Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The secret heart of The Simpsons

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Sam Simon

If television is a collaborative medium, then it stands to reason that the greatest television series of all time would also be the most striking example of collaboration we have. And it is. When we try to pin down credit for The Simpsons, it starts to feel like one of those M.C. Escher lithographs composed of countless smaller versions of the same figure—no matter how deep we drill, there’s always another level of complexity to discover, with talent bursting forth at every level. To take a single vivid example: the idea that the animator who designed Krusty the Clown would go on, decades later, to win two Oscars for Best Animated Feature and emerge as one of the most exciting action directors in years might seem farfetched. Yet that’s exactly what happened. And Brad Bird was only one of dozens of creative geniuses toiling away in the background during the show’s golden age, which is the best instance I know of narrative value being added at every stage in the process. If Matt Groening provided the emotional core, it was enhanced throughout by writers, voice actors, animators, directors, and other craftsmen, both sung and unsung. Here are just a few of their names: Mark Kirkland, Travis Powers, David Mirkin, Jon Vitti, Josh Weinstein, Bill Oakley, Susie Dietter. And I could keep typing for days.

Still, we all love our auteurs, and there will always be attempts to award the bulk of the credit to one or two individuals, particularly those whose names we recognize. I’ve heard people cite Conan O’Brien as the crucial figure in the show’s early days, which doesn’t make any sense: even if you think, rightly, that “Marge vs. The Monorail” marked a significant moment in the show’s evolution, O’Brien joined the writing staff only after much of the tone and voice of the series had already been established. Other fans point to John Swartzwelder, the show’s most prolific and mysterious writer, or even Brad Bird, and I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog for the central role of George Meyer. But if we’re going to single out just one person, the case for Sam Simon, who passed away earlier this week, is as strong as it is for anyone. And if there’s a silver lining to his death, it’s that it may end up restoring him to his proper place in the history of the series, from which he has all too often been omitted. (There’s a nod to this in “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular,” which provides a tongue-in-cheek version of the show’s origin story. The writers originally wanted to represent Simon with a blank screen and the caption: “No photo available.” Simon objected, and he personally drew and faxed over the picture that finally appeared, depicting him as a Howard Hughes figure with clawlike nails.)

Bart's Comet

Groening may have been the show’s creator, but Simon was its Diaghilev—a maker of junctions between other creative minds. As Hans Ulrich Obrist says:

If you think about these encounters—it was almost like a gesamtkunstwerk [an ideal synthesis of all the arts]. Composers of the importance of Stravinsky would do the sound, artists of the importance of Picasso or Braque or the Russian constructivists Goncharova or Popova would do stage sets. The dancers would be the likes of Nijinksy. Massine and Jean Cocteau were involved. And Diaghilev is the impresario who brings it all together and orchestrates it.

Replace “Stravinsky” with “Alf Clausen,” “Picasso or Braque” with “David Silverman or Rich Moore,” “Nijinsky” with “Dan Castellaneta,” and “Jean Cocteau” with “Brad Bird,” and you’ve got something like The Simpsons. And while Simon may not have been responsible for all those junctions, he enabled them in critical ways. He assembled the initial writing room, hiring the likes of Meyer, Swartzwelder, and Vitti; he put all the voice actors in the same studio, rather than having them record their lines separately, which led to some of the show’s most organic and surprising moments; and he pushed the series past its roots as a family sitcom to develop its world, designing the original models for such key supporting characters as Mr. Burns and Chief Wiggum.

In other words, even if it’s impossible to sift through the various contributions of the myriad parents of The Simpsons, Simon is responsible, as much as anyone else, for putting them all in the same room. The more you look at the resulting synergy, the more you see his fingerprints, and although he left after the fourth—and arguably best—season, his legacy endured for years thereafter. Like Diaghilev, he did exactly what producers are supposed to do, and through some combination of talent, experience, and luck, he did it better than anyone else before or since. And as invisible as he was, he had a lasting impact on the inner lives of millions. I’ve spoken before of the repository of Simpsons quotes that we carry in our heads as a kind of metaphorical language, a common store of references that quietly shapes how we think about everything, and while it may have been the product of countless hands, Simon starts to feel like the keystone without which the rest of the arch collapses. Of course, that’s just one narrative out of many, and other, equally plausible ones will continue to emerge. But if there’s a lesson here at all, it’s how little we can know about the secret life of a television series, or any great gesamtkunstwerk, when we’re on the outside looking in. As Jon Vitti, one of the show’s most influential writers, said of Simon: “He was the guy we wrote for.”

Written by nevalalee

March 10, 2015 at 10:15 am

2 Responses

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  1. I am new to WordPress but so glad I found your site! Wonderful stuff, keep it up.

    moonandvenuskayla

    March 25, 2015 at 12:32 pm

  2. Glad to hear it—hope you stick around!

    nevalalee

    March 25, 2015 at 10:02 pm


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