- OPENING LINE
- PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY
- THE PLOT
- THE AUTHOR
- THE NARRATION
- THE PRODUCTION
- FINAL THOUGHTS
- QUICK FACTS
How do you put a TV show into historical context when it is still on the air? That is the challenge faced by John Ortved’s ‘The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History’.
The Simpsons is one of the most successful shows in the history of television. From its first moment on air, the series’ rich characters, subversive themes, and layered humor have resounded deeply with audiences, both young and old, who wanted more from their entertainment than what was being meted out at the time by the likes of Full House, Growing Pains, and Family Matters.
Spawned as an animated short on The Tracy Ullman Show – mere filler on the way to commercial breaks – the series grew from a controversial cult favorite to a mainstream powerhouse, and after 19 years, the residents of Springfield no longer simply hold up a mirror to our way of life; they have ingrained themselves into it.
John Ortved’s oral history is the first-ever look behind the scenes at the creation and day-to-day running of The Simpsons, as told by many of the people who make it, including writers, animators, producers, and network executives. It’s an intriguing yet hilarious tale, full of betrayal, ambition, and love. Like the family it depicts, the show’s creative forces have been riven by dysfunction from the get-go – outsize egos clashing with studio executives and one another over credit for and control of a pop-culture institution.
Contrary to popular belief, The Simpsons did not spring from one man’s brain, fully formed, like a hilarious Athena. Its inception was a process, with many parents, and this book tells the story.
©2009 Tantor; ©2009 John Ortved
John Ortved’s oral history of ‘The Simpsons’ attempts to put the longest running sitcom in television history into some kind of perspective. There are things that I like about the book and things that I have to take issue with, but overall I still managed to find it a worthwhile read.
Ortved managed to get quotes from several staffers who worked on the series from the beginning up to when this book was released. People like Matt Groening, Jim Brooks and Al Jean did not participate in the interview process, and so when they are quoted, it is from other media interviews that they have given over the years. As a result, the book sometimes feels too one sided because many people still involved with the series don’t answer their critics at any point.
The book examines Groening’s early life, moving to Los Angeles, his ‘Life in Hell’ comic strip, and the development of ‘The Simpsons’. The book argues that the biggest contribution to the series came from Sam Simon who, at the time of my writing, has recently passed away. It examines all of the different showrunners the series has had, and talks about the strengths and weaknesses of each era from the point of view of those who were there.
The book is a nice complement to the audio commentaries produced for each episode. There are things that are said here that for political reasons would never be said in that format. It is hard to say if some of the criticisms leveled at Groening and Brooks are valid or if they are coming from people with a major axe to grind. Ortved has said in interviews that a lot of people quoted in the book are people who don’t much care for Jim Brooks, and so it does have to make a person wonder about objectivity. Whether the people quoted are being as objective as they can or not doesn’t really change the fact that they do tell some funny stories, that even if they have an issue with some of the key principals, they still have an affection for the series itself that runs pretty deep.
Ortved and those that he has interviewed are not shy about pointing fingers at what is responsible for the show’s decline over the later seasons. The most frequent target in that respect is current showrunner Al Jean. They question whether Jean has been in charge for too long, and if it wouldn’t be better if a change was made. Keep in mind that this was brought up in 2009, and it is now 2015 with Al Jean still at the helm.
Yet, I don’t think that the book is entirely fair to the later episodes. ‘The Simpsons’ has now been on the air so long that it has actually become a paradox. When the show must take on an issue, it essentially has two options – either tackle an old issue from a different angle or take the same approach that they have in the past. If they tackle a familiar issue from a new angle, people complain because that’s not how they did it in the past. If they take the same tack that they took in the past, then those same people complain that the show is too repetitive. One reason the more recent episodes of ‘The Simpsons’ aren’t as great is because it has to compete against itself. How many shows have ever had to compete against their own legacy? It’s a concept worth exploring, but it isn’t addressed at all in this book.
