Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘George Meyer

American Stories #7: The Simpsons

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Note: As we enter what Joe Scarborough justifiably expects to be “the most consequential political year of our lives,” I’m looking back at ten works of art—books, film, television, and music—that deserve to be reexamined in light of where America stands today. You can find the earlier installments here

By now, it might seem that there isn’t anything new to say about The Simpsons, but it’s worth emphasizing how much it depended on an accident of timing. When it premiered, there hadn’t been a successful animated show in primetime since The Flintstones, and it clearly bore the fingerprints of its most famous predecessor. It was a family sitcom designed more or less along the lines of the ones that had come before it—Matt Groening came up with the concept in the waiting room before a pitch meeting—and while its tone and attitude were new, its structure in the early days was resolutely conventional. If it rapidly evolved, this was thanks in large part to luck. Bit players like Apu or Principal Skinner, introduced for the sake of a specific gag, stuck around to be brought back for a few lines at a time because they depended only on the availability of a core voice cast, which meant that the population of Springfield naturally increased. The number of potential characters was as infinite as it was on a good sketch comedy show, with no limits on how many could appear in a single scene. As the animation grew more sophisticated, the writers began to see that they could literally go anywhere and do anything, within the limits imposed by the patience and ability of the animators. (The directors, who were occasionally overwhelmed, joked about being asked to draw “an elephant stampede in a hall of mirrors,” but they invariably rose to the challenge.) Instead of a series about a family, which is what its title still implied, it became a show about everything in the world, and early breakthroughs like Bart the Murderer expanded its scope to all of popular culture. Its network was content to leave it alone. And if it ultimately emerged as a work of art vast enough to form the basis of its own metaphorical language, it was because the medium had risen to meet the ambitions of its writers at that exact moment.

The first eight seasons of The Simpsons remain the greatest case study imaginable for what happens when a small group of smart people is given creative freedom within a form that imposes minimal constraints on the imagination, given enough ingenuity and intelligence. Yet the same elements that enabled the show’s success also contributed to its decline, which will last, in the end, for at least twice as long as its golden age. From the beginning, the cast and crew were predominately white and male, and its treatment of minorities is finally drawing the scrutiny that it deserves. Its producers engaged in a form of category selection in hiring new writers who looked pretty much like they did, which was both a symptom and a cause of the lack of diversity in the industry as a whole, and the result was an echo chamber, brilliant and dead, that seemed disconnected from anything but itself. There’s also a hint of the pattern of generational succession that you see in so many successful startups. The founding members tend to be weirdos like George Meyer or John Swartzwelder, who are willing to take creative chances in oddball projects like the magazine Army Man, but as the enterprise becomes more successful, the second wave of hires comes from Harvard, with talent that is conventionally accomplished but deeply risk averse. And the series today looks more or less like you might expect. It’s a show that continues to grow on a technical level—although its animation has also grown more conservative—but hasn’t advanced creatively in fifteen years; it settles for the kind of cleverness that plays well in the room but is unlikely to make an impression on viewers; and it has no real incentive to change. The Simpsons is still the best show ever made about America. But the most American thing about it might be its downfall.

Written by nevalalee

January 9, 2018 at 8:35 am

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

The irrational rightness of The Simpsons

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Bart's Comet

There’s a famous but widely debunked statistic claiming that men think about sex an average of once every seven seconds. In fact, according to one recent study, it’s more like nineteen times a day, which may seem like a lot or a little, depending on your point of view. What tickles me the most about this figure is that it’s in the same ballpark as the number of times I think on a daily basis about The Simpsons. The greatest sitcom in history—which celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary as a regular television series today—has achieved something that no other series can claim: for a considerable swath of the population, it’s a kind of ongoing cognitive substratum, with quotes and moments clarifying how we feel about almost everything. Whenever I remember the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok,” which invents a race that speaks solely in mythological metaphors, it seems a little farfetched at first, but if I reconceive of it as a language consisting entirely of Simpsons references, it suddenly feels a lot more plausible. (These days, for instance, I’m trying to teach my daughter how to use the words “you” and “me,” which means that I’m constantly thinking about this.)

What’s even more extraordinary is that I haven’t watched The Simpsons on a regular basis for more than ten years. Which is only to say that I haven’t kept up with the new episodes. The show’s best years—which I’d roughly define as season three through season eight, with a few possible extensions in either direction—have remained constantly in the background for most of the ensuing decade, often with a commentary track, many of which I’ve heard a dozen times or more. (For a long time, Simpsons commentaries played the same role in my life that podcasts serve for many listeners now. Even for the weaker seasons, I still think that they’re the best radio show in the world.) At some point, though, I began to lose interest in what the show was continuing to produce. As best as I can recall, the last episode I casually watched on its original run was “Sleeping With the Enemy,” which aired back on November 21, 2004. It wasn’t a bad episode, and in fact, it was the last script credited to Jon Vitti, who was behind many of the show’s greatest achievements. Yet it was thoroughly mediocre, and I realized that the series no longer gave me much pleasure. Since then, I’ve tuned in for special installments, like the crossword episode and, most recently, the Lego show. But I’ve long since stopped watching it just because it happened to be on.

