Simpsons in Vanity Fair

Conan on The Simpsons

Vanity Fair has published an extensive oral history about The Simpsons. The piece includes the thoughts of everybody from cartoonist Gary Panter to Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch, as well as many people who have worked on the series including Brad Bird, Gabor Csupo, Kent Butterworth, Bill Oakley, Larry Doyle and Hank Azaria. The same issue of VF also has an interview with Conan O’Brien discussing his time working on the series. I think the following comment from Conan really hits the nail on the head about why the humor on the Simpsons more often than not feels so tired and lacking in spontaneity:

By the time an episode came out, you had maybe heard the script read through like 20 times, and if for some reason the joke wasn’t getting a laugh on the 21st time, you had to rework it. Sometimes your first pitch is your best pitch, but over time, if you revisit it constantly, you’ll grow weary of it, it will start to wilt, and then you’re just coming up with a different pitch that’s maybe not necessarily better. Obviously it’s clearly a strength of The Simpsons that by the time you see it, things have been road-tested and thought about and so much work has gone into it. But sometimes I felt like, “Let’s bake the pie and serve it.”

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  • Billy Bob

    O’Brian worked on the series in it’s early days, when I think (and many others think) that the humor had it’s best spark and wit and verve. In fact, I think the simpsons was sharp in writing, timing and delievery exceptionally through 97 and fairly so till 99. A change in writers yeilded it’s type pf belabored pacing you have today. Not to mention the fact that the characters are just plain unappealing anymore, reduced to either walking one dimensions or spewing totally random jokes that do nothing to delinate their character. I think that from 93-97 especially, it was more focused, sharper AND handled spontenaity well (in terms of it’s jokes compared with other sitcoms jokes) and more importantly the characters were written much better. I think Conan had some great things to say here, but I think i’ve really only felt those effects in post 98 (especially post 99) eps of the simpsons.
    Just my two and half units of unidentified currency
    Thanks.

  • Corrado (Anthony)

    This was a great article.

    Some interesting revelations include the fact that Matt Groening and Jim Brooks don’t get along that well anymore. A surprise considering their good work on the DVD Commentaries. But I guess I shouldn’t be that shocked after the Critic controversy of Season 6.

    And yes the quality of the episodes declined very fast. Season 9 was the turning point, although the real turning point was the disappointing conclusion to who Shot Mr Burns. That was the beginning of the slow end.

    I’m really looking forward to the movie but I have a gut feeling its going to disappoint.

  • Dave Levy

    I mostly agree with the above. The Simpsons sweet spot for me is Seasons 3 through 6. After that, Seasons 7-10 showed a slow decline and after that Simpsons have long lost their luster. Conan’s perspective is interesting, though, and a good reminder that just because a show is fun for an audience, it doesn’t always mean that it was all fun for the creators.

  • http://apelad.blogspot.com Adam

    I’ll be the first to admit I’m no expert on timing, pacing, or writing, but there have been some big laughs and some classic episodes (that easily stand up against the hallowed seasons 3 and 4) in the last five years.

  • http://www.travisgentry.com Travis Gentry

    I agree Adam. I think it’s easy for people to dump on the last few years. I watch it every week, and though it’s not as consistent as its heyday, it can still reach the same highs.

  • http://yipyop.com Mike

    This and other recent articles falsely claim The Simpsons is the only prime-time animated sitcom since The Flintstones. How come nobody remembers Wait Til Your Father Gets Home? It ran three seasons, continues in reruns, and is even available on DVD. I always thought The Simpsons must have been greatly influenced by it.

  • matt

    The Flintstones, Simpsons and Wait ’til your Father gets Home were ALL influenced by (or based outright on) The Honeymooners.

    Can anyone remember the original name of the Flintstones and why it was changed? C’mon Amid or Jerry?

  • http://www.cartoonresearch.com Jerry Beck

    Mike says, “This and other recent articles falsely claim The Simpsons is the only prime-time animated sitcom since The Flintstones. How come nobody remembers Wait Til Your Father Gets Home?”

    Technically you are right Mike. But Wait Til Your Father Gets Home was not a hit of the magnitude of The Flintstones or The Simpsons, nor was it a network series. It was syndicated, created to fill a programming hole when the FCC changed its rules and took a half hour away from networks (7:30pm-8pm) and gave that time slot to local stations.

