Twenty years into its recording-setting primetime run, it seems that there’s nothing we don’t know about the Simpsons family, or their hometown of Springfield. Whether it’s the type of dog owned by the Bumblebee Man (Chihuahua), Principal Skinner’s real name (Armin Tamzarian) or the Rich Texan’s secret fear (beards and moustaches), just about every nook and cranny of this fictional world has been poked at in some way.
However, fewer fans know the background of exactly how The Simpsons came to exist in its culture-shaping form on FOX. The basic overview, its birth as short interstitial cartoons on FOX’s short-lived Tracey Ullman Show, is common knowledge, but how many Simpsons’ fans have had the opportunity to peel back the curtain and steal a glimpse into the writers’ room where the themes and characters of the Simpson’s universe truly came into existence.
Journalist John Ortved wondered, and his new book, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, examines the question through extended interviews with writers, animators, network personnel, voice talent and media critics.
The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, recently arrived in stores everywhere, from Faber and Faber, resulted from over a year of interviews. Inside, Ortved presents an oral history – allowing each person’s quotes to stand alone in telling their version of The Simpsons’ development – and at the confluence of those personal experiences lies as close to the truth as anybody will ever truly find.
We spoke to John Ortved about his book, the interview process, and the value in codifying credit for The Simpsons’ development.
“When Fox announced they were releasing a Simpsons movie, I was working at Vanity Fair as an editorial associate,” Ortved explained. “I suggested that the magazine do an oral history of The Simpsons and my boss was kind enough to suggest me as the writer. FOX and James L. Brooks’ production company, Gracie Films, didn't end up cooperating (details here http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsmaker/sexybeast/?cid=hp:topnav:sxyb),
which led to me having to do a lot of digging and produced a piece that was far more interesting than if they had cooperated (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/08/simpsons200708).
“A short while after the article ran, an agent called me and asked if I had any interest in turning it into a book. I had never even contemplated that, and I had no idea what was involved. We drew up a proposal, shopped it to some publishers, and ended up getting a great offer from Faber and Faber. That was a no-brainer. I took it, and started the digging process all over.”
Talking to – among many others – former series writer and current Tonight Show host Conan O’Brien, underground cartoonist/PeeWee’s Playhouse set designer/Matt Groening friend Gary Panter, and Gábor Csupó, head of the Klasky Csupó animation house that handled the show’s early seasons, required a tremendous amount of time and patience.
Exactly how much time? “For the article and the book, I researched and interviewed from January 2007 - May 2008,” Ortved offered. “I’m terrible at math. What is that, 3 years? Let’s say 5 years. It sounds better.”
Of course, one of the better aspects of working on a book about The Simpsons is “researching” the episodes.
“I’d like to say I watched them all, many times, but I didn't. After the first decade of episodes, things start to slide, and many of the later episodes are downright unwatchable. To be fair, I titter occasionally, but the writing just isn’t there,” he said.
“For the first 10 or 11 seasons, I’ve seen each episode, many times. Particularly seasons 3-9; God, those shows are good. I think that run of episodes, that body of work, can stand up to anything our culture has produced in terms of entertainment in my lifetime. I mean that. They can hold their own against The Sopranos, Michael Chabon's novels, Nora Ephron's films, even The Backstreet Boys.
“The one later episode I think stands out is ‘The President Wore Pearls.’ It’s in Season 15 and it’s magnificent. There is a sequence in there where Lisa gets the key to the teacher’s lounge, and she opens the door and catches Willy imitating Millhouse, ‘Look at me! I'm Milhouse! I put my shirt in me pants! I have no friends so I confide in Willy!’ Later in the episode, Lisa upsets Millhouse, and he runs off crying, ‘I better go tell Willy.’ It’s so cruel and so funny. It just kills me.”
Because Gracie Films would not participate in the writing of the original article, the book became a very different animal than originally intended. By having so many other vantage points, however, Ortved creates a very multi-faceted view on the show’s origins. Ortved does use excerpts from other interviews that Matt Groening, Sam Simon and James Brooks have done, but he thinks that not having access to those three men benefitted The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History in the long run.
“Not having the cooperation of those three, Groening and Brooks in particular, forced me to go out and do a tremendous amount of research,” he explained. “The sanctified, polished, official story has already been told – I wanted to tell the reader what he didn’t already know about The Simpsons. It made the story, and then the book, much harder to write, but much better. There were also benefits outside the content of the story such as learning the right approach to hesitant sources and how to cajole and tempt and seduce. It was a lot like the Boy Scouts.”
Fortunately for the author, excepting the show’s three primary architects, many people were willing to speak with him about those early days.
John Ortved: “Mark Twain refused to answer any of my questions about the influence of The Simpsons on his humor. It turned out he's been dead for almost a century, but it still stung.
