THE BACK PAGES

This won't hurt a bit

The Simpsons revolutionized TV. Could they revive the big-screen comedy?

CHRIS TURNER July 30 2007
THE BACK PAGES

This won't hurt a bit

The Simpsons revolutionized TV. Could they revive the big-screen comedy?

CHRIS TURNER July 30 2007

This won't hurt a bit

THE BACK PAGES

film

The Simpsons revolutionized TV. Could they revive the big-screen comedy?

CHRIS TURNER

BACK IN MAY, actor Harry Shearer turned up in Toronto on a press junket, ostensibly to promote a new DVD compilation documenting his brief stint as a Saturday Night Live cast member in the mid-1980s. Everywhere he went, though, the most penetrating questions addressed the latest exploits of his most famous alter egos: ageless nuclear-industry titan Monty Burns and his sycophantic sidekick Waylan Smithers; straitlaced school principal Seymour Skinner and perpetually stoned bus driver Otto Mann; the sancti-

monious Biblethumping duo of Ned Flanders and Reverend Lovejoy. Springfieldianites one and all (as Marge Simpson once put it), they are bosses or colleagues or arch-nemeses of the most celebrated cartoon family in the history of American television, and supporting cast in a feature-length animated film that finally hits screens on July 27 after 15 years

of rumour, anticipation and apprehension.

The Simpsons Movie is not the biggestbudgeted movie of the summer, and odds are it won’t be the ultimate box-office champ. But the swelling chorus of speculation and prognostication by entertainment bloggers, newspaper columnists and talking heads, mosdy based on next-to-no information about the movie itself, testifies to the unprecedented load of pop-cultural baggage it brings with it to the big screen. All of which underscores the monumental task faced by the movie’s creators: to pack all those bags into 90 minutes of Simpsonalia sufficiently original and entertaining to somehow transcend 18 years

as TV’s most influential comedy institution, overshadow the prejudices of a wide, multi-generational fan base in varying stages of addiction or recovery, and be ultimately judged by the quality of the pictures on the screen.

Shearer, for his part, offered only a deflection (contractually mandated, no doubt). He didn’t know much about the film’s plot, he said, and what he did know he couldn’t talk about. He illustrated his point with an anecdote. After principal voice recording for the movie was finished, he was called into a New York studio to deliver a few snippets of new dialogue. At the end of his reading, he handed the text to the engineer for on-site document shredding, which had been standard operating procedure at the movie studio in Los Angeles. Whither the shredder? Shearer wondered. It turned out all used scripts were being shipped to Fox headquarters in L.A. post-haste, where they could be destroyed under the watchful gaze of more trusted eyes.

The story verged on self-parody—the kind of thing Monty Burns himself would’ve demanded of Smithers in his casino-owning Howard Hughes phase. And this veil of Kremlin-style secrecy has extended to every aspect of the precise and absurdly cautious produc-

tion and marketing of the movie. Cast and crew alike have denied nearly all requests (including this magazine’s) for interviews; the discussions that have occurred have been studies in weightless mumbo-jumbo. (In a May interview with Simpsons co-creators Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, Entertainment Weekly's interrogator was reduced to naked begging—“Can you pretty please give us a plot tease?”—to no avail.) Teaser trailers that have been trickling out to the YouTube masses since last summer have been intentionally riddled with red herrings. Even the exact locations of the 13 7-11 stores transformed into Kwik-E-Marts in early July to

launch the movie’s marketing campaign were guarded like state secrets. (A press release touting the promotion, which arrived the day after it made instant international news, came with a header reading “Embargoed” in block caps.) To say the creators of The Simpsons are taking no chances with their march to the big screen is like saying Homer Simpson enjoys the occasional doughnut—Brezhnev’s Politbüro was not this officious in the handling of its files.

So then: why the secrecy? Why, as Bart might phrase it, have such a cow, man? After 18 seasons, 23 Emmys and a Peabody Award, after basking in accolades from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the poet laureate of the United States and hosting guest appearances by everyone from Tony Blair to Thomas Pynchon, after 400 episodes amounting to more than 130 hours in animated comedy—a significant swath of it widely acknowledged to be among the finest ever to grace a TV screen—why, all of a sudden, start behaving like Mr. Burns trying to cover up a toxic waste dump, over another hour and a half in the life and times of the Simpson family?

