Jul 26, 2007

Why the Simpsons have lost their way

"Why the Simpsons have lost their way"

The once the brash, hip, controversial, and more than a few times - the funniest television show in the American broadcast spectrum is releasing a movie this week. Perhaps you’ve heard about it already? It’s called the Simpsons, and is the longest running animated television show, and on pace to be the longest running television show (non-news). The contenders are Gunsmoke/20 seasons 1955-1975 Red Skelton Show/20 seasons COPS-(Renewed for 20th season) 2007-2008. However, the edge is dull. The edge is so dull I have no enthusiasm to see the film, and I have long since cancelled my Season Pass on the TiVo. So what has soured this once great show?

Longevity? Is longevity killing the creativity of the once great pinnacle of American political and social commentary? Have they said all that can be said about the wacky nation that is America? Hardly, however, times have changed in the two decades since the Simpsons went Prime Time. Let’s go back in time a bit for perspective. Bozo the Clown was still on WGN, the king of syndicated children’s television. The Fox Broadcasting Company had just started in 1987, and was dismissed as a quick flash in the pan against the Big Three Networks. Fox was on Sunday nights, with Married… With Children, and couple variety shows, such as COPS and the Tracey Ullman Show. Fox was initially only available one night – Sunday.

It was decided that the Simpsons were popular enough to be taken away from The Tracey Ullman show as a new half hour animated program in Prime Time. This was quite a major deal, and was laughed at as a waste of money. A cartoon hadn’t been in anyone’s prime time line up since The Flintstones (1960-1966 ABC) And to make the effort even more laughable, the show’s initial success led FOX to move it to Thursday where it went head to head against the main tent pole of NBC’s Thursday line up: Bill Cosby. The Cosby show was the highest rated sit-com amongst a TV Guide full of Prime Time sit-coms. The Thursday night line up in the 1989-90 season was The Cosby Show, A Different World, Cheers, Dear John and LA Law. To say Cosby was a king, would be an understatement. A little cartoon, on a little start-up network, that didn’t even reach the entire nation.

Today, Krusty the Clown has no peers. Bozo ended his run on WGN in 2001. A new viewer would have no idea what the relevance of a Homer in Clown makeup is today.
Bill Cosby has long left television, and the sea of sit-coms have been replaced by one hour news programs, which have been replaced by reality shows, which have been replaced by crime scene procedural programs.
Fox aggressively purchased rights for major sports programming and now is the leader in sports programming for the NFL, MLB, NHL, and NASCAR.
Cable has withered the viewership of the Big Three, and there have been two new ‘networks’ since FOX started up. (these two have combined to form the CW)
However, the model for Kent Brockman, Hal Fishman still anchors LA local news.

Perhaps loosing some of the gags from the first season have hurt here and there, but not enough damage to ruin the show. Other shows have shown that making jabs at long dead cultural icons, AKA media savvy, is still a grand commodity. Which brings up an interesting point…

The Competition Kills.

Since the Simpsons was such a major hit for Fox, suddenly everyone wanted a piece of that sweet money pie. With a rush, and such a major rush that quality was left by the wayside, there were new cartoon offerings for Prime Time. Capitol Critters (ABC), Family Dog (CBS) and Fish Police (ABC). Writers and Show Runners for the Simpsons were lured away with dumptrucks of money, or at least, the opportunity to write for “the Networks.” Soon ABC brought out The Critic, which poached more Simpsons production talent.

Now, granted, the Fish Police, Family Dog and Capital Critters are a tombstone gag in Treehouse of Terror III. However, the pirating of the top writers and professionals from the first couple seasons of the Simpsons didn’t serve the show well. Best practices and writing all take time to be taught to new people in any work environment. Even in Hollywood.

