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  • There is a show that airs every night on the Fox network from around 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.

  • And it's an animated series about a family of five:

  • Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie.

  • And it's not an exceptionally entertaining show, in fact it's downright mediocre.

  • But what's so unusual about it is that the show goes by the name The Simpsons.

  • And the reason this is so strange is that it bears a striking resemblance

  • to another animated TV series from the early 90s, one also called The Simpsons,

  • which many people, myself included, consider the greatest piece of television of the 20th century.

  • But make no mistake; no matter how similar these two appear,

  • no matter what surface level resemblances exist, these are not the same show.

  • And this, friends, is the story of how one became the other.

  • How one of the best and most influential TV shows of all time became just another sitcom.

  • This is The Fall of The Simpsons: How it Happened.

  • So, to keep this outside the realms of my own subjective opinion, we're going to chart The Simpsons' decline off the IMDb user review data,

  • collected from nearly 300,000 individual episode reviews aggregated over the show's 28 seasons,

  • which looks like this:

  • Yikes.

  • And so the conversation is, how did we get from the Simpsonsmania of the 90s,

  • to present-day, where the show is now widely referred to as "Zombie Simpsons?"

  • And to understand this, as well as the gravity of its decline, we need to first go back to the series' origins.

  • TV of the 80s was a very different place than what we have today.

  • While the first half of the decade was dominated by soaps like Dallas and Dynasty,

  • in its later half we would see the return and rise of the TV family sitcom,

  • with shows like Diff'rent Strokes, Alf and Family Ties dominating primetime TV slots.

  • Each of these big shows centered around instilling the virtues of the American family unit,

  • with smart-aleck but well-meaning kids, and wise and loving parents.

  • The families being shown on TV were safe and comfortable depictions of the staunchly middle-upper class,

  • rich enough to be aspirational, while not so wealthy that they become unrelatable.

  • Which was fine as long as you were never in the mood for anything more than good, wholesome fun,

  • but it was also TV at its softest and most docile.

  • There's a sugary blandness to the television of this period.

  • Or, as Matt Groening referred to it, the "zombification of the American family."

  • And it seemed like this was the way family sitcom was going to stay,

  • right up until the last dying breath of the 80s,

  • when, on December 14th 1989, two weeks before the closing of the decade,

  • the Fox Network aired the first episode of The Simpsons,

  • and in doing so completely transformed television as we know it.

  • It was dark, it was satirical and it was hilarious.

  • Rather than embrace the virtues of the American family like every other show of that time,

  • The Simpsons seem to be actively mocking them.

  • It's a little hard to imagine, given the modern media landscape,

  • but back then The Simpsons were seen as an expression of blatant anti-authority.

  • Disruptive entertainment that challenged every convention of primetime TV that had built up over the forty years of its existence.

  • The Simpsons was counterculture,

  • shining a spotlight and satirizing every ugly wart of American society that so many others willingly ignored.

  • Bullying, depression, the struggle of the lower-middle class,

  • nothing was off-limits and everything was game. And The Simpsons took gleeful joy in exposing it all.

  • Such disregard for what, at the time, were seen as modern American values

  • quickly drew the ire of many parental and watchdog groups, decrying The Simpsons as abashedly un-American,

  • even drawing the disdain of former United States president George Bush Senior.

  • "...make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons!"

  • [crowd cheering]

  • Of course, the disdain of such massive authority figures only fueled the flames of The Simpsons' countercultural blaze,

  • and audiences across the world fell in love with the distinctly dysfunctional family.

  • If you were born after 1990, you probably don't remember how big Simpsonsmania actually was,

  • but for a time, The Simpsons was easily the biggest fictional property in all of media,

  • with even throwaway pieces of Simpsons merchandise turning into their own miniature cultural touchstones,

  • like The Simpsons arcade game, a staple of 90s Arcades across the world,

  • or Bart Simpson's Guide to Life, which to this day is still one of my favorite books I've ever read.

  • The Simpsons even had hit songs, like the infamous "Do the Bartman."

  • ♫ ...chain reaction

  • If you can do the Bart you're bad like Michael Jackson

  • Everybody if you can, do the Bartman

  • Shake your body, turn it round... ♫ ♫ Check it out! ♫

  • And so Simpsonsmania blazed on, but what truly made the show special was three core principles,

  • each of which could be represented by one of the show's three creators.

  • The first of which was Matt Groening. Groening was the one who conceived the initial premise for The Simpsons.

  • He first came to prominence with his uniquely warped counterculture comic, Life in Hell,

  • and if you go back and read this comic now, it's incredible how much of early Simpsons' rebellious spirit exists in it.

  • And it's this disdain for authority and convention that gave classic Simpsons the edge it had.

  • The second major creative force behind the show was Sam Simon, a veteran writer of TV sitcoms like Taxi and Cheers,

  • Simon was the person who took Groening's rebellious concept and gave it form, turning it into an actual TV show.

  • He was the one who hired and led the original writing team,

  • and instilled the idea that the comedy of the show should always be grounded in its characters, and not just be a string of cartoonish gags.

  • Which gave the characters a real weight and honesty, while also keeping the show consistently hilarious.

  • The third and final major contributor to The Simpsons was a little more hands-off than Simon and Groening, but arguably just important.

  • And that was its producer, James L. Brooks,

  • who not only was the one pushing for the series to get made in the first place,

  • but also largely credited as being the person to bring a heart to The Simpsons.

