By Jaime Weinman - Tuesday, November 6, 2012 - 0 Comments
The interesting thing about this U.S. election’s impact on U.S. television is the fact that its had any impact at all. Remember all the references TV made to the election of 2004? No? That’s because there were hardly any. Even though it was a close, hard-fought election in a deeply divided country–just like this one–TV mostly stayed away from it. It was a very timid time for TV: networks were panicked by 9/11, by the FCC, by the shrinking audience (it’s still shrinking now, but they’re used to it).
And so open political references were almost taboo unless they were done obliquely, like Arrested Development‘s parallels between the Bluth and Bush families. The Simpsons famously never had a caricature of George W. Bush on the show, let alone John Kerry. South Park‘s election episode in 2004 portrayed the election allegorically as “a choice between a giant douche and a turd sandwich,” making the episode a perfect capsule of how mindless Trey Parker’s centrism was at the time.
Since then, there’s been something of a thaw in television, and while it’s hardly become daring or anything, there are a lot more direct references to this election than eight or even four years ago. At least three half-hour comedies have done episodes where characters argue over the election, and mention the candidates by name. The New Normal was the first, then came 30 Rock. Then came Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, a show that I thought was developing into a pretty good innocuous family sitcom; Allen apparently didn’t think so, though, because the show is back this year retooled (at his behest) into an All in the Family imitator, and the season premiere was about Allen arguing with his daughters over the election, and he thinks Obama is from Kenya, and makes “community organizer” jokes, and the whole episode sounded like a couple of politically-opposed Twitter feeds mashed together into a script.
Well, most political arguments on scripted TV (or unscripted, for that matter) sound like Twitter feeds, since there’s no room for nuance or developed arguments, even assuming the writers have any on hand. Usually what happens is one character says something that’s a grotesque caricature of the Republican or Democratic position, and the other character either a) responds with an equally grotesque caricature of a reply, or b) is completely stopped in his tracks by the incredible all-consuming logic of an argument any real person could rebut in five seconds. This is why 30 Rock was the best of these three episodes: apart from having the funniest writers, it was intentionally silly and caricatured, and made the political arguments more about the characters’ personal issues.
But even if those other two shows were trying to be All in the Family and failing, the fact that they even tried is a sign that television has emerged a little bit from the defensive crouch of the ’00s. Of course there are other reasons why shows might choose not to deal with topical issues like elections, most obviously the fact that an election episode dates the show for all time. (However, I think producers are naive to believe that avoiding topical references will help them be “timeless” in syndication. I watched shows in the ’80s that mentioned the election without ever mentioning the candidates’ names, but they still had the hair, the clothes, and the brick cellphones, and nothing was going to keep them from becoming dated.) And, as noted, these issues are usually beyond what the show is capable of dealing with anyway. But all in all, it’s probably better to see shows deal with issues rather than avoid them, so I think I’m glad we live in an era when the words “Obama” and “Romney” are not among the seven words you can’t say on TV.
By Emily Senger - Friday, November 2, 2012 at 10:58 AM - 0 Comments
Simpsons character Montgomery Burns’ endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may just edge…
Simpsons character Montgomery Burns’ endorsement of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney may just edge out Joss Whedon and Clint Eastwood to take top spot for the most bizarre celebrity endorsement of the presidential campaign.
In a special message from the Springfield Republican Party, a Youtube video released Thursday shows Mr. Burns sitting alongside some binders full of women in his parlour.
The only thing that can prevent a presidency that is the “God-given property of the Republican Party,” says Mr. Burns, is Romney’s family dog, Seamus, which the Republican candidate infamously strapped to the roof of his car during a family vacation.
Mr. Burns brings out Seamus for some intense questioning before he is forced to choose between “Meat Romney” and “Broccoli Obama.”
Well, the choice is obvious, isn’t it? Maybe not.
