Simpsons Confidential by John Ortved

Simpsons Confidential
by John Ortved
Ebury Press 2009

If you were a writer or executive or animator involved with the initial creation of The Simpsons, it’s likely that you’ve been involved in litigation at some point. The brand new Fox network was quite relaxed about delegating merchandising rights and points when the show was being developed, and it was only when the sky was darkened by an approaching tsunami wave of cash that things began to get extremely nasty.

This entertaining book is mainly composed of interviews with participants from the early years, with relatively little editorialising. It rather tartly points out how little Matt Groening had to do with developing the defining characteristics of what we recognise as The Simpsons, apart from inventing and drawing the characters (even the iconic yellow skin and Marge’s blue hair was devised by Klasky-Csupo colour designer Gyorgi Peluce), and there are several hilarious accounts of his unwelcome presence in the writers’ room and the wide resentment at Groening’s resulting fame and incredible wealth. It’s not mentioned in the book, but it’s significant that when the US Postal Service issued Simpson stamps last year, they were crudely drawn by Groening himself instead of by the artists who usually produce slick still images for the show.

There’s a brief analysis of how the quality of the programme has changed over the years – obviously there’s website after website devoted to this subjective issue. As each DVD boxset comes out (they’re up to the 12th season at the moment*) the seasons are re-evaluated: the general consensus used to be that the show hit a creative peak in the seventh or eight season and has been slowly declining ever since. Ortved argues that Season 3-5 was the real peak, although 6-9 were still extremely good, and the real decline hits from Season 10 onwards.

Basically this is the tale of what happens when a large group of intense and creative people get together and work extremely hard to come up with something excellent, and are then ripped apart by money and greed. Recommended for anyone interested in the dynamics of TV comedy writing, or how even US$3 billion can tear apart best friends.

*Season 20 was release in January without any of the usual excellent extras (ka-ching!), but I don’t know any fans who bothered buying that one.
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