Posts Tagged ‘The Simpsons: An Uncensored Unauthorized History

29
Oct
09

Harvey Fierstein – Springfield Hero

Karl Book promotion seems to involve taking excepts from the book and repackaging them into headlines as a way to interest people in purchasing the thing.  In that vein I wanted to highlight one of my absolute favorite parts of Ortved’s book.  (Which you should think about buying, or at least getting from your local library where you can “borrow” books for free.)

Harvey Fierstein has solid Simpsons credentials.  He was the voice of Karl in Season 2’s “Simpson and Delilah” and Patty and Selma were stunned to learn that he was gay in Season 6’s “A Star Is Burns”.  Harvey Fierstein also thinks Zombie Simpsons is shit.  Well, he doesn’t say that in quite so many words, but he did say this to Ortved:

“Years later they contacted me when they wanted Carl to return.  But I didn’t really like their approach.  It had nothing to do with my character.  Homer and Marge have a fight, and she throws him out and he has no place to stay, and he runs into Carl, who sets him up with a pair of gay men.  All they needed me for was to introduce him to these gay guys.  But the script was basically just a lot of very clever gay jokes, and there wasn’t that Simpsons twist.  Jim Brooks and Matt Groening and those writers have always added that extra something beneath the surface, and it just wasn’t there.  Basically, Homer just had a lot of fun hanging out with gay men, and drinking in bars, and dancing at discos, and all that, and there was nothing – there was no commentary there.  Every restaurant had a silly gay name.  They gym had a silly gay name.  They were all double entendres, obviously.  And I said, “Anybody could do this.  You’re the fucking Simpsons.  Do something we have never seen before.”

And let me say that it was very flattering that they asked me to do it.  Jim Brooks said, “You know, you’re the very first voice we ever asked to come back and do it again.”  I was surprised.  I asked, “Why do they need me to introduce them to this gay couple?  Why wouldn’t he move in with Carl and his partner?”  Then I started thinking, Maybe [sic] they just wanted my stamp of approval on it because it was just a bunch of clichés.”

There’s more in the book, but the point is that Harvey Fierstein refused to be on Zombie Simpsons because it sucks.  Harvey Fierstein, you are my new hero.

[Edited to fix transcription errors on my part.]

26
Oct
09

DHS Book Review: The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

Ortved Book Cover “Marge, I’m bored.” – Homer Simpson
“Why don’t you read something?” – Marge Simpson
“Because I’m trying to reduce my boredom.” – Homer Simpson

In countless discussions with other Simpsons fans over the years the one question that always seems to come up is “Why?”, as in “Why did the show get so bad?” I’ve heard a lot of different theories which always seem to boil down to something overly simple, ‘this guy left’, ‘that guy took over as show runner’, ‘they just ran out of topics/ideas’. The reality, as John Ortved documents exhaustively in his new book “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History”, is that it is a question without a straight line answer. No one decision ever set the show irrevocably on a course for mediocrity. Nor was there one incident or feud that destroyed whatever it was that made The Simpsons unique. It was a wild and chaotic ride from the start and the real miracle isn’t that the show has lasted for two decades; it’s that it was as good as it was for as long as it was.

Ortved calls his book an “oral history” and that’s as good a description as any. He’s done an enormous amount of interviews with people who were instrumental to the show, from writers to animators to people who knew James L. Brooks and Matt Groening way back when. For the folks he couldn’t interview, Groening and Brooks included, he combed through old interviews they had given to other media outlets and quotes them within the context of what he’s asking. This tactic, while understandable and effective, creates some odd juxtapositions. It doesn’t quite flow to have a quote from Groening (or someone else who wouldn’t grant an interview) that was uttered when the show as in its infancy right next to something someone may have said in 2007 or later. I don’t see any way this could have been avoided, but it does make for strange reading from time to time.

The interviews Ortved has conducted are absolute gold though, and they make up the bulk of the book. Here are the first hand accounts of how the animation process was begun, how the people who worked on The Tracey Ullman Show thought the Simpsons stacked up against the other bits, how the writing staff viewed what they were doing. It’s a treasure trove of information, gossip and hilarious war stories.

Ortved has divided his book into eighteen chapters, but it breaks relatively cleanly into three main sections. The first and, for me at least, the most informative is about the deep background of the show. This includes sections on Groening’s “Life in Hell” comic strip, the chaotic beginnings of the FOX network and the pre-Simpsons history of James Brooks’ Gracie Films. The ramshackle and frightfully coincidental nature of the earliest Simpsons work is on full display and it really makes one appreciate just how lucky we really are to have ever gotten The Simpsons in the form we did. The number and variety of unrelated elements that all had to fall into exquisite place and click together is astonishing.

The second part of the book is by far the funniest for the simple reason that it recounts what Ortved refers to as the “golden age” of the show (by his count roughly Seasons 2-8). It should come as a surprise to no one that for that much brilliant, insane and funny stuff to show up on your teevee a great deal of brilliant, insane and funny stuff had to happen behind the scenes. The highlights of this part, and really of the whole book, are the chapter about Conan O’Brian and the chapter about George Meyer and John Swartzwelder. There are multiple stories contained in those chapters, and a few in the ones around them, that are so funny I had to put the book down for a moment to get a hold of myself.

