Take careful notes on all the boring, stupid and unfair things going on around you
2. Wait 20 Years
3. Use notes as basis for a wildly successful TV series

Heh.  Wish I’d read that in 1991.

Preview: "The Simpsons" Writers Reunion – Want to watch. 

Pre-Colombian Bart Simpson And More From Nadín Ospina – Cool:

After unknowingly purchasing fake pre-Colombian artifacts, artist Nadín Ospina gave serious thought to Latin-American culture and its ancient roots.  His sculptures depicts pop-culture cartoon characters such as Snoopy, Micky Mouse, and Bart Simpson in an often pre-Colombian style.

Click through for some examples.  The Bart one is great. 

Best. Episode. Ever. (Round 4) – Now this is an ambitious Simpsons blogging project.  The author has set up a bracket of 256 episodes, and is running them down one matchup at a time.  With that many episodes there’s bound to be some Zombie Simpsons, but a quick glance at the bracket reveals that the overwhelming majority of them are non-Zombie Simpsons.  Assuming this continues, I’ll be checking in regularly.

The Gallery: Iconic Pop Culture Maps – They’ve got pretty maps for everything from Gotham to Zelda to Springfield.  

Fox could become cable channel, News Corp. COO Chase Carey says – This story was bouncing around all week because a tiny company almost no one uses is theoretically threatening the cable money that FOX gets, which caused Murdoch’s right hand man to make a petulant remark.  Ignore it.  The cable bubble will pop on its own. 

Ringo Starr And His All Starr Band – It’s non-“Brush With Greatness” Ringo usage:

There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa, insecure about being beaten to first place in a saxophone competion by a better player, has a dream about being in a band. They take the stage to the announcement ‘Will you welcome Garfunkel, Messina, Oates, and Lisa singing their number two hit, Born to Runner-Up.’ It’s hard not to conjur this scene when watching Ringo at the Ryman, a concert filmed at Nashville’s famous auditorium. The All Starr Band, here in it’s twelfth incarnation and twenty third year, pull out all the stops to celebrate another milestone – the birthday of the Ringomaster of this very perculiar circus.

But has anyone ever bought tickets just to boo him?

Roger Ebert’s Many Loving Parodies: ‘The Critic,’ ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘Godzilla,’ and More – Some very good YouTube here.

Prepare to Burn Your Mouth Off at the First Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo – I love when things are “First Annual”:

Remember that episode of The Simpsons where Homer has to coat his mouth with wax in order to withstand some really hot chili peppers? That should help you prep for New York City’s first-ever Hot Sauce Expo, which will go down at East River Park in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on April 20.

Drinking candle wax is still probably a bad idea, though.

Amazon Buys Goodreads (and Ron Charles makes a great parody video) – Always nice to see the “overlords” quote used in an inventive way:

While it’s difficult to tell from this vantage point whether they will consume all publishing outlets or merely enslave them, one thing is for certain — there is no stopping them. Amazon will soon be here.

And I, for one, welcome our new ebook overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a top 10 best seller, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their Kindle Direct Publishing program.

Heh.  (Oh, and speaking of Kindle Direct Publishing: AARB #4 came out today.)

Another high ranking for Madison, this time as a foodie city – Excellent usage:

Sometimes it feels like Madison has a bit of Lisa Simpson in it.

Part of her self-worth (yes, we know she’s a cartoon) comes from the thoughts others have of her, and it’s no less true of Madison (or more specifically, Madisonians).

"Grade me! Look at me! Evaluate and rank me!," Lisa said in one episode when she wasn’t being analyzed by her teachers.

Perfectly quoted. 

Weekend Box Office: Evil Dead swallows your soul (and wallet) – More excellent usage:

Lest anyone think movie box-office is a zero sum game, it was good news all around this weekend for studio and independent films alike. To paraphrase The Simpsons: “In a way, you’re all winners. But in another, more accurate way, Evil Dead is the winner.” With $26 million against a $17 million budget, the remake of Sam Raimi’s cult classic proved that its possible to open a movie without Bruce Campbell and still be successful.

