Posts Tagged ‘Rosebud

21
Oct
17

Quote of the Day

“Remember, Smithers: in and out in eighteen seconds.” – C.M. Burns

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).

02
Dec
16

A Small Example of Typically Astonishing Dialogue from “Rosebud”

rosebud19

“I’m so funny! This is gonna be great!” – Homer Simpson
“What are you doing?” – Marge Simpson
“I’m writing a delicious send up of Mr. Burns for his birthday party. Is “poo-poo” one word or two?” – Homer Simpson

The Simpsons wouldn’t be what it is without the acting, the animation, the music, the sound effects, and everything else, but ultimately it all derives from the writing, and the writing on the show was as finely honed as any artistic masterpiece. Consider this brief stretch of dialog from “Rosebud”:

Homer: “Ow. Where did I lose ’em? I’ll never wiggle my bare butt in public again.”
Lisa: “I’d like to believe that this time, I really would.”
Marge: “Bart, run down to the store and get a big bag of ice for your father.”
Bart: “Yes’m. Dad, I know you’re discouraged, but please don’t deny the world your fat can.”
Homer: “Don’t worry, boy, she’ll be ready for your Aunt Selma’s birthday.”
Lisa: “I knew it.”

If this exchange isn’t taught in screenwriting classes, it should be. The jokes start in the first line because Homer didn’t “lose” his audience, he never had them in the first place. (Going on after an announcement about the death of a small puppy, not unlike Lassie, will do that.)

From there Homer, profoundly dejected, declares that he’s going to keep his “bare butt” private from now on. Lisa’s response is three punchlines in one: 1) “like to believe”, because she clearly doesn’t, 2) “this time”, which means Homer has promised to stop showing his butt to strangers multiple times before, and 3) “I really would”, the resigned, melancholy sincerity of this means that not only does she not believe him, she’s so numb from being let down in the past that she can’t bring herself to believe her father even a little.

rosebud20

Look how sad she is.

The next line is Marge advancing the plot (a/k/a exposition) which the show seamlessly blends in with the jokes. It fits snugly both with Marge’s character and the immediate situation. This kind of routine, quick, and sensible story advancement is totally beyond Zombie Simpsons.

Bart gives his mother a smarmy “Yessum”, as though he routinely does errands with no objection, and then immediately tries to cheer Homer up by telling him not to be “discouraged” about mooning strangers. Note that he doesn’t say it directly or even crudely, his appeal to Homer is downright noble in its phrasing: to not “deny the world” Homer’s “fat can”. Bart finds Homer’s ass as sincerely hilarious as Lisa finds it mortifying, and the wording perfectly conveys that without so much as a wasted syllable or stray modifier.

rosebud21

Look how genuinely supportive Bart is of Homer’s penchant for mooning. It’s endearingly funny.

Because of that setup, Homer’s response can work on two levels: first, he instantly cheers up because, like Bart, Homer finds “wiggling his bare butt” in public to be the height of humor. He’s almost gleeful about it. Second, despite his earlier declaration to stop, he’s already got his next act of public nudity planned for his despised sister-in-law’s birthday.

Finally, the scene ends with a callback to Lisa’s multi-punchline from fifteen seconds earlier. The simple “I knew it” confirms her earlier skepticism, so not only did Lisa not believe her father, it becomes even funnier because she was right to do so.

The entire scene is less than thirty seconds long and contains only six lines of dialogue, but it moves the story along, shows off the entire family, and is packed not just with jokes, but with layered jokes. Scenes like this are a big part of why the show is so endlessly rewatchable: no screen time is ever wasted, and anything that can be funny is funny.

21
Oct
16

Quote of the Day

 

strappedforcash

“Naturally I can’t pay you much of a reward because I’m strapped for cash. . . . As you can see, this old place is falling apart.” – C.M. Burns

01
Oct
16

Compare & Contrast: Burns’s Childhood Trauma

rosebud18

“Wait, you forgot your bear! A symbol of your lost youth and innocence!” – Papa Burns 

First, a brief update: I have been pedaling around the Midwest for a couple weeks now. After six days on the road, I departed my home state of Michigan on a ferry to Wisconsin, then went south through Chicago, across Indiana, and made it into Ohio last Saturday. For the last few days I’ve been staying with Mad Jon and his wife here in Cleveland.

The most obvious mistake I made in planning this trip was to massively over-estimate how much free time I would have. It turns out it’s not just the biking itself that takes a while, it’s also things like making and breaking camp, finding food on the road, and simply figuring out where to go and how to get there. Add in an hour or two per day spent remoting into my useless real job and my fantasy of watching Simpsons episodes in sunlit parks died a harsh death on the road. It didn’t help that the bicycle mode on Google Maps is the best route to your destination . . . not always.

Yesterday I did make time to watch the season premier of Zombie Simpsons, “Monty Burns’ Fleeing Circus”. It is every bit as boring and formulaic as we’ve come to expect. There’s lots of pointless exposition, jokes that get explained and pre-explained, characters that act nothing like themselves, and lots of loose plot threads. For those of you with the good sense not to have watched it, a brief synopsis follows.

The town is destroyed by a laser like sunbeam that somehow reflects off of a concrete sculpture. The Simpson family then goes to Burns Manor to beg Mr. Burns to rebuild the town. He agrees to rebuild on the condition that he can stage a variety show at Springfield Bowl. (Why he wouldn’t be able to just do this anytime is never explored.) Over the course of about half a dozen flashbacks, we see that Burns himself had performed at the Bowl as a child and been humiliated, and this new show is some kind of redemption, or something. Meanwhile, since no one is in charge at the nuclear plant, the employees throw a days long party and it explodes.

