April 16, 2013

The evolution of "The Simpsons"

The development of The Simpsons over its first few years is a fascinating case study in getting things right. Here's a 90 minute video of a discussion among five early Simpsons writers about how they did it: Conan O'Brien, Al Jean, Jeff Martin, Jay Kogen, and Mike Reiss.

(And here's Audacious Epigone's post crowd-ranking The Simpsons by season.)


Anonymous said...

The conventional wisdom on "The Simpsons" is quite wrong. The show was best in the first two seasons, maybe in the first, maybe even in the first few episodes. I suspect the presence of the much-hated Sam Simon had something to do with this. It was its freshest and most novel at its newest, before it was taken over the usual Harvard Lampoon gang that writes sitcoms. There were a couple of seasons in the mid- to late- 90's when they did nothing but movie parodies, and it was awful. I still watch it out of habit, but there's not much there and hasn't been for a long time.

Nothing that came later topped "Bart the Daredevil" or "The Babysitter Bandit". The Tracy Ullman shorts are a treasure in themselves.

Anonymous said...


HAR said...

The political preaching has become absurd, when at the beginning of the series it was more sophisticated and subtle and did not reflect an overall dislike for conservative "default" Americans. They have recently run episodes on

1) the evils of profiling your new Arab neighbor as a terrorist
2) how terrible it is to be against illegal immigration (twice, once with the immigrants as Norwegian and in an older episode with the illegals having "passed" as regular Americans)
3) The Simpsons having secret black blood, with one of the white slaveowners running off with a male slave to Canada and raising a biracial son

"Fox News" is a punchline. In one episode Homer says something like "So what if our marriage is based on lies? A lot of good things are based on lies. Like American history..."

Over time, Flanders went from being a corny but decent neighbor to a stand-in for the religious right who wanted to burn witches and was obsessed with people's sex lives. His role went from a non-political individual, even one who represented Americans positively, to a stand-in for everything the writers hate.

It's interesting to contrast Flanders with Mr. Burns, who was always a political figure, representing the evil polluting rich guy.

The Flanders/Burns distincton sort of reflects the change in leftism over the years. It went from just disliking the wealthy to disliking regular white Americans and their culture. Such a view used to be confined to the fringes, but became more mainstream due to decades of Republican victories, the increase in political correctness, and the rise of the religious right.

Anonymous said...

Seasons 3, 4, 5 and 6 were pitch perfect satire. I think the show's real decline was after Phil Hartmann was killed.

Anonymous said...

Some of the newer ones are pretty damn funny, actually. The characters are just going through the motions for the most part (Homer's fat and stupid; Bart's a little sociopath; Lisa's book smart but naive ...), but like Rainier Wolfcastle once said: "DAT'S DUH JOKE!" Just turn off your brain and enjoy it.

Seasons 3-9 are the best, though. (But especially 3-7.) (But ESPECIALLY 4-6.)

Corn said...

If The Simpsons had went off the circa 1996 or 1997, IMO it'd be remembered as one of the greatest sitcoms/cartoons of all times. Now it's just a cash cow that Fox will keep alive til the voice actors die off.

Same fate will befall Family Guy probably.

Anonymous said...

'Family Guy' is a POS. It's a show whose humor is derived solely from fart jokes and pop culture references.

vandelay said...

In the rare case that I catch a new episode these days I'm usually pleasantly surprised. The writing seems to have recovered somewhat from how bad it had gotten in the early 2000's, when they just started brazenly cannibalizing their own old plots and jokes, and resurrecting storylines that had been given perfect, sometimes poignant endings (Homer's mother).

AE's absolutely right when he says the show is now "political and cultural commentary on current events with silly single scene antics," rather than the top level satire of its first several seasons, but at least those single scenes have better gags now than they used to.

eah said...

Conan O'Brien, Al Jean, Jeff Martin, Jay Kogen, and Mike Reiss

That does not sound like a very diverse group; so how could 'The Simpsons' have been so good?

IMO still the most consistently funny show. Ever. Only 'Seinfeld' comes close.

Anonymous said...

The Simpson's isn't great but Family Guy is the worst. It's toxic, witless crap. Southpark is the only animated comedy worth watching.

-The Judean People's Front

P.S. I do recall an unexpectedly honest Simpson's segment featuring a Barney-like show called "The Diversity Kittens" or something similar. It was pretty recent as the episode was a Mad Men parody.

Anonymous said...


I think it's more accurate to say the depiction of Flanders varies wildly likely depending on which writers wrote which episodes. It was mean spirited to kill off his wire, but to a certain extent that death played to role of fobbing some of Flanders more fuddy duddy aspects off on his wife. Don't forget that the subplots of quite a few episodes are basically the pathology of the Simpson household corrupting Ned's two sons. But to your point about pop cultire coming to hate clean decent whites, I agree which is what makes the Kenneth character on 30 Rock one of the more interesting sitcom characters, at least sociologically.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis from HAR. The treatment of Flanders is a bellwether for the show's take on 'the other' in American culture, to use the academic parlance.