    Hanna Barbera had two other short-lived network prime time series (not counting the live action/animation hybrid The New Adventures of Huck Finn, NBC, 1968): Where’s Huddles (CBS, 1970) and Jokebook (NBC, 1982).

    The correct statement should be: “The Simpsons was the first successful (“successful” meaning “lasting more than one season”) U.S. broadcast network animated prime-time sitcom since The Flintstones.” No one can argue with that.

    Matt – are you thinking of “The Flagstones”?

  • doug holverson

    Flagstones and because it was too close to the Flagstons in some newspaper funny.

    I don’t think that “Wait “til Your Father Comes Home” (or “Huddles”) counts since it was syndicated and usually ran in the slot before Prime Time. This was the “New Zoo Revue” era when first run syndication meant that you weren’t good enough to be a “real” show on a “real” network.

    BTW, since I’m a total entertainment outsider, what does a show-runner do?

  • amid

    Doug — Definition: show runner

  • http://yipyop.com Mike

    Jerry and Doug: Thanks for clearing that up! I didn’t realize syndication was a factor.

  • http://ian-j.blogspot.com Ian Jones-Quartey

    This part of the oral history really explained my feelings about The Simpsons:

    “What is striking about the early episodes is how sweet, and at times dramatic, they can be. [...] The Simpsons faced legitimate problems: Homer lived in fear of losing his job; he had trouble connecting with his daughter. It was only in later years, to keep the writing interesting [...] Homer went to space; Maggie shot a man; the family created an international incident with Australia.”

    For me at least, The Simpsons was the best when the stories explored the characters and most of the payoffs were emotional and not superficial. Many early episodes like were satisfying because the stories were about the characters’ relationships and chemistry instead of shallow “Yay, the family survived another wacky adventure!” plotlines. After the first 7-8 seasons or so, the staff must have thought there was nothing else to explore about the humanity of the characters so the stories had to get wackier and more exagerrated.

    To its credit though, even as a shell of its former self, The Simpsons today still outshines most of its direct knockoffs.

  • Arnold

    Hanna-Barbera also did two primetime seasons of the animated but non-sitcom Jonny Quest on ABC and the other preproduction title of The Fintstones was “The Gladstones”. And, the season after the Flintstones premiered, ther was “Calvin and the Colonelâ€?, in primetime on ABC. Wasn’t Rocky and Bullwinkle originally on primetime network TV as well?

  • http://www.generalcritic.com Geoff

    Just to pick out one little quote as I read this, from Josh Weinstein:

    “When Jim and Matt and Sam first assembled a group of actors for the show, they didn’t go for voice-over actors, people who did kids’ voices and cartoon shows. They went for real actors…”

    What an incredibly offensive thing to say, though an opinion too often held, I would guess. Quite a slap in the face to Nancy Cartwright, in particular. I suppose her mentor, Daws Butler, was not a real actor.

  • Paul

    What about the Jetsons? Weren’t they prime time as well?

  • G

    I believe Dagwood’s last name was ‘Gladstone’.
    And does anyone else see a parallel between the ‘Family Guy’ and ‘Wait Till Your Father Comes Home’?

  • Paul

    Dagwood? Like in the “Blondie” strip? Their last name is Bumstead.

    Unless that’s not what you were talking about… :0)

  • c.tower

    FACT: THE SIMPSONS is a pale shadow of what it once was.FACT: it’s still better than 90% of the sitcoms on TV.

  • RR

    A pale, yellow shadow that is :)

  • http://www.autodaddy.blogspot.com tom

    Recently, the Simpsons seasons will start out a little flabby, but in an episode or two I believe that they get to be as funny as any season you could mention. And the show has never looked as lovely as it does now. Everything slows down, but the Simpsons hasn’t slowed much.

  • http://thezoo.comicgenesis.com Nate Birch

    “I think the following comment from Conan really hits the nail on the head about why the humor on the Simpsons more often than not feels so tired and lacking in spontaneity.”

    Or maybe the fact that it’s been *on the air for 20 years*.

    Back when Conan was writing for it it was anything but tired and predictable.