Well paraphrased.  (Though I was pretty disappointed in Evil Dead, personally.)

Another Winning Interraction With a Human – Heh:

So you know that episode of The Simpsons when Homer eats that orange really fecocious and animal-esque? Well sometimes when I’m alone I like to eat my oranges this way and tonight thought I would treat myself when I was given a left over orange at work, and had some time to spare before closing up. I went to town on that orange, ripping with my teeth and sucking the juice and shredding what I could with my mouth and letting my bizarre animal nature take over. Satisfied, I pulled my head up from the massacre and found a little old lady staring intensely at me, poised to ask a question. Face covered in sticky sweetness, orange shards still in my teeth like angry pubes, I try not to freak out, swallow what remains in my mouth and say calmly, “Can I help you?”. She replies – “I was going to ask for the bathroom, but I actually think I’m ok”, and walks away.

The horrifying of a stranger is a lot like a good marriage . . . Just shut up and eat the damned orange!   

The Simpsons Tapped Out: Pre-Whacking Day Day – There’s a Whacking Day update to the new merchandising cash cow, and it came out yesterday, a full month before the actual Whacking Day on May 10th.  I don’t know if they care or if this particular piece of content ends then, but it seemed worth noting. 

Top Ten Pet Owners- A Mexican Standoff – Cat Lady makes the list here.  Also, well done for including Woody Harrelson from Seven Psychopaths

Hey Marge, look at this… – A YouTube heavy Family Guy comparison. 

So you wanna be a blog superstar? – Five blogging tips that culminate with:

5. If all else fails, quote the Simpsons.

Everyone loves the Simpsons. If you have nothing interesting to say, just say any one of the following:

“Slow down tubby. You’re not on the moon yet.”

“The Nye Mets are my favourite squadron.”

“I was saying Boo-urns.”

Hey, that’s what we do

Doctor Who: The Happiness Patrol…In 10 Words – Happy thoughts.  Happy thoughts.

Spies of Warsaw…In 10 Words – I heard how this ends, it turns out the secret code is the nursery rhyme he told his daughter.  

Facebook Home…In 10 Words – Don’t let the haircut fool you, he’s exceedingly wealthy.

One Face;Different Forms Haha xD – The same face drawn in eight different styles, including Muppet, South Park and Simpsons. 

There are so many Itchy’s – A comedian in Australia went on tour and had medical students tell her about nanobots.  This is a video of her describing what she learned, and around the 2:00 mark it goes all “Itchy & Scratchy Land”. 

Poll Results: Best Cartoon Series – It was close, but the show won the best cartoon series vote here, narrowly edging Looney Tunes. 

April 8 – Grumpy Old Man – It’s a blog about drinking that links to some famous cranky old men of television.  The Simpsons gets two, Burns and Grampa, plus there’s bourbon. 

Six of My Favorite Quotes (Because Any More Would Be Ridiculous) – It’s a quote list that only references, rather than directly quoting, the show.  Don’t see that often:

“It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes or bags!” – Theodor Geisel

In truth, I could have listed any couplet from this entire book. But I think I’m especially fond of this one ever since Smithers and Mr. Burns spoofed it so beautifully back in 1993.

Tell Simpson I’m ready to deal! 

A Canadian Winter Storm… in April?! – Heh:

In other news, I’m watching The Simpsons while trying to edit my last major research essay. Once it’s all done and handed in this Monday, I’ll talk more about it here. I’m watching 4×04 where Lisa becomes Little Miss Springfield after the original winner is struck by lightning. Lisa walks around with the electrocuted tiara for the remainder of the episode. I guess those kind people at Laramie couldn’t fundraise for a new one!

Menthol Moose’s medical bills are outrageous. 

Bureau Of Regrettable Ideas Case File #36: The Simpsons, The Yellow Album – The A.V. Club on the second CD FOX used to cash in on Bartmania . . . in 1998.