However, The Simpsons survived the first wave of competition with a slight chuckle. It was growing ever more ominous in the background for a second assault. Enter Matt and Trey – South Park. Crude, scatological, blasphemous (hey self referencing media gag!), and viral by way of the new-fangled Information Highway… Jesus vs. Santa was contracted out by Fox execs as a Christmas card. Within moments everyone was passing VHS bootlegs and downloading the show for 35 hours off the Internet. The short little film show swept the nation. Little kids cussing and using ethnic slurs, and Jesus fighting Santa Claus was the hottest property in town. Discussions for a series went from FOX to Comedy Central, where it eventually aired South Park in 1997.

Initially, the poor construction paper and the weak cable outlet, known mostly for re-runs and Mystery Science Theater 3000 posed no threat to the Simpsons. However, they would both grow quickly into major players. South Park used shock humor and was much more punk than the Simpsons the first few seasons. However, the show got better with age, like a fine wine. More importantly, procrastination on the part of Matt and Trey were their greatest assets. They could get a program out the door in three weeks, whereas the Simpsons – and their 1989 hand drawn and painted cell animation – can take a full year from page to screen. Three weeks keeps South Park fresh and in the news cycle. They had an episode mirroring the Terri Schiavo story, which aired just after she died. The Simpsons are lucky to have a Tickle Me Elmo gag live long enough through the production process to be relevant.

Futurama, a Simpsons talent-poaching program from their own production company, tackled the slow animation issue, and utilized computer technology and speedier production methods – but the show tanked. Full of potential, and never quite fleshed out. It is supposed to have been given new life, but even their production methods are still slow compared to South Park – so it’s anyone’s guess when or if Futurama will ever return. Most recently, Futurama is listed on IMDB as four movies, which will be released on DVD, and then chopped into television format. Futurama was DOA, because of one very important reason, but I don’t want to jump too far ahead on the timeline.

Another competitor to the Simpsons that bears mention is Fox’s own Family Guy.
Believe it or not, Family Guy has taken some of the ‘shock’ from the Simpsons, and I think some of the more fun elements – specifically the imagination of the characters in dream sequences – and claimed them as their own. Some of the best bits in the Simpsons were when you heard the harp noise, signaling a drift from ‘reality’ and queue one of the characters to fanaticize about something said or misinterpreted. Among the best examples: Homer and the Land of Chocolate in Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk, Bart and Sarah Gilbert/Laura Powers dancing in The New Kid on the Block.

I’m not saying that Family Guy uses this technique well. Far from it. But they did take it from the Simpsons, and it’s now out of their storytelling arsenal.

It also seems that the Family Guy has taken some of the media reference comedy gold from the Simpsons as well. Granted, Family Guy will use obscure geek 70’s shows and current rehabbing celebrities in the same 2 second black out gag – but it somehow has taken some of the fun out of the Simpson’s writing pallet.

But the competition hasn’t ‘killed’ the Simpsons. It’s only battered the show, and made it less funny. Competition bleeds the talent from the production staff. The speed of Simpsons’s 1989 cell animation keeps the show about a year behind, letting South Park get all the topical humor. And Family Guy has poached some of the show’s funnier writing techniques.

There are many other elements that have dulled a once sharp sword…

The Writers - How can you be counterculture when you are the culture?

A little history, if I may. Matt Groening, the creator and lead talent of the show, had gritty underground street cred with his comic strip Life in Hell – the proto-Simpsons-ish story about bunnies dealing with love in LA in the early 80’s. His underground paper hit was picked up by a larger underground newspaper – the LA Reader. Let me reiterate ‘paper’ one more time. Thank you.

Groening was such an underground hit, he got the attention of James L. Brooks (Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, Rhoda, and a whole list of hits that anyone under 25 has never seen, maybe have heard of)

Groening wrote and storyboarded all the original bumpers for Tracy Ullman. David Silverman and Wes Archer were the animators. When the stand alone show started, Silverman and Archer became directors of the show.

