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.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Feature Writing Course Begins Feb 1

Once or twice a year I plug myself. This is one of those times. If you're interested in feature writing, please consider taking my SCS course which begins February 1. I recommend signing up this week if you're keen.

More info here.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Toronto The Rude

Best Sighting of a Person Who Never Did End Up Sitting Down: We were milling around and Amber is pregnant and gets tired from time to time, so she set her bag down on an empty bench for a moment and some woman asked her to move the bag because Ron Sexsmith, who was being interviewed, had been saving the seat. The woman clearly wanted Ron to sit beside her and was worried that some pregnant woman was going to spoil her night (we weren't sitting down ... I was trying to show her Jesse Camacho). If you see the interview and see us behind him talking to someone and looking confused, that's what's going on.

And then ... Ron Sexsmith ... just walked away.

But that's Toronto ... when we were in Buenos Aires, we were surprised at how people bent over backwards for pregnant women. Amber was always offered seats on the subway (which never happens in Toronto) and we even went through the line for 'diplomats and pregnant woman' at the airport. And that was months ago ... she's way more pregnant now. In Toronto, people ask her for her seat on the streetcar and the other day at the grocery store, a woman asked her if she could butt ahead of her in line because she was in a hurry.


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Can't Really Do It Justice In Print

But this was the funniest part of the movie In The Loop:

Toby Wright: We called some builders. They didn’t turn up when they said they would.

Jamie MacDonald: What did you expect? They're builders! Have you ever seen a film where the hero is a builder? No, no, because they never fucking turn up in the nick of time. Bat-builder? Spider-builder? Huh? Thats why you never see a superhero with a hod!

Monday, January 04, 2010

Annual Check-Up

From the December 27, 2009 Toronto Star, my look at the year that was.

2009: One long brutal reality show

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed a five-stage process to explain how we process grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. And now, 40 years later, it appears as though the same psychological framework can be applied to how we responded to the year 2009.

Every year contains its share of sorrows. But our continued economic struggles, plus the realization that President Obama was not, after all, a political superhero, shaded the past 12 months with a lingering sense of loss. (To say nothing of the inevitable eulogies for this dying decade.) Once you review the events of 2009 through the Kübler-Ross prism, our year of grief becomes clear.

Of course, as Kübler-Ross acknowledged long ago, no one experiences grief in the exact same way. Some skip stages, others reorder them to better suit their mental geometries, but all remain valuable mile markers as we revisit the year that was.


Denying reality was a popular trope in 2009, from the birthers who claimed that Obama wasn't an American citizen (FYI: he is), to pundits like Chris Anderson, who claimed in his book Free that charging money for stuff is an obsolete notion (FYI: he's wrong).

There were many other economic denials this year. The persistence of recession chic represented a refusal to believe that conspicuous consumption might be permanently dead. Detroit, along with the (ahem) newspaper industry tried to ignore obvious portents about their shaky future, be it government ownership of General Motors or NYU professor Clay Shirky writing that "Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism."

Meanwhile, formerly smug Millennials (aka Gen Y) had to contend with their first recession, which challenged their specialness. As Lianne George wrote in Maclean's back in January, "Well-intentioned attempts to make this generation feel good about itself have, in fact, left them poorly prepared to weather a tough economic storm."

The hippest of those Millennials not only had to contend with financial disbelief, but also the shock of seeing their outré lifestyle being used to sell salad dressing. (As the television commercial tagline put it: "We are Miracle Whip, and we will not tone it down.")

Thankfully, 2009 produced at least one philosophical defense of repression courtesy of a Singapore professor named Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger. While his book, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age did not predict the Colorado balloon boy, it provides reassurance to anyone who has already removed that strange sordid episode from their memory banks.


For those unable to repress reality, anger provided a reliable response to 2009. Town hall meetings across the United States erupted, as ordinary citizens vented their outrage at a government with the temerity to provide affordable health care for its least fortunate citizens. This culminated with Republican congressman Joe Wilson interrupting an Obama speech on healthcare by shouting "You lie!"

Although Obama responded by saying "that's not true," one suspects he really wanted to call Wilson a jackass, since that's what he considered Kayne West to be after his Taylor Swift interruptus routine at the MTV Music Video Awards. Still, real anger is preferable to fake anger, as Brüno (aka Sasha Baron Cohen) learned when he staged a fake confrontation between his crotch and Eminem's face during the MTV Movie Awards.

While Facebook continued to provide convenient distractions at no cost (including YouTube clips of Brüno and Kayne at their worst), their spring redesign made everyone angry. But as Slate's Farhad Manjoo wrote in March, "People always hate when their favorite site is suddenly completely different. A lot of them threaten to quit. They're bluffing." (FYI: He was right.)

Ryerson prof Gregory Levey, writing in Toronto Life, put aside such trifling aesthetic concerns and instead bemoaned the growing iGeneration gap: "When a 140-character Twitter post is the standard form of communication, the idea of writing even a 500-word essay seems faintly ridiculous."

Another kind of iGeneration filled the Star's online comment boards with rage-soaked typos over the War on the Car, wherein Jarvis St. will lose one car lane to make room for bikes. Comment boards might not generate profit, but they do provide evidence (contrary to Clay Shirky) that newspapers are still valuable, even worth fighting for. Literally. In November, two journalists at the Washington Post got into fisticuffs over the quality of another journalist's writing.