Homer and Marge Simpson: Greatest TV couple ever – The staff at EW.com have decided that Homer and Marge are the best TV couple.  That is all. 

20 TV Characters Who Deserve Their Own Spin-Off – This is useless click bait, one entry per pageview (bastards), but I linked to Frink at #5, in case you’re interested. 

Conan The Destroyed – Running down O’Brien’s career with lots of good YouTube.  And it indirectly agrees with us:

As writer and producer for the series between 1991 and 1993, O’Brien scripted some of the most undisputedly superb episodes the show has seen in its 24 years on the air (and, let’s face it, will ever see).

Yeah, probably.

16
Jul
12

The Longest Daycare: Maggie in the Spotlight

Baby Beef

“We didn’t invite the other babies.  Maggie doesn’t seem to get along with the other babies.” – Lisa Simpson

Though I still haven’t seen it a second time, after a weekend of mulling it over, “The Longest Daycare” is doing that thing that high quality movies/television shows/books do where it gets better the more I think about it.  The story is sweet without being saccharine, exciting without being scary, and plausible without being fanciful.  The animation is very similar to the movie and HD Zombie Simpsons, but there’s a not-quite dreamlike quality to it that makes it fit in will with a story that’s told from the perspective of a baby.  Finally and most importantly, “The Longest Daycare” has a genuine sense of humor to it, one that doesn’t feel repetitive or played out. 

The last part comes about in no small part because the format of “The Longest Daycare”.  A dialogue free short film leaves no room for the typical comedy and story telling problems that plague Zombie Simpsons and spoiled the movie.  Since there’s no Homer, no need to stretch things to fill an arbitrary runtime, and no dialogue of any kind, “The Longest Daycare” is protected from Jerkass Homer acting insane, pointless celebrity voice cameos, dull exposition to explain whatever nonsense is happening, and the need to stretch jokes and ideas as a way to kill time.

By operating in a new format that makes so many of the usual shortcuts unavailable, “The Longest Daycare” is free to both indulge its imagination and tell a simple story without getting bogged down in ill timed act breaks or any of the other routine necessities of television.  The result is a short story about Maggie, Gerald (the baby with the one eyebrow), and a caterpillar that she wants to protect and he wants to squish.  The setup is simple but sturdy, and the short moves along briskly while covering quite a bit of physical and emotional ground given that it takes place at a daycare center over only a short time. 

The animation plays a very clever two-track game with the audience.  On the more adult level, there’s a steady stream sign jokes and background gags, much of which goes by very quickly and requires you to pay attention lest you miss something.  On the more kid level, the perspective both of the setting and of the events is decidedly baby-like.  Everything from hallways to other kids to the caterpillar/cocoon that’s the focus of the conflict is shown from the mental and physical viewpoint of Maggie, so when she’s concentrating on something, we see it up close.  When she’s frightened by Gerald, we see him as a towering figure instead of the tiny baby he is (these images are from the trailer, which “Captain Squid” at No Homers was nice enough to grab):

LongestDaycareTrailer6

The ceiling and cabinets are all much higher off the ground than he is, but not from Maggie’s point of view.

The short uses this kind of perspective a lot, so that we see things the way Maggie would see them, both physically and emotionally.  For example, when Marge drops Maggie off, she walks down a hallway away from Maggie, but we don’t see it as a straight passageway, instead it’s got an arc to it that exaggerates the distance and reinforces the fact that we’re seeing it the same way a baby sitting on the floor would see it.  Even though Marge is only a few adult steps away, by Maggie’s standards she’s much further. 

You can see that baby-perspective in a couple of the other stills from the trailer.  Here’s Maggie in a hallway that looks much too small for her:

LongestDaycareTrailer7

And here she is flinging mud at Gerald from what looks like about six inches away:

LongestDaycareTrailer8

From a strict size perspective, neither of these shots makes much sense.  Look how large she and Gerald are compared to the hallway, how close in the bookshelf and the paining look, to say nothing of how close Maggie must be to Gerald as she tosses the dirt.  But they do an excellent job of conveying how Maggie feels, that Gerald is this massive, close-in threat. 