But, like the golden age of the show itself, the good times can’t last and sure enough the story becomes considerably less enjoyable, though no less informative, as it begins to wind to a close. Ortved dutifully recounts contract negotiations with Fox, gives a run down of various guest stars that have appeared on the show and takes a look at the show’s place in history. These chapters aren’t bad reading, they’re full of interesting stories and Ortved keeps things moving briskly, but they’re a definite come down from the highs in the middle of the book.

This part is also about as close as we’re ever going to get to answering the question of “Why?” and the short answer is that things change. More and more of the old hands burned out or left for other pastures, some on good terms some less so. What the stories make clear, especially when you read them all together like this, is that it never could’ve lasted. Even if there’d never been a disagreement over money, even if tempers had never run high in the writers’ room, even if everyone from Season 2-6 had stayed indefinitely, it still would’ve gone downhill. Creating it in the first place was a borderline miracle, sustaining it forever was never possible.

The book does have two real flaws, and while both of them are minor they need to be brought up. The first is that it does whiff occasionally on basic Simpsons info, the most glaring of which is the misspelling of Mr. Smithers first name, which is “Waylon” not “Wayland” as it appears repeatedly in the text. But there are also times when the book misidentifies in which season an episode occurred and other small missteps. These things aren’t important, but if you’re a serious Simpsons fan (and I’m not sure who else would be reading this book) encountering one does knock you out of the narrative a little.

The second problem, and though it only occurs a few times it is much more distracting, is when Ortved strays from The Simpsons to try and discuss some of its successors. There are long discourses on The Critic, Futurama, Family Guy, and even South Park that read like the kind of third rate television criticism you’d see in TV Guide or Newsweek. When Ortved writes similar tracts about whatever aspect of The Simpsons he’s discussing they tend to be about very specific topics and involve a lot of quotes from the people who were there. These, on the other hand, are mostly just him opining on each show’s relative merits.

But those parts are brief and shouldn’t detract from what has been done here, which is to tell the tale of The Simpsons about as well as it can probably be told. As Ortved notes at the beginning, there’s no way to ever know the “true” tale of how the show came to be. Everyone remembers things a little differently and it’s not like anyone was taking minutes in the writers’ room. But this is the next best thing.

What it is, as I said a few weeks ago, is a book that’s mostly awesome. The amount of detail is astonishing and while none of the big names come out smelling like roses the simple fact is that everyone involved did at least something right because The Simpsons was much greater than the sum of its parts. No one is going to revoke your Simpsons fandom if don’t read this book, but it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than Zombie Simpsons. In fact, if you’re planning on buying the upcoming Season 20 set, or if you know someone who is, save some cash and buy this book instead. As of this writing Ortved’s book on Amazon is barely half the price of Season 20 on DVD and having been through both of them I can tell you that the book is much, much funnier.

20
Oct
09

Ortved Publicity Train Keeps Rolling

There’s an entertaining interview with John Ortved at the Arts Beat blog at nytimes.com.  (Yes it’s the same blog that thinks it’s Season 20, but it’s a different writer.)  Promoting anything involves answering the same questions over and over again and this is no exception so there isn’t too much new content here, but there were two things I wanted to highlight.  First this rather grim answer:

Q.

You make a number of references in the book to the decline in quality of the show. Have you ever heard of Fox or the folks behind the show pulling the plug at some point soon?

A.

In terms of its spiral, to be fair to the writers, there’s only so much you can do with a set of characters. I mean, 20 years? I don’t know how they do it. But if they’re still trying to break ground, they should have canned it 10 years ago.

But I don’t see them ending it anytime soon unless it becomes unprofitable. They just opened “The Simpsons” ride at Universal Studios, and I see a trend in that way. In the interviews I conducted, someone compared Matt Groening to Walt Disney. “The Simpsons” is a brand at this point that is as recognizable or getting to be as recognizable as Mickey Mouse and Disney, and I don’t know why they can’t have a Simpsons Land at some point.

It’s the “unprofitable” part that really scares me, and not only because that’s when Troy McClure said it would end.  FOX can afford to run whole seasons of new episodes as loss leaders (and it wouldn’t surprise me if they already are) because advertising is way less than 50% of Simpsons revenue.  If the people in charge think the show needs to be on the air to keep the merchandising going then it doesn’t matter how bad the actual content gets.  The ratings will have to become humiliatingly low to damage the brand.  That hideous USA Today article we linked back in June made that much clear.  Simpsons Land?  Why not.

On a less sad note, Ortved has good taste in quotes:

Q.

Give me your three favorite lines.
A.

This is really hard. O.K., No. 1:. “Does whiskey count as beer?” — Homer (after being asked by a TV announcer, “Are you on your third beer of the evening?”)

No. 2. “That man is my exact double … that dog has a puffy tail! [Chasing the dog] Heehee. Puff!” — Homer (on seeing a man who looks as exactly the same as him, lying bloodied outside Moe’s tavern, then being distracted by a dog with a puffy tail).