“There were plenty of people I wished I could have interviewed: Groening (I did get to talk to him at a party – it was unpleasant), Brooks, Richard Sakai, most of the cast. In a different world, I would have reached them all. But in a different world, I would be a rock star, and 6-feet tall, and really good at riflery. I’m none of those things. I live in this world. So I made the best with what I had. Whether I should have done the book or not knowing those people would not be involved is a different question. And one I choose not to ask. I know that I’m an optimist, and thought until the very end that as more and more people came on board, they would eventually give in.”
Of course, during the interview process, surprised abounded. Even on a show as famous as The Simpsons, there are hundreds, thousands, of behind the scenes stories and legends that even the most die-hard fan of the show will never know of.
“Tons,” Ortved said, when asked about the number of such secrets he’d heard, “though less surprising to me than I think they would be to your average reader. The biggest surprise was Matt Groening's lack of involvement in the writing, and the degree of resentment the early staffers held against him for what they saw as his ‘hogging all the credit.’ The guy is obviously really smart, and hugely talented, a fabulous cartoonist – he’s just not a sitcom writer. And that’s okay.”
Recognizing that each person he interviewed has their own perspectives on the show and their own biases against or for certain personnel, Ortved realized early on the importance of allowing each interviewee’s statements to stand on their own.
“Knowing how many different voices there would be in something as collaborative as The Simpsons’ history certainly influenced my decision to pitch it as an oral history. When FOX and Brooks decided not to cooperate, that decision was reinforced. I think it lends objectivity to a story where there really is no one true version.”
Of course, no writer undertakes such a massive project without being a fan of the show. “I've watched from the very first episode,” Ortved said. In a moment truly fitting of Bart, he added, “I wasn't allowed TV as a kid, so I have a very specific memory of huddling with my older brother and his friend, up in my parents’ bedroom in front of their TV, quietly watching Thursday night programming. The Simpsons had just come on the air, I was obsessed, and my brother’s friend insisted we watch Family Matters instead. I remember thinking, ‘Let me get this straight, we get to sneak maybe thirty minutes of television once a week and you want to spend it watching Family Matters. Are you out of your mind?’ Whatever; that kid got hit by a bus (kidding – he now works for HBO).”
Part of the reason for this book, Ortved says, is that The Simpsons is simply one of the most influential and important programs in television history. In his estimation, it may be the most such show ever created.
Ortved explained, “My fellow Canadian, Chris Turner, wrote a great book called Planet Simpson about the cultural importance of The Simpsons; he can wax eloquent on this stuff way better than me. But I’ll say this: my generation, and the one before it and the one after it, we all speak Simpsons. The show was so widely and deeply accepted that I think it genuinely changed the way we tell and accept jokes. In a broader sense, it’s affected the way human beings, and our culture, tell our stories – which, if you’re a lit nerd like me, is a really important thing.”
Going deeper into that cultural impact, he went on, “I can break the Simpsons’ influence down into 3 main levels of cultural influence:
“1. The writers from the series went on to staff and run other comedy series that became institutions in themselves – and further made their mark on the culture.
“2. Future series, from Daily Show with Jon Stewart to Arrested Development to Community took their cues from The Simpsons, absorbed the humor, and were influenced in their own writing by that important series. As a corollary to this, The Simpsons quite simply raised the bar for what you could put on TV. After The Simpsons, it gets harder to expect people to watch shows like Family Matters. The success of Reba remains a great puzzle, the solution to which is far beyond my feeble mind.
“3. The way our culture learned to speak Simpsons, as I've described above.
“That was a very long answer. I even got a list in there. Are you asleep? Newsarama? Hello? There you are.”
Most people are likely to acknowledge that any television show has many chefs, so few will be surprised to read that Matt Groening or Sam Simon or James Brooks each only contributed part of the total effect, along with dozens of other writers. The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History provides some codification of what contributions many of these people brought to the show, including giving credit to many of the early staff writers. For Ortved, it’s important to offer some codification of credit when discussing a pop culture icon whose influence is as deep as that of The Simpsons.
Ortved wrapped the interview by explaining, “I think the nature of collaboration is one of the more interesting questions in literary or artistic theory. And I feel like it’s important to give Groening his due. The guy is the show’s ambassador, and that’s a role he seems to enjoy – but he also has had a hand in this thing from the beginning; it’s his creation, and I can’t deny that.
“Do I think it's important to ascribe credit? As a journalist, and a know-it-all, I like dispelling myths and revealing the complications behind the stories we accept as truths. There are probably some more important topics than The Simpsons I could be devoting my energy to, but, as with any act of creation, there are material, business, and practical concerns that accompanied my decision to pursue this one.
“But above all this, I guess I think that this stuff is important – pop culture that is. I think it affects us in a really profound way, and I find its role as a reflection and as an influence on us completely fascinating. So in that sense, yes, I think ascribing credit is necessary, and important.
“That being said, I think we spend too much time on things like The Simpsons, and American Idol, Wii and YouTube. I love this stuff, and there's nothing I'd rather talk or write about, but at then end of the day, I want to tell myself and other people, ‘For the love of God, read a fucking book.’ Hopefully mine!”
The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History is currently available from Faber and Faber.