None of this is accidental, Maggie is the undisputed star of “The Longest Daycare”.  It’s a story where the audience gets to follow her, and root for her, and sympathize with her, and so it’s told from her point of view.  So while the animation isn’t as technically impressive or “ooh-ahh” worthy as, say, Pixar’s La Luna (which appeared before Brave), it’s much more entertaining than the usual HD animation on Zombie Simpsons because it doesn’t look like stale computer templates, but rather like a living part of the story. 

The soundtrack, which I’m pretty sure was done by Hans Zimmer (though it isn’t on his IMDb page yet) kept things bouncy and moving, though I can’t recall any part that really stood out as memorable.  And there were a few things that seemed excessive, unnecessary, or out of place.  But on the whole, “The Longest Daycare” was very good, and I look forward to seeing it again whenever it manages to hit the internet or home video. 

In the meantime, if you happen to find yourself in a big multiplex sometime in the next week (cough, Batman 7, cough), duck into an Ice Age 4 theater about fifteen minutes after the listed showtime and watch “The Longest Daycare”.  (I didn’t see it in 3D, anyone could’ve just walked in.)  It really is worth seeing, and I’m slightly surprised that even at No Homers (in this thread or this one), very few people went out to see it this weekend.  Sure, it’s only five minutes, but it’s still Simpsons on the big screen, and it’s definitely fun. 

13
Jul
12

Longest Daycare Open Thread

A Streetcar Named Marge4

“Don’t like to nap, eh?  We have a place for babies like you: the box.” – Ms. Sinclair

On a single viewing, The Longest Daycare, which premiered this morning in theaters near and far with Ice Age 4, was very good.  I say on a single viewing because this has the feel of elder seasons way more than the movie did, and way way more than Zombie Simpsons does (including the animation), so I’m sure once it inevitably finds its way to home video most Simpsons fans will watch it at least a couple of times.  I’ve changed my opinion on a few episodes as we’ve done Crazy Noises, so I don’t want to say that I’m going to love it forever, but on first impression, it impressed.

Consider this an open thread.  Jebus willing I’ll have a longer post up on Monday.

WARNING: Comments is a spoiler friendly zone.  By reading this with your inner monologue, you have waved any right to bitch about spoilers in perpetuity throughout the universe.

P.S. Whoever replied to the QotD on Twitter with the “buy your rock” line, I tried to retweet that but got an error and now I can’t see it.  If it got eaten by Twitter or if you took it down, consider it retweeted should it show up in my feed.

[Update (5:49pm Eastern): Here’s the link to the new site’s review of Ice Age 4.]

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.

03
Mar
11

Why Teevee Sucks (The Book)

Treehouse of Horror III6

“Mr. Blackheart?” – Lisa Simpson
“Yes, my pretty?” – Mr. Blackheart
“Are you an ivory dealer?” – Lisa Simpson
“Little girl, I’ve had lots of jobs in my day, whale hunter, seal clubber, president of the FOX Network, and like most people, yeah, I’ve dealt a little ivory.” – Mr. Blackheart

A few weeks ago, a reader (thanks Steve!) e-mailed me with a PDF copy of an unpublished book written by a longtime television writer named Andrew Nicholls.  Nicholls and Darrell Vickers, his writing partner, have been typing away for television since the 80s, including a number of recognizable titles and the last years of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  (This is their website).  Nicholls’ book is titled “Valuable Lessons: How I Made (And Lost) Seven Million Dollars Writing For Over A Hundred Shows You Never Heard Of”.  It’s a 280-page insider’s tale of the bureaucratic, greedy, dishonest, and generally fucked systems and people that make almost all teevee suck so very, very hard.  There’s a PDF copy available at their website, or you can drop eight bucks and get a nicely formatted Kindle version.  Either way it’s an excellent read.