  • http://cinemahustle.blogspot.com alexander

    Wow, Conan’s really smart.

  • http://www.ghiblicon.blogspot.com Daniel Thomas MacInnes

    You know, it’s funny. I’ve been hearing about The Simpson’s no longer being funny for at least 10 years now. It’s become a favorite tradition to bash the show. I guess it must’ve peaked somewhere in season two.

    I can’t imagine how tough it is to come up with a good Simpson’s episode by now, since so much has been covered. And we’ve lost the great Phil Hartman, who was one of the show’s greatest joys. If I have a complaint about the last few years of the show, it’s that they aren’t writing stories anymore. They’ve fallen into the Family Guy routine of splattering out punch lines as quickly as possible. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. But, hey, like I have any right to complain. The season closer – the 24 spoof – was as clever and witty as anything they’ve done.

    Also, to The Simpson’s credit, I do believe the quality of the animation has improved a lot recently. Perhaps it’s due to the movie, and all the modern technology. But I remember the animation going from wonderfully zany and expressive (early years) to stiff as a board; and now it’s good again.

    Is there any situation that can’t be riffed with a good Simpson’s quote? I think not! Take that, Fish Police!

  • http://elblogderg.blogspot.com Roberto González

    There are very good episodes today, but they are a lot less frequent than before. Though it’s actually a lot more decent today than in season 11 or 12, those were awful. In those days it was a bad show. Now it’s mediocre, but very few episodes are bad, most of them are average, some good and once or twice a season we have something as good as the old ones.

  • http://www.goldenagecartoons.com Matthew Hunter

    I think the decline may be due in part to the writers thinking “people know these characters so well by now, we don’t need to develop them any further. The recent episodes I’ve seen seem to have done away with what made Homer such a great character. Rather than a well-meaning bumbler, Homer’s gotten so braindead even Peter Griffin looks smart compared to him. Homer at his best knows what’s happening around him and has to find some way to undo his mistakes or those of others. Now he just walks around in a fog.

    Lisa is a goody two shoes, Marge worries all the time. They’re not interesting anymore.

    I’ve seen some good episodes recently focusing on Bart, though…especially a great “24″ parody this past season.

  • Chuck R.

    I haven’t stayed with the show long enough to say if or when the show jumped the shark, but…that was a damn good article.

    I love the way Ortved neatly interpersed the narration with the various candid remarks from key contributors. A joyful read for animation historians and Simpsons geeks.

    And yes, Conan O’Brien is brilliant. Maybe he should write an animated feature.

  • http://www.autodaddy.blogspot.com tom

    Wow. You guys are giving Conan O’Brien waay too much credit for the Simpsons’ success, don’t you think?

  • matt

    Thanks Jerry, Doug and Arnold. It was Flagstones I was thinking of. But now Gladstones has got me confused again!! :P

  • steve coats

    Perhaps the show itself isn’t stale it’s just that it’s been unavoidable for such a long time. Any time I see the show after a long break I find it funny all over again. Perhaps it would be better if it took a 12 month break ….. but I doubt Rupert Murdoch would agree while his cash cow is still bringing in the billions.

  • Apex

    Perhaps it is us who have become stale, and not the show.
    In my experience, the people who complain the loudest about the supposed decline are the ones who don’t watch it very often (present company excluded).

  • Gabriel

    I think the simpsons should have ended a long time ago. And talk about a bad time to make a movie, i would be so excited about it if it came out in 97 or 98. I don’t quite get how people can say it’s still as funny as the first seasons, maybe they started watching it later? I think not only actual episodes are too random and chaotic, the characters look stiffer and more robotic every time i see them.

  • Chuck R.

    Tom, speaking for myself, I just thought Conan’s comments in the article were brilliant. You’re correct, he wasn’t a key creator of the show, but his track record as a writer speaks for itself: SNL at a high point and then Simpsons at a high point. Following in Dave Letterman’s late night slot wasn’t a cakewalk either.

    Matt, I believe there were Disney comics printed under the Gladstone name. There was even a character (related?) named Gladstone Gander. Maybe that’s where it’s coming from.