No. 3. “Me fail English? That’s unpossible.” – Ralph Wiggum

That’s a solid list, especially if he was speaking off the cuff.

15
Oct
09

Synergy Works at Conde Nast Too

Yesterday I finished reading our free(!) copy of John Ortved’s new book “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History”.  Given that I am a long winded bastard and that there’s a lot to cover (for Simpsons fans and loathers of Zombie Simpsons) we’ll probably have some lengthy posts about it coming up.  The short verdict is that it’s mostly awesome and was a very fun read.  For today though we’re going to take a look at some of the synergistic on-line publicity the book has started to garner.  First up is The New Yorker which fills its word count by blathering pointlessly about Marge’s Playboy cover (the quote from the book is in bold because WordPress won’t let me double quote something):

Ortved quotes Brent Forrester, a writer and producer on the show, who identifies the episode as a turning point in the series’ history:

The conventional wisdom is that the show changed after the monorail episode, written by Conan O’Brien. Conan’s monorail episode was surreal, and the jokes were so good that it became irresistible for all the other writers to write that kind of comedy. And that’s when the tone of the show really took a rapid shift in the direction of the surreal.

Surreal is a good way to describe it. Mr. Burns inadvertently creates a radioactive squirrel, Principal Skinner is dismembered by the pincers of a giant, robotic ant, and an irascible Leonard Nimoy “beams” into the ether. These absurdities would come to define the show’s broader comedy, and reflect the persona that O’Brien would soon loose on the world.

I’ve never thought of “Marge vs. the Monorail” as any kind of turning point.  Granted I wasn’t working on the show, so maybe it felt like one from the inside.  But looking at the finished products it’s sure hard to see it as one, especially for bending the laws of nature by having a radioactive squirrel with laser eyes (which is hilarious, by the way).  In Season 3 a soap box derby racer goes so fast it glows from air resistance and then bursts into flames when it crashes.  In Season 2 there’s a man sized catfish that isn’t radioactive and a three eyed fish that is.  In Season 1 Homer is mistaken – by scientists – for Bigfoot.  All of those things are at least as insane as Nimoy beaming up.

Next is GQ which has a terrific list of five things it learned from the book.  It’s worth reading, but two of them need some additional comment:

1. When George H.W. Bush slammed The Simpsons for being “anti-family values”—onstage at the 1992 Republican National Convention, no less—the show’s animators launched an internal “most immoral Simpsons scene” contest. The winning sequence: Grandpa having sex with the infant Maggie, Lisa breaking it up, and Grandpa savagely beating her to death with his cane.

That’s right, Simpsons porn predates the internet.  I rather like that.  Also, is this really surprising?  I mean, this was done in 1929 (supposedly by Disney animators):

(Background information here by way of boingboing.)

People have been drawing fucking since the invention of both.  Here’s the second one:

3. Confirmed rumors: Sam Simon was a lunatic. James L. Brooks is kinda a dick. Groening gets more credit for the show than he probably ought to. Elizabeth Taylor is the most hated guest voice of all time.

Simon doesn’t, to me at least, come off as a lunatic in the book, at least no more than any of the other riotously funny people around.  That Groening gets more credit than he should isn’t really a confirmed rumor, at this point it’s basically general knowledge.  He’s said so himself (and it’s quoted in the book).  As for Brooks, well, yeah, he’s done some dickish things.  But he’s also repeatedly described as a “genius” and is the man whose enormous prestige and influence gave the show the breathing room it needed to become what it became.  So he’s not always a dick, just some of the time.  The difference between him and most people is that whole wealth and power thing, his fits of dickishness are allowed freer reign.

Speaking of Brooks, apparently he tried to get this whole book killed.  Ortved wrote a meta article about the book for The Daily Beast:

Finally, the word came back from Fox’s flaks: no go. There would be no cooperation. Why? James L. Brooks, whose company, Gracie Films, produces the show along with Fox, had heard I’d been asking questions about Sam Simon, the show’s exiled executive producer, and the kibosh was on.

It goes on from there.  Apparently the book metastasized from an article Ortved wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007. (Vanity Fair, like GQ and The New Yorker, isof course – a Conde Nast publication, mmmm synergy) .  I’ve not read it yet, but you can if you click here.  Just giving it a quick scan it looks a lot like the book (duh), which is to say that it’s chalk full of gooey Simpsons goodness.

06
Oct
09

A Good Sign

I don’t know how many of you follow us on Twitter.  Jebus knows I wouldn’t, our Twitter feed is just shy of 100% pointless, even by our standards.  But its one useful function was getting us a promotional copy of the new Simpsons book by John Ortved, “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History”.  I’ve just started reading it, and I’m sure we’ll be doing more with it in the coming weeks, but this sentence on page 7 is very encouraging:

Around Season 9, it hit a point where the characters and situations became so exaggerated, the comedy so dispensable, and the show so unmoored from its origins that even the most die-hard fans had trouble finding positive things to say.

Whatever else we end up saying about this book, Ortved’s got his head in the right place.  Zombie Simpsons is nothing if not “dispensable”, what a great way to phrase it. 




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