Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tuesdays with Gamblor: The Problem of Telling an Oral History of 'The Simpsons'

I keep buying books about Hitler, and really this doesn't make much sense. All GOP claims aside, the world is not making more Hitler. Our Hitler levels remain constant at one or none, depending on your attitude. It's slightly illogical to pick up a book on Hitler and expect to find anything novel or radical. There is no new Hitler under the sun.

Still, I do this, not because I admire the man, but because I was once a hopeful young student who spent years reading about him and other monsters of the twentieth century before a history degree's non-practicality impressed itself on me. I invested so much time into learning the historiography of his rise and fall that I feel like I've never fully resolved the argument about him. Ninety-nine percent of the content of a new book by, say, Ian Kershaw will be old hat. Instead, the lines that jump out, the little things to search for, are the shades of argument that push interpretation gently one way or the other, changing history's verdict of the how and why, rather than the details of the what. This is a clinical and academic way of looking at it, but people do this all the time in terms of simple fan interest. (Hopefully not about Hitler.)

Consider the Beatles. New biographies come out seemingly every year, and yet the Beatles' existence as a band remains stubbornly mired in a period of a decade. As years pass, we only get more dead Beatles (seemingly along a spectrum of decreasing talent), but we don't get more of what made them. Fans refuse to let go, and so thousands buy the books to hear a familiar story again, just as more academic fans read to support or attack an argument like, "It was engineer Geoff Emerick and not Paul McCartney who changed the way McCartney's bass was recorded/mixed for the singles before Rubber Soul." (They were both trying to make him sound like James Jamerson anyway.)

It was inevitable that something like this would start to happen with The Simpsons. Like the Beatles, that show changed a generation and a form, and like the Beatles, the arguments about who created what and for what reasons will only intensify as the years between their heyday and the present increases, and as the few remaining facts in dispute continue to diminish. With the show creatively having run its last legs into the ground, it's time to assign credit and blame for the period in which it was a masterpiece. Chris Turner already tried a quasi-philosophical, uneven and solipsistic look at the show's impact on the zeitgeist with Planet Simpson, and recently John Ortved attempted a more straightforward oral history in The Simpsons: an Uncensored, Unauthorized History.

I want to love Ortved's book, because The Simpsons probably represent the definitive text of my generation. While previous centuries could look to the Bible as a unifying voice in terms of spirit, values, diction, epic tales and instructive characters, something about the metatextual push and pull of The Simpsons' allusion to literary and cultural texts, while creating their own, essentially speaks to late-20th century crises of sincerity versus irony and authority versus rebellion.

See?—it's incredibly easy to go on like this, which shows you the core flaw of Turner's Planet Simpson. His metatextual approach to the show's impact seemed to try to take a lot of satirical targets (whose targeting he agreed with) and accrete them via personal fandom and anecdote into a kind of Unified Irony Theory, with The Simpsons as an occasional constant. The result was a hash of what felt like blog posts and critically inconsistent judgment calls; the show was sincere when he wished it sincere and merely puckish and parodic when he would prefer its flippancy. If The Simpsons took the form of a particle in this unified theory, it would be one that appeared in two different places, sometimes orbiting itself.

Ortved's oral history is far simpler and more pleasing for being so, but he nonetheless has to contend with fans' tendency to obsessively deconstruct the meaning of both the primary text and its (and his) own apocrypha. If The Simpsons represents the socio-political-cultural Bible of a new generation, then something as simple as an oral history takes on the same sort of meaning as The Collected Interviews with the 12 Apostles would in the 18th century. These were the men present at the creation, and here is where the process starts to break down.

From a purely revelatory standpoint, this book will not unhouse or totally startle die-hard fans. Despite being an unauthorized history, many of the events described can be learned from listening to the producers', writers' and actors' authorized audio commentaries on every Simpsons DVD. (They're some of the funniest commentaries you'll ever hear. They're also smart and rarely fail to provide new information germane to an episode.) Much of the history of the writers and the writers' room is also covered in these commentaries, as well as a by-now classic New Yorker article on the show's former head writer George Meyer. The article was famous before it was even published, circulating online for months as samizdat before the New Yorker broke down and ran it. It only recently disappeared behind a subscriber wall after nearly a decade of free availability at

Other details are similarly familiar for those who've spent a wasted workday reading Simpsons fansites: that Matt Groening's influence on the series has been negligible since season two, with his use of "we" when describing later developments earning scorn from writers; that Sam Simon probably deserves the most credit for shaping the show, characters and writers' room; that David Mirkin was a little insecure and authoritarian; that Oakley and Weinstein treated the job like college, always wanting to push envelopes and never wanting to go to bed; and that Mike Scully surrendered to storyline necessities of making the show more cartoonish to keep it from being too repetitive, while also making the workday more formalized and normal for a staff with wives and families.

