Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Matt Groening

The Prime of Miss Elizabeth Hoover

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Yesterday, as I was working on my post for this blog, I found myself thinking about the first time that I ever heard of Lyme disease, which, naturally, was on The Simpsons. In the episode “Lisa’s Substitute,” which first aired on April 25, 1991, Lisa’s teacher, Miss Hoover, tells the class: “Children, I won’t be staying long. I just came from the doctor, and I have Lyme disease.” As Principal Skinner cheerfully explains: “Lyme disease is spread by small parasites called ‘ticks.’ When a diseased tick attaches itself to you, it begins sucking your blood. Malignant spirochetes infect your bloodstream, eventually spreading to your spinal fluid and on into the brain.” At the end of the second act, however, Miss Hoover unexpectedly returns, and I’ve never forgotten her explanation for her sudden recovery:

Miss Hoover: You see, class, my Lyme disease turned out to be psychosomatic.
Ralph: Does that mean you’re crazy?
Janie: It means she was faking it.
Miss Hoover: No, actually, it was a little of both. Sometimes, when a disease is in all the magazines and on all the news shows, it’s only natural that you think you have it.

And while it might seem excessive to criticize a television episode that first aired over a quarter of a century ago, it’s hard to read these lines after Porochista Khakpour’s memoir Sick without wishing that this particular joke didn’t exist.

In its chronic form, Lyme disease remains controversial, but like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, it’s an important element in the long, complicated history of women having trouble finding doctors who will take their pain seriously. As Lidija Haas writes in The New Yorker:

There’s a class of illnesses—multi-symptomatic, chronic, hard to diagnose—that remain associated with suffering women and disbelieving experts. Lyme disease, symptoms of which can afflict patients years after the initial tick bite, appears to be one…[The musician Kathleen Hanna] describes an experience common to many sufferers from chronic illness—that of being dismissed as an unreliable witness to what is happening inside her. Since no single medical condition, a doctor once told her, could plausibly affect so many different systems—neurological, respiratory, gastrointestinal—she must be having a panic attack…As in so many other areas of American life, women of color often endure the most extreme versions of this problem.

It goes without saying that when “Lisa’s Substitute” was written, there weren’t any women on the writing staff of The Simpsons, although even if there were, it might not have made a difference. In her recent memoir Just the Funny Parts, Nell Scovell, who worked as a freelance television writer in the early nineties, memorably describes the feeling of walking into the “all-male” Simpsons writing room, which was “welcoming, but also intimidating.” It’s hard to imagine these writers, so many of them undeniably brilliant, thinking twice about making a joke like this—and it’s frankly hard to see them rejecting it now, when it might only lead to attacks from people who, in Matt Groening’s words, “love to pretend they’re offended.”

I’m not saying that there are any subjects that should be excluded from comedic consideration, or that The Simpsons can’t joke about Lyme disease. But as I look back at the classic years of my favorite television show of all time, I’m starting to see a pattern that troubles me, and it goes far beyond Apu. I’m tempted to call it “punching down,” but it’s worse. It’s a tendency to pick what seem at the time like safe targets, and to focus with uncanny precision on comic gray areas that allow for certain forms of transgression. I know that I quoted this statement just a couple of months ago, but I can’t resist repeating what producer Bill Oakley says of Greg Daniels’s pitch about an episode on racism in Springfield:

Do you remember this? Something about Homer and Dr. Hibbert? Well, you pitched it several times and I think we were just…It was some exploration of the concept of race in Springfield, and we just said, you know, we don’t think this is the forum. The Simpsons can’t be the right forum to deal with racism.

He was probably right. But when you look at the few racially charged jokes that the show actually made, the characters involved weren’t black, but quite specifically “brown,” or members of groups that occupy a liminal space in our cultural understanding of race: Apu, Akira, Bumblebee Man. (I know that Akira was technically whiter than anybody else, but you get my drift.) By contrast, the show was very cautious when it came to its black characters. Apart from Dr. Hibbert, who was derived from Bill Cosby, the show’s only recurring black faces were Carl and Officer Lou, the latter of whom is so unmemorable that I had to look him up to make sure that he wasn’t Officer Eddie. And both Carl and Lou were given effectively the same voice by Hank Azaria, the defining feature of which was that it was nondescript as humanly possible.

