Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Swartzwelder

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

Writing in hotel rooms

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Vladimir Nabokov

I got back yesterday from my brother’s wedding in Los Angeles, where I spent four nights with my wife and daughter at the excellent Omni Hotel. Along with a mountain of baby gear, I somewhat optimistically brought a few pages of notes for my novel, thinking that I’d have a chance to do a little work in my spare moments. Not surprisingly, that’s not how it worked out: staying in a hotel with a toddler presents enough of a challenge without trying to write at the same time. (We ended up stashing Beatrix’s travel crib in the bathroom, where she slept happily for most of the trip, much to the relief of her exhausted parents.) I felt a touch of regret at this, since I’ve always enjoyed working in hotels. Most recently, I vividly remember spending much of a trip to Las Vegas in my hotel room at Mandelay Bay, scribbling notes and trying frantically to think of a new title for my third novel, which my publisher had asked me to change. I wasn’t able to come up with much, and it was only while browsing at an airport bookstore on the way home that I finally hit upon the pleasing but relatively meaningless title Eternal Empire—although I still prefer The Scythian.

Writers, of course, have frequently used hotel rooms as places of work. Nabokov spent much of his itinerant life—and his summertime pursuit of butterflies—moving from one hotel to the next, spending his last fifteen years at the Montreux Palace in Switzerland. One particular stay, at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, evidently served as a catalyst for the plot of Lolita, in which a pivotal scene takes place at a hotel called the Enchanted Hunters. (Thomas Mann, a writer for whom Nabokov had little respect, derived similar inspiration from his own hotel visits.) Maya Angelou rented a hotel room by the month in her hometown, where she worked every morning, lying across the bed, the sheets of which she insisted remain unchanged for the duration of her stay. Describing her routine to The Paris Review, Angelou gets close to the heart of why hotels are so conducive to certain kinds of creative thought:

I insist that all things are taken off the walls. I don’t want anything in there. I go into the room and I feel as if all my beliefs are suspended. Nothing holds me to anything.

Maya Angelou

There’s a sense in which a hotel room occupies a unique place in the spectrum of the writer’s routine. Many authors can’t write away from a particular room or desk, to the point where some construct special writing shacks. Others prefer a particular lunch counter or restaurant, like The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, who had his favorite booth installed in his house after the coffee shop went out of business. And a select few take pride in being able to work anywhere. A hotel room represents a kind of compromise between these extremes. All hotel rooms are essentially the same, while remaining subtly different, so they provide a neutral setting for undistracted work while avoiding the boredom or monotony of the same unchanging space. Even now, when few of us write letters on hotel stationery, a writing desk and chair are still among the few standard furnishings of even the most modest of motel rooms. We may not get a chance to use the desk—I don’t think I even sat down at mine at the Omni for the four nights I spent there—but without it, the room would seem subliminally incomplete.

And there’s something fictive about a hotel room, which exists, like a short story, as a sort of simulacrum of real life. Nobody’s real house can or should look like this, although there are certainly people who spend much of their lives shaping their surroundings in imitation of what they’ve seen in hotels, from the towels to the robes to the sheets, just as many of us end up deriving our ideas about life from the books or movies we’ve experienced. Nabokov hints at this in a letter to Katharine and E.B. White, with a wonderful play on words that seems unintentional, although with Nabokov you never know: “I have no illusions about hotels in this hemisphere; they are for conventions, not for the individual.” By “conventions,” Nabokov means the gatherings of the “thousand tight salesmen” who descend on Lolita at the halfway point of the novel, but I’d prefer to focus on its alternate meaning. A hotel life is a conventional life, built up from a stranger’s idea of comfort or convenience, a vacant stage that we fill with our presences for a night or two. It’s a blank page. So it’s no surprise that those two areas of emptiness—and possibility—go together so well.

Written by nevalalee

September 3, 2014 at 10:12 am

Lessons from Great TV #6: The Simpsons

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The Simpsons is a lot of things, including the greatest television series of all time, and one could start a discussion about its lessons almost anywhere, but for me, above all else, it’s a show about a city. Springfield has its own history, its own mutable geography, and, best of all, its own massive population. I’ve spoken before about the power of ensembles, and what sets the golden years of The Simpsons apart from every other show ever made was the realization that with a handful of voice actors and the power of animation, you could have a series with literally hundreds of memorable faces, all of whom could cross paths in surprising ways. Crucially, few of these characters were conceived as regular members of the cast: characters like Gil or Fat Tony or Comic Book Guy were invented for a single story, or even a single joke, but unlike guest actors in a conventional sitcom who could be brought back only with difficulty, they all stuck around, ready to drop in whenever they were needed, until they became part of a narrative fabric of incredible richness. More than anything else, this is what allowed the show to remain so good for so long—the sense that we were living in a real town with real people, added organically over the course of ten seasons, whose interactions could fuel an infinite number of jokes and stories.

If The Simpsons has lost its way in recent years, it’s because it’s forgotten that the show’s great strength lies inward, in the city of Springfield and its citizens, and not in stunt casting or increasingly farfetched stories. (The fact that The Simpsons Movie, which I liked a lot, took the action away from Springfield for long stretches of time only reflects this fundamental confusion.) It’s hard to pick just one episode from the show’s glory days, but I’m going to focus on one of my favorites, “Bart’s Comet,” written by John Swartzwelder, if only because it draws on the show’s huge ensemble so effortlessly. It opens as a two-hander between Bart and Principal Skinner, but after Bart discovers a comet that threatens to collide with Springfield, the scope of the story rapidly expands, with big scenes and laugh lines for Homer, Moe, Mayor Quimby, Professor Frink, Reverend Lovejoy, Database, and many more—all leading to that quiet, surprisingly touching moment when Ned Flanders, exiled from his own bomb shelter, stands alone on a hilltop, waiting for the comet, singing “Que Sera Sera.” But he isn’t alone for long: as the chorus begins, he’s joined by everyone in Springfield, singing “Whatever will be, will be.” And looking at that cast, it’s easy to see why, halfway through the sixth season, the show’s future was still bright indeed.

Tomorrow: The Monster of the Week.

Written by nevalalee

July 9, 2012 at 9:52 am

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