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The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

February 15th, 2012
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The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, by John Ortved, is a look back at the creation and early days of The Simpsons. The book is told in the form of an oral history, with the story assembled by Mr. Ortved’s weaving together of interviews with the many people — super-famous and otherwise — connected to the show’s origins.

I love the use of the oral history device to tell these sorts of stories.  (The crown jewel example, for me, is Live From New York, Tom Shales & James Andrew Miller’s voluminous oral history of Saturday Night Live.)  To moderate your expectations, I have to tell you that Mr. Ortved’s history of The Simpsons is not as great as Live From New York. For one thing, it’s nowhere near as thorough.  Whereas Live From New York covers, within its lengthy page-count, thirty years of SNL history, Mr. Ortved admits right in the introduction that his book is not intended to be a history of he show’s twenty-plus seasons.  His focus is on the show’s beginnings.  That’s a perfectly understandable choice for an author to make, though it perhaps renders the book’s title, which bills the tome as a history of The Simpsons, a little inaccurate.

Still, Mr. Ortved’s focus on the early years of The Simpsons is deep and engaging.  I’m pretty well-familiar with the history of the show.  I’ve read articles about the show’s creation, I’ve watched the specials, I’ve listened to the DVD season-sets’ commentary tracks.  Despite that, I found this book to be filled with stories I’d never known.  And when I got to the “good stuff” — that is, the juicy, vicious in-fighting among the show’s creative forces that is the meat and potatoes of these types of books — I found Mr. Ortved’s recounting of events to be endlessly fascinating.  And it’s not as if the novel only focuses on season one.  Later chapters do indeed explore, in a decent amount of depth, some of the later seasons.  (There’s a particularly great chapter that compares and contrasts the different show-runners that The Simpsons has had over the years, allowing people to comment on their different styles and the different flavor that each individual show-runner gave to the seasons they oversaw.)

The book has two main flaws.  One, it’s pretty shockingly filled with typos.  This is definitely a manuscript that needed a copy-editor to have taken one more good look through it before being published.  Secondly, I think Mr. Ortved allows his narrative voice to overwhelm, at times, the oral history he’s compiling.  It’s not unusual in these sorts of books for the author to occasionally insert a few paragraphs of introduction of explanations of context, here and there, amongst all of the interview comments.  That’s often necessary to give some sense and shape to the stories being told.  I also don’t mind if an author occasionally steps in to help establish the accuracy of something being said by one of the people whose comments/interviews make up the oral history.  Mr. Ortved does that a few times, and it’s often insightful and amusing, such as when he calls James L. Brooks to task when Brooks stated that he still hangs out all the time with the heads of the animation company that he fired at the end of season three.  (Mr. Ortved writes: “This last bit [Mr. Brooks’ comment] is actually not true, or what those of us outside of Hollywood might call a ‘lie.'”)

But as the book goes on, I began to find Mr. Ortved’s commentary to be more and more intrusive.  There were several places in which I’d have preferred for him to have let the interviewed subjects stand on their own, or for him to have included additional interviews to further flesh out certain sections (such as his run-through of the many secondary characters that developed as the show went on) rather than relying on his narration.  There were also several places in which I felt Mr. Ortved allowed his biases/opinions to unduly flavor the book’s narrative, most notably his feelings that The Simpsons Movie was entirely without merit.  I happen to strongly disagree, as I thought the movie was terrific.  I would have been interested to read a back-and-forth between people involved with the show as to whether they thought the movie was successful or not.  But reading Mr. Ortved’s pronouncements in his god-like narration that the film’s story-lines felt “forced” and that “the film was neither funnier nor more coherent than an above-average current episode” turned me off.

Still, for The Simpsons fanatics out there, I highly recommend this book.  Reading it, I was reminded of all the reasons I used to so deeply love The Simpsons. Now I really want to pull out my DVDs to re-watch some of those classic early episodes!!

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