The Sea Captain on the Simpsons

This isn’t the place for an extensive discussion of the reasons behind the show’s decline, which sometimes seems like the single most thoroughly dissected topic on all of the Internet. What I’d like to highlight here is a quality that doesn’t get mentioned often enough: the show’s underlying strangeness. Looking back at the golden years of the series, it’s striking how many lines, scenes, and images are both inexplicable and totally right. They’re often tangential beats that go on longer than seem comedically possible—not just the rake gag from “Cape Feare,” but Mr. Burns laughing over the crippled Irishman in “Last Exit to Springfield,” or Homer twiddling his thumbs in “Bart’s Comet.” They’re the comedic version of what Donald Richie, in his discussion of Kurosawa, calls “the irrational rightness of an apparently gratuitous image in its proper place,” and as Richie points out, they’re often the things we remember. Which isn’t to say that The Simpsons doesn’t still contain plenty of seemingly irrelevant material; sometimes there’s so much of it that the ostensible plot is almost forgotten. Yet nearly every joke these days can be explained, if you’re so inclined, in ways the left brain can understand: it’s a reference, a sign gag, a parody, a dollop of cringe humor. Every line feels like one that the producers could defend on Twitter, when so much of the show’s best moments work in ways that even the writers would find hard to explain.

Trying to recapture that kind of quality, which is inherently indefinable, is a loser’s game. And there are sometimes still flashes of it. But The Simpsons hit that mark so consistently for so many years that it’s worth wondering what changed. Informed opinion has often linked the show’s permanent decline to the departure of George Meyer, the indispensable man in the writer’s room, who left the show in 2006. Meyer is undeniably responsible for much of what made those classic seasons so special—the subplot in “Lisa’s Rival” about Homer and the sugar truck, for instance, was one that he pitched almost line for line—and the respect in which he was held allowed moments to survive that might not have made it through a more rational rewrite. It’s simplistic, of course, to tether such a rich, complicated show to one man’s sensibility, and the series was always bursting with talent. Yet I can’t help think that Meyer instilled the rest of the staff with the courage to be random, strange, and cheerfully unexplainable. In his absence, The Simpsons became less a writer’s than a producer’s show, and while it continued to produce the occasional high point, like “Trilogy of Error,” even its triumphs, like its animation, felt a little more calculated. It can still be a clever show when it feels like it. But as Meyer liked to say, and as the series has allowed itself all too often to forget: “Clever is the eunuch version of funny.”

Written by nevalalee

January 14, 2015 at 10:12 am

Raising the stakes

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If there’s one note that nearly every writer gets from an editor or reader at one point or another, it’s this: “Raise the stakes.” What makes this note so handy from a reader’s point of view—and beyond infuriating for the writer who receives it—is that it’s never wrong, and it doesn’t require much in the way of close reading or analysis of the story itself. The stakes in a story could always be a little higher, and it’s hard for an author to make a case that he’s calibrated the stakes just right, or that the story wouldn’t benefit from some additional risk or tension. It’s such a common note, in fact, that it’s turned into a running joke among screenwriters. In the commentary track for the Simpsons episode “Natural Born Kissers,” for instance, the legendary comedy writer George Meyer watches a scene in which Homer and Marge need to drive to the store to buy a new motor for their broken refrigerator, and he drily notes: “This is what’s known as ‘raising the stakes.'”

And the fact that development executives can give this note so unthinkingly explains a lot about the movies.  Recently, the New York Times reporter Brooks Barnes circulated a fake proposal for an action movie called Red, White and Blood to a number of Hollywood insiders to see what they had to say. The response from producer Lynda Obst is particularly interesting:

The stakes need to be much, much higher. A gun battle? How cute. We need hotter weapons. Huge, big battle weapons—maybe an end-of-the-world device.

Hence the fact that every superhero movie seems to end with a crisis that threatens to wipe out all of humanity, or at least most of Gotham City. In itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: the lack of a credible threat is part of what makes Superman Returns, for all its good intentions, a bit of a snooze. But after a while, the stakes become so high that they’re almost abstract. The final battle in The Avengers is theoretically supposed to determine the fate of the world, but it still comes down to our heroes fighting a bunch of aliens on flying scooters outside Grand Central Station.