  • While not on the actual writing staff, he'd often come to the yearly story retreats,

  • and was always keen to encourage ideas that were more emotionally resonant than they were satirical or comedic,

  • often pushing episodes that featured Lisa or Marge as the protagonist,

  • and is even credited at penning the beautifully bittersweet moment from the episode Lisa's Substitute,

  • where Mr. Bergstrom hands Lisa a note that simply reads, "You are Lisa Simpson." before disappearing from her life forever.

  • Rebellious satire, comedy grounded in character, and heart.

  • These men and their ideals were at the core of The Simpsons,

  • something that is plainly obvious by the fact that you can still see their names listed at the start of every episode.

  • Of course that's to say nothing of the actual writing staff, who were also heavily involved in the development.

  • John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, Conan O'Brien, David M. Stern,

  • these and many others were the exceptionally talented writers that made up the early staff of The Simpsons.

  • And while Groening, Simon, and Brooks oversaw the show's creation, these were the people that crafted each and every episode.

  • One thing that becomes abundantly clear after going through enough old interviews with these guys

  • is the incredible amount of work that went into each and every script.

  • A team of roughly twelve writers would work multiple long eleven-hour days on a single episode,

  • and it's a little hard to imagine now, given how seamlessly the comedy in classic Simpsons flows,

  • but I think once you start to break down the way these jokes work, the effort behind them becomes abundantly clear.

  • Let's take one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite episodes, Bart Sells His Soul,

  • in which Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for five dollars,

  • and after a run of bad luck and a rather horrifying existential nightmare, he realizes what a mistake he's made

  • and journeys out late into the night in order to find Milhouse, and reclaim his lost soul.

  • And then this happens:

  • "Well finally, a little luck!"

  • [evil laughter]

  • It's a brilliant, darkly hilarious piece of comedy, timed, paced, and delivered to near perfection.

  • But what's interesting is what happens when you break down the mechanics of how this joke works.

  • Mainly by recognizing that this is not one singular joke, but a combination of smaller ones.

  • It starts with Bart's bike being run over by the street sweeper.

  • Second, it turns out that all the street sweeper actually did was clean the bike.

  • Third, no, it's actually been destroyed.

  • Fourth, the reveal that this was actually an act of malice by some psychotic nameless public servant.

  • And finally, the street sweeper plunging down the stairwell.

  • That's five jokes in fifteen seconds.

  • And I get that by breaking them down like this, I'm robbing them of some of their magic,

  • but I think it's important to understand the underlying structure.

  • And that is how each little piece of comedy builds on and expands on the one that came before it,

  • crescendoing in the beautifully absurd and nearly surreal punchline.

  • And it's a perfect example of the brilliant layered comedy of the jokes of classic Simpsons.

  • These are jokes that, according to writers of The Simpsons from the time,

  • would go through roughly thirty to forty drafts of rewrites, which I think is genuinely evident from their makeup.

  • They're simply too layered and too intricate to be the product of one single writing pass.

  • And this is also a style of comedy that was completely distinct to everything else at the time.

  • Sitcoms of the late 80s and early 90s were ruled by the laughter track, which had been a staple of American sitcoms since the 1950s.

  • Originally provided by a live studio audience, but now it was just fake canned laughter,

  • used as an artificial way to prop up lazy one-liners and unimaginative quips.

  • The problem with using laughter tracks is that they only allow for jokes to be structured in a very particular way,

  • with long lead ins and big punchlines.

  • But there is also a forced quality to it too, as it takes the onus away from the audience and tells us when to react.

  • And if a joke is genuinely funny, then surely we don't need it to be pointed out to us.

  • And if you want to see some proof of this, just check out what an existential nightmare the Big Bang Theory turns into when the laughter track is removed.

  • "Sorry I'm late."

  • "What happened?"

  • "Nothing. I just really didn't wanna come."

  • [long, uncomfortable silence]

  • [shudders]

  • Not only is there not a laughter track in The Simpsons, there straight up could not be one.

  • The pace, rhythm, and subtlety of the jokes didn't allow for it.

  • Take our previous street sweeper gag.

  • The way the joke is interconnected and paced means there's no space for canned laughter.

  • The only place you could put it would be right at the end, and by doing so, you would ruin these darkly surreal atmosphere the joke establishes.

  • And so in disregarding the biggest crutch of TV sitcoms of that era, The Simpsons created a different style of comedy to anything else at the time.

  • One that was consistently creative, surprising and hilarious.

  • And yet, despite how exceptionally the show delivered its comedy, it never did so at the expense of its characters.

  • I think the key to what makes these characters so distinct and memorable

  • is that each one operates off a very specific set of conflicting beliefs and motivations.

  • Take Homer, for example.

  • He's an emotional man, equally prone to bouts of both intense joy and excitement, as well as fits of blinding rage.

  • He's unintelligent and slow witted, but not just that. He was also gluttonous and extremely lazy.

  • And this aspect of his character would often prove more detrimental to him than his low intelligence.

  • He was also an optimist, often choosing to ignore problems until they became unavoidable,

  • but also just kind of wanted to be left alone.

  • To go about his life his own way, and enjoy the little pleasures of it on his own terms.

  • And lastly, he really, really cares about his family.

  • These are the core traits that define Homer Simpson.

  • These are the motivations and beliefs that determine each action he takes,

  • and in any given scene, you can see one or more of them pulling him in different directions.

  • In other words, there was a consistent internal logic to Homer.

  • No matter how outlandish this situation he was in, Homer could always be expected to act like Homer.