By Jaime Weinman - Sunday, September 23, 2012 at 6:00 AM - 0 Comments
Dark and absurdist sitcoms of today owe debt to this ’90s show
“I appreciate your interest in a 22-year-old show,” snarks David Mirkin, co-creator and chief director of Get a Life, a show ahead of its time—and maybe even a little ahead of ours. The complete series, which ran from 1990 to 1992 on Fox, comes out this week on DVD. It stars Chris Elliott as a deranged 30-year-old newspaper boy who travels through time, and dies at the end of multiple episodes. Though it had a cult following, and even inspired a hip-hop album, music rights kept it off DVD. Now the question is whether audiences have finally caught up with a sitcom about insanity and death.
Mirkin has learned that it takes awhile for people to get accustomed to this kind of humour. “For an American audience, you have to kind of ease them into that,” explains the Philadelphia native. “Starting at full speed with a surreal, dark, violent show was never going to get past the American testing system, which is incredibly flawed and stupid.” With Get a Life, he began with a relatively conventional pilot and then introduced bizarre elements, like a story where Elliott is transported to a ’40s movie world. The process paved the way for recent shows like 30 Rock and Community, which also started semi-realistic and wound up as live-action cartoons.
Get a Life was also ahead of its time with its ambiguous attitude toward sitcoms. Mirkin says they deliberately dressed a character “in the outfits you saw Jane Wyatt wearing on Father Knows Best,” and many of the plots were sarcastic takes on the old plots the writers grew up with; one episode has the old story of two characters getting trapped in a meat locker, except the meat locker is inexplicably in the middle of a suburban living room. “The feeling,” Mirkin says, “was that you seem to be watching an episode of Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best, but something horribly wrong has happened to it.”
This postmodern take has become a familiar part of TV shows like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Louie, but another innovation may have prevented Get a Life from catching on at the time: the lead character wasn’t a hero but a complete sociopath. Most episodes revolve around Elliott’s character being unable to understand what’s going on around him, including one where he believes an evil alien is actually a cute, cuddly friend like E.T. “American sitcoms like to focus on winners,” Mirkin says, and the Fox network was “concerned that a guy living at home with his parents would be perceived as a loser. We said: ‘He’s not a loser, he’s insane!’ Which didn’t make them feel any better.” Destructive comedy heroes are common now, from Family Guy to Two and a Half Men, and Elliott’s Chris Peterson seems sweet by comparison.
That shift in TV comedy came about in part because of Get a Life, but also because of The Simpsons. Based partly on his Get a Life work, Mirkin was chosen to take over as executive producer for the fifth and sixth seasons of The Simpsons, where he pushed it in some darker directions, including an exploding-head gag. “Why should I think of new things when I can do the same old crap?” he jokes. But with The Simpsons in syndication, and Get a Life unavailable, fans aren’t aware how much that dark humour stems from the earlier show. “The Simpsons has overshadowed it a bit,” says Mirkin, now a consultant for the show.
Now that the complete series is out, Mirkin hopes more people will discover the show, and how much of modern comedy it anticipates. At the time, it seemed unusual to play to what Mirkin calls “an audience that doesn’t mind if the main character is killed and then returns, à la Bugs Bunny,” but he’s seen live-action shows become more surreal in the wake of Get a Life and “more comfortable with flexible reality.” But he can’t give too many specific examples of its influence. “People are afraid to tell me that they have been influenced by it, because I instantly sue.”
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, September 5, 2012 at 4:42 PM - 0 Comments
One question to watch out for, when recommending a TV show that has several seasons under its belt, is the question “When does it get good?” or some variation thereon. Except for shows that flame out after season 1, we often don’t think our favourite shows were at their very best in the first season. They’re not fully formed; the characters don’t act quite the way they “normally” would; sometimes we’ll even get character facts that would later cease to be canonical.
There are arguably three different kinds of less-good first season, though they overlap. One is a first season that simply isn’t good enough, and the show re-tools and becomes better afterward. Parks & Recreation is a famous recent version of this. Then there’s the first season that is good, even acclaimed, but doesn’t quite feel like the show we got to know. The first season of Breaking Bad took home an Emmy for Bryan Cranston, but to many viewers, it now comes across as more of a typical dark-side-of-the-suburbs story than the rest of the series. Not bad, just not necessarily the same show they’re enthusiastically recommending to people.