People have come and gone off the Simpsons. You can hear the creative team discuss these events, if ever so white washed and bleached for fan-boy’s ears, on the DVD commentary tracks. I do not suggest that these great creative minds shouldn’t be allowed to follow their dreams and leave the show. How many faces have stayed at the same job for more than a couple months at your own job, I ask candidly? However, with the passage of time, the production talent of the show have shifted around or up within the organization, moved on and done other projects, and so forth. The Simpsons is an amazing eye catcher for anyone’s resume.

People left the job. Okay, fine. How does that erode the humor and effectiveness of the social and political commentary that the Simpsons were once celebrated for?

Today’s writing staff. I am not a staff member there, and can only make assumptions based on what has made it to the screen. And I do not believe that FOX has had a hand in undermining the humor either, as Groening made a very specific deal that kept the Empire out of his Cloud City. I assume that the current writing staff of the Simpsons is about 30 years old or younger. So what? The writers and creators of seasons 1-9 were students of the Firesign Theatre, The National Lampoon Radio program, Dr. Demento, Spy Magazine – and the Nixon Administration. Where would anyone aged 30 or younger find inspiration for biting political and social commentary? The very show they now work for! Gags have been made to this fact, and are peppered throughout the later programs.The show has been on so long, if you were born in 1977, you would have been 12 when the show’s first season aired. And in 1989, when parents still gave a rip, it was probably deemed too ‘racy’ or ‘not-for kids’ you weren’t even allowed to watch it. I mean, they used the word 'ass' and 'crappy' on Prime Time, for crying out loud!

Let's not forget the timeline. It 1989 when the underground counterculture began to bloom and bring forth fruit. Grunge music, mosh pits, Doc Martins and pretty much the whole Gen X thing took down Hair Metal and went from there. Simpsons, on upstart - edgy FOX - surfed that wave.

George Bush Sr. even spoke out against the Simpsons! Bush 41 stated that, "America needs to be more like the Waltons than The Simpsons." When the President of the Free World disses you, even Rupert Murdoch can't buy inde street cred edge like that! Are you even old enough to remember why the episode "Two Bad Neighbors" was so incredibly funny and relevant? Are you even aware that they're not just taking the piss out of the Bushes, they're also parodying Dennis the Menace? No - don't look it up on Wikipedia! Just take my word for it, okay? It's 20 years later and the show isn't just an institution, it has morphed into it's own industry! And how counterculture can that possibly be?

Bottom line, if the Simpsons is your only frame of reference, you’re only parodying yourself – and you don't see anything wrong with that. In 20 years, the show has gone from counter culture to mainstream acceptance, and even further: into a big business. But there signs of rust in the gears of mighty Simpsons Industry… mostly because there’s a Simpsons Industry. But more on that subject coming soon.

The Simpsons Industry

The Simpsons, in 20 years, has become an important commodity for the Fox Network.
It’s their rock, the show they’re known for. And like Bill Cosby before it, the tent pole in the very important Sunday night line up.

Even with the declining quality in gags and humor, Simpsons continues to be a ratings powerhouse, and always delivers healthy numbers in the critical 18-45 year old male audience demographic. The show airs new episodes in the 8 PM (Eastern, 7 PM Central) time slot, as it has since it was moved to Sundays for season six.

And with success brings merchandising. Lots and lots of merchandising!
Toys, posters, bumper stickers, beer cozies, coasters, ring tones, DVD Box sets – some shaped like the characters, some are just boxes – video games, watches, chess sets, bedding… and these are just the items that I own. Perhaps you've seen my collection? Remember all the T-Shirts, in every single tourist town with some kind of version of Bart on them? How about The Simpsons Sing the Blues album? It's worse than Krusty the Clown and his shoddy merchandising. It's factories in China, Target isles, and 13,731 items on eBay.

Let’s also look at another side of the coin, the syndicated market. The syndicated television market is probably more lucrative than the merchandising. What is this? When a show hits a golden number; 100 episodes it is available for syndication. When a show is brought to market, it’s important to have more than 65 episodes to allow for the program to be aired 5 days a week without fear of re-runs for a couple months.