I’m not necessarily criticizing the show’s treatment of race, but the unconscious conservatism that carefully avoided potentially controversial areas while lavishing attention on targets that seemed unobjectionable. It’s hard to imagine a version of the show that would have dared to employ such stereotypes, even ironically, on Carl, Lou, or even Judge Snyder, who was so racially undefined that he was occasionally colored as white. (The show’s most transgressive black figures, Drederick Tatum and Lucius Sweet, were so transparently modeled on real people that they barely even qualified as characters. As Homer once said: “You know Lucius Sweet? He’s one of the biggest names in boxing! He’s exactly as rich and as famous as Don King, and he looks just like him, too!” And I’m not even going to talk about “Bleeding Gums” Murphy.) That joke about Miss Hoover is starting to feel much the same way, and if it took two decades for my own sensibilities to catch up with that fact, it’s for the same reasons that we’re finally taking a harder look at Apu. And if I speak as a fan, it isn’t to qualify these thoughts, but to get at the heart of why I feel obliged to write about them at all. We’re all shaped by popular culture, and I can honestly say of The Simpsons, as Jack Kerouac writes in On the Road: “All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.” The show’s later seasons are reflexively dismissed as lazy, derivative, and reliant on easy jokes, but we still venerate its golden years. Yet if The Simpsons has gradually degraded under the watch of many of its original writers and producers, this implies that we’re only seeing the logical culmination—or eruption—of something that was there all along, afflicting its viewers years after the original bite. We all believed that The Simpsons, in its prime, was making us smarter. But what if it was just psychosomatic?

A season of disenchantment

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A few days ago, Matt Groening announced that his new animated series, Disenchantment, will premiere in August on Netflix. Under other circumstances, I might have been pleased by the prospect of another show from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama—not to mention producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein—and I expect that I’ll probably watch it. At the moment, however, it’s hard for me to think about Groening at all without recalling his recent reaction to the long overdue conversation around the character of Apu. When Bill Keveny of USA Today asked earlier this month if he had any thoughts on the subject, Groening replied: “Not really. I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” It was a profoundly disappointing statement, particularly after Hank Azaria himself had expressed his willingness to step aside from the role, and it was all the more disillusioning coming from a man whose work has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As I noted in my earlier post, the show’s unfeeling response to this issue is painful because it contradicts everything that The Simpsons was once supposed to represent. It was the smartest show on television; it was simply right about everything; it offered its fans an entire metaphorical language. And as the passage of time reveals that it suffered from its own set of blinders, it doesn’t just cast doubt on the series and its creators, but on the viewers, like me, who used it for so long as an intellectual benchmark.

And it’s still an inescapable part of my personal lexicon. Last year, for instance, when Elon Musk defended his decision to serve on Trump’s economic advisory council, I thought immediately of what Homer says to Marge in “Whacking Day”: “Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions.” Yet it turns out that I might have been too quick to give Musk—who, revealingly, was the subject of an adulatory episode of The Simpsons—the benefit of the doubt. A few months later, in response to reports of discrimination at Tesla, he wrote an email to employees that included this remarkable paragraph:

If someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology. If you are part of a lesser represented group, you don’t get a free pass on being a jerk yourself. We have had a few cases at Tesla were someone in a less represented group was actually given a job or promoted over more qualified highly represented candidates and then decided to sue Tesla for millions of dollars because they felt they weren’t promoted enough. That is obviously not cool.

The last two lines, which were a clear reference to the case of A.J. Vandermeyden, tell us more about Musk’s idea of a “sincere apology” than he probably intended. And when Musk responded this week to criticism of Tesla’s safety and labor practices by accusing the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting of bias and proposing a site where users could provide a “credibility score” for individual journalists, he sounded a lot like the president whose circle of advisers he only reluctantly left.

