Archive for the 'The Simpsons' Category

23
Sep
17

Saturday Morning Cartoons

“Mr. Speaker, if I could call your attention to the retroactive subsidy appropriations override bill, I refer you to page four thousand five hundred and…” – Cable

I’ve often said that it’s the little things that are what makes The Simpsons endlessly rewatchable. Case in point is the houseplant above, which I did not notice for years and years. The first time we see it is when Marge carries it into the house right before Homer announces to his family that they’ve now got cable. From there it gets set next to the couch as an unobtrusive background gag that also demonstrates just how in love with cable Homer truly is.

The plant isn’t asked to eat any time or advance the plot. The show never calls any attention to it. The whole time it’s there growing and withering, we’re getting all the cable parodies about Mexican wrestling, the World Series of Cockfighting,* and movies that receive two stars or less and are repeated ad nauseam. By the time Homer literally peels himself off the couch to go to church, it’s crumpled and dead.

(*Incidentally, this is another example of how exquisitely tuned the show’s cultural antennae were. The World Series of Cockfighting is “live from New Orleans” where they’re gonna have “big fun on the bayou tonight”. Louisiana was, indeed, the last state to ban cockfighting . . . in 2008.)

In the grand scheme of this episode, it’s as minor as minor touches get. “Homer vs. Lisa and the Eighth Commandment” is chockablock with parodies and/or gag titles about a dozen different movies, the then new format of infomercials, kids wanting to watch porn, the ridiculousness of boxing, and about a hundred other things. In another running background joke, Jimbo manages to shoplift his way through a satirical morality tale about theft. Like him, the plant is never going to be anyone’s favorite part of this one, but it’s there waiting for people to find it on the Nth time they view it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some things to do before I spent much of my afternoon streaming college football on someone else’s cable log-in.

18
Sep
17

Quote of the Day

“Forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty. Flag’s up to date, very good, Seymour.” – Superintendent Chalmers

Happy birthday David Mirkin!

15
Sep
17

Quote of the Day

“Now let’s take a look at a young Charles Bronson’s brief stint replacing Andy Griffith on The Andy Griffith Show.” – Before They Were Famous Host
“Where’s Otis? He’s not in his cell.” – Not Don Knotts
“I shot him.” – Charles Bronson
“Well, that’s-what!?” – Not Don Knotts
“Now I’m going down to Emmett’s Fix It Shop to fix Emmett.” – Charles Bronson

Happy birthday, Mike Reiss! 

07
Sep
17

Quote of the Day

“I’m sure he’ll over us a fair reward. . . . And then we’ll make him double it!” – Marge Simpson
“Huh?” – Homer, Bart, & Lisa Simpson
“Well, why can’t I be greedy once in a while?” – Marge Simpson

Happy birthday, Julie Kavner!

01
Sep
17

Why Zombie Simpsons Is Unkillable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

31
Aug
17

Alf Clausen Fired

“So that’s it, after twenty years: so long, good luck?” – Kirk van Houten
“I don’t recall saying good luck.” – Cracker Factory Manager

Last night, Variety broke the news that longtime Simpsons music guy Alf Clausen will no longer be working on Zombie Simpsons:

Clausen told Variety that he received a call from “Simpsons” producer Richard Sakai that the company was seeking “a different kind of music” and that he would no longer be scoring the longtime Fox hit.

First of all, condolences to Clausen. Getting fired is rarely fun, and getting fired by the boss’s assistant, over the phone, from a job you’ve had for a quarter of a century, and just four weeks before the next season starts is especially crappy.

The Simpsons wouldn’t have been The Simpsons without him and his orchestra. Vulture put up a nice little package of YouTube videos of some of his more memorable contributions (there’s a tiny bit of Zombie Simpsons at the end, but who cares?), but for my money it’s the smaller musical cues that are what elevated the show.

To take just one example: the end of “Old Money”. The music gets heroic as Grampa quotes Kipling, then gets taught as Homer keeps him from betting, then resolves happily after the bet would’ve missed, and finally flows seamlessly into a sweet and uplifting number as Grampa uses Bea’s money to give the old folks some dignity (and a giant TV for watching cartoons!). It’s genuinely beautiful music and the episode would end with a thud without it.

