Reviewed by Chris Bolton
In The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, journalist John Ortved aims to peek behind the curtain of an institution that has become sacred to people in my age group, find the inspiration for its creation, and uncover the secret of its phenomenal success. And, if possible, dig up a little dirt along the way.
Ortved has structured his book as an oral history, which works amazingly well for most of its length. The firsthand accounts he gathers offer some real insight. Alas, while Ortved was able to interview several people integral to the production of The Simpsons -- including voice actor Hank Azaria (Moe, Comic Book Guy) and a number of producers and writers -- show creator Matt Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks refused to speak with him. Furthermore, as the author has documented almost gleefully, 20th Century Fox and its legal team sought to foil his efforts at every turn.
What reportedly earned the ire of Groening and Brooks was anecdotal evidence suggesting that, while Groening may have created the titular characters and overseen the shorts that debuted on The Tracy Ullman Show in the late '80s, it was showrunner Sam Simon who was largely responsible for creating what we think of as The Simpsons.
A writer for such classic shows as Cheers and Taxi (which Brooks created), Simon was recruited to help develop the short cartoons into a full-fledged TV series -- a move that was already considered controversial by executives at the Fox network, still an upstart that hadn't yet proven itself in the ratings. There hadn't been a successful prime-time animated series since The Flintstones, and Groening's orange-skinned, strange-haired creations didn't seem likely to break that streak.
Simon assembled a writing staff that has become legendary in TV writing circles. They worked diligently, cramming so many jokes into every script that there were jokes within jokes; one writer recalls the show, in its heyday, having an average of 12 jokes per page. Arguably Simon's greatest contribution, however, was expanding the world of the show beyond the Simpsons' household. As producer Brian Roberts notes, "When you see the opening credits and all those characters go by, they're all right out of Sam Simon's imagination."
According to this book, Simon wasn't thrilled to be the silent partner, doing all the work in the writers' room while Brooks and especially Groening got all the credit in the press. (One story has it that Groening was given a script assignment in the first season; there's a running joke in the writers' room that the script might show up any day now.) The tension grew between Groening and Simon until it threatened to burst. Groening is quoted in the book as having said, "I think Sam Simon is brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I've ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced." Simon acrimoniously left the series after its fourth season, having made such an indelible mark that, even though Groening has yet to give him the credit many think he's due, he continues to receive an executive producer credit at the end of each show.
Simon isn't the only behind-the-scenes star; whole chapters focus on writer/producer George Meyer (the subject of profiles in both the New Yorker and the Believer) and John Swartzwelder, considered by many to be the show's two greatest writers -- and who are probably responsible for all of the lines you quote endlessly to your friends. Then there's Conan O'Brien, who left the staff when he was offered his own talk show by NBC, but admits that his Simpsons episodes will outlast all of his years hosting Late Night and The Tonight Show.
It's a shame Brooks and Groening refused to participate. I'd have liked to read their responses to various charges of egotism, greed, and credit-hogging. Most stories have multiple sides and it's unfortunate that Ortved gets to shape only one side of theirs. Sure, some of the interview subjects doubtless have their own agendas, but Ortved doesn't just pack his book full of salacious gossip from disgruntled ex-employees; he includes big names like O'Brien and Brad Bird, the phenomenally gifted director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille, who was an executive consultant for The Simpsons from 1989 to 1997. Hell, even mega-billionaire News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch sat down with the man! Was it so unthinkable that the show's creators might deign to share a few, possibly contentious, but no doubt invaluable, words with the author?
Nonetheless, most of The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History is a complete blast. For a writer and filmmaker like myself, the stories of the writers' room will inspire awe and envy. The show's evolution from unlikely longshot to smash-hit pop fad to longstanding cultural touchstone makes for terrific reading for fans and casual viewers alike, most of it depicted in the voices of the people who helped shape that arc.
The problem comes in the last quarter or so of the book, when Ortved rants about the last 11 years of The Simpsons, which are generally considered to have declined sharply in quality. Ortved takes every opportunity to ram this opinion straight down the reader's throat, often without much support. He calls one episode "long-winded and lame" without providing examples of long-windedness or lameness. We are evidently supposed to take Ortved at his word and presume that he is a true master of this subject who has infallible taste that should supercede whatever the reader might think.
Nearly a hundred pages of the book is devoted to the author's exploration of why the show continues long after the presumed expiration of its shelf life. His conclusion isn't subtle (if it were the point of a Simpsons episode, Ortved would rip it to pieces): Groening, Brooks, and Fox are fat, greedy bastards who want to milk this dead cow, seemingly forever.
This particular reader can't help questioning why Ortved spends so much time and energy ranting about the decline in quality. Was he frustrated that the seminal forces behind the show refused to speak with him, and even tried to interfere in his speaking with others? Does it seem like Ortved is venting some of that frustration by more or less declaring the uncooperative Brooks and Groening (and, to a lesser degree, the entire Fox Corporation) the antichrists responsible for stripping The Simpsons of its honor and raping its legacy? This isn't an exaggeration. It's noteworthy that the oral history is reduced to almost a single voice in these later chapters, with Ortved's screeds consuming most of the pages. Perhaps he was unable to find anyone who would go on record and slag the show quite so vehemently.
Still, if we excise the latter sections the way Ortved would like to erase the past decade of The Simpsons, what we're left with is a phenomenally enjoyable, if woefully incomplete, read. It's just a shame the omission of Brooks and Groening's voices prevents this from being the definitive text -- and that Ortved didn't trust the voices of his interview subjects and the ability of his readers to draw their own conclusions without having to choke on his.
Books mentioned in this post