Every television producer is gunning for syndication. Rumor has it that Jerry Seinfeld bought 29 more Porsches for his collection after he hit syndication. This is the traditional area where the money is in television. Syndication, in a nutshell, is your local channels bidding on re-runs of old episodes. Before DVD, airing re-runs of popular shows was the ONLY way local channels or affiliates ever made any money. A channel can buy three packages, depending on how many local ads they want to air, but they would have to out bid their local competition first.

In Chicago, Fox won the bidding (it’s speculated that the bidding was unfair, but speculated only) and aired Simpsons re-runs, at 6:00, 6:30 and also at 10:00. That’s a LOT. Chicago local CBS 2 news, in fact, did so poorly against Simpsons re-runs at 10:00; that the other news teams renamed CBS: Can’t Beat the Simpsons.

Then there’s the DVD’s. After years of the show being in syndication, the Simpsons released their first entire season on DVD. Many industry pundits couldn’t believe that anyone would bother buying something they can get for free, and often 3 times a night. The DVD’s were packed with commentary from the creative teams, and were complete and uncut. Uncut for syndication that is – which is not done so much for content (although the episode Team Homer was modified in syndication. Homer anticipates winning the bowling tournament - so he flushes his stolen supporting actor Oscar down the toilet. The name engraved on the award was Haing S. Ngor, an actor who was murdered February 25th, 1996. In syndication, the name changed to Don Ameche. And the brief pulling of The City of New York Vs. Homer Simpson) as episodes are trimmed for time to sell more local ads, but I digress…

The Simpsons DVD’s sold so well, as complete seasons, that it sparked the entire TV-on-DVD industry. Seriously, before the Simpsons, there were scant offerings of entire back catalogs of episodic television in DVD packages. Especially programs still in production! Now known as ‘box sets’, they now take up entire wall of real estate at your favorite big box store. To illustrate how powerful box sets and syndication are – the sales of Family Guy and Futurama on DVD and in syndication have brought these two canceled shows back into production and back on the air! The only thing close to a comparison would be the popularity of the original Star Trek being able to sell Star Trek the Next Generation – albeit 18 years after the first program was cancelled.

And there’s also a movie coming out. Again, perhaps you’ve heard about it. If you pay close attention to the station that has the rights for syndication in your market, they MIGHT just have a couple stories about it on the news this week.

A lot of merchandise sold, re-runs being gobbled up, and untold millions of DVD’s purchased, a movie to buy tickets for. Why on God’s earth would you want to mess with that by making a controversial episode, or have a questionable raunchy gag in there? Groening doesn’t need to have Fox executives handing him meddling notes to tone down the gags – he’s getting plenty of notes – Green one$! As Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn said in the Blues Brothers, “If the Sh*t fits, wear it.” Or more politely, “If it ain’t broke, don’ fix it.”

But I think it is broke, and it does need fixing. The show needs it’s cut back. And it isn’t coming from celebrities stepping up to the microphone booth.
Stay tuned for the next installment…

Celebrities driving the story;
Celebrities on the show as a 'character', a long - episode/plot driving character doesn't work. It's not as much fun compared to how they used to do little pop-ins like, say when Mel Brooks as the passenger in Homer’s limo in the episode Homer vs. Patty and Selma... or even just as completing a gag, I’m thinking the tasteful use of Tony Bennet singing “Capital City” in the episode Dancin' Homer…

And you HAVE to use a Celeb in Springfield, it can be done very, very well - or you can pull a Homer. For example when it's done well it can be Aerosmith in Flaming Homer, as opposed to Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Lenny Kravitz, Brian Setzer, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards in How I Spent My Strummer Vacation.