The short version might be best expressed by Homer’s signature “annoyed grunt”— D’oh!—surely the only cinematic catchphrase to grace the multiplex this year that has already been enshrined in the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Simpsons is not yet the longest-running fictional series

ever broadcast in prime time— Gunsmoke, which lasted 20 years (albeit in a three-channel universe) owns that honour. And not once has it been America’s highest-rated program for a full season. (That accolade belonged primarily to 60 Minutes and ER during The Simpsons’ mid-1990s heyday, and for the past four years American Idol has been the undisputed ratings champion.) Gunsmoke, however, never so irked an American president that he denounced it from the stump (as George Bush Sr. did during his failed re-election campaign in 1992), and it’s doubtful that anyone will ever favourably compare the warbling contestants on American Idol to Manet’s

Olympia (as Esquire’s TV critic did with The Simpsons back in 1999)ER never coined a universal catchphrase for a oncegreat institution’s decline, the one that goes like this: Worst. Episode. Ever.

This sneering dismissal, first voiced onscreen by the rotund proprietor of Bart Simpson’s favourite comic-book store, has surely contributed to the apprehension surrounding The Simpsons Movie. There is a sense—undeniable to most long-time fansthat the cartoon is past its prime, that the show that all but invented the phenomenon of “appointment viewing” hasn’t made even 20 consecutive minutes of essential TV in a number of years. A Simpsons movie, these days, is liable to seem like a misstep, akin to Michael Jordan’s ill-advised stab at pro baseball after a basketball career without equal, or the Who’s decision to mount yet another “farewell” tour. A stubborn refusal, that is, to bow out gracefully, with the potential to tarnish the gleam of those heady years when

The Simpsons was quite simply the progenitor of a whole new era in pop culture.

During that Golden Age (roughly 1991 to 1997, in my estimation), each new episode of the show practically leapt off the screen in a gleeful anarchic vortex of vicious satirical barbs, oddball pop references and razorsharp egghead wit. The Simpsons, in its prime, blew the roof off of a staid, easy-listening pop culture in which avuncular Bill Cosby

was Everyman and even toothless, blowdried pop-metal bands seemed dangerous. The giddily dysfunctional Simpsons weren’t just the funniest family ever to infiltrate the free world’s rec rooms once a week, they were also the most subversive—willing to deflate our most overinflated pieties, delighting in the demolition of our most hallowed institutions. The Simpsons truly didn’t care whose toes it stepped on or what sacred cows it tipped, and its biting satirical jabs never seemed to miss the bull’s eye. (This was a show, for example, that summed up the work of its small-screen peers by depicting the disgruntled dad from Married... with Children with a toilet installed next to his couch that he summarily flushed in lieu of a punch-

line, and that once dismissed the “rage” of the Lollapalooza generation with a single sign in the background of a scene that read “Bungee Jump Against Racism.”)

The Simpsons may sometimes seem like an overly familiar golden-oldies station nowadays, but this too is a function of its success, indicative of how much its style has been replicated and amped up elsewhere. The Simpsons is the godfather of South Park’s relentlessly iconoclastic shock humour, The Family Guy’s lightspeed non-sequitur loops and Arrested Development’s jump-cut flashbacks and asides. It’s the template for the rat-a-tat spoofing of the nightly news on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

It lurks in the background of Sacha Baron Cohen’s bumpkin-as-satiric-mirror shtick. It is as significant a contributor as any to the wiseass tone and parodically inclined content that has long dominated Internet discussion forums and do-it-yourself YouTube clips. They are all Homer’s children. And like most kids, they worry the old man might embarrass them at any moment by blasting Grand Funk Railroad a little too loud or passing out drunk on the porch.

It’s a delicate art, marshalling a TV show with this kind of legacy into uncharted terrain. And if the Simpsons brain trust ever wondered if maybe they were over-thinking it all, they had only to bear witness to the audience mutiny set off by the unflinching finale of The Sopranos in June. Here was another pop institution—one shorter-lived and ultimately less universally resonant, one that hadn’t managed, for example, to reach dictionary-scale immortality—closing its magnificent run with what was, to many minds, a flawless crescendo. The final few minutes of The Sopranos is all by itself among the finest rock videos ever made, an Edward Hopper tableau redrawn for the MTV era, condensing the show’s searing moral ambiguity and gilded suburban decay into a final cut to dead air as abrupt as a gut punch, and far more wounding. The Sopranos ended, in other words, by outdoing itself—and inspired a deluge of complaints so fierce it brought down HBO’s website the night the network first aired it. And this was a comparatively smallstakes game.