And third, there’s the first season that recognizably is the show, but in a rough or primitive form compared to what came later. The first season of The Simpsons is an obvious example. It’s not that it wasn’t good; those first 13 episodes were a smash hit. And by the end of the first season, the characters are more or less established as what they would be. But the show was slow-paced compared to what came later. It wasn’t until the third season that it achieved a super-fast pace and became the most densely-packed comedy in television history. Someone watching, say, season 2 of The Simpsons for the first time won’t find the show unrecognizable, just a little sluggish by comparison. (Though I should add that I’ve watched early episodes of The Simpsons in crowds and everyone laughed all the way through them, so there goes that generalization.)
The question then is, knowing that the first season is not the best, do we recommend that friends watch from the beginning, or do we encourage them to start later in the show after it gets good?
The answer isn’t always clear, even with shows that don’t have big story arcs and could theoretically be watched from any point. Sometimes the later episodes wouldn’t be as effective, I think, if we hadn’t seen the early episodes. For one thing, the first season of a show is often the most heavily derivative of other entertainment (not yet Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 11:30 AM - 0 Comments
A new animated series based in Alberta is brimming with inside jokes for Canadians
The U.S. is full of Canadian comedy writers, but they usually don’t get to make many jokes about their native country. That’s where Crash Canyon comes in. The new animated series on Teletoon was developed by a Calgarian writer for The Simpsons, Joel H. Cohen, who hired several other Canadian writers, including Simpsons colleague Tim Long and How I Met Your Mother’s Chuck Tatham.
Though shows like The Simpsons and HIMYM frequently have Canadian jokes, they’re usually obvious ones about Tim Hortons and hockey. On Crash Canyon, a mix of Family Guy and Gilligan’s Island about a Canadian family stuck in a canyon in Alberta, Cohen told Maclean’s that the writers finally had the opportunity to put in Canadian insider jokes like an ice cream store called “Don and Cherry’s” and a Monopoly game called “Moncton-opoly.” There are other possibly lost-on-Americans jokes, such as a stylist character who calls himself “the René to her Céline” and a road sign that says, “Now entering Saskatchewan—Welcome to our Nothing.”
“Americans love to make fun of Canada, so this is a chance to show another thing Canadians do better than the U.S.,” Cohen says. “In that sense, I guess we’re being patriotic. Now where do I pick up my Order of Canada medal?” Of course, not all the Canadian references are for insiders; Teletoon’s advance trailer includes a joke where the family daughter mixes up Anne Frank with Anne of Green Gables.
By Jaime Weinman - Monday, November 23, 2009 at 9:37 PM - 58 Comments
I haven’t written much about The Simpsons since my screed against “comedy writer jokes,” so here’s a more positive subject for discussion, sort of similar to the “Underrated Monty Python Sketches” thread. What’s your favourite Simpsons line that you haven’t heard quoted to death?
That is, some Simpsons quotes are so famous — “Worst episode ever,” or ” save me, Jeebus!” or “it’s a perfectly cromulent word” — that they have entered the language. Some equally great quotes, however, aren’t as famous. So what’s a quote you particularly love but that hasn’t yet been ruined by over-quoting?
My favourite under-quoted quote is from the season 2 episode “Homer Vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment” (still, after all these years, one of the best Simpsons episodes, a great combination of pop-culture jokes and family relationship stuff). The family is watching movies on cable, and with each movie, Bart gives the lead character the name of the movie. These get progressively less plausible:
BART: Oh, this is where Jaws bites through the boat.
BART: Oh, this is where Die Hard comes through the window.
BART: Oh, this is where Wall Street gets arrested.
To me, that’s just a perfect Simpsons joke on every level. It combines George Meyer-y, comedy-writer fascination with language (it might even be a Meyer joke) with real, observational humour about the way real people sometimes confuse characters with titles. (Eg people used to think the round-headed kid in the comic strip was named “Peanuts.”) It’s a comedy-writer joke that also sounds like a human being might say it.
