[30 November 2009]
Imagine you are waiting tables at a wedding reception. You wander among the tables, filling glasses and laying down plates of food. You are likely to hear snippets of conversation, most likely about the bride and groom, about their families, about their past, their plans, their future. What you hear will likely be out of context, sometimes probably even incorrect, contradictory. The groom works for a bank. No, he’s in real estate. The bride may or may not be done with medical school. An uncle—his, hers, you didn’t hear—may be an alcoholic. Or is he just melancholic?
You finish serving the guests. You go home. You think about the newlyweds. Would you say you know them, or learned much about them? Would you even be able to recall from whom you obtained your “facts”?
John Ortved wants your answer to be “yes”. He wants this to be your answer because the style in which he has written The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History is “an oral history”. In other words, 99 per cent of his book is direct quotes from the people involved. This style of reportage, quote after quote after quote, produces an exhausting book that does little to expand on the idea that (news flash!) television is a collaborative business with massive egos involved.
To be sure, the creation of a show like The Simpsons, with it’s 20-season run and no end in sight, its untold billions in revenue for the FOX television network, its involvement in supporting the earliest days of Rupert Murdoch’s empire, is a compelling story. That story lurks beneath anecdote after anecdote, beneath a he-said/she-said reportage, and behind repeated declaratives that the show’s “Golden Age” is well behind us. Some similar books—heavily researched and relying on the quotes of those involved—have very successfully reported on an era or event. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler is one, Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels by Jill Jonnes is another. What they manage to do, other than portraying events in scenes rather than direct quotes, is make past events seem relevant.
What Mr. Ortved’s book does is lower the quotes to the level of snark. Do the people involved in the show get along? No? So what?
That this book was written over the objections of James Brooks and Matt Groening seems absurd. If The Simpsons can survive the President of the United States using it as a foil (George H. W. Bush famously called for American families to be “more like the Waltons, and less like the Simpsons”), and in can in fact turn that attack to the show’s advantage (both Mr. Bush’s comment, and later a parody of Mr. Bush himself appeared and were skewered on the show) then what were they worried about here?
And ultimately, the fact that Mr. Brooks and Mr. Groening both declined to do new interviews for the book does nothing but underline the complaints of those willing to go on record saying they have massive egos and take credit for other people’s hard work. To find massive egos in Los Angeles one need only go to Los Angeles. Not a revelation.
In the end the book does have interesting elements. There are causal links between creators and characters (e.g., producer Richard Sakai was the impetus for toady Waylan Smithers) and there are genuinely funny anecdotes about the creators themselves (Conan O’Brien is given his own chapter, and rightly so). The problem is that the way the stories are told makes it a burden to read. The quotes quotes quotes quickly build to the point where sources blur. The (strangely incomplete) “Dramatis Personae” provided at the end includes 77 names and bios. This underscores the collaborative nature of television, one of Mr. Ortved’s points. However, that many people being quoted leads to confusion and the sense of Mr. Ortved having no control over his material. There is no structure to help keep clear who is who, what their role or connection to the show was, or is.
Ultimately, the question of what something means and where it lies within our culture proves rather difficult to answer while it is still ongoing. What Mr. Orted seems most transfixed by is that the golden years are behind us and the show is doing nothing but cashing in. Under this idea lies a bit of naivete about what any show on television is doing. The earliest chapters make the point that early in his cartooning career, Mr. Groening proved to be a smart and able marketer. By the time he was pitching a show to FOX there’s little doubt that he intended to be paid for it, nor that FOX hoped to make money on it. When did the cashing in start? After season five, or six, or seven? How about the moment that the creators suggested selling it to FOX.
What is left behind is a collection of stories: some funny, others interesting, a few snarky. Attempts to bridge the show to a bigger picture feel shallow and obvious (yes, there have been imitators, yes there have been politicians who referenced The Simpsons as a sign of doom in America, there have been parodies and satires and caricatures that have insulted, defamed, or shocked) because we already know what Mr. Ortved takes the time to say. One of Mr. Ortved’s points is, ironically, that The Simpsons is ubiquitous in our culture. If that’s true, no need to point it out; if not, where’s the proof. Lots of t-shirts doesn’t feel like enough, nor rerun numbers, billions of revenue for FOX, or contract negotiations for cast members.
It’s possible that Mr. Ortved was done in by that very premise. The Simpsons may be so big, so ever-present, so referenced and referential that to try and swallow it in one book is doomed to failure. Perhaps The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History will find a place alongside other Simpsons books in one of the college courses referred to in the book as proof of The Simpsons’ place in our culture. Or, perhaps, like those other books, it will just wait for the day that someone who truly doesn’t know what The Simpsons is, or was, someone from a lost Amazon tribe, or an alien visitor, will stumble upon it.