The ArtsStupid book, be more funny
The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History
Faber & Faber,
What’s that line? Talking about music is like dancing about architecture. It popped into my head a lot over the first 289 pages of John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, and I thought I was pretty clever until Ortved himself trotted it out on page 290. My piercing insight was so blindingly obvious it even occurred to the author: Reading the history of the Funniest. TV series. Ever. Isn’t much fun.
Ortved is at pains from the preface to lower expectations on that score: “I didn’t want to write about comedy, about why The Simpsons is funny; that’s not only futile, it’s boring.” The touch of authorial defensiveness is understandable. It’s a common problem on the Simpsons bookshelf; the substance can’t compete with the subject, brilliantly stitched as it is into the public consciousness of the past 20 years. Hence, the repeated attempts to dissect the “what” of the show rather than the “how” and “why,” usually from various think-y angles – the Simpsons and religion, the Simpsons and psychology, the Simpsons and philosophy and intertextuality and oppositional culture (oh, the academanity). Ultimately, they just want to make you dig out the DVD sets.
Expanding on a 2007 article in Vanity Fair, where he was an associate editor, Ortved is all about the how, but he hits the same hurdles. Muscling up to a back-screen story he describes as “contentious, bitchy and riddled with vendettas,” he largely goes the oral-history route, the better, he says, to let the players tell their own tales. (And to get around the non-cooperation of James L. Brooks, Matt Groening and pretty much everyone else still associated with the show, the extent of which the author laid out in an amusing Daily Beast post.)
The firsthand approach can work wonders in opening up pop-cult time capsules and exploring periods of creative ferment, viz. the punk-rock histories Please Kill Me (which Ortved has cited as a favorite) and We Got the Neutron Bomb. Here’s the thing: Those books are full of drinking, drugging, fucking, dying, of people desperate to make something happen because they don’t know what else to do. That’s not to say the creativity of exceedingly sharp-witted Harvard grads (which the early Simpsons’ writers were, virtually to a man) is any less fermented than that of New York art-punks; just that it loses more in the telling.
Contention and bitchiness there are in the Simpsons’ story – inevitably for something so long-lasting and unfathomably lucrative – but the urgency and immediacy that fire a really compelling you-are-there account just aren’t here. Ortved is thorough; he talked to some 80 people linked to the show and its principals, including much of the original writing and production staff (and even Rupert Murdoch). The book is enlightening about the various economic and executive processes by which The Simpsons was birthed and prospered, the considerable dickishness of Brooks and his sycophantic No. 2 Richard Sakai (inspiration for Smithers), and various internecine feuds and money fights.
It is less so about the creative process by which The Simpsons and Springfield became who and what they are. (You’ll learn more about that in David Owen’s terrific 2000 New Yorker profile of George Meyer, longtime dean of Simpsons writers, which Ortved quotes extensively, and which belies the notion that it’s impossible to write well about the funny.) There are the usual nods to what made the show truly tick (the alchemical mix of dysfunction and tenderness, the amazing narrative leeway afforded by animation) and the odd illuminating tidbit about character development. (My favorite comes from actress/poker stud Jennifer Tilly, ex-wife of former Simpsons resident genius Sam Simon, who says Bart can be traced in part to their incorrigible imaginary son.)
Maybe it’s just the geek in me, but I’d rather read about how Lisa got to be Lisa than about the time 1990s-era producer David Mirkin called a young writer an asshole, which gets considerably more page-space. A lot of the history here is boardroom and backlot, a litany of credit claims, log-rolling, dish of varied juiciness and fond recollections of Conan cutting up in the writers’ room. There’s lots of talk about how funny various people are, but not many actual laughs. (The inimitable Albert Brooks does offer a priceless anecdote about fans and Simpsons toys.)
In short, it’s a Hollywood story, more about what creative people thought of one another than of the art they were making. Perhaps that’s inevitable. Given that a big part of what we cherish about The Simpsons is the way it so thoroughly, hilariously, and irrevocably upended the Hollywood paradigm of what made TV comedy work, it’s also faintly dispiriting, and at times tedious.
That may have less to do with Ortved than with the limitations of his chosen form. For me, the book actually picks up in the later chapters, when he increasingly dispenses with the block quotes and offers his own views on the The Simpsons’ longevity and legacy. I don’t always agree – he’s a bit hard on the movie – but he brings some welcome perspective on the show’s decline, its relationship to various bastard spawn (the underrated King of the Hill, the overrated South Park, the amusing but loathsome Family Guy) and its place as both a critic and cornerstone of its monstrous corporate parent. On the evidence here Ortved could have written a sassy, opinionated narrative history of the show. This fan wishes he had.