Monday, December 28, 2009

The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

I love The Simpsons, so I was super excited when I saw The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved at the library. We have all 12 seasons that are out on DVD. The book is told in a unique way, consisting mainly of bits of interviews with people connected with the show, interspersed with commentary from the author. As a result, it doesn't read like a typical nonfiction book, which is a bit disconcerting at first but works really well overall for this book. Even if you're not a fan of the Simpsons, the book is a great commentary on the 90s and TV history during that time, and how creating an animated TV shows works.
The most surprising thing to me is how little Matt Groening has to do with the actual show. He created the concept and original sketches, but others really ran with it and fine tuned it, and did all of the actual writing. There was a lot of information about the writers. As a writer, that fascinated me, how the brainstorming and writing process works when you're working on a show and having to share writing duties. I also didn't realize that Conan O'Brien wrote for the show from 1991-1993. I guess that is actually the most interesting thing! He was the main writer for Marge vs. the Monorail and a few other episodes. That cracks me up. Ortved interviewed some of the people who worked with him at the time, and they talked about how shocked they were when he was chosen to do the Late Show since he was a writer. They all thought he'd be great because he was always entertaining them, but still. It's fun to think of him as a writer. And he named Selma's iguana Jub Jub. He used to make up silly commercials for a product called Jub, and they ended up naming the iguana after that in tribute to Conan. I was also surprised that most of the original writers all went to Harvard. I guess that's why a lot of the jokes are so smart in the first several seasons.
I loved that book talked so much about the 90s. For example, in 1990 the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, New Kids on the Block, and The Simpsons were the three biggest merchandising product brands! I loved all of those back in the day. I was shocked that at one point, Bart t-shirts sold "at the rate of a million per day in North America." What? That's crazy! But remember when those Butterfinger commercials ran every commercial break and Bart was everywhere? I'd kind of forgotten just how popular he was.
It's also amazing to think about how many people have made guest appearances over the years. The writers talk about meeting Michael Jackson, and how weird that was, and how they were all trying not to look at his nose. And Tom Wolfe talks about he didn't even know about his first appearance. His son was watching the episode, and yelled to him that he was on TV. I oddly happened to watch that episode today. Lisa goes to a book festival and he's there in a white suit, and it gets sprayed with mustard and he rips it off to reveal another white suit right underneath. How weird would that be?
Also, apparently Nancy Cartwright, aka Bart's voice, is a Scientologist. She donated more money than Tom Cruise in 2007. It's weird to think of Bart's voice being a Scientologist.
It was also neat to read about how Fox was just a fledgling network in 1989, when the show launched. It wasn't even in all U.S. markets until the mid-90s. The Simpsons, along with Married...with Children, grew the network. They also pointed out that the financial success of The Simpsons probably gave Rupert Murdoch the money he needed to launch Fox News. Which since I like Fox News is a good think for me, but it's funny to think that.
Finally, it talked about South Park and Family Guy, (along with the other successors to The Simpsons). It referred to South Park as libertarian, even conservative, which I thought was hilarious. Really? Libertarian, yes, but conservative? Not sure where that came from. I haven't watched South Park since high school, but I'm not really seeing that connection. It did make me want to watch Family Guy though. I may have to borrow the DVDs from my aunt since I seem to always catch the same reruns.

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