Musk, who benefited from years of uncritical coverage from people who will forgive anything as long as you talk about space travel, seems genuinely wounded by any form of criticism or scrutiny, and he lashes out just as Trump does—by questioning the motives of ordinary reporters or sources, whom he accuses of being in the pocket of unions or oil companies. Yet he’s also right to be worried. We’re living in a time when public figures and institutions are going to be judged by their responses to questions that they would rather avoid, which isn’t likely to change. And the media itself is hardly exempt. For the last two weeks, I’ve been waiting for The New Yorker to respond to stories about the actions of two of its most prominent contributors, Junot Díaz and the late David Foster Wallace. I’m not even sure what I want the magazine to do, exactly, except make an honest effort to grapple with the situation, and maybe even offer a valuable perspective, which is why I read it in the first place. (In all honesty, it fills much the same role in my life these days as The Simpsons did in my teens. As Norman Mailer wrote back in the sixties: “Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people in the most established parts of the middle class kill their quickest impulses before they dare to act in such a way as to look ridiculous to the private eye of their taste whose style has been keyed by the eye of The New Yorker.”) As the days passed without any comment, I assumed that it was figuring out how to tackle an admittedly uncomfortable topic, and I didn’t expect it to rush. Now that we’ve reached the end of the month without any public engagement at all, however, I can only conclude that it’s deliberately ignoring the matter in hopes that it will go away. I hope that I’m wrong. But so far, it’s a discouraging omission from a magazine whose stories on Harvey Weinstein and Eric Schneiderman implicitly put it at the head of an entire movement.

The New Yorker has evidently discovered that it’s harder to take such stands when they affect people whom we know or care about— which only means that it can get in line. Our historical moment has forced some of our smartest individuals and organizations to learn how to take criticism as well as to give it, and it’s often those whose observations about others have been the sharpest who turn out to be singularly incapable, as Clarice Starling once put it, when it comes to pointing that high-powered perception on themselves. (In this list, which is constantly being updated, I include Groening, Musk, The New Yorker, and about half the cast of Arrested Development.) But I can sympathize with their predicament, because I feel it nearly every day. My opinion of Musk has always been rather mixed, but nothing can dislodge the affection and gratitude that I feel toward the first eight seasons of The Simpsons, and I expect to approvingly link to an article in The New Yorker this time next week. But if our disenchantment forces us to question the icons whose influence is fundamental to our conception of ourselves, then perhaps it will have been worth the pain. Separating our affection for the product from those who produced it is a problem that we all have to confront, and it isn’t going to get any easier. As I was thinking about this post yesterday, the news broke that Morgan Freeman had been accused by multiple women of inappropriate behavior. In response, he issued a statement that read in part: “I apologize to anyone who felt uncomfortable or disrespected.” It reminded me a little of another man who once grudgingly said of some remarks that were caught on tape: “I apologize if anyone was offended.” But it sounds a lot better when you imagine it in Morgan Freeman’s voice.

Written by nevalalee

May 25, 2018 at 9:21 am

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

Live from Twin Peaks

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What does Twin Peaks look like without Agent Cooper? It was a problem that David Lynch and his writing team were forced to solve for Fire Walk With Me, when Kyle MacLachlan declined to come back for much more than a token appearance, and now, in the show’s third season, Lynch and Mark Frost seem determined to tackle the question yet again, even though they’ve been given more screen time for their leading man than anyone could ever want. MacLachlan’s name is the first thing that we see in the closing credits, in large type, to the point where it’s starting to feel like a weekly punchline—it’s the only way that we’d ever know that the episode was over. He’s undoubtedly the star of the show. Yet even as we’re treated to an abundance of Dark Cooper and Dougie Jones, we’re still waiting to see the one character that I, and a lot of other fans, have been awaiting the most impatiently. Dale Cooper, it’s fair to say, is one of the most peculiar protagonists in television history. As the archetypal outsider coming into an isolated town to investigate a murder, he seems at first like a natural surrogate for the audience, but, if anything, he’s quirkier and stranger than many of the locals he encounters. When we first meet Cooper, he comes across as an almost unplayable combination of personal fastidiousness, superhuman deductive skills, and childlike wonder. But you’re anything like me, you wanted to be like him. I ordered my coffee black for years. And if he stood for the rest of us, it was as a representative of the notion, which crumbles in the face of logic but remains emotionally inescapable, that the town of Twin Peaks would somehow be a wonderful place to live, despite all evidence to the contrary.