And, of course, there’s all those other moments: the few Karate Kid-esque notes when Bart is training in “Dead Putting Society”, the heavy gloom of the endless line of mail trucks in “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”, the seemingly infinite variations on “Baby Elephant Walk” in “Dancin’ Homer”, the dramatic campaign montage from “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”, and, of course, the dual endings of “Lisa’s Substitute”, first when Mr. Bergstrom leaves and then when Homer patches things up with his heartbroken daughter. Oh, silly me, I just cited examples that are only from Season 2. Clausen kept up that kind of work for years.

Variety points the finger squarely at the cheapskates at FOX:

Speculation about Clausen’s dismissal involves cost-cutting measures, which have been ongoing at “The Simpsons” in recent years, despite its massive profits for Fox and executive producer James L. Brooks’ Gracie Films.

Clausen uses a 35-piece orchestra every week — something that “Simpsons” creator Matt Groening insisted upon from the start of the show. Including costs of musicians, recording studios, and orchestration, expenses routinely run into the millions of dollars per year.

The sourcing on that is obviously less than ideal. (It’s not even an anonymous source, it’s anonymous speculation.) But it does fit overall with the direction of the show these last few years. Ratings are down, and presumably the ad rates are down along with them.

I have no idea what Clausen himself was getting paid, but 35-piece orchestras aren’t cheap. Whether or not it’s actually in the millions per year doesn’t really matter. The team of monkeys that runs FOX made a purely mercenary decision, and, from their point of view, it’s probably the correct one. How many viewers who haven’t turned the show off already are going to care if the live music gets replaced by two guys and a synthesizer? The only immediate question is whether Clausen is done right now, or if he’s staying on through the current WABF production run, which has seven episodes left.

As for what this means for the future of Zombie Simpsons, who knows? A move like this is not the behavior of a healthy production, but we knew that already. Clausen’s involuntary departure, while bad for him and the show, pales in comparison to what would’ve happened if they’d followed through on replacing Harry Shearer two years ago, and by all accounts they were dead serious about that. FOX has already picked up Zombie Simpsons for two more production runs, which will take it through a full Season 30 and into at least a partial Season 31 in the fall of 2019. Whether or not this is a harbinger of the end won’t be known until next fall at the earliest.

Meanwhile, Zombie Simpsons has managed to get even worse than it already was. Given that it’s already unwatchably dull, this at least qualifies as somewhat impressive.

Good luck, Alf. We love you and your work and we always will!

Update: Clausen confirms on Twitter that the orchestra has also been fired. We now bring you an exclusive sneak peak of the new musical coordinator for Seasons 29 and 30:

Update 2: In a move that shows they’ve learned the importance of weaseling out of things, the show has released a very weaselly statement:

“We tremendously value Alf Clausen’s contributions to the Simpsons and he will continue to have an ongoing role in the show,” producers said in a statement provided to Deadline. “We remain committed to the finest in music for the Simpsons, absolutely including orchestral. This is the part where we would make a joke but neither Alf’s work nor the music of the Simpsons is treated as anything but seriously by us.”

It’s not clear what his ongoing role will be.

Jean tweeted out the link, so this is official. It’s also about as vague and non-specific as it’s possible to be in English. There’s nothing definite, no denial of the earlier report that Clausen and the orchestra are gone, and no concrete replacement offered. 

At best this could set the stage for a triumphant reunion like what happened with Shearer two years ago. More likely this is a cover-your-ass publicity move that doesn’t change a thing. 

26
Aug
17

Zombie Simpsons Gains YouTube Stardom

“Hey, wolfie! Put down that hors d’oeuvre. It’s time for the main course.” – Groundskeeper Willie

No sooner do I decide to take a few days away from the internet than a popular YouTuber drops a 30 minute video that cites this blog and promptly racks up 900,000 views and counting. (My thanks to everyone who alerted me to it via Twitter and email.) The whole thing is worth watching:

Excellent. For starters, my thanks to John Walsh/Super Eyepatch Wolf for the kind mentions and the link to Zombie Simpsons. More importantly, I heartily endorse this event or product’s analysis of how the show went to hell. It identifies Season 8 as a turning point, gives great examples of how layered jokes have been dropped in favor of lazy setup-punchline crap, and contains one of the best explanations of Homer vs. Jerkass Homer I’ve ever seen (22m28s).

Most flattering of all, it led to this tweet from Al Jean himself:

Aww, thanks.

 

 




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