Now, granted, even the first produced episode Some Enchanted Evening, featured Penny “Laverne” Marshall as a guest star. (It was slated to be the premiere episode, however the animation was so poor, they were forced to push it to become the seventh aired program.) Mrs. Marshall voiced Ms. Bolz. She did not, however, play herself and this worked. And it worked for Albert Brooks (5 episodes, and one movie), John Lovitz (9), Kelsey Grammer (9), and fairly well for Phil Hartman (53). Lately, an B-list Celebrity to even have their picture in US Magazine pops into Springfield, as themselves as often as Lindsey Lohan drops out of rehab, and sticks around for 20 minutes. Was that a cheep joke!? You can bet it’s an entire episode featuring Nicole Richie next season.

Sure Jasper Johns was obscure and ridiculous in Mom and Pop Art! Wheres those little moments as apposed to, oh, I don’t know, Brendan Frazer in (albeit ironic title) King of the Hill? Even George Carlin and Martin Mull were wasted... let me rethink that pun... utilized terribly in D'oh-in' in the Wind.

Perhaps remembering the ‘good’ use of celebrity voice work over the use of ‘bad’ celebrity voices – I’m looking at you Tony Hawk and the entire cast of the Soprano’s… The Simpsons could regain some lost humor if the belief that casting a “I can’t believe X agreed to be on the show!” is changed.

Bottom line: with this celebrity walk on, stay on, and sit around works for Johnny Carson, but not the Simpsons. I tuned in to watch the Simpsons. I used to anyway.

When did it all jump Springfield Gorge?

The exact moment where the Simpsons went from ‘OMG-I can’t wait for the Simpsons tonight’ to, ‘meh, if it’s on, and I’m home, I might watch it live…’ is hard to pinpoint.

Some die-hard fans will tell you it was when Conan O’Brien left for David Letterman’s spot on Late Night. That was in 1993. And, let’s face it; although he wrote and produced Marge vs. the Monorail, he was only credited with four episodes! (One of which, New Kid on the Block – is my personal all time favorite.
(What kind of pathetic drunk do you take me for? Gasp! Somebody spilled beer in this ashtray!") Conan the Barbarian’s departure hardly soured the whole show.

I recently read a blog that credited 22 Stories About Springfield as a ‘jump the shark’ moment. This is interesting, because if you realize that this is the moment where the secondary, supporting characters, like Apo, the Van Houtens, Nelson, or even Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel had their moment in the spotlight. Once they stepped into the light, they never left. Don’t get me wrong, a great episode all the way around, but once they broke out on their own, the background had a history which then grew into entire episodes centered around the secondary characters and not the core 5. Or Grandpa. Or Mr. Burns... okay, let's remind you that it's not pinpoint accuracy -

How about when the show actually showed Homer ‘Jumping the Shark’ in its seventh clip show?
Episode: Gump Roast. Singing,
“They'll never stop The Simpsons,
Have no fears, we've got stories for years,
Like - Marge becomes a robot,
Maybe Moe gets a cell-phone,
Has Bart ever owned a bear?
Or, how 'bout a crazy wedding?
and something happens a do-do-do-do-doooo,
Sorry for the clip-show,
Have no fears, we've got stories for years.”

Or, there’s that time Homer was raped by a panda in the episode Homer vs. Dignity. I have often thought that the term Jumped the Shark is too Fonzy, and it should be changed to Raped By a Panda. I guess it’s a little too, er, risqué?

And then there’s the sad hard truth. When the Zoloft addicted wife of Phil Hartman went on a rampage, it was a quadruple homicide. Phil Hartman, Bill McNeal, Lionel Hutz, and Troy McClure all died that terrible day. Let’s not forget there was an attempted murder of Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan too. Philip J. Fry’s was named as a tribute to the fallen funny man. Without getting too into this one - not having the crutch of Troy or Lionel to fall on, the Simpsons lost a lot of laughter with him.