In the sense, then, of being an "uncensored, unauthorized history," Ortved really doesn't reveal as much new data as fans would like. The title is more scandalous than the content within, and the book suffers from its overselling. However, that presents a problem only to die-hard fans, Hollywood junkies or students of comedy writing. While to them, the Meyer interview might be so well known that they can close their eyes and finish sentences both for the quotes he's using as well as the paraphrases, the new fan, the average fan and those who've never gone on historical searches of their own will find plenty of delicious bits to enjoy without feeling like they're digesting leftovers.

That said, the book can be frustrating on an average-fan level. First, Ortved makes some mistakes. None substantially changes the narrative, but seeing a mistake in a history book nevertheless gives any reader pause. How much can you trust? How much did he get wrong? If, for instance, he erred in this way that you can detect — viz. confusing Aunt Patty and Aunt Selma — what did he screw up that you have no way of verifying on your own?

Second, Ortved later drops verdicts on people and plotlines, stepping out of the historian's voice with jarring fan-voice interruptions. On their own, these don't need to be bad authorial choices, but Ortved's structural decisions heighten their intrusiveness rather than minimizing them. Since he's chosen an oral history, structurally speaking he's surrendered agency for passing judgment to the people who were then present. He effaces himself as a critic and historian for the majority of the book, usually only stepping in to move things along in space or time, with summaries of preceding content and segues to something related. His normal facilitating tone makes the sudden switch to judgmental fan-voice more jarring and more evident.

What's more, he doesn't fully explore his judgments and contextualize his attitudes as a critic. For all the shortcomings of Turner's Planet Simpson, it was unmistakable what kind of writer, reader and thinker he was, giving us a wide spectrum of his interests and thousands of reactions to various data, including episodes in the Simpsons' and our universes. Ortved's opinions often drop like the fall of a gavel, sudden summary judgments without much of a brief to explain them. The most obvious and contentious such instance is when he announces the show's decline: it's treated as a thing that simply happened, a fait accompli between two absolutes of When the Show Was Great and When the Show Was Not Anymore.

As even a middling fan can tell you, announcing the moment of a show's decline doesn't work with The Simpsons. There were dark, cloying, simplistic spots before the show's decline, just as mid-decline saw some classic, thoughtful work. These are things that a critic should mull over and reconcile with his audience, not issue by fiat. Ortved could have expanded the subtlety of his thinking while also drawing in his readers, rather than potentially offending or lecturing at them. With any phenomenon like this, whose fans are smart as well as passionate, creating a dialogue can only help, even if it leads to disagreement. Here, learning more from Ortved would have been welcome.

Ortved's biggest problem, however, is one that's not his fault. Writing an unreserved oral history of any successful Hollywood endeavor requires a lot of knowledgeable people without dread of powerful people. To take two popular examples, Tom Shales' history of Saturday Night Live, Live From New York, works because so many of the interviewed "historians" either have nothing to fear or don't care. People they disagreed with are dead or powerless now; people like Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol have been criticized by the mighty and the lowly for decades; many of the interviewees went on to success elsewhere or built safe niches. In contrast, Shales' recent ESPN history, Those Guys Have All the Fun, mostly relies on interviewing people still with the company, resulting in toothless criticism, oblique responses and often dead silence on important issues.

Ortved's book resembles the ESPN history far more than SNL's. Unlike SNL, there are no breakout in-the-flesh stars from The Simpsons cast, no Aykroyds, Murrays, Curtains, Wayans, Murphys, Ferrells, Poehlers or Meyers who no longer have anything to lose. Most of the history of The Simpsons is a writers' history, meaning that those called on to dish about the powerful are some of the weakest and most stepped-on people in Hollywood, paid terribly, rewritten by producers and dependent on the goodwill of those who produce them. In that last category, you find people like Matt Groening, who is now very wealthy and opinionated, and James L. Brooks, who used to have a spotless Hollywood track record and still employs vicious little flunkies to enact his will.