  • anon

    I think they went from ‘Flagstones’ to ‘Gladstones’ to ‘Flintstones’, in that order. In the mid-1990s Hanna-Barbera collectors cel art was being sold with the name “Gladstones” on one model sheet, which was crossed out allegedly in Joe Barbera’s own hand with red ink, and the word “Flintstones” written over it, revealing some kind of pre-production progression. Mike Maltese wanted to fight the owners of the other names but Barbera told him “No. We’ll just change it.” Joe at his peak knew to pick his battles.

  • anon

    This Vanity Fair piece may be the only major “Simpsons” article to ever run without a quote from David Silverman. It’s odd that they’d reveal such arcane dirt as the Liz Taylor profanity uttered at Groening when he made her do over 20 takes of one word and yet say nothing of why the Simpsons went from Klasky-Csupo to Film Roman, which, as every animation veteran who worked on that show knows, was no little thing.

  • http://www.autodaddy.blogspot.com tom

    RE: Matt’s query about the Flagstone name; I’d always heard that it was due to the name of the characters of the Hi and Lois comic strip being Flagston. That strip debuted in ’54 and had a similar suburban family sense of humor, without the fantasy element. For one reason or another, HB thought that it was too similar and they backed off. I don’t know if King Features asked them to do it or not.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hi_and_Lois

  • Benjamin De Schrijver

    “…yet say nothing of why the Simpsons went from Klasky-Csupo to Film Roman, which, as every animation veteran who worked on that show knows, was no little thing.”

    I’m no animation vet, and since it’s not in the article, I’d be interested in hearing more…

  • http://pupick.blogspot.com/ PCUnfunny

    “Also, to The Simpson’s credit, I do believe the quality of the animation has improved a lot recently. Perhaps it’s due to the movie, and all the modern technology. But I remember the animation going from wonderfully zany and expressive (early years) to stiff as a board; and now it’s good again.”

    I still find the animation boring now, it was it’s peak during Ulman years to about ’93 or ’94, so lively and cartoony. Now, it’s stiff and teh animator can’t even go a fraction off model.

  • http://apelad.blogspot.com Adam

    Gabriel, for the record, I’ve seen every episode, most on the original air date from the very beginning. Not really my proudest accomplishment, but I still think the show is pretty sharp. I discovered Life in Hell sometime in 1986 in jr. high and have been a fan ever since.
    I, for one, am glad that the show is willing to go to chaotic places and not only focus on the mundane. It is animation after all.

  • Corrado (Anthony)

    I would say both Klasky/Csupo and Film Roman had their moments animation-wise. Season 3 was very well-animated by Klasky/Csupo and Film Roman became very well around late Season 6. Film Roman though had its share of coloring errors in many Season 5/6 episodes. $pringfield is very sloppily done. Its sad when coloring errors hinders my enjoyment of quality shows.

    Although it was an upgrade from Season 1′s animation which wasn’t that great. The 1st few episodes are very hard to watch though they got better as the season went on.

    (Apologies to those who worked on there that are somehow lurking this site.)

  • G

    Actually it was Hi and Lois
    with the last name Gladstone.

    Now we know.

  • Brian

    “Actually, it was Hi and Lois with the last name Gladstone.”

    I thought their surname was “Flagston”.

  • Zoran Taylor

    Are you kidding me, Corrado? “$pringfield” is gorgeous! If it’s “sloppy”, then it’s sloppy the way the Velvet Underground or Bob Dylan is sloppy: gauzy, warm, tactile, resonant and real. The bleary excess of over-exposed light and noise in the casino is the cartoon equivalent of Robert Altman – So real it hurts. And that sunset at the end is truly sublime. Frankly, I can almost see what you mean about colouring errors, but they feel right, so they don’t really matter. I actually love those f**d-up season five designs, with the excessively large eyes and pupils, the angular, varialbly-sized overbites, the sharper edges and nastier expressions. THAT was when the show looked cool.

  • http://www.cartoonbrew.com/classic/monday-morning-inspiration-now-hear-this-1962 Zoran Taylor

    Just for the record, I’m not one of those “Lo-fi culture” assholes who thinks craft and production values are “anti-art”. I just think that The Simpsons looked amazing during the early Film Roman years, and I could defend this point of view for literally hours, but for everyone esle’s sake I won’t.