In the third season, this version of Cooper, whom I’ve been waiting for a quarter of a century to see again, is nowhere in sight. And the buildup to his return, which I still trust will happen sooner or later, has been so teasingly long that it can hardly be anything but a conscious artistic choice. With every moment of recognition—the taste of coffee, the statue of the gunfighter in the plaza—we hope that the old Cooper will suddenly reappear, but the light in his eyes always fades. On some level, Lynch and Frost are clearly having fun with how long they can get away with this, but by removing the keystone of the original series, they’re also leaving us with some fascinating insights into what kind of show this has been from the very beginning. Let’s tick off its qualities one by one. Over the course of any given episode, it cuts between what seems like about a dozen loosely related plotlines. Most of the scenes last between two and four minutes, with about the same number of characters, and the components are too far removed from one another to provide anything in the way of narrative momentum. They aren’t built around any obligation to advance the plot, but around striking images or odd visual or verbal gags. The payoff, as in the case of Dr. Jacoby’s golden shovels, often doesn’t come for hours, and when it does, it amounts to the end of a shaggy dog story. (The closest thing we’ve had so far to a complete sequence is the sad case of Sam, Tracey, and the glass cube, which didn’t even make it past the premiere.) If there’s a pattern, it isn’t visible, but the result is still strangely absorbing, as long as you don’t approach it as a conventional drama but as something more like Twenty-Two Short Films About Twin Peaks.

You know what this sounds like to me? It sounds like a sketch comedy show. I’ve always seen Twin Peaks as a key element in a series of dramas that stretches from The X-Files through Mad Men, but you could make an equally strong case for it as part of a tradition that runs from SCTV to Portlandia, which went so far as to cast MacLachlan as its mayor. They’re set in a particular location with a consistent cast of characters, but they’re essentially sketch comedies, and when one scene is over, they simply cut to the next. In some ways, the use of a fixed setting is a partial solution to the problem of transitions, which shows from Monty Python onward have struggled to address, but it also creates a beguiling sense of encounters taking place beyond the edges of the frame. (Matt Groening has pointed to SCTV as an inspiration for The Simpsons, with its use of a small town in which the characters were always running into one another. Groening, let’s not forget, was born in Portland, just two hours away from Springfield, which raises the intriguing question of why such shows are so drawn to the atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest.) Without Cooper, the show’s affinities to sketch comedy are far more obvious—and this isn’t the first time this has happened. After Laura’s murderer was revealed in the second season, the show seemed to lose direction, and many of the subplots, like James’s terminable storyline with Evelyn, became proverbial for their pointlessness. But in retrospect, that arid middle stretch starts to look a lot like an unsuccessful sketch comedy series. And it’s worth remembering that Lynch and Frost originally hoped to keep the identity of the killer a secret forever, knowing that it was all that was holding together the rest.

In the absence of a connective thread, it takes a genius to make this kind of thing work, and the lack of a controlling hand is a big part of what made the second season so markedly unsuccessful. Fortunately, the third season has a genius readily available. The sketch format has always been David Lynch’s comfort zone, a fact that has been obscured by contingent factors in his long career. Lynch, who was trained as a painter and conceptual artist, thinks naturally in small narrative units, like the video installations that we glimpse for a second as we wander between rooms in a museum. Eraserhead is basically a bunch of sketches linked by its titular character, and he returned to that structure in Inland Empire, which, thanks to the cheapness of digital video, was the first movie in decades that he was able to make entirely on his own terms. In between, the inclination was present but constrained, sometimes for the better. In its original cut of three hours, Blue Velvet would have played much the same way, but in paring it down to its contractually mandated runtime, Lynch and editor Duwayne Dunham ended up focusing entirely on its backbone as a thriller. (It’s an exact parallel to Annie Hall, which began as a three-hour series of sketches called Anhedonia that assumed its current form after Woody Allen and Ralph Rosenbaum threw out everything that wasn’t a romantic comedy.) Most interesting of all is Mulholland Drive, which was originally shot as a television pilot, with fragmented scenes that were clearly supposed to lead to storylines of their own. When Lynch recut it into a movie, they became aspects of Betty’s dream, which may have been closer to what he wanted in the first place. And in the third season of Twin Peaks, it is happening again.

Beyond Kang and Kodos

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The Simpsons episode "Citizen Kang"

In a recent blog post on FiveThirtyEight about the state of election polling, Nate Silver mused about what would keep him up at night if he were Hillary Clinton. He concluded: “I’d be worried that Americans come to view the race as one between two equally terrible choices, instead of Trump being uniquely unacceptable.” As the Republican National Convention lurches to a start today in Cleveland, there are signs that a lot of voters have arrived at that exact conclusion. And if you’re a certain kind of television fan, it’s hard not to think of The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” installment “Citizen Kang,” which aired twenty years ago this fall, shortly before the presidential election of 1996. It’s the segment in which alien invaders Kang and Kodos assume the forms of candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, leading to seven of the most quotable minutes in the show’s history. Two lines, in particular, continue to resonate with self-proclaimed political cynics. One comes after Homer has exposed Kang and Kodos in their true forms, leading to this exchange:

Kodos: It’s a two-party system! You have to vote for one of us!
Man: Well, I believe I’ll vote for a third-party candidate.
Kang: Go ahead—throw your vote away!

