Meet the Inky Beatles
On The Simpsons' History-Making Collision of Art and Commerce
The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History
by John Ortved (Faber & Faber, $27)
Forgive the ostentatious name-drop, but when it comes to summing up The Simpsons, Beatles comparisons are inevitable. There's simply no other reference point for pop art that's simultaneously scaled the heights of popularity and artistry, creating those golden cultural moments when the most popular and beloved art is also the best.
The Beatles analogy is made early and often in John Ortved's The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, the salacious subtitle of which is an empty tease. Dishy insider dirt is kept to a minimum, and the "unauthorized" designation refers mostly to the noncooperation of some key participants—show cofounder James L. Brooks, the whole of the current Simpsons writing and production staff—but Ortved doesn't need any stinkin' cooperation.
Fashioning his book as an oral history, Ortved frees himself to grab Simpsons lore from all over—a single page may feature excerpts from four different Matt Groening interviews, and even Simpsons DVD commentary tracks are pillaged for insights. The result is a compendium of information that feels sloppily encyclopedic—rich and fascinating in parts, but also random and gassy, with Ortved indulging some lackadaisical editing impulses and space-filling repetition. "After the first season, when the show was blowing up and the money started rolling in, [cocreator Sam Simon] felt he was not being appropriately compensated," writes Ortved in the intro to chapter 10, following with this quote from Simon's assistant: "I think a big issue came up when the merchandising started rolling in. And Sam was seeing a smaller portion of it than others, which wasn't really fair."
Ortved's strongest move is to concretely define his terms: When he speaks of The Simpsons, he means the glory years, from season 2 through roughly season 7, when the show's extraordinary success and artistic ambitions chased each other ever higher, creating what Ortved identifies as "the most powerful, lasting, and resonant entertainment force television has ever seen." His love for The Simpsons' golden era makes itself known in the book's near hero worship of the show's key architects: its original group of writers (including the much-lionized George Meyer, who's represented through interviews given to the Believer and the New Yorker) and the superstar second-stringers (including the even more lionized Conan O'Brien, whose willingness to talk to Ortved earns him a chapter to himself). Ortved's wholehearted devotion to the writers results in some of the book's best passages, which offer rich insights into how the hell they kept their show so densely funny for so long. Here's Simpsons writer/producer Tim Long:
There was a Homer line, and it was too late to change the animation, but we didn't like the joke. So we were pitching jokes that had to fit the syllable rhythm of how he was speaking... I just remember these eight geniuses in the room with me, all pitching jokes that had the exact same syllabic format.
Corollary to the high comic art being forged in the writers' room was the show's astounding early success, which Ortved's book also captures. Twenty years down the line, it's hard to remember the scope of early-'90s Simpsonsmania, but Ortved sends us hurtling back into that heady time of "Do the Bartman," Simpsons air fresheners, and bootleg Rasta-Bart T-shirts ("Don't have a cow, mon!") for sale on highway off-ramps. Truly, there's no better way to reexperience Simpsonsmania than through the testimony of the people who created it, then watched in awe as their creations grew into something no one could have predicted.
Unfortunately, in the end, chaos reigns in Ortved's book, as his slapdash approach presents itself as the book's unifying theme. In a perfectly telling turn of events, the book's most eloquent commendation of the show comes from another Simpsons book—2004's Planet Simpson, in which Chris Turner writes, "The truly rare cultural force that The Simpsons tapped... was resonance. Pop-cultural resonance is what distinguishes the millions of records sold by the Beatles from the millions sold by Pat Boone... When a pop hit has resonance, it isn't merely consumed. The audience connects with the resonant cultural object, identifies itself with it, absorbs it."
As audiences continue to connect with the peerless cultural object that is The Simpsons, other, better books will be written about the phenomenon. For now, Ortved's oral encyclopedia is a perfectly fine diversion.