In particular, I want to draw your attention to two parts which serve to illustrate the same principle from two different vantages.  If Nicholls has an overarching theme, other than “where the hell did my life and money go?”, it’s that teevee is shitty because too many twits are allowed positions of creative power.  The first selection is the only section of the book that deals directly with The Simpsons, though Al Jean and Mike Reiss do make an occasional cameo elsewhere.  The second is about what happens to an otherwise promising show when the inmates begin running the studio.

The Simpsons was famously doused in anti-executive garlic by His Holiness St. Brooks of New Jersey, and “Valuable Lessons” is a reminder of just how lucky we are to have gotten the show the way we did.  I’m going to quote this at some length because it gets right to the heart of how utterly backwards and unintentionally cynical the unwritten rules of mass media really are.  From a chapter titled “Where Are They?” (p. 44):

Those who develop programs for television, who account for all the new shows’ existence at the annual TCA (Television Critics Association) meetings in L.A. or New York, often say they’re open to any new thing they feel the public might be turned on by. Innovation. Stuff we haven’t seen on TV until now. Push that envelope. We’re the network that takes chances. We’re always looking for talent. (No, they’re always looking for latent). We wanted to give it a twist, do it from a new angle. We told everyone this year to think outside the box. Mix things up. Take a few wild swings, see what happens.

So where are the high-IQ characters on TV who aren’t also socially inept?

Where are the single people with poor or no relationships?

Where are the characters who have three or four, or even two major interests in their lives?

Where for that matter is the person who is consistently interested in anything other than sports, beer, sex and money?

Where are the poor people who slowly work their way to wealth instead of inheriting it or winning it in a lottery like Malcolm and Eddie or Roseanne?

Where are the socialists?

Where are the highly-admired bullies? A 2004 UCLA study revealed that schoolyard bullies are actually popular with their peers and, contrary to everything you see on TV, they have the lowest rate of emotional problems. (We had a highly-admired bully on Ned’s Newt, but you haven’t seen that.)

Where are the men who offer to help a woman build or assemble something and who succeed? Or the women (Ellen being the exception) who do so and fail?

Where are the mentally ill Chinese guys?

Where are the families engaged in ongoing frustrating disputes with insurance companies, HMOs, Boards Of Education, local government?

Where are the unattractive middle-aged people trying to figure out why or where their lives turned out so horribly wrong?

Where are the men or women involved in ongoing labor disputes?

When has a boys’ sports team ever beaten a girls’ team?

Where are the Jewish families, orthodox or non? With only 5.8 million citizens, who’s more of a minority in the U.S. than the Jews? There are more Mormons in America, for Moroni’s sake. And where are the Mormons for that matter, God bless their underage-niece-marrying souls?

Where are the white characters who continually get the better of a minority character? This is the kind of argument right-wingers make, no? But what does it say of the idées recues of a society that a network will only air an episode of a comedy in which the woman shows her husband how to start a fire, or how to jack up a car or erect a camping tent?

It says they think it’s funnier that the woman can do it.

Think about that. They wouldn’t air a show in which the punchline was that an athlete can outrun a couch potato. Or that a Harvard grad out-SATS a self-educated guy who grew up on a farm. (The Simpsons is a whole separate case… and it’s close to miraculous, considering how much money it’s made Fox, and how much the other networks like money too, that it hasn’t been more widely imitated in half-hour comedy. Their secret: no network notes. Ever. Do you know what Fox did to help the show in its first two years? Nothing. They hated it.)

In other words, they think having the woman fix the tire is so obviously unlikely that to show it will provoke laughter. They are saying, “We all know women are incompetent at this, let’s turn things on their head in this one instance for a big wacky guffaw!”

Except, over the years, that one instance has become every instance, and the comedy has worn off like the outside of a Tic Tac.

If you’re picking up here because you skipped the block quote, go back and read the whole thing.  I’m serious.

Shit like that is why The Simpsons is unique, and why most television programs are forgettable and bland.  How many times have you seen the exact same plot on different shows?  How many times have you heard the same jokes?  Watched as the same concepts and characters are dragged in circles around your screen like the floppy corpses of vanquished charioteers?