And the other comes at the very end, after the victorious President Kang has enslaved the nation, prompting Homer to say to Marge: “Don’t blame me. I voted for Kodos.”

For many viewers, the episode encapsulates the suspicion—which we encounter across the political spectrum—that the two major parties, deep down, are basically the same. But they aren’t. Not really. And to understand why “Citizen Kang” isn’t as trenchant or insightful as it seems, we can turn to the writers and producers who worked on the episode itself. On the commentary track for the show’s eighth season, which was recorded in 2006, series creator Matt Groening and producers Josh Weinstein, David X. Cohen, and Dan Greaney have the following discussion:

Weinstein: Now, I would say, even though it’s specific candidates, the message is timeless…
Cohen: Yeah. One thing I think I’ve noticed about comedy shows that take on elections is the point is always the same—the point is it does not matter which of the awful candidates you vote for…
Greaney: Which is a complete falsity. I mean, the idiot criminal that we have in office is…a lot worse.
Cohen: I’m not saying it’s a good point. I’m just saying it always seems to be the point.
Groening: Because it feels like it’s a comment.
Cohen: Right. You’re able to feel like you’re making a commentary without actually taking sides and alienating people.
Greaney: Yeah, but—when you have somebody who is clearly an aggressor, then…evenhandedness is actually favoring the aggressor.
Cohen: That’s true.

The Simpsons episode "Citizen Kang"

And although I know it’s never going to happen, I wish that the insights conveyed in those last few lines were as familiar as “Citizen Kang” itself. The difference between the episode’s implicit message and the feelings expressed in the commentary track can be chalked up to the fact that the former was written during the Clinton administration, while the latter was recorded ten years later, at the height of disillusionment with George W. Bush. (In other commentaries, the writers mock their own ruthless skewering of Clinton at the time, joking, with a touch of wistfulness, that he was obviously the worst president the country would ever have.) If anything, though, it rings even more true today. And I think that Groening and Cohen—who went on to create Futurama—get at the heart of the matter. Saying that the Democratic and Republican nominees are equally compromised isn’t a political insight, but a simulation of one: it’s a comedic or narrative strategy disguised as an opinion. It’s the most insidious kind of empty statement, which allows the speaker to seem superficially insightful, even subversive, while really closing off the kind of thinking that really matters. As Cohen points out, this kind of false equivalence is perfect for writers who want to create the appearance of making a point without really saying anything. It doesn’t even qualify as real cynicism: it sidesteps actual thought as much as blind allegiance to any one party. And like most forms of laziness, it’s a luxury afforded only to those who are lucky enough not to be intensely vulnerable to the real consequences that presidential elections produce.

If it sounds like I’m being unduly hard on The Simpsons, I’m not: it wouldn’t be so powerful an example if it weren’t the best television show of all time. Its eighth season was a masterpiece, but there were limits to the messages it could send, simply because it was better off, in the long run, if it pitched its satire squarely down the middle—and also because it was television. This bears repeating, especially now. We’re in the middle of an election in which the lines between politics and entertainment have been blurred as never before, and not just because one of the candidates is a former and future reality star. Trump’s simulated version of tough talk and big ideas has been accepted as true by a sizable percentage of the electorate, because it only needs to hold together for long enough to last until the next commercial break. His strategy isn’t that of the big lie, but of a series of improvisations strung end to end, which he hopes will get him through to November. (It’s why he takes so naturally to Twitter.) But those who dismiss Trump and his supporters should begin by demanding more of themselves. The writers behind “Citizen Kang” only had to come up with a message that could sustain a third of a Halloween episode. At the time, it might have seemed plausible, but it only took one more election to expose it forever. Or it should have. But it’s always easier to recuse oneself from the difficult realization that the choice between candidates has huge practical consequences. Trump and Clinton aren’t the same, not for most of us, and certainly not for Muslims, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other groups that have evolved what Charles Blow has called “a sort of functional pragmatism” to survive. You can still tell yourself, if you like, that this election is a choice between Kang and Kodos. But it isn’t. Even if The Simpsons did it first.