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, October 29, 2009 at 1:00 PM - 2 Comments
The Simpsons’ first warts-and-all history may be better thanks to the producers’ gag order
John Ortved says that the people quoted in his new book The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History are mostly those who “had stories to tell, or axes to grind,” or who are “too successful to care.” Fortunately, that’s a lot of people. Ortved, a Canadian journalist who wrote an oral history of The Simpsons for Vanity Fair in 2007, has now expanded that piece into the first book about behind-the-scenes conflicts at the world’s most successful animated show. (Unfortunately, it went to press too early to discuss Marge Simpson’s upcoming Playboy spread.) The book contains observations from Simpsons veterans like Conan O’Brien, Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and even one-time guest voice Tom Wolfe, but the list of people who wouldn’t talk to Ortved is just as impressive: he told Maclean’s that executive producer James L. Brooks asked “everybody who worked on the show not to speak to me.” He got no participation from Brooks, creator Matt Groening, most of the people who have run the show, or the cast (except for a few quotes from Hank Azaria, voice of Moe and Apu). The book offers many Simpsons anecdotes, but they’re from the point of view of people who have nothing to lose.
In some ways, this may be a more candid history of the show because we don’t hear from Brooks, Groening and their supporters. Ortved thinks Brooks “decided to cancel all co-operation when he found out I was asking questions about Sam Simon,” who ran The Simpsons originally and hired most of the staff. Many people feel that Simon, who left in 1993 after feuding with Brooks and Groening, is not given enough credit for shaping the franchise; Brian Roberts (now a director of such shows as Little Mosque on the Prairie) says in the book that Brooks “fell in love with the myth and the legend” that Groening was the sole creator. Ortved compares them to Walt Disney, who wanted us to think that “he created everything that was Disney.” Continue…
By Jaime Weinman - Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 5:13 PM - 20 Comments
I promised to write a post about why I think certain jokes on The Simpsons and Futurama and some other shows are “comedy writer jokes,” that appeal more to comedy writers than to people who aren’t comedy writers. I’m a little reluctant to give examples, though, because any example I will give is absolutely certain to be funny to some (or maybe even most) people who aren’t comedy writers. So when I say these jokes don’t appeal to “people who aren’t comedy writers,” what I really mean is that they don’t appeal to me.
What got me back on this subject was the release on DVD this week of season 12 of The Simpsons, the last of four seasons run by Mike Scully. Scully gave almost unmatched power to one of The Simpsons‘ longtime writers, George Meyer, who by season 10 or 11 was so influential in the rewrite room that its whole comedy style was his more than any other person’s, including Scully. (On the commentaries you can sometimes hear the writers saying either that a joke came from Meyer ,or that it was inspired by his style, or that they’re just proud that the joke made Meyer laugh.) To me this is a partial explanation of why most of the Scully episodes are hard for me to watch, because Meyer specialized in a type of joke that is often more appropriate for his underground comedy magazine Army Man than a TV situation comedy. It’s sort of a joke about a joke, where the humour is supposed to come not from the characters and their reactions to their situations, but from the writer’s attempt to put his own ironic twist on the thing you might expect to hear in that situation.