A Simpsons movie has long seemed inevitable. There has been talk of it since at least the fourth season, when an episode entitled “Kamp Krusty”—The Simpsons’ instant-classic riff on Lord of the Flies—was floated as the potential nucleus of a big-screen adaptation. The show’s creative team, however, wisely decided against a quick, opportunistic jump to the multiplex that might give rise to the half-baked schlock the show itself revelled in mocking. (The marquee at the Springfield

It’s the godfather of ‘South Park,’ ‘The Daily Show,’ Borat, and a model for the smartass tone of blogs. They’re all Homer's children.

The dysfunctional Simpsons blew the roof off a staid easy-listening culture in which avuncular Bill Cosby was Everyman

Googolplex once boasted of such unnecessary sequels as Look Who’s Oinking and Honey,

I Hit a School Bus.) The idea was summarily shelved, revisited by its creators only in occasional musings to the press.

The Simpsons staff has always been tightlipped to a fault about its behind-the-scenes machinations, so the official version stuck to the argument that the time wasn’t right, that the TV production schedule was too arduous to allow for a top-quality movie’s production. The real issue, however, may have been control: no small part of The Simpsons’ distinctive point of view has derived from the unprecedented degree of creative control wrestled by co-creator James L. Brooks from desperate Fox executives at the show’s founding in the late 1980s. In 2001, the show’s creative team negotiated a new contract that included a movie option, with the expressed permission to abandon the film if it was deemed unworthy of the franchise.

The final word would remain with the Simpsons crew, not the Fox suits. This is the most plausible answer to the question of why now?

And it’s the first reason for cautious optimism regarding the movie’s prospects.

Another is the reunion of the show’s Golden Age Dream Team to write the script. The Simpsons Movie’s screenplay is credited to such long-serving Simpsons scribes as George Meyer and John Schwartzwelder and Jon

Vitti—writers who deserve as much credit as Groening and Brooks for making The SimpL sons great (and whose less active “co-pro^ ducer” roles in recent years are believed ^k by diehard fans to be a key symptom ^ of the show’s decline). And therein lies the film’s greatest potential: that the jump to the big screen might reinvigorate these all-stars at the exact moment when Hollywood comedy is overdue for the same kind of jolt The Simpsons once brought to saccharine TV comedy. Not counting the occasional sleeper hit—Borat, for example, and this

summer’s wicked-smart Knocked Up—Hollywood seems to have all but forgotten how to make intelligent comedy (let alone genuinely biting satire), churning out instead an endless parade of half-baked vehicles for mediocre Saturday Night Live veterans and utterly debased dreck like Norbit and License to Wed. Place any of those alongside the funny popcorn movies of yesteryear—Caddy shack, say, or Ghostbusters, or indeed Eddie Murphy’s own Trading Places—and shudder at how Hollywood’s funny bone has shattered. It could sorely use the comedic rehabilitation provided by some vintage Simpsons mayhem.

The best cause for excitement about The Simpsons Movie, however, lies in one (hyphenated) word: Spider-Pig. This unlikely superhero pops up right at the end of The Simpsons Movie trailer currently running before the formulaic Evan Almighty in theatres. The trailer is structured in the standard style of a thousand overblown action movies. It opens with a handful of quick-cut establishing shots before moving to a quiet scene in which Bart and Homer are fishing together (albeit using a bug zapper). “When disaster threatens our world,” the rote voice-over intones, “one family will show everyone what they’re made of.” The editing accelerates through quick-cut glimpses of chaos and missile launches and stunt-driven heroism (and an M.C. Escher reference out of nowhere) to that moment in all actionmovie trailers where the blowed-up-realgood money shot is placed like an exclamation point. Instead, Marge Simpson stands in her living room, gazing silently up at a maze of black hoofprints on her ceiling. “How did the pig tracks get on the ceiling?” she asks. Cut to Homer walking his pet pig upside down along another stretch of ceiling, singing “Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig, does

whatever a Spider-Pig does,” to the tune of the Spider-Man theme.

This is an inspired gag, singular and unexpected, character-driven and side-splittingly funny. It’s a Golden Age gag. If you’re a glasshalf-full sort, you might conclude that the movie itself must have so much A-game material packed into it that they were willing to waste a joke this good in a trailer, and then you’d be optimistic indeed. The half-empty camp, of course, will assume this is the best they’ve got, cynically luring us into the theatre to watch a sitcom’s plot overstretched to 90 minutes of mediocrity. After all, no series in TV history has resurrected itself as a classic film—least of all while it was still on the air. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time The Simpsons pulled off a feat without precedent. M