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Monday, December 17, 2007

The Simpsons Essay


I love The Simpsons. It's been the major influence on me for as long as it's been on the air and it all but defined my sense of humor and worldview, for better or worse. I tend to be a Simpsons apologist (or justifier as I see it). I know the series is never going to be what it was 10-12 years ago. The Simpsons has been on for almost two whole decades. Along with its natural aging, shows like South Park, Family Guy, Futurama, and live action series like Arrested Development, The Office (run by former Simpsons writer Greg Daniels), My Name Is Earl, etc. have since stolen a lot of their thunder. But when they're on point, The Simpsons can still deliver.

I feel like The Simpsons Movie's long development distracted their best writers and animators over the last few years. It takes six months to create an episode from start to finish. The Simpsons Movie was five years in development and was being re-written and re-edited right up to its release date. The Movie's five year journey to theatres meant at least 5-6 seasons were affected by the series' all-star writers and animators having to split their time between the series and the Movie. I'm curious what the series will be like a year from now with their top talent back on the mothership, if you will.

I've been spending quite a bit of my free time lately watching seasons 4-7 on DVD with commentaries. These were the show's golden years and I'm fascinated by The Simpsons' unique brand of comedy writing. The commentaries are like master classes in writing comedy.

There are definitely aspects of how episodes are put together today (timing, editing, style of jokes) that are different from the golden years. One theory is that the newer writers just aren't as good as the original crop. There's a case to be made for that. However, there are also strange restrictions now placed on them by FOX borne of the current cultural climate that The Simpsons never had to deal with in the mid-90's. (For instance, there is currently a ban on The Simpsons being able to show Homer's (or anyone's) bare ass on the show. The nudity ban is what made them go all out with Bart's full frontal in the Movie. Also, it is now harder/more expensive to do big musical numbers which is why there have been so few in the last few years. On the other hand, they get away with any number of copyright violations -- Count Chocula, The Incredible Hulk Melon Baller that "shits out" melon balls to name two -- these days.)

The showrunner (head writer) for the last few seasons has been Al Jean. The showrunner definitely gets to determine the style of humor the series takes under his stewardship. The most popular years of "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" in the mid-90's were largely run by David Mirkin, who had a style different from Jean's. The episodes speak for themselves. I prefer Mirkin's style and his episodes. I feel Al Jean's run on the series has been more slapdash, although he has modernized the series to a degree (Homer Simpson having a laptop, cell phone, and knowing what YouTube is. The writers ten years ago steered clear of the Simpsons having such amenities so that Homer getting a computer or stealing cable were big deals. Times change, things change.)

The biggest change to me over the last few years has been in Homer Simpson himself. It's really amazing hearing David Mirkin, David Cohen (showrunner of Futurama), Greg Daniels, et al discuss their vision of Homer. To them, Homer "is the most positive guy in the world." No matter how crummy his life is, he's optimistic and happy. He keeps hoping for the best. Watch those seasons and see how loveable their Homer is.

Homer in recent years has veered away from that. He was always a jerk, but in the last few years he has not only acknowledged he's a jerk but takes delight in it. And today's Homer is miserable. He's almost always unhappy and complaining. In the old years, no matter what Homer did, his devotion to Marge and his love for his family was always the elastic that brought him back. Now, Homer regularly dreams of leaving them and even fantasy episodes set in the future have Homer and Marge separated or divorced, unthinkable a decade ago.

It's weird how different the Homer character is. He's still Homer, just with different textures. I personally prefer the older Homer. One of the things I admired in The Simpsons Movie is that they managed to merge all the various aspects of Homer together so the character embodied all of those dimensions in the course of the 90 minutes. I also loved that the Simpsons family unit was the crux of the story, which is rarely the case in the series these days.

Anyway, 2008 will be The Simpsons's 20th season. Imagine that. I'm on board as ever, but I wonder if my theory of The Simpsons Movie finally being in the rearview mirror will cause any noticable changes in the quality of the series.