26 February 2010

Book 5 of 2010

I finished this book at home while deaf in one ear.

The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

5) The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved
If you're interested in a sometimes repetitive but ultimately informative history of one of the greatest shows in television history, John Ortved's book is hard to beat.

My history with The Simpsons is somewhat storied: my parents forbade me from watching it during the first season and stuck to their guns after briefly relenting during Herb Powell's first appearance in the second season. I ruined it for myself when I mimicked Bart's repeated sing-song use of the word "bastard" in reference to his newly discovered uncle. Once the show went into syndication and I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, they figured that there wasn't anything I could hear and repeat in a sing-song voice at school that was any worse than what the show would say.

All of the years of being unable to watch the funniest program on television, that my friends described and quoted in detail every Monday morning, was torture and fostered in me an obsession that I can't quite describe. With all of the VHS tapes I had acquired over the years, I started to record each of the episodes airing twice a night, taking care not to get any repeats. During the rare week or two that I would be grounded, I made sure to give an annoyed friend a tape and tell them which of the two episodes each night they needed to get for me, giving specific instructions to skip the commercials. No one ever did me the favor more than once. I would watch and re-watch these tapes and several of them actually broke from the wear and tear of over use. Every book, t-shirt or doodad I saw, I began to purchase. This was long after the fad of The Simpsons had faded and merchandising, while still plentiful in certain areas, had subsided to a large degree. I still sought the products out, much to my mother's chagrin. My dad, meanwhile, just thought the show was stupid, but he was used to his son liking stupid things. Plus, he occasionally laughed at it, despite the "stupidity."

Soon, between my experience in absorbing as much knowledge as I could about the show, associating myself exclusively with like-minded fans, and countless hours spent on the burgeoning world wide web that housed almost as many sites devoted to the erstwhile family as it did to warehousing illicit films, I felt secure considering myself a king of Simpsons trivia. However, the behind-the-scenes info? My knowledge there was merely surface level. Matt Groening created everything that the viewer saw, Conan O'Brien wrote for the for awhile, Bart Simpson was voiced by a girl, and each episode took six months to make from start to finish.

What works about John Ortved's book is that it clears up the misconceptions that exist. Of the aforementioned list, the first one, that Matt Groening is solely responsible for everything that the viewer saw, is the only one that really matters. Ortved conducted extensive interviews with a number of former writers, producers, voice actors, animators, guest stars and even Rupert Murdoch himself. The unauthorized portion of the article comes from the fact that next to no one currently working on the show, including heavy hitters like Matt Groening and James Brooks cooperated with Ortved. Whether that is the reason they are portrayed in a negative light or because the truth would have done so regardless of their cooperation is anyone's guess. Either way, Sam Simon deserves most of the credit for the show's eventual look and humor, despite Groening initially designing the characters, while most credit Brooks with ensuring the show having an emotional center. Groening, meanwhile, had the best story for the press as an indie comic strip artist made good who was also smart enough to hold onto a large portion of the merchandising rights. Simon, meanwhile, assembled a crack team of Harvard grads who managed to make writing for television something that one needn't be ashamed for the first time in history. Also, as an aside, John Swartzwelder, the reclusive writer who left the show to write humor novellas, only gets about seven pages devoted to him but he's easily the most fascinating, mysterious and funniest guy profiled. I would easily read an entire book about him were it available.

The style of writing is very similar to Live From New York An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told By Its Stars Writers and Guests, except each chapter is centered around a unifying theme while the SNL book seemingly goes year by year. The latter method, along with the insane 656 page length, made for a boring read desperately in need of an editor. Ortved's method breaks up the interviews with his own editorializing about the rise and fall of the show's quality as well as some conjecture and hypothesizing about the veracity of certain quotations taken from other sources that weren't interviews conducted by him.

The most apt analogy about the series is made towards the end of the book and one that I'll repeat here. With it's influence and early and consistent quality, The Simpsons can be compared to The Beatles. However, it's steep decline, due in large part to Al Jean's extended tenure as solo showrunner has seen the show become more and more akin to the Rolling Stones: influential and notable in the beginning but now parodies of themselves and what they used to represent, living on the past glory and street cred they established long ago. And that part made me sad, so I've pulled out the first few seasons on DVD (Seriously, DVD seasons rule way more than my tapes of syndicated episodes with commercials from 1996) and have decided re-watch them. That's how I'd like to always remember the show anyway.

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