That Groening and Brooks are criticized at all is surprising, but both of them deserve it. It was an open secret for years amongst Simpsons wonks that Groening had surrendered all direction to show runners and all non-check-endorsing writing to the writers' room. (The pattern played out again with Futurama, where he appears on all DVD commentaries and sometimes clearly has no idea what the genesis of an episode was, nor how it was subsequently developed — nor does anyone ever point to a gag he wrote.) Criticism of Brooks is more startling, given his pedigree, but probably more deserving. He allegedly panicked following the critical and box-office tanking of Spanglish and forced the ad nauseam repetition of the "Marge Leaves Homer" storyline on The Simpsons Movie, believing the old Brooks "magic" of saccharine Oscar-bait resolutions would benefit a movie that a dozen other people who'd evidently watched 350+ episodes of The Simpsons were trying to make funny instead of formulaic and insulting.

Those two callouts sneaked through, but it's important to note that the negative Brooks Simpsons Movie material appears in bold typeface, as does most on Groening's writing, indicating that others are speaking through Ortved, off the record. It's uncharitable and unreasonable to assume Ortved speaks alone, here. Throughout the book, except where his fandom for episodes and characters is concerned, he's quick to defer to the principal players and to indicate rumor and speculation where he encounters it. Nonetheless, the overall effect of the book is one that was "crowdsourced" to a group of people too humbled by their former bosses to really let loose, while some of the biggest shots come from off-the-record material that Ortved's critics will assuredly chalk up to embittered nobodies, misleading palace gossip or (in the case of some online reviews) suggestions that Ortved nurses a seething need to revenge himself on Matt Groening or Jim Brooks, though God knows why.

Maybe The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History was always partly doomed. For casual fans, it's a smart and entertaining book, albeit with a few errors and a few authorial interjections that could use some work. It introduces all the players and tells the tales in their voices, from behind the scenes, with a few meaty bits that don't find their way into the official online record and the DVD commentaries. But, all the same, it's still a little disappointing.

Like those books on the Beatles or Hitler, it could never reveal a great axis-tilting secret, because there probably are none. Despite that, Simpsons wonks desperately want one. They want an undiscovered treasure, a revealed truth lurking below the surface that changes their assumed history, challenges their conclusions, maybe even explains why the show had to go downhill, finally putting a formula of absolute inevitability on something they thought a band of geniuses could have somehow staved off.

This book can't break that seal, assuming even that there's a seal to be broken and something beneath to be revealed. The fault lies not with Ortved but with the participants. Nobody important has died, opening the field for backbiting and castigation. Nobody has written a merciless or self-involved tell-all history. Even the people who've mentally checked out from the process haven't cashed out, leaving them in charge of others while ill-inclined to slay the golden goose. Lastly, even those who departed the show are writers, for whom people like James L. Brooks or Matt Groening are irreplaceable lifelines to new work when pilot scripts get rejected.

When The Simpsons eventually dies, all of that will change. For now, there's nothing really wrong with Ortved's history. His motives and approach were good, and his intent was surely grander than this. The problem, then, is there just hasn't been enough history yet for the book.

Rating: 3
Like The Simpsons and its journey of episode quality over the seasons, enjoying this book is a personal matter. Unversed fans should have fun with it, and it should catch them up in as much detail as possible, without having to make collecting their own Simpsons history a hobby. Wonks might find it insufficiently revelatory, perhaps feeling more disappointed with it than it warrants. It's a safe gift for the casual fan and a good library book for the wonk (although he should have read this already). Its happiest reader is the semi-knowledgeable fan, who wants to supplement enthusiasm with inside-baseball knowledge. Pairing it with Planet Simpson isn't a bad bet, although you should read this first and weigh Planet Simpson lower on your expense priorities. Planet Simpson is smart, but even as a Simpsons die-hard and liberal-arts wank, my toleration for eggheaded liberal arts solipsism narrowed to a pinprick, and I found myself wondering whether, if I met Chris Turner, I would engage him in argument or let him wander off in self-contained and -satisfied monologue, allow him to become completely engrossed in his disquisition, then heave him off a balcony.

NOTE: I originally had this book as a 4, but I slept on it and realized that I was being dishonest when tying that number to my response. I think that, for casual fan, the novelty of the content and the excitement of peeking behind the scenes makes the book much better. Overall, averaging out for all audiences and their response, it really does fit right in the middle.