Really, though, the problem isn’t raising the stakes, but finding ways to express them in immediate human terms. Take the ending of Man of Steel. After an epic fistfight that destroys entire skyscrapers and probably costs thousands of lives, the struggle between Zod and Superman comes down to the fate of a handful of innocent bystanders—also staged, interestingly enough, in Grand Central Station. In principle, a few more casualties shouldn’t matter much either way, but they do: it’s an undeniably powerful moment in a movie in which the emotional side is often puzzlingly opaque. And it isn’t hard to see why. Instead of the legions of digitized fatalities in a Michael Bay movie, we’re given a good look at a handful of real people. We’re close enough to see the fear on their faces, and we care. (One suspects that Synder and Nolan took a cue from Richard Donner’s original Superman movie, in which the destruction of most of California seems insignificant compared to what happens to Lois Lane.)

And maybe it’s time filmmakers—and other storytellers—gave the world a break. In his great Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson notes of Howard Hawks:

Like Monet forever painting lilies or Bonnard always re-creating his wife in her bath, Hawks made only one artwork. It is the principle of that movie that men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world.

Aside from the fact that Disney isn’t likely to show any of its Marvel characters smoking, this is still good advice to follow. You can raise the stakes as high as you want, but as disaster movies like 2012 have shown, you can destroy the entire planet and we still won’t care if you don’t give us characters to care about. Like most notes from readers, “raising the stakes” is less a way of solving a problem than an indication that deeper issues may lie elsewhere. And the real solution isn’t to blow up the world, or introduce hotter weapons, but to slow things down, show us a recognizable human being with needs we can understand, and maybe even let him roll a cigarette or two.

Written by nevalalee

July 10, 2013 at 9:17 am

The perils of cleverness

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Oh, I get it, it’s very clever. How’s that working out for you?
Fight Club

Earlier this week, I finally finished London Fields by Martin Amis, a novel that I grudgingly respected and intensely disliked. Amis is undoubtedly a genius, and the level of craft on display here is often stunning, but the deliberate flatness of its lovingly caricatured characters and its endless hammering away at a handful of themes makes it feel like reading the same smug, acerbic, glitteringly intelligent page five hundred times in a row. By the end, I was almost physically exhausted by the relentless progression of setup, punchline, setup, punchline, and the result, like Amis’s The Information, strikes me as a work of great misdirected talent. For all its ambition, it ultimately exemplifies, more than anything else, what Amis’s father Kingsley once called the “terrible compulsive vividness in his style…that constant demonstrating of his command of English.” And, I might add, of his cleverness.

Cleverness for its own sake, I’ve become increasingly convinced, is a pitfall for all gifted artists, especially novelists and filmmakers. It’s hard to say what cleverness means, at least in its negative sense, but I’d describe it as any artistic decision or flourish that doesn’t serve to advance the story, but only to be admired in isolation. Its defining characteristic is that it can be easily detached from the underlying narrative and inserted elsewhere in the story—or another story altogether—with minimal changes. At its worst, it feels less like ingenuity in service of narrative than a laundry list of interchangeable ideas. Watching a movie like Fight Club or reading a book like London Fields, I have the same feeling that the music critic Anthony Tommasini recently described in his review of Francesca Zambello’s San Francisco production of Das Rheingold: “I wish she had made a complete list of her ideas and eliminated a third of them.”

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for an occasional isolated flourish, like the moment in Citizen Kane when the photograph of the Inquirer staff comes to life. And there are some great films, like Casino, that aspire to be nothing but those flourishes. But the best sort of cleverness, like every other aspect of craft, is for the sake of story, which means that it’s almost invisible. Hitchcock is a fine example of both extremes. We remember the obvious effects of his style, like the distorting optical process in Vertigo, but far more clever is the structure of Vertigo itself, which takes place entirely from the perspective of the lead character until the last half hour, when it breaks from his point of view at a decisive moment. (This is a departure, incidentally, from the original novel, which, with its surprise ending, is clever in a more conventional way.)

The real trouble with cleverness is that it can easily be mistaken for the deeper qualities it can only superficially imitate: narrative ingenuity, humor, and organic inventiveness. In literature, it leads to novels that imitate the postmodern tools of Barth or Borges without ever having really engaged the earlier works on which they were founded. In film, you get a style like that of Tony Scott at his worst, in which every shot is tilted or saturated for no particular reason. And in comedy, it results in a mode of humor in which pop cultural references and winks to the audience have replaced real comedic situations. For this last manifestation, which is probably the saddest of all, I can do no better than quote George Meyer, the legendary writer and producer for the best years of The Simpsons: “Clever,” Meyer notes, “is the eunuch version of funny.”

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