Which brings us to Drexell’s Class.  This particular single season sitcom has so completely dissolved into the pop culture ether that its opening credits don’t even merit their own YouTube video.  You have to skip to the 5:35 mark, past the openings for The Trials of Rosie O’Neill, Step by Step, Reasonable Doubts, The Best of the Worst, and Palace Guard, to see them and, insult to injury, the video is titled “1991 TV show openings Part 7”.  I failed to find a clip; most of the video search results were maudlin tributes to Brittany Murphy (who got started on the show), and even those were just still photos of her accompanied by whatever piece of musical treacle seemed least likely to offend the copyright gods.  Drexell’s Class has been all but totally forgotten and, to hear Nicholls recounting of its genesis, it’s no wonder why.

Drexell's Class

Image yoinked from epguides.

The show was originally conceived as “W.C. Fields teaching school”.  It’s a pretty simple fish out of water setup: cantankerous hard ass forced into the company of educators he considers beneath him and children he loathes.  They even got Dabney Coleman to play the W.C. Fields part, which made perfect sense as Coleman spent the 80s playing cantankerous hard asses (most memorably in Tootsie and Nine to Five).  Nicholls describes the beginning of the first episode (p. 140):

On a particularly bad day, Drexell calls the father of a troublemaking student in to school, only to learn that the dad works at a local racetrack and knows of a wink wink sure thing in tomorrow’s last race.  Drexell places a big bet and proceeds to systematically trash everyone and everything at the school, while running back and forth between home and class to pack, and following the race on the TV and radio.  Of course after he’s called the Principal an “inflexible, barren, potato-shaped sack of malice” the winning horse stumbles on the track.

But that wasn’t what it looked like once FOX got done with it.  And please remember that this is 1991 FOX, the network that was operating out of a shoebox, broadcasting controversial fare like The Simpsons and Married With Children, and constantly promoting itself as the rebellion against network television.  Nicholls:

At first Fox seemed to be on board with the premise of the show:  the posters had a picture of a scowling Dabney and the slogan DABNEY COLEMAN ON FOX.  IT HAD TO HAPPEN.

But as we went into production the notes on the script bespoke a different attitude:
*character is too nasty
*give Otis’s character more genuine moments so you care about him
*he is a fundamentally decent guy and this needs to be sensed
*show how he takes the situation of anger and turns it into a positive teaching thing
*show edgier ways of showing “heart” moments that will be unique to the show
*he needs to have more levels in his character coming across (charming, funny, graceful, wisdom)
*have Otis push Billy Ray to a new level and show a breakthrough and how it has affected him
*a genuine moment is needed in the script
*show how he genuinely is a good teacher

Gee, can we get genuine enough?  When I read heart moments I just about beshat myself.

As you can guess, things went rapidly downhill from there.  FOX, the edgy new kid on the block that was supposed to be changing all the rules, had the horse race excised in full from an episode in which the main plot was the horse race.  A few pages later FOX lets them know, “We never want to see another scene set in the classroom”, on a show that had the word “Class” in the title.

It’s that kind of grotesque, Brazil-level absurdity that makes so many shows basically unwatchable if you want to do anything besides set your brain to “liquefy” for a little while.  Case in point, this promo for the episode “Bully for Otis”, which looks to have been broadcast during the original airing of “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk”:

Har har, Dabney fall down!  Check out this joint promo for “Homer Defined” and the Drexell’s Class episode “Convictions”:

It’s funny because they’re prisoners!  Keep in mind that “Convictions” was the fifth episode of the series.  Five (5) episodes in and they had completely abandoned their premise.  Nicholls relates that the prohibition on showing the regular classroom came after episode four.  “Valuable Lessons” has plenty of those kinds of gory details, up to and including a dead orangutan, as well as some “aww Johnny” moments about Carson that are just nice.  It’s a quick read, and if you have any interest in how television shows are made, and why they are made so relentlessly poorly, it’s very much worth your time.




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