Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books

October 21, 2009

A Sacrilicious Simpsons Family Biographer

John Ortved's The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized Biography has rankled the show's brass, and not without cause.

Jake Rake

The reason John Ortved's just-published book, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, is so effective lies with John Ortved's apparent self-awareness—John Ortved appears to be fully aware that, practically speaking, no one cares about John Ortved. Rather than a series of fawning deconstructions on what drew the author to his subject, An Unauthorized History consists mainly of interviews with Conan O'Brien, Hank Azaria, and a plethora of names easily recognizable from The Simpsons' credits. The result is an overstuffed oral history from as close to the source as one can get when the source is a family of cartoon characters.

John Ortved. Photo by Gasper Tringale
"Rupert Murdoch invited me to his office to sit with him. His office is somewhat humble for the guy who owns all the media in the world."

John Ortved. Photo by Gasper Tringale

What began as an article for Vanity Fair in August 2007 was eventually expanded into a full-length tome dedicated to the genesis of The Simpsons. "Initially, the book seemed like gravy," the 29-year-old recalls. "Then, as I got deeper into the process, it was less like gravy and more like making braised short ribs, or duck confit, neither of which I've ever made but which sound very involved and difficult."

Ortved spoke to a sizeable group people involved with The Simpsons, including writers Wallace Wolodarsky, Jay Kogan, Jennifer Crittenden, Brent Forrester, Richard Appel, and Bill Oakley; animators Gabor Csupo and Phil Roman; Fox executives Barry Diller, Garth Ancier, and Harris Katleman; and even Rupert Murdoch. "I did most of my interviews over the phone, but Rupert Murdoch invited me to his office to sit with him. His office isn't over-the-top, and somewhat humble for the guy who owns all the media in the world," Ortved says. "He was candid and funny."

While he enjoyed significant access to some of the people most directly involved with The Simpsons' rise to greatness, three names are conspicuously missing from Ortved's sources: Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon, the three men credited at the beginning of each episode as the show's creators. "I reached out to Sam through a number of channels and what I got back was the feeling that he's just done with this," Ortved explained. A Renaissance man who left the show in 1993 and would go on to play professional poker, run a foundation that rehabilitates sick and abandoned dogs, and manage heavyweight boxing champion Lamon Brewster, Simon is not interested in discussing the show at this point in his life. Brooks and Groening might be—just not with Ortved.

A recurring theme in An Uncensored, Unauthorized History is the consensus among Ortved's interview subjects that Groening has received a disproportionate share of acclaim over the course of The Simpsons' 21 seasons. Also, it's asserted, his role in the show's early days has been greatly exaggerated. "Matt Groening got all the credit, or most of the credit," Jay Kogan explains in chapter five of the book, while "Jim Brooks got some of the credit." Was this fair? "No." Consequently, Ortved's perceived attempt at disrupting The Simpsons' creation myth has apparently ruffled some feathers with the show's current regime.

"Brooks had heard I'd been asking questions about Sam Simon," Ortved wrote in The Daily Beast last week, "and the kibosh was on." After the Vanity Fair article ran in 2007, Brooks went for a full-on a gag order, sending out letters to "every current Simpsons employee, and all the former ones he thought mattered," instructing them not to snitch. As Ortved points out, Brooks's response is hardly a complete shock. "The Simpsons is a brand, and a very valuable one at that," he wrote in The Daily Beast, "And like Coca-Cola, Mickey Mouse, Tom Cruise, or Virgin Airlines, this brand's profitability is directly related to its perceived image, an image my book would be challenging." Skeptical though I am toward pop-culture paeans, Ortved's ability to keep his fandom in check and present the subject journalistically impressed. Not that this much matters, of course; if Ortved couldn't do it, surely his non-Union Mexican equivalent could.

Scene from The Simpsons television program.

Front-page image of Moe Syzlak courtesy of simpsonstrivia.com.ar

Jake Rake

Jake Rake, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, lives in Brooklyn. He blogs at JakeRake.com.







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Article by Jake Rake

Jake Rake, a recent graduate of the University of Maryland, lives in Brooklyn. He blogs at JakeRake.com.

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