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Sunday, November 8, 2009

THE SIMPSONS: AN UNCENSORED, UNAUTHORIZED HISTORY

By John Ortved

Faber and Faber. 352 pp. $27

No matter how many times you're reminded, you will always forget you're watching an animated show. Mr. Burns and Waylon Smithers, Principal Skinner and Groundskeeper Willie, Barney and Apu and Moe and Ned Flanders and Krusty the Clown (with his superb initial "K") will seem more real than any flesh-and-blood television family. More real, maybe, than your own family because life can't distill us quite so succinctly into our essences. For that, we need art. Which "The Simpsons" manifestly is.

If you go to lunch with a group of friends -- and I have recently field-tested this -- it's possible to spend the entire meal enumerating your favorite "Simpsons" moments without ever converging on one. Was it Marge's starring turn in the musical "Oh! Streetcar"? Was it the futuristic game show featuring the cryogenically preserved head of Kitty Carlisle? Was it the Ayn Rand School for Tots? Or the Bloodbath and Beyond gun store? Or the orthodontist's volume titled "Book of British Smiles"? Or the music video for trapped waif Timmy O'Toole, "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well"? Me, I have a soft spot for Homer's immortal toast: "To alcohol! The cause of -- and solution to -- all of life's problems."

The list will keep going if you let it . . . and maybe, after an hour or so, you'll realize that all your favorite bits happened a long time ago, and come to think of it, you don't watch "The Simpsons" anymore. At least not as often as you did and not with the same enthusiasm you bring to, say, "Family Guy" or "30 Rock" or "The Office" or Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert (all of them heirs to the Simpsons legacy).

But wait, someone's watching, right? Because "The Simpsons" has just entered its 21st season -- a longer run than any other situation comedy, longer even than "Gunsmoke." And this doesn't even gauge the full extent of its influence: the merchandising empire (air fresheners, talking dolls, T-shirts, bubble gum, snow boots, notebooks, underwear, posters, pasta); the neologisms (Homer's signature "Doh!" now sits in the pages of the OED); the strange bedfellows (Bart's anarchy underwrites the funny-in-its-own-way Fox News); the depth to which the show has "permeated our vernacular," as John Ortved writes, "the way we tell jokes, understand humor, and tell our stories."

How did such a curious artifact become "the most powerful, lasting, and resonant entertainment force television has ever seen"? That is the task taken up by Ortved's "uncensored, unauthorized" history, which is as tasty as a pink-glazed donut with sprinkles, as refreshing as a Duff beer and as piquant as a curry slushy from Kwik-E Mart.

And doubly delightful because, for once, the heroes are writers. Begin, as we must, with Matt Groening, a struggling alternative-weekly artist whose "Life in Hell" comics tickle the fancy of TV legend James Brooks. Brooks is producing "The Tracey Ullman Show" for the fledgling Fox network, and he wants some animated bits to serve as interstices between the show's sketches. Groening comes back with sketches of a nuclear family: bulbous-eyed, jaw-free and, by some strange quirk, named after Groening's own parents and siblings. (The exception, Bart, is an anagram of "brat.") The cartoons fare poorly with test audiences, but when they are played in sequence, a strangely attractive narrative begins to emerge. And you know the rest.

Victory, as ever, has a thousand fathers. Groening injects the jaded sensibility. Brilliant voice actors jump-start each character into blazing life. Animator Gabor Csupo comes up with the Simpsons' yellow skin and the blue tint for Marge's hair. Veteran TV writer Sam Simon crafts the show's tone and template, and Brooks, in addition to stressing emotional truths, uses his clout to keep the suits out of the room. " 'The Simpsons,' " writes Ortved, "was the only show on television where network executives were forbidden from giving notes."

Brooks did at least one thing wrong: He declined to talk to Ortved and, perhaps as a direct consequence, comes off badly in these pages. So does Groening, painted here as a blowhard and glory hog, taking credit for a product he has precious little say in. In Ortved's telling, the show's real auteurs were the least visible: the young writers who formed "one of the most hallowed staffs in television's history."

Hailing mostly from the precincts of the Harvard Lampoon, these wonder boys (women were scarce) quickly grasped the opportunity that lay before them. "Not only could they take their characters anywhere, physically and emotionally, but there were no adorable actors to become tangled up in pubescence, no live studio audiences to dictate jokes . . . and the cartoon format meant that the humor could be riskier than would have been possible otherwise." As one writer recalls: "Working for The Simpsons felt like being in the graduate school of comedy, or a great comedy lab, where you could try and do anything and no one would stop you, as long as it was good or funny."

The result was a show both good and funny -- and slippery. It is obviously the product of left-wingers; it also delights in parodying extremism of all kinds. ("Celebrities," muses Homer. "Is there anything they don't know?") Social conservatives nod approvingly at the Simpsons' regular church attendance, but surely they wince when Bart says grace: "Dear God, we pay for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing." No show is more aswim in ideology; no show is more fearful of affiliation. King Comedy rules Springfield, not Monty Burns. Or, as "South Park" creator Matt Stone puts it, "What's great about The Simpsons is it says, up front, 'All we're gonna do is make you laugh.' That's a purely noble cause, I think."

Louis Bayard is a reviewer and novelist whose most recent book is "The Black Tower."

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