What I just read-ed: ‘Simpsons Confidential’ by John Ortved

Just finished the very entertaining ‘Simpsons Confidential’ by John Ortved. As the cover suggests, this is a look behind the scenes at the creation of arguably the most influential television show of the last 25 years, its golden years, and subsequent slow, steady decline.

Ortved has obviously worked his ass off to interview every man and his dog remotely connected to the show. There’s cronies of Matt Groening from his ‘Life in Hell’ comic strip days, including his ex-wife. Ortved’s spoken to Fox execs, including Rupert Murdoch. He interviews Hank Azaria and a selection of special guest stars such as Ricky Gervais. More than a dozen past and present staff writers are interviewed, including Conan O’Brien. There’s even some chatter from Matt Stone (co-creator of South Park) and Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy).

Unfortunately it seems the only 3 people who refused to speak to Ortved were Matt Groening, James L Brooks and Sam Simon… the 3 guys the author refers to on numerous occasions as the holy trinity behind everything we know and love about Springfield. Groening created The Simpson family, Brooks was the man with the producing clout to get the fledgling Fox station to commit to a 13 episode first series, and Simon was the showrunner who assembled arguably the greatest comedy writing room this side of Two & a Half Men.

Some quick oddities…

  • Whilst Groening created The Simpsons, he has had little to nothing to do with the writing of almost every episode in the program’s history. Many of the characters you know and love were actually created by Sam Simon.
  • Groening, Brooks and Simon seemed to have been involved in a bizarre 20 year, never ending, triumvirate of a mega-feud. Simon actually left the show following season 4 after disputes over money and what he saw as Groening taking undue amounts of credit for the writing team’s work.
  • When The Simpsons first aired in December 1989, the Fox network didn’t even have 7 days a week of programming, and only reached 80% of the U.S. There’s a reason they call it the house that Bart built…
  • Conan O’Brien was still employed as a writer on The Simpsons when he was offered the role hosting Late Night in 1993. He accepted, and then was sued by Fox to recoup his salary for the rest of the season.
  • The motivation to finally release a Simpsons movie in 2007 could largely be due to Brooks’ cinematic flop ‘Spanglish’. To save face and bolster his flagging ego, he threw himself in to finally producing ‘The Simpsons Movie’, which was always going to be a surefire cinematic success.

Who's your favorite?

It’s a fun read and an ideal Christmas present for the literate Homer fan in your life, offering an insight into the genesis of fantastic television, and the way that nothing of such high quality can last forever. The book clearly points to the early seasons, specifically 1-4 as the show’s golden era. Seasons 5-9 are exceptional, but don’t quite manage the sustained quality of earlier episodes. Season 5 was also the year David Mirkin took over as show-runner, and the year that The Simpsons became increasingly ‘zany’ (Homer went to space, Bart gets famous, Lisa meets Malibu Stacy, etc). After season 10 it’s pretty obvious Ortved feels The Simpsons didn’t just jump the shark… it jumped it, taunted it with excessive celebrity cameo’s, removed it’s heart, and re-named it Spider-Shark. And to some extent, he’s got a point.

I’d like to think almost everyone is a Simpsons fan, or has been affected by the show on some level. I was fortunate that it first appeared on Australian TV screens when I was 9 or 10, the ideal age for the early ‘Bart-centric’ seasons. I’ve grown with the show, enjoying the ever changing different elements of it for a huge percentage of my life.

But I will admit I have stopped watching the new episodes. Given the choice between a re-run at 6pm or a new ep at 7:30, I’ll err on the side of re-run. No show can remain fresh after 400 episodes. Think those Lord of the Rings movies were long? They had a combined running time of 682 minutes (I’m talking the extended editions here too). The Simpsons have produced (at this writing) over 8800 minutes of screentime. Put things in perspective?

What irks me is that it feels like The Simpsons structurally has become increasingly inane and plotless. It’s more about unrelated sequences of events and rapid-fire joke telling than true story telling. This is exactly what MacFarlane excels at. You’re never going to out-Family-Guy Family Guy. South Park’s focus on coherent plot and story now leaves The Simpsons for dead. And both shows are far more irreverent and counter-culture than The Simpsons could hope to be, now or ever again. So where does that leave Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie?

Winner fights a Giant Chicken, deal?

I can’t see anyone arguing that the show remains as fresh and entertaining as ever, so I’ll simply ask when did The Simpsons start to fall apart for you, the reader? Which are your favourite episodes? And most importantly is The Simpsons now simply a bad television show, or is it merely an adequate show that can’t compete with it’s earlier high quality?

I’m curious…



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