A dissident view of life on the show

The Simpsons’ first warts-and-all history may be better thanks to the producers’ gag order

A dissident view of life on the showJohn Ortved says that the people quoted in his new book The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History are mostly those who “had stories to tell, or axes to grind,” or who are “too successful to care.” Fortunately, that’s a lot of people. Ortved, a Canadian journalist who wrote an oral history of The Simpsons for Vanity Fair in 2007, has now expanded that piece into the first book about behind-the-scenes conflicts at the world’s most successful animated show. (Unfortunately, it went to press too early to discuss Marge Simpson’s upcoming Playboy spread.) The book contains observations from Simpsons veterans like Conan O’Brien, Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and even one-time guest voice Tom Wolfe, but the list of people who wouldn’t talk to Ortved is just as impressive: he told Maclean’s that executive producer James L. Brooks asked “everybody who worked on the show not to speak to me.” He got no participation from Brooks, creator Matt Groening, most of the people who have run the show, or the cast (except for a few quotes from Hank Azaria, voice of Moe and Apu). The book offers many Simpsons anecdotes, but they’re from the point of view of people who have nothing to lose.

In some ways, this may be a more candid history of the show because we don’t hear from Brooks, Groening and their supporters. Ortved thinks Brooks “decided to cancel all co-operation when he found out I was asking questions about Sam Simon,” who ran The Simpsons originally and hired most of the staff. Many people feel that Simon, who left in 1993 after feuding with Brooks and Groening, is not given enough credit for shaping the franchise; Brian Roberts (now a director of such shows as Little Mosque on the Prairie) says in the book that Brooks “fell in love with the myth and the legend” that Groening was the sole creator. Ortved compares them to Walt Disney, who wanted us to think that “he created everything that was Disney.”

But the lack of co-operation from the big people may have forced Ortved to rely more on unexpected sources, like the Fox executives who greenlit the show, or staffers who give their own unusual perspective on the way the show was run; many of them recall the dilapidated look of the original writers’ room, full of ashtrays and what one writer calls “a sort of haunted house pinball machine.” The book is at its strongest with off-centre stories, like the revelation that a key writer, George Meyer, invested in gold as a way of “betting against humanity,” or that people were wary of dealing with Brooks’s right-hand man, Richard Sakai (caricatured in one episode as a bad karaoke singer). It’s a Simpsons history almost as odd as the show itself.

The book also provides an alternative to past interviews and DVD commentaries, where The Simpsons is portrayed as a place where everybody’s happy and every episode turns out well. For Ortved’s interviewees, who don’t owe much to Brooks or Groening, the experience was not pure fun. Many of them talk about what Ortved calls “the level of animosity and the level of complexity involved with doing anything with James L. Brooks’s company,” and a representative of the show’s original animation studio says that they were fired (and lost much of their staff) in “a vengeance thing.” A writer recalls that he was humiliated by a producer for daring to speak up against the controversial crossover episode with Brooks’s show The Critic. And Ortved says that one theme that emerged in interviews was that many people don’t have a high opinion of Groening’s contributions: “What surprised me the most about Groening is what a bad writer he is. He’s a very good comics writer, but he was unable to transfer that writing to a sitcom format.”

That might not be big news to those who already know that The Simpsons is what Ortved calls “a colossal collaboration.” And the perspective of the creators and star actors might have revealed things about the show that are glossed over in this book. But their unwillingness to talk may provide a clue about what the world of The Simpsons has become. The show parodied Walt Disney’s credit-grabbing in the episode “The Day the Violence Died,” but now it may have become the same kind of insular institution, where people, according to Ortved, “got their back up because a myth was being challenged.” No wonder some ex-staffers agreed to talk to Ortved, he says, because they felt that the gag order was “contrary to the ethos of The Simpsons.” Maybe it was contrary to the original ethos; for what the show is now, it may be just about right.