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Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: The Fall of The Simpsons and the New Criticism

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the YouTube video essay The Fall of The Simpsons.

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

Clarence:

This time around, Kevin, I’d like to chat about something that’s not a movie or a TV show, but a critique of a TV show. A show that was, in the minds of many in our generation, THE TV show…The Simpsons.

The critique is a YouTube video called “The Fall of The Simpsons: How It Happened.” It’s a half-hour essay by someone named Super Eyepatch Wolf that tries to explain why The Simpsons, now entering its 29th season, has fallen so far from grace in terms of quality.

I think the video makes a lot of sense. The creator and narrator laid out his argument in a sober, systematic fashion. First, he provided a form of proof that the show is, in fact, not as good as it used to be. He then goes into the history of the show’s creative staff and what they did to make this show work, followed by an analysis of what makes something funny, which I found particularly interesting.

I was on board for 90% of SEW's arguments, until he did something I found peculiar. He makes a pretty clear case why the show isn’t as good as before: the creative staff, which for the last 10+ years has been led by Al Jean, one of the series’ original writers. As a proud Gen-Xer, I have drawn my own conclusions (along with millions of other diehard fans) about the storytelling quality of late-series Simpsons. SEW's arguments line up pretty closely to what I’ve been thinking over the years. And yet, after analyzing the scene of the crime, securing the murder weapon, and establishing the time of death, SEW refuses to name a suspect.

“It’s not the purpose of this video to demonize any of the staff of season 10 on…”, SEW says, “because I think it’s a shitty thing to do and I think the problems are more complicated than that.” This is where he and I part ways. The Simpsons' problems actually are NOT more complicated than what he describes in his video. Over the years a strong writing staff became a weak one, and the results show it. I find SEW’s reluctance to put the blame where it belongs a bit of a cop out.

Kevin, I want to get your opinion on how the YouTube channel has given rise to this new form of communication, “DIY TV.” But first, what did you think of SEW’s piece? Do you agree with what he’s proposing? And can you think of any other important shows that became "zombified" the way The Simpsons has? 

Kevin:

Ah, The Simpsons. Sigh. It's one thing when a great athlete or TV series hangs on for a year or two too long (say, Michael Jordan on the Wizards, or the post-Larry David years of Seinfeld), but it's yet another when a show is nearly two decades past its prime, and still keeps churning out lackluster content with no end in sight. Who's watching Homer & Co. these days? Diehard holdovers from the '90s? Refugees from the Two and a Half Men camp? Millennials (and younger) who weren't around during its Golden Age and don't know what they're missing? I'm perplexed. 

The subject of comedy and how much of the genre doesn't connect with me these days are topics that I've raised in various Fourth Wall posts this year. And in that light, SEW's deconstruction of humor in The Simpsons was rather refreshing; here was a video essay which articulated my frustrations! The increasing emphasis on cheap punchlines, the devolution into farce, the phasing out of elements with a more serious tone -- as The Simpsons rolled into the late '90s and early '00s, it was clear that it wasn't the same show, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly why until SEW's enlightening analysis. 

I can't think of another series that became "zombified" in this manner, because, well... what other shows could've possibly lasted this long? It's a television maxim that any program featuring kids in significant roles has a limited shelf life; the kids get older, the dynamics change, and that's that. Sometimes a new tyke is added to the cast (see: the Cousin Oliver trope), but this represents nothing more than a brief stay of execution. In the world of animation, though, Bart can be 10 forever! Grandpa Abe and Monty Burns hang around with the living, while Homer remains 39 instead of where he should be: retirement age (!). 

I suppose I'm less concerned with which writers to blame, and more interested in whether this simply represents a shift in what generations find humorous? As such, I could be experiencing Old Man Syndrome* here. After all, what previous generations found funny didn't hold up too well with our generation, did it? Bob Hope was still cranking out TV specials every year in the '80s, but anyone under 30 was listening to Eddie Murphy's Raw and Delirious. 

[* Where to begin as far as the frustrations? Glowing smartphones at concerts, uptalk/vocal fry, the increasing prevalence of trap music... I guess I should mention that I'm now probably closer in age to Grandpa Abe than Bart. But trap really hurts the worst. I can't tune it out (no pun intended), and it causes me real distress.]

So Clarence, let that be my major question for you -- is it simply that what defines popular comedy has changed, and that if we don't "get" the current incarnation of The Simpsons, that's a tell that humor has moved to a different place? I think of the Hangover franchise, which made a bazillion dollars over the last decade; I couldn't stomach 30 minutes of the first film. Or TV series like The Big Bang Theory and the aforementioned Two and a Half Men, which will combine for 25 years' worth of shows... yet seem unwatchable even in 60-second segments.

On that note, though, I take a macabre delight in viewing YouTube  edits of these shows without laugh tracks. This brings the mind the genius of  Garfield Minus Garfield, where you simply eliminate the namesake from the comic strip and watch the good times roll! Now this I find awesomely funny...

