Sunday, January 24, 2010

Review of The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

From the January 17, 2010 Toronto Star.

The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History
by John Ortved
Greystone Books, 332 pages, $34.95

Last weekend, the Fox network celebrated the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons by airing an hour-long documentary by Morgan Spurlock, best known for Super Size Me, his greasy takedown of McDonald's. Spurlock's doc turned out to be a puffy look at the show and its fans, sparing the animated franchise his critical eye.

Those seeking a more substantial look at the longest-running sitcom in history should read John Ortved's The Simpsons, an oral history of the show and the people behind it. Neither academic (Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality by Jonathan Gray) nor epistemological (The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh! of Homer) nor theological (The Gospel According to The Simpsons by Mark I. Pinsky) nor fanboy braindump (the 464 pages of Planet Simpson by Chris Turner), Ortved turns most of the book over to his interviewees, inserting his own comments sparingly.

While his love for the show is obvious, Ortved does not let passion erase necessary judgment. He calmly asserts, for example, that the show hasn't been worth watching for almost a decade and that The Simpsons movie was tepid. (Full disclosure: I support these assessments.) As professor John Alberti observes in the book, The Simpsons began as The Beatles, but have now "stretched it into the Rolling Stones, because the Rolling Stones are so corporatized now it's really hard to imagine that they were ever subversive or edgy or countercultural."

OF COURSE, WHEN dealing with a $3 billion ATM (the estimated revenue generated by the show thus far), asking tough questions means having to add "unauthorized" to your subtitle. Ortved's book developed out of a 2007 article for Vanity Fair that Fox worked vigorously to kill when it realized the piece wouldn't be all warm and fuzzy. As Ortved wrote in The Daily Beast last October, "Hollywood publicists are so used to journalists kowtowing to their every request that they no longer understand what journalism actually is. We're talking about cartoon characters here, not Watergate, but the light subject matter doesn't exclude the possibility of doing real research and telling interesting stories."

Although filled with nerdy diversions about The Tracey Ullman Show (where The Simpsons debuted), Hungarian animator Gabor Csupo and pizza stains on the ceiling of the writer's room, Ortved provides a sustained focus on the show's three executive producers (James L. Brooks, Matt Groening and Sam Simon). We learn that Brooks would never let a friendship get in the way of making more money, that Groening (pronounced "grain-ing" and/or "gazillionaire") has received far too much credit for the success of the show, and that the unsung Sam Simon (who left after Season Four) is the reason the show has such a bountiful set of hilarious and complex supporting characters.

While none of the three agreed to be interviewed for the book, Ortved did talk with Conan O'Brien, Hank Azaria (voice of Moe the bartender and many more), billionaire tyrant Rupert Murdoch and Groening's ex-wife, along with dozen of others. His diligence and research is faultless, and Ortved has worked hard to avoid writing another insider-y true-fans-only look at the show. Still, certain chunks of the book (such as the now-forgotten ratings battle between The Cosby Show and The Simpsons) are unlikely to appeal to casual Simpsons viewers.

But since Ortved argues that the show "has a profound effect on how we live" and "we, as a culture, speak Simpsons," a casual Simpsons viewer sounds like an oxymoron. By mixing journalism about yellow people with a bit of yellow journalism, Ortved provides a tough, necessary look at Homer Simpson's odyssey that would make Kent Brockman proud.