Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

Before I talk about the book, I just want to say I'm really tired of defending new episodes of The Simpsons to people who bitch about them. Here is my stance:
All shows evolve. They have to. The Simpsons has been on for more than twenty years; if it were exactly the same as it was in its "golden age" people would complain that it hadn't changed, that it had become stagnant. So, yes, The Simpsons is different than it used to be. Yes, the humor is not the same style it once was. Whether anybody believes me or not, that is in the show's favor. And if I'm the only person who still thinks it's funny, so be it.
Author John Ortved doesn't think The Simpsons is funny anymore. And he's allowed to think that. One of the problems I have with this book, though, is he won't quit fucking harping on new seasons. He also uses the show's drop in ratings as "proof" that it's not funny anymore. If that were true, then I could use the same argument to "prove" that the years he kept referring to as the "golden age" weren't funny, either, because they occured after the whole "Bartmania" thing. I'm sure when The Simpsons wasn't the hugest fad around anymore, the ratings dropped. So there.
A lot of the book focused on the business behind the show and who on staff hated who else on staff. In other words, crap I don't give a fuck about.
He talked a lot about how people got mad and thought Matt Groening took more credit for The Simpsons than he rightfully should have. Admittedly, I've had similar thoughts for years. However, I also like Matt Groening and I think his biggest job on The Simpsons is "take credit guy." Yes, the entire staff deserves respect, but the general public likes to have one person that they can associate with a TV show or whatever. That's why so many bands have "the face." Yes, Aerosmith is very famous, but most people know them as Stephen Tyler and some other dudes. It's just how things go sometimes. And I happen to like Matt Groening, I think he's a cool guy (not like I know him; I just think he seems like a nice guy), so when the book decided to go on and on about "he took way too much credit and people got pissed off" I got defensive.
I actually got defensive whenever I felt like they had started picking on someone, which happened a lot, especially in the earlier chapters. Regardless of whether I even knew who they were talking about, I'd be on their side if I felt like they were being attacked.
I'm not even going to address my distaste for the chapters about business, other than to say they pretty much went straight over my head and they bored me.
I completely disagree with the book that South Park and Family Guy "have more laughs per episode" than new episodes of The Simpsons. I do like Family Guy and I used to be a huge South Park fan but I don't like them as much as The Simpsons.
The thing about South Park is it's gotten preachier than preachy. There was always a moral at the end of the episode but the recent episodes I've seen are nothing but moral and, as far as I'm concerned, they've given up on the "being funny" aspect of the show to focus entirely on "ramming a message down your throat." I'm sad that South Park has gone that direction but, like I was saying earlier, every show has to evolve and that was the path they took. Not to my taste, but I know people are still watching it, so good for them.
In the book Matt Stone is quoted as saying "...The Simpsons doesn't ever promise to do anything more than make you laugh. There's social satire in it, social commentary, deeper themes in it, but what's great about The Simpsons is it says up front, 'All we're gonna do is make you laugh.' That's a purely noble cause, I think." Then why don't you try it yourself sometime, Matt?
Family Guy is a pretty good show, but I kind of stopped watching after ... I don't even remember what episodes they were. In one of them the Griffins are driving somewhere and they all start singing The Rose. And that's the gag. They all sing The Rose in its entirity. Never mind the fact that that's not funny and The Rose is, in my opinion, not a fucking dull song. They stop the entire episode dead for almost five minutes to sing a boring song.
And then! There was another episode that involved Mister Herbert, the pedophile up the street (he's a semi-regular character who I happen to fucking hate), also stops the show dead in its tracks to sing a pre-existing song in its entirity. But to add insult to injury, he doesn't sing a song I think is boring. He sings Somewhere That's Green. My favorite song from Little Shop Of Horrors (we all know how I feel about Little Shop); my karaoke standby song. It was horrifying. It actually made me feel ill and depressed and it's probably the main reason I stopped watching Family Guy on a regular basis. Maybe it's a petty and childish reaction, but I don't care. I felt like Family Guy was going downhill for a while at that point, and that moment just sealed it for me.
Because when Family Guy first came back after being cancelled, it was really good. For a while. Those were some of the best episodes I've seen. But after maybe one and a half seasons I felt like the writers somehow got lazy while, at the same time, they were trying way too hard. Almost every joke tried to be over the top offensive because "Well, we were uncancelled, we can do whatever we want. We don't have to try anymore because if you cancel us again, fans will bitch and moan until you bring us back again. So we'll be, in turns, disgusting, offensive and boring and there's nothing you can do about it."
I will say I liked what Seth MacFarlane had to say in the book. He acknowledged that his show and The Simpsons make fun of each other a lot, but he thinks that, while it can get mean spirited, it's all in good fun and doesn't really stick. My first reaction was sarcasm. "Oh yeah, that scene where Quagmire sleeps with Marge and then kills the entire family (Maggie included; it's off screen, but it's still really disturbing), that was all in good fun." If you ignore that one instance, though (they never showed that scene in prime time; Adult Swim shows it), he's probably right. And there's a big, long, quote from him somewhere in the book that I really liked, but I'm too lazy to quote it myself. It begins on page two hundred eighty seven and continues onto the next page.
And, anyway, this review was supposed to be of an unauthorized history of The Simpsons, not a couple of other animated series.
There were parts of the book I liked. The chapter about guest voices was interesting and I really liked the chapter dedicated to Conan O'Brien. (Golly, I wonder why?) There was also a chapter about a couple of other writers, George Meyer and John Schwartzwelder, that was also really cool to read. And one of the quotes in that chapter actually, for lack of a better word, name dropped one of my favorite moments of The Simpsons, which Schwartzwelder wrote:
In the Whacking Day episode, Homer sets up event parking on his lawn, with a sign that says "Parking: $10 per axle." A car drives up that's like a combination limo and sports car, with, like, a bajillion axles. Homer, as he is wont to do, yells "Woo hoo!" and the man driving the car yells "Hooray!" It's charming and it's absurd. It's cracks me up every time.
So there were good spots of the book. And I feel like the people quoted in the book who worked on The Simpsons and who lament that it's not what it once was, they have every right to complain.
I guess the author has every right to complain, too, if he doesn't like the newer seasons. I just wish he hadn't made that opinion so blatantly obvious throughout the course of the book.
I've saved my biggest complaint for last: John Ortved doesn't know what he's talking about.
I'm not kidding, the book is filled with little mistakes that the majority of Simpsons fans wouldn't make.
On page six he claims that "Maggie killed a man." No she didn't. Maggie shot a man. Mr. Burns is still alive.
On page two hundred sixty nine he claims that, in the episode about gay marriage, Marge's sister Selma comes out of the closet. No she doesn't. Marge's sister Patty comes out of the closet. What Selma does in the gay marriage episode is get an annulment from Disco Stu.
I think the most egregious error, though, is scattered throughout the book. John Ortved does not know Smithers's first name. Every time he's mentioned in the book (even when calling him Smithers would've been more appropriate since that's the name he generally goes by) Ortved refers to Smithers as "Wayland."
Smithers's first name is Waylon. Waylon Smithers.
Wayland isn't a name! It's an amusement park for people with no direction in their lives.
Should people really trust a guy who, when writing a book about The Simpsons, couldn't bothered to do thirty seconds of research to learn how to spell Waylon?

End of line.

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