So how do they fix it?
First they should - hold on a second? Why should I give this away for free? I should offer my services as a script consultant and make boatloads of money! Hey, it worked for Quentin Tarantino when he added a couple lame Silver Surfer references to the Crimson Tide script. They gave him millions for that little chunk of geekdom. Feel free to contact me Fox, or Gracie Films. Mr. Brooks, perhaps?

The Movie opens Friday. I hope that it does well, and kicks some new life into the show and the entire Simpsons Industry. It's been great to look back at some of my favorite moments of the show again, and to smile as I researched these issues. I love the Simpsons. I want to again. Let's hope they bring it back the quality that made me love it in the first place so it really can go on for another 20 years.

The Movie opens Friday. Check your local theater for listings.


Buttafuoco said...

The guest star from the episode mentioned from Season 1 was Shirley, not Laverne.

Two points I want to make here. The Simpsons didn't invent the dream sequence. The device has been used since the beginning of "talkies" with the harp sound effect.

The other point is that The Simpsons is still incredibly profitable. They really don't need you as a script consultant. I doubt that your ideas are fresh or original enough to warrant this arrogance.

Thanks for an interesting read.

Capn said...

Dear Joey: Why did she have an L on her shirt? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074016/fullcredits#cast

And... I never said they invented the dream sequence, they just stopped using it when Family Guy stole it.


SecularSage said...

Interesting ideas here. Your central idea, that the writing staff is no longer influenced by events but rather by the show itself, is interesting.

As for when the show went on a downward trend, I agree that the Conan O'Brien thing is incorrect. The Simpsons was just starting to get good when he left, and many of the show's best writers (like John Schwartzwelder) remained on for years.

I would suggest that sometime around season 12 or 13, the show started to lose its edge because it became more gag-centric and less concerned with telling a funny story. This was also the point when more celebrities began showing up. That was around the same time that Futurama, King of the Hill, South Park and Family Guy were all building audiences, so there was no doubt pressure to compete.

I gave up on the Simpsons years ago. I loved the first 10 seasons, and I'm happy for all the great memories the show provided.

Anonymous said...

Great points Cap'n, but no mention of "that idiot Tibor"? Thursday nites in the C-Room was an event and when that line was uttered, I felt like the writers were in the room with us.

X.G.S. '93

Anonymous said...

Very interesting read. I've never considered myself a huge Simpsons fan, although I can really appreciate "da fire and da passion" you have for the show. Big ups for the Groening "keeping the Empire out of his Cloud City" Star Wars reference. Very well put. My older cousin, who would tape the Tracey Ullman show just to show me the Simpson "shorts" is a huge fan of the show, and has always thought the biggest problem was the writing.

Personally, the simple phrase, "Don't have a cow, man" killed my interest. It was everywhere. The whole idea of Bartspeak coming from my younger cousins seemed to "overexpose" it for me. Again, keeping the timeline in mind, it seemed to make the show more adolescent (this coming from the guy who has BANTHA 1 license plates). It just didn't really work for me at the time. I never really gave it the chance it deserved after that. Thanks for the read!

Howard the Spy said...

A thought out post? I thought I was reading Blasphemes!

Paul said...

Nice analysis and really well written. Thanks for the great reading!

Anonymous said...

Buttafuoco: You must be a big fan of The Simpsons if you don't know that it was Laverne(Penny Marshall), not Shirley who did the voice of the babysitter(Sarcasm). Idiot...die a horrible death moron


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overthinkingit said...

Purple Monkey Dishwasher: The Rising Complexity of Springfield


Anonymous said...

Anyone who tries to boil down the entire decline of The Simpsons into ONE episode is being short-sighted and reductionist (22 Short Films About Springfield is a brilliant episode by the way).

The decline was a gradual combination of various factors. But, there's one simple originator of all those factors: Mike Scully.

Scully irreparably damaged The Simpsons by grossly misunderstanding the fundamental appeal of the series. The show went from being an emotionally “real” cartoon that “explores the inner lives of cartoon characters” (James L. Brooks) to being one where the characters became devices for slapstick and crudeness.