Clarence:

You are so right - Garfield Minus Garfield is special. It’s a truly inspired piece of recycled culture. That Big Bang Theory concept is creepy, and not in a good way. But there’s a horrifying truth in it. Take away the laugh cues and what are you left with? That. *Shudder*

To answer your question, I must propose a kind of Grand Unified Theory of TV Comedy. I don’t think what people find funny changes all that much over time. There has always been a demand for insightful, subversive, and above all else well-written observations on life and existence. What does vary, though, is the level of acceptability of comedy not by the people consuming it but whoever’s in charge of a society. In our case, corporations and the government.

That’s why I think we have two distinct groups of comedies on American television:

“Quality” comedies that feature complex or unusual humor, subversive points of view, and content that challenges social norms

“Popular” comedies that are easy to follow, predictable, safe, and reinforce social norms*

[*Popular comedies also often contain just enough titillation to keep audiences interested, but not enough to offend perceived sensibilities.]

Quality comedies can evolve into Popular comedies with enough time, but I can’t think of a single case of the reverse happening. As bad as The Big Bang Theory is now, the first few seasons had a little bit of creative edge to them that was quickly removed once it became “TV’s Most-Watched Comedy.”

When I think about the few sitcoms that remained strong or got better throughout their runs [SeinfeldFrasierThe Office (UK version), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia] the one thing they have in common is a group of committed writers who stayed interested in telling their stories well.

This is why I think it’s important to hold TV writers to a higher level of criticism. TV shows don’t just materialize from the ether. Every step of the way, someone makes decisions about how a story is being told. When a novelist writes a terrible book or a musician produces an unlistenable album, they get called out for it. Why shouldn’t the same hold true for the creative forces (I’m thinking writers and showrunners) who make the media most people consume?

More than ever, we the people have the power to do so. Thanks to ever-more-accessible technology, I think we are experiencing the most powerful communications revolution in history. I feel it doesn’t get more attention because not enough big companies make money off of it.

The risk is in there’s a lot of noise. But the reward is a vast array of really interesting and amusing content the old media structure couldn’t hope to provide. For me, that means regularly checking in with CrackedNerdwriter, Keith Olbermann’s The ResistanceThe Academy of IdeasWisecrack, and Numberfile. Are you subscribing to any YouTube series? I haven’t even mentioned up-and-coming big-money outlets like NetFlix and Amazon studios. How do you look for new things to watch with so many options?

Kevin: 

Sign me up for that theory, Clarence! You know, after I'd sent my last response, I realized that there have been lots of generic (aka "Popular") comedies over the years that seemed to inexplicably remain on the airwaves for eons despite serving up humor that was about as sharp as porridge. In the future, though, I think it'd be interesting to dive into the question about whether your theory also applies to different mediums? Film and stand-up, most notably. 

Also, I'd agree that the forces behind a television series shouldget called out the same way bands or novelists do, but:

A) They're simply not out in front of their works in television the same way they are in, say, print. It's neverMatt Groening's The Simpsons... and besides, he was hardly the chief architect of the writing past the initial stages. Even in cinema, how many modern screenwriters have made a name for themselves without directing? Maybe Charlie Kaufman, who did direct films later on, but only after he'd been established as a star writer. 

The one exception to this, of course, seems to be Tyler Perry, the merits of whom we've discussed before. His television works are titled Tyler Perry's House of Payne and Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns, so there is little mystery as to the creative engine there. By the way, Mr. Perry is worth $600 million. I'll let that figure sink in for a moment. 

B) As the SEW video pointed out, a show likeThe Simpsons might have a dozen people working on a single episode! That makes it a bit tougher to assign blame? It also brings to mind this classic Seinfeld clip about the frustrations of writing in large groups. 

Even in films where a screenwriter might receive a solo credit, that script might undergo a rewrite, and a second and third rewrite... then the director might have their own take on the action... and of course the studio can always weigh in... sometimes it's a wonder anything edgy gets produced at all? At least in novels, the number of filters is far fewer. 

[Hmm, now I wish we could continue this discussion a bit longer. Have there been record producers who were blamed for crippling the work of popular bands/artists?]

-----

As for the sites you mentioned, I've heard of Cracked, but that's it. And this humble scribe has yet to subscribe to any YouTube series. Am I falling behind the times here? It's all I can do to keep up with my Netflix queue! There are only so many hours in the day, and our entertainment options are quite vast indeed. 

I'd say that I'm pretty cognizant of what makes it out to the theaters (especially indie films), but with television, I'm like most people. Meaning, it has to hit some sort of critical mass in terms of popularity, where I might read an article about it or have it recommended to me via a friend. I also do subscribe to a NY Times blog that e-mails recommendations, but even then, I largely just add these titles to my list for later consumption. 

Now compare the number of television series or films produced each year to the number of books written. The scope of the latter is far more overwhelming, and this is compounded by the fact that books are much more of a time commitment. It's times like these when you realize that gainful employment often is a mighty irritating barrier that stands in the way of all sorts of Fun Pursuits, eh? 

Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!

 

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Categorized: The Fourth Wall

Topics: the simpsons

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