There were plenty of bargains in 2009, with prices slashed in every department (including $1 houses in Detroit) but that should not be confused with bargaining. In a January blog posting entitled "Are Americans Renouncing Consumerism?" Judith Levine (author of Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping) explored whether or not the North American way of life was negotiable. She concluded that consumerism was merely taking a breather, but that "if we can be convinced to be spendthrifts, we can also relearn thrift. Or moderation, anyhow."

Others bargained to prevent the death of particular consumer items, like "The Impossible Project," a successful campaign to prevent Polaroid's iconic instant film stock from disappearing.

At least a few artists, after reading a February New York Times article entitled "The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!" decided to renegotiate how they approach their craft. One result was, a website that generates funding for public artworks by allowing anyone to become a shareholder in a given project for only $1.

Newspapers tried bargaining, Faustian and otherwise. On June 10 Haaretz (an Israeli newspaper) replaced their regular reporters with poets and authors, which produced the following stock market summary: "Everything's okay. Everything's like usual . . . The economists went to their homes, the laundry is drying on the lines."

Not to be outdone, Dave Eggers created The San Francisco Panorama, a 300-page newspaper edition of his literary journal McSweeney's, designed to prove the viability of ink on paper in the 21st century. Unfortunately his December experiment came at a great cost: $16 a copy, to be precise.


There was plenty to be sad about this year. Tate Triennial curator Nicolas Bourriaud claimed postmodernism to be dead, replaced by something called altermodernism.

Michael Jackson also passed away, along with Farrah Fawcett, Patrick Swayze and Ted Kennedy. Twitter, meanwhile, spread greatly exaggerated rumours regarding the deaths of actors Natalie Portman and Jeff Goldblum and pop musician Morrissey, all of whom were alive as of press time. (Of the three, only Morrissey was unhappy to learn he must continue to endure this mortal coil.)

Although great works of literature are often produced by sad authors, various industry trends intensified the depression felt by writers trying to make a living. Blogger David Nygren wrote "Under the Table," the first short storyspreadsheet and speculated about the possibilities of a novexcel – truly formulaic prose.

Meanwhile, less continued to be more, as Joel Achenbach explained in a 2000-word Washington Post feature about the death of long form journalism that no one managed to finish reading. Achenbach, a staff writer, will be even sadder to learn that newspapers are no longer essential for democracy, at least according to a March article in Slate by Jack Shafer. Magazines, meanwhile, continued to put ads on their covers (in violation of rules created by the American Society of Magazine Editors) in their attempt to earn enough money to remain on the newsstands.

The grim future of words, according to the Noisy Channel blog, is the rise of the Least Publishable Unit approach to information. In practical terms, this means that the nearly self-explanatory Twitter feed Sh*t My Dad Says is getting turned into a sitcom (FYI: true), while a New York literary agency tried to option a Facebook status update by a former executive at Dreamworks (FYI: true), hoping to turn it into a tween book and movie (FYI: true) to be shot on location in FarmVille (FYI: false).


Despite the many injustices suffered in 2009, humans are ultimately a resilient bunch. Which explains why Robert Lanham, writing for McSweeney's, created a fake syllabus for a course entitled "Writing for Nonreaders in the Postprint Era" that acknowledged the new word order, replete with a workshop entitled "I Can Haz Writin Skillz?"

Reinforcing this tendency, albeit in a more serious way, was Sam Anderson, who explained in 6,000 word New York article why digital distractions should be embraced, not shunned. (FYI: No one managed to finish reading his article either.)

Danger Mouse, meanwhile, both accepted and embraced the current dysfunction of the music industry by releasing his latest album, Dark Night Of The Soul, as a blank CD-R due to legal troubles with record label EMI.

As for the rest of us? Well, here's hoping that 2010 will grant us all the serenity to avoid anger and depression, and allow us to accept the things we cannot change, provide us with the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

(FYI: Pollyannaish? Perhaps. But worth a shot.)

Friday, January 01, 2010

I'm Number Nine! I'm Number Nine!

A top ten list wherein your loyal and humble scribe is mocked for teaching journalism.

Andre Alexis on Mark Kingwell "and" Glenn Gould

From Globe and Mail book review:

For instance, in trying to define consciousness, Kingwell writes: “Consciousness is the mysterious ability to spatialize time, to move a ‘self' through a metaphoric space.” The two parts of that sentence don't quite fit together. Consciousness is the ability to turn time (succession, a concept) into a thing (space).

Okay, that's interesting and it leads to interesting questions: Is consciousness like our other abilities: the ability to transform oxygen to CO{-2}, for instance?

While thinking about that, you're told – as if the second phrase were merely fleshing out the first – that consciousness is the ability to move a “self” through “metaphoric space.” Also interesting. But it's a separate thought. In my reading, the sentence needs an “and” here, because Kingwell is telling us two distinct things about the “ability” that is consciousness.

Now, it would be inane to criticize a writer for missing an “and” in a sentence. It's not as if, without it, the sentence is meaningless. One could even call the sentence, as is, “suggestive.” But this shotgun wedding of disparate ideas is entirely characteristic of Kingwell's style. Ideas are thrown about, sometimes in ways that are enlightening, sometimes in ways that defer meaning, sometimes in ways that make meaning opaque. It's done, I think, to take us to the heart of the contradictions, swerves of thought and tangents of Glenn Gould's own thinking. But it can make for frustrating or bewildering reading.