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 art of improvisation

with 2 comments

John Coltrane

Yesterday, while writing about what currently stands as my favorite show on television, I concluded: “The only thing I can say for sure is that both Hannibal and his show have a plan.” Shortly after typing this line, however, I realized that it was a little misleading. Clearly, this is a show with its eye on the long game, and I hope that Bryan Fuller and his team get the five seasons that they need to tell this story properly. Yet there’s also room for improvisation within the structure laid down by Thomas Harris’s novels and the show’s own narrative arc. Anyone reading the excellent weekly walkthroughs that Fuller has been giving to Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club knows that Hannibal often makes radical changes late in the game. The identity of Will’s secret admirer, for instance, was changed at the last minute to simplify a complicated storyline after several episodes had already been shot, and the shocking revelation at the end of last week’s installment was originally intended to conclude the first season. Fuller’s explanation for this last change is particularly revealing:

I just think it’s so much better for [it to happen] in this way, as opposed to putting [it] as part of the cliffhanger of the first season, because it actually would have taken a bit of the power away from that last moment between Will and Hannibal, which I think needs to have its air.

This only means that the series has both an overarching plan and the freedom to move around within it as the material itself suggests changes and improvements, which is the key to good improvisation. Television, as I’ve pointed out repeatedly, provides some of our most fascinating case studies in the tension between structure and serendipity, since so much of it unfolds in public. I’ve argued that a show like House of Cards suffers from its inability to react in real time to its own reception, and in recent years, we’ve seen examples of shows that improvise brilliantly within a strong narrative framework (Breaking Bad) and ones that suffer either from too little structure (Glee) or from an existing plan imposed on reluctant material (How I Met Your Mother). The ability to balance these two extremes is the mark of a great artist, and not just in works of narrative. Improvisation itself is a concept rooted in music and poetry, and from the beginning, it referred to a form of invention within constraints. An oral poet can improvise verse on demand thanks to an existing structure of meter, rhyme, and traditional formulas and epithets, while musical improvisers from Bach to Coltrane know how to wander far and wide while always returning to the rigorous logic of the chord progression.

Mads Mikkelsen on Hannibal

In fact, you could make a convincing argument that structure is what makes good improvisation possible. Improv comedy thrives on implicit rules that provide beautiful guidelines for any kind of storytelling: add new information, focus on the here and now, establish the location, and don’t block your partners. A good improviser is always thinking ahead, and one of the keenest pleasures of a great improv set is watching the performers file away details that can recur later to give the scene a shape and a punchline. I’ve said before that formulas and clichés originate as a way of solving problems, and one of their most valuable functions is to provide a framework for exploration: a crime procedural, for instance, is flexible enough to accommodate any number of vignettes and locations, and if you drift too far from the point, the formula is always there to lock you back into focus. Matt Groening likes to talk about the “rubber-band” reality of The Simpsons, which allows the logic to be stretched for the sake of a joke, only to quickly snap back, and much of the joy of its classic seasons comes from that push and pull. (Like any rubber band, though, it gets looser over time, and that loss in elasticity goes a long way toward explaining why the show grew increasingly less interesting.)

There are also times when the illusion of improvisation can be as powerful as its presence. Anyone who has spent time listening to live jazz knows that many of those “improvised” riffs are really just good tricks, kept in the performer’s back pocket and brought out periodically to wow the audience, and that’s true for narrative as well. Some of my favorite movies are those that give the appearance, from minute to minute, of being made up on the fly, only to reveal a meticulous design in the end, as in the best work of Steven Soderbergh or the Coen Brothers. (It’s interesting to note, in passing, that both Soderbergh and the Coens edit their own movies under pseudonyms, which implies that finding the right balance between structure and discovery requires an especially intimate engagement with the raw footage.) Done properly, it feels like real life, which also reveals surprising shapes behind apparent randomness. And as a writer, I know that I only feel comfortable going off on tangents when I know that there’s a larger structure waiting in reserve when I need it. The underlying plan can take the form of an existing work, a detailed outline, or a sequence of chords in a fake book, but whatever it is, it allows us to be more daring than we could otherwise be. If we’re not sure how to find our way home, we aren’t likely to stray far from the path, but once we have a good map and compass, we can really explore the territory.

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