I also agree with the CW in that the show peaked in terms of its overall quality in Seasons 5-6, but it seems to have reached its maximum popularity/cultural reputation in Seasons 7-8 when its prime was subtly past -- much like the baseball players Steve makes the analogy with over in the AE comments.

But the best single episode is Season 4's "A Streetcar Named Marge". I still can't picture that "A is A" poster without laughing.

Steve Sailer said...

"But the best single episode is Season 4's "A Streetcar Named Marge"."

Jeff Martin, who is in the discussion video, wrote that. He also wrote the one about the year 1984, when Lisa is born.

HAR said...

I disagree with those who don't like Family Guy. It's one of the only places on TV where you regularly get jokes that are "racist." All my favorites include Mort, the Woody Allen-like Jewish pharmacist. Here are my favorites:

Scene 1: Mort, Peter, and Joe are scheming to burn down Mort's pharmacy for the insurance money. Mort is telling them exactly what to do.

Peter: Gee, Mort, how do you know all this?

Mort: Oh, it's right there in the Torah. Right after the part about writing letters to corporations in order to get refunds on merchandise.

Scene 2: Peter joins the Tea Party movement, which succeeds in abolishing the government. Chaos ensues, and the characters see Mort walking down the street in a blond wig.

Peter: Hey Mort, what's with the blond wig?

Mort: Oh, in turbulent times Jews are often persecuted, so I've decided to take precautions.

::A crew of skinheads pulls up. One of them starts talking to Mort.::

Skinhead 1: Hello, fellow Aryan. Have you seen any Jews around here?

Mort: (thinks about it) Hmm ... Is there a reward?

(Skinheads start raising their eyebrows to one another)

Mort: (getting nervous) I mean...casual locker room nudity!

Skinhead 2: It's alright guys, he's kosher.

(Skinheads raise their eyebrows again)

Mort: Get'em guys!

(Skinheads beat up Skinhead 2)

Scene 3: Mort's store gets trashed but the perpetrator leaves and he begins to feel safe.

Mort: Yay, I've made it the whole day without being robbed. (door opens)... Oh hi! What can I do for you four young black gentlemen?


And how can one not love this little stunt?.

“Family Guy” appealed for an Emmy Award by asking “overprivileged Brentwood Jews” to “let us into your little club.”

The ad was created as part of the FOX comedy’s “for your consideration” DVD mailer to Emmy voters, the Hollywood award news website Gold Derby reported. The awards are presented by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

On Twitter, “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane shared the photo, billing it “the Emmy ad the trades refused to run,” referring to Hollywood trade publications.

Link: http://tinyurl.com/cu25cb7

Anonymous said...

The political preaching has become absurd, when at the beginning of the series it was more sophisticated and subtle and did not reflect an overall dislike for conservative "default" Americans.

Agreed. There was one episode a couple of years ago where Lisa is being bullied because of her excellent grades in school when Michelle Obama lands in a helicopter on the schoolyard and gives a speech where she claims that, "Everything I have I got through academics. I went to Chicago's first Magnet High School, then Princeton, then Harvard Law."

Of course, we know that that's simply nonsense. The reason she got into the best schools was her race.

That Simpsons episode was like watching the government television station's broadcast about the "beloved" First Lady in some Third World dictatorship.

Just A Lilly said...

Between Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy which series should I buy on iTunes?

And what seasons? All of them or just some of them?

I'm leaning towards buying all seasons of South Park. What say you?

DCThrowback said...

A Streetcar Named Marge is an excellent episode, but if you don't have "Last Exit To Springfield" (aka - Homer as union boss) in your top 3 I am afraid we cannot be internet friends. ("Where's my burrito! Where's my burrito!" (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smndi2tCsiI))

Same applies to Kelsey Grammer's best, bizarre turn as Sideshow Bob in "Cape Feare".

As per the above & previously, these all-time episodes occurred during the halcyon days of seasons 4 through 6.

HAR said...

"Between Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy which series should I buy on iTunes?

And what seasons? All of them or just some of them?

I'm leaning towards buying all seasons of South Park. What say you?"

I don't know what iTunes costs, but I doubt it's a better deal than Netflix, which for something like $10 or $15 a month will get you, among other shows, every season of Family Guy and South Park (although not the Simpsons) to watch on your computer.

Anonymous said...

"I'm leaning towards buying all seasons of South Park. What say you?"

You can stream all the episodes (legally, and for free) online.

Anonymous said...

Lisa is far more sociopathic than Bart.

Anonymous said...

We can be friends, DC. "Last Exit to Springfield" is inspired from beginning to end. The 'where's my burrito' scene is a perfect example of how the earlier Simpsons regime subtly but unmistakably satirized the Great and Good. In this case, the Noble Striking Workers' cries for justice have devolved into blathering, puerile academese, while the true voice of the proletariat, i.e. Homer, is vigorous and strong only in demanding bread and circuses. Aaaah, great stuff!