WHAT: An unofficial oral history of The Simpsons, with interviews from ex-staff, by journalist John Ortved.
GOOD IF YOU LIKED: ‘Live from New York’, which is the same basic thing for SNL.
WHERE TO FIND IT: Major bookstores, Amazon
The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History is basically a series of interviews with ex-staff who were willing to dish about the show’s 21-year history, without the first-hand participation from any of the series’ major players. Sure, there are excerpts from interviews other people did with Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Sam Simon and Mike Scully, but none were conducted for this book specifically, which of course is immediately suspect.
Then again, in the (vastly superior) Live from New York, there were no direct interviews with Lorne Michaels, either, so it’s easy to just forget all that and dig in. This book is, firstly, really fascinating stuff. Although a little too much time is spent in the show’s early days (probably due to the fact that the author’s stated thesis is that The Simpsons did not “spring forth whole from Groening’s brain” but instead was a massive collaboration and was probably built more by raging eccentric Sam Simon and his writing staff than Groening himself) but the interviews with the staff members they could get to talk are excellent. For the first two-thirds or so of this thing, it’s an engrossing look at what is probably the most influential sitcom of the last 30 years or so, and there are plenty of revelations to be had, including:
- Matt Groening was always way more interested in approving licensed Simpsons merchandise than working on the show itself
- Conan O’Brien had to fight Groening to get the Leonard Nimoy ‘beam out’ gag at the end of Marge Vs. The Monorail because Groening was still completely opposed to any gags that felt “too cartoony”
- Sam Simon is likely directly responsible for the show being what it is
- Pretty much everyone except Al Jean will admit the show has sucked pretty hard for the last 10 years and bears little resemblance to the show’s golden years
- The Simpsons has generated over 3 billion dollars for News Corp.
However, in the last third, the author basically throws out any attempt at objectivity and starts injecting his often surprisingly blunt personal opinions into the non-interview bits. The endless comparisons to South Park and Family Guy are particularly pointed and it’s like he’s trying to compose a theory that one of them is the successor to The Simpsons but never really comes to a conclusion. He also spends a weird amount of time bashing The Simpsons Movie, which most fans (and critics) who grew up on the show in the 1990s felt was close enough to a long and generally good episode of the series. But it wasn’t good enough for John Ortved, I guess. Basically the last few chapters feel like someone’s disorganized blog post rather than a proper oral history, but it’s still amusing and interesting enough to keep going. Worth picking up if you find it cheap.