There are things that Ortved does in telling the story that I don’t particularly care for. The most obvious is that the book contains several factual errors. He says that it was Marge’s sister Selma that came out of the closet in ‘There’s Something About Marrying’ when it was actually Patty. He says it was announced in 2008 that Conan O’Brien would take over as host of “The Tonight Show,” but that announcement came in 2004. He also describes ‘Homer’s Barbershop Quartet’ as a David Mirkin episode when that was still under the supervision of Al Jean and Mike Reiss. None of these errors is particularly major, but when small errors start to accumulate, it is not unfair to wonder what else might be wrong.
The bigger problem is that Ortved does not go out of his way to distinguish his opinion from real facts. Ortved does some serious editorializing in this book. He has a rant about the show’s 400th episode that could have easily been dialog written for Comic Book Guy. It isn’t even that his opinions are that far off base, because they’re not, but he comes across as more preachy than Ned Flanders at his worst.
Finally, there are points that he does not press hard enough on. When discussing the controversy surrounding ‘A Star is Burns’, he mentions that it turned out to be a great episode and that’s a statement with which I agree. However, when reading the quotes from those who were against the idea (basically nobody who thought it was a good idea was quoted), you get a sense of how they felt at the time, but no comment about the episode in retrospect. Do any of those people feel differently now knowing how much people love that episode? After reading that section, I still don’t have an answer to that question.
Yet for all that I didn’t like about Ortved’s editorializing, and for as much as the mistakes might have annoyed me, I still enjoyed reading this book quite a bit. I like the oral history concept that Ortved went with, and I understand that Ortved was hindered in some ways by those who wouldn’t grant him interviews. It’s hard to present both sides of a story when the other side isn’t talking.
The husband and wife team of John Allen Nelson and Justine Eyre handle narration of the track. Eyre’s performance is a lot harder to judge because she only reads quotes that were taken from women. Unfortunately, this is a book dominated by male voices, and so there are long stretches where you don’t hear a single thing from Eyre.
Nelson’s performance is a bit of a mixed bag. He has a great voice, and is very pleasant to listen to when he is reading, but there are a few problems. There are a few mispronounced names here and there, like Dan Castellaneta. My favorite is when he refers to Cartman from South Park as Cart-Man, like he is some kind of superhero that travels around with a cart, bringing it to people in need. If you can’t get Spider-man, get Cart-Man.
Thankfully, Nelson doesn’t try to impersonate any Simpsons characters when he reads dialog. I say this because the one time I can recall him doing so, his Kodos sounded less like a space alien and more like a Russian mobster. Also, Nelson’s “D’Oh” needs work. It sounds too much like the fake actor that Mr. Burns hired to trick Bart in ‘Burns’ Heir’. It is drawn out instead of a quick exclamation.
The track sounds great. Both Nelson and Eyre’s voices come through crystal clear, and there were no glitches of any kind detected. There is no music or sound effects, and the audio chapter stops match up with those found in the book. All of these qualities are pretty standard fare from Tantor, and that’s a good thing.
“In the end, explaining how The Simpsons managed to accomplish what it did is as futile as explaining why a joke is funny.”
This quote comes near the end of the book, and is probably the most profound thing said in the whole narrative. It also might have been a way for the author to address some of the criticisms that might be leveled against the book for what was and wasn’t included.
I don’t think the word “uncensored” quite fits the reality of the situation. Ortved might not be responsible for the censoring, but the book is censored due to the lack of comment from some of the major players still involved in the series. As a result, this is not an entirely balanced look at the show, and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you can do that, then you will probably find it a worthwhile read, even if there are a few warts.
This is not the definitive Simpsons book to be written about the history of the show. It can’t be that book for the simple reason that the show is still on the air, and a lot has happened since the book came out. It is also not definitive because of who declined to give interviews. Ortved using past quotes to address current criticism doesn’t quite work. However, it is fair to wonder if the definitive book on ‘The Simpsons’ can ever be written. Ortved’s oral history may not be definitive, but it might be as close as we ever get.
|Title||Author||Narrator||Publisher||Genre||Release Date||Running Time||Score|
|The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History||John Ortved||John Allen Nelson, Justine Eyre||Tantor Audio||Arts & Entertainment||11/19/2009||11 hours, 29 minutes||7.5/10|
A copy of ‘THE SIMPSONS: AN UNCENSORED, UNAUTHORIZED HISTORY’ was purchased from Audible for review.