The example I always use from season 12 of The Simpsons – I don’t know if Meyer came up with it, but it certainly is a Meyeresque joke — is when Grandpa Simpson says that he was such a great grifter in his youth that “They used to call me Grifty McGrift.” The line is supposed to be funny because it’s not funny, because in a spot that normally calls for a funny turn of phrase, the writer could not come up with any turn of phrase at all, and just repeated the word “Grift” twice. Another favourite George Meyer joke technique is to have a character describe a plan as “Operation ______” and then fill in something that’s just a straight, prosaic description of whatever he’s going to do: “Time for Operation Mail-Take.” “Now for Operation Strike Make-O Longer.” “Now for Operation Christmas-Remind-Her-Of-How-Good-Is.” (A George Meyer line that was cut from an early episode, according to a commentary, was “You couldn’t find Mr. Burns’ inner goodness with a Mr. Burns’ inner-goodness-finding-machine.”) It is not really a joke, it’s, as someone else put it, a parody of bad writing. And that’s why I think of it as comedy-writer comedy, because it references their own struggles in coming up with jokes and their own intimate knowledge of old joke structures. It never once sounds like anything an actual human being might say. This also applies to jokes that are based on the assumption that it’s funny to hear a deliberately awkward turn of phrase, like “Don’t worry, I’m not a stabbing hobo, I’m a singing hobo,” or “She changed her name to Appleseed and her family changed theirs to Buffalkill.” The main joke there is just that it sounds a little weird.
These jokes are fine in small doses, surrounded by bread-n’-butter character, situational and un-ironic jokes. (And in the good years of the show, Meyer came up with lots of lines that are just funny because of the character saying them, like Homer watching the Three Stooges and saying “Moe is their leader!”) But by the Mike Scully era, every episode was wall-to-wall jokes like that. It’s not just a George Meyer thing, because he’s not involved with Futurama, and that show has pretty much always consisted of nothing but jokes-that-aren’t-really-jokes (I’ve come to the conclusion that Futurama really is a pretty weakly-written show much of the time).
30 Rock has a lot of jokes like that too (most of them coming from Tracy, like “foxy boxing combines my two favorite things, boxing and referees!” — see, it’s funny because it makes no sense!), but manages to make up for it by including lots of simple, effective and even corny jokes. Writer-type jokes are fine, in moderation. When they take over, there’s not a moment when you’re not being reminded that someone is writing this thing.
I actually find The Simpsons more tolerable to watch now, when Meyer is no longer on the full-time staff, than I did in the Scully era; the actual quality of the jokes isn’t better — mostly consisting of really lame-o puns — but I find a pun to be a more acceptable than constant lines like “put down that science pole!” and “hey, what’s with the attitude? I just wanted some dealies.”
Update: The next-to-last paragraph originally ended in mid-sentence, as pointed out in comments. I’d like to say this was conscious performance art, but it was not. Fixed.
Update 2: Lots of interesting comments. I should add that back in the ancient 1990s, I would usually cite my favourite Simpsons line of all time as Bart’s “My God, he is like some kind of… non-giving-up… school guy!,” which is perhaps the ultimate, textbook example of the self-reflexive, joke-about-not-making-a-joke construction I’m talking about here. And when I see that episode, that line still makes me laugh a lot. Which means: a) It all depends on context b) These jokes are fine in moderation c) I’m a hypocrite d) All of the above, but with special emphasis on the hypocrite thing.
By The Editors - Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 5:11 PM - 4 Comments
Ignore the critics — a sense of humour these days is priceless
In 1933, when the grip of the Great Depression was at its absolute tightest, the New York Sun made mention of a satirical sign hanging in the front window of a Brooklyn grocery store. “Due to the depression,” it said, “credit will hereafter be extended only to persons over the age of 80 years if accompanied by their grandparents.” Even in such dire times—correction: especially in such dire times—a sense of humour was a priceless commodity.
Seventy-six years later, it’s a lesson worth repeating. As stock markets melt and layoffs mount—and fake news reporters ambush politicians in the middle of “serious” and “important” press conferences—don’t feel guilty about letting out the occasional laugh. Boom or bust, a good giggle is never a bad investment.
By Jaime Weinman - Friday, September 26, 2008 at 4:12 PM - 0 Comments
The new season of The Simpsons is getting more attention than usual because it’s the 20th, and that technically ties the record for longest-running scripted show — though as showrunner-for-life Al Jean points out, they’re still behind Gunsmoke and Lassie in terms of the raw number of episodes (becuase seasons were longer back then). Jean’s thoughts on the upcoming season are available here.
It seems unbelievable that ten years ago, people were seriously discussing whether The Simpsons had been on Continue…