There are, naturally, a lot of plots and stories that get swiftly forgotten as soon as they’re off screen. First and foremost is the aforementioned destruction of the town. We see it in rubble, and then never again, though apparently the school and the Simpson home were unaffected since we see them. Further, “wait, what?” type moments include the apparently harmless explosion at the plant, characters like Lenny both being in Burns’s show and partying at the plant, and the complete disappearance of the audience at Burns’s show, which was such a whopper that they actually felt compelled to mention it:

Lisa:  Wait, where did they go? How did 15,000 people leave so fast? Hey, uh, wanna see me do a cartwheel?

The truly hacktacular part of this episode was Burns’s childhood trauma. It’s the ostensible reason he’s putting on this convoluted variety show, but despite all the time they spend expositing about it and flashing back to 1913, Burns’s motivations are left remarkably vague. To see what I mean, consider the flashbacks in sequence.

1. Child Burns backstage, wordless and expectant:

pointlessflashback1

2. Later, during auditions that involve the Crazy Cat Lady being carried around by her cats, Burns says, “This isn’t right. This isn’t how it was at all. I remember that night so vividly.”:

pointlessflashback2

We then see Burns’s mother tell him it’s time to go on stage, he says he won’t let her down, and then she licks his face extensively. It’s weird. Then Burns declares he wants everything like it was back then.

3. The next flashback is Burns yelling at Lisa, “And what part of what I’ve never told you don’t you understand?”:

pointlessflashback3

We then see Burns getting laughed at, looking sad, and being told by Mommy Licks-a-Lot that he’s a “laughingstock”.

4. After Lisa visits Burns Manor, Smithers shows her an old time film reel where we see Burns’s performance. His pants fall down:

pointlessflashback4

After that we see Burns looking at an old time movie projector to see title cards of people laughing at him, and there might have been another one but I don’t care enough to look again.

Back in the present, Burns eventually goes on stage himself and . . . has his pants fall down, rendering the entire story pointless. It’s not as weird as Burns’s mom licking him for ten seconds, but it’s pretty weird.

Compare that hamfisted mess to the two quick flashbacks we get in “Rosebud”, which not only shows us a childhood trauma far faster, but only one of which even involves Burns. Instead of wasting time destroying the town and then forgetting all about it, “Rosebud” opens with Burns dreaming about the day he lost Bobo:

Young Burns: Tralala-lalala, tralala-lala, I’m the happiest boy there is! Aren’t I Bobo?
Ma Burns: Happy, come here, happy!
Young Burns: Yes, Momsy?
Pa Burns: Happy, would you like to continue living with us, your loving, natural parents? Or would you rather live with this twisted, loveless billionaire?”
Young Burns: Let’s roll.

letsroll

After that, we see Pa Burns run after the limo and describe Bobo as, “a symbol of your lost youth and innocence!”, which is the kind of functional, meta-joke exposition that is well beyond the skills of Zombie Simpsons.

Not only is this scene shorter and more contained than the sprawling collection of flashbacks Zombie Simpsons does, but it also uses Burns the kid to explain Burns the adult. Burns didn’t become a twisted, loveless billionaire because of some trauma or accident, he actively chose it, instantly dropping his beloved bear without so much as a second thought. Even at this tender age, Burns was always more interested in money and power than happiness, he just later wanted his bear back.

Contrast that with Zombie Simpsons, where Burns gets humiliated as a child and then for some reason decides that the way to heal this decades after the fact is to take all the townspeople he hates and put them in a similar show. Even on a surface level it doesn’t make any sense. But it really falls apart when they stoop to explaining it:

Lisa: I think you’re trying to make up for what happened to you then by putting on a perfect Bowl show now.

Four flashbacks deep, they take the time to spell out exactly what was painfully obvious from the first one. And that’s not even the final, expository reveal of this nonsense. After Burns’s pants fall down on stage in the present, he finishes up by negating everything we’ve seen so far:

Burns: I can’t stay mad at you. At my age I can’t stay anything at anybody. Oh, and you know what, the laughter in my head is gone.

Zombie Simpsons sets the bar pretty high for hack writing, but this is up there with their worst. First it contradicts everything we just saw (he stayed mad about this for decades), and then it wipes it all away as though it never happened (the laughter in his head is gone because his pants fell down a second time?). The episode didn’t make sense before he said this, but this line goes beyond that by admitting that it was pointless even if it had made sense. If they cared in the least about what they were doing, the completeness of its incoherence would almost be impressive. As it is, they just needed a little more filler to wrap things up.

The Burns of “Rosebud” wants his bear back, and is willing to torment the entire town to get it. When he finally gets what he wants, he ever so briefly becomes happy before quickly returning to his old self. The Burns of Zombie Simpsons goes through an elaborate melodrama, involves people he doesn’t like for no reason, and then declares himself happy after re-living the thing that crushed him in the first place.

27
Jul
16

Quote of the Day

HomerPinata

“Every time Mr. Burns has a birthday, all his employees have to help out at the party, and I always get some terrible job.” – Homer Simpson
“Where is that dratted pinata?” – C.M. Burns
“Ow….Ow….Ow….Missed me!….Ow.” – Homer Simpson




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