Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Jon Vitti

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

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