FOX ran a documentary in honor of the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons. Here’s what I thought.
Last night, FOX ran a one-hour documentary special, shot by Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock, celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Simpsons. It’s no secret I’m a huge Simpsons fan — this is the eighth Simpsons list on this site, and it feels like damn near every list includes some Simpsons reference — so I thought it was only fitting to do a review of the special.
Inevitably, I was underwhelmed.
Here are my 11 thoughts on The Simpsons 20th anniversary documentary special.
1 | Overall, I was disappointed in the lack of new information
The problem with making a Simpsons documentary is that the fans have seen it all before.
And not just the obsessive fans who the people behind the show frantically compare to Comic Book Guy at every possible opportunity. (In this documentary, Nancy Cartwright got the “honor” of being the one to make fun of the nerdy fans who ask about specific episodes.)
Even fairly casual fans know the show’s translated into tons of other languages… that there are obsessive merchandise collectors… that Homer is the most beloved character ever… and that it’s a global phenomenon.
The opportunity here wasn’t to regurgitate that old information. The opportunity was to hear secrets, stories, and opinions from the biggest names in The Simpsons and some of the biggest names in comedy. Spurlock had interviews with Matt Groening, Sam Simon, James L. Brooks, Mike Reiss, Al Jean, Conan O’Brien, every voice actor… plus John Waters, Jimmy Kimmel, David Cross, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Mike Judge and dozens of others.
Instead of spending forever looking at some guy’s enormous collection of merchandise, wouldn’t it be better to have each of those people name their favorite episode and why? Instead of spending even more time hearing real-life power plant workers say different forms of the same thought (“Springfield Nuclear Power Plant is nothing like reality, we wouldn’t hire Homer”) over and over, couldn’t we get some insight into what the process is like for conceiving, scripting and punching up an episode?
Although I found it oddly disconcerting, the most genuinely interesting moment of the thing was Moby admitting he made a bunch of remixes of the Mr. Plow song. Now that’s a celebrity fan giving a peculiar bit of exclusive insight.
Otherwise… I think I preferred what Troy McClure did with “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular.”
2 | Morgan Spurlock sure got to travel for this thing
It must be nice to get to make a fluffy Simpsons documentary on FOX’s dime. Spurlock went to England, Scotland, Argentina, Brazil, all over the U.S. and more — in several cases just to get people on the street to say words like “Apu” and “Mr. Burns.”
I tend to like Spurlock, but you know what you’re getting — this isn’t going to be a Ken Burns PBS documentary with old photos pan and scanning across the screen. You’re going to get lots of buddy-buddy interviews, lots of unnecessary travel and lots of Spurlock. (Though you’d get more Michael Moore if he were in charge. And, as I learned during Religulous, no matter what topic Bill Maher is allegedly covering the true topic is going to be Bill Maher.)
I think I get what he was going for with the documentary — there was a strong through line that The Simpsons is a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon, and Spurlock was given the resources to travel and prove that. Still, the travel seemed fairly gratuitous at points… so much “look at me, I’m travelin’ and talkin’ Simpsons” that it really jarred me out of the flow.
3 | The streets of Portland bit was great
One great aspect of the travel was actually seeing The Simpsons streets of Portland, Oregon. I’d heard before that Groening named characters and places after different spots in his hometown — but actually seeing the street signs for Quimby and Kearney and Flanders provided an excellent, and more importantly, unique, visual.
4 | Matt Groening is a bit… um…
Matt Groening holds a very distinct place with me: He’s in the “if I met him, I would just stand there staring, in awe” zone. (There are only a few others in that zone for me, for various reasons: David Letterman, Bill Clinton, Vince McMahon, Mitch Hurwitz and Trey Parker.)
I guess when you build someone up so much in your mind, you see them as being the ideal human in every way. (It’s why everyone always paints Jesus with a six pack.)
So to get a rare look at Matt Groening and either learn or be reminded that, physically, he’s a bit more Homer than Flanders… it’s kinda disconcerting. It’s a strange takeaway from this documentary but a real one; I just expect Matt Groening to be some kind of superhuman in every way, and when I see something that’s average, I can’t even believe it’s possible.
5 | The interviews with Seth MacFarlane were eyebrow raising
Let’s just say this: You won’t see Matt Groening giving a gushing interview on the Family Guy 20th anniversary special.
6 | The documentary made me realize you have to feel bad for Tracey Ullman
Like all Simpsons retrospectives, this one gave us the same old rhetoric about how “they started as crudely-drawn shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show and eventually got spun off into the first prime-time cartoon etc. etc.”
Unlike other Simpsons retrospectives, this one gave us Tracey Ullman’s opinion on this. I guess I’d never stopped to think about how she’d feel about this. The Simpsons were born on her show… the show was canceled just months after they were spun off… no one would remember the show if not for The Simpsons… two of her cast members, Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner, became houseboat rich because they did the voices during those shorts… and now, ya know, people still know her name, but not like they know Homer’s… or even Milhouse’s.
That all reads intentionally pessimistic… and does so because, well, Tracey Ullman came off kind of bitter in this special. The two anecdotes she tells: About how Dan and Julie got to do Homer and Marge’s voices because Tracey was “too busy being in every sketch”… and how The Simpsons is the most successful spin-off ever.
7 | After all these years, I still can’t get over watching the actors do the character voices
At this point, I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen Dan Castellaneta do all of his characters’ voices on talk shows… I’ve seen Nancy Cartwright perform a scene between Bart, Nelson and Ralph… I’ve seen Hank Azaria in only a Speedo in Along Came Polly. (Oops! Where did THAT come from?)
But I still can’t get over watching the character voices come out of these actors’ mouths. I’ll always find it strange watching Nancy Cartwright suddenly bust out Bart, or Hank Azaria do Moe, or even Yeardley Smith use, basically, her regular voice to do Lisa.
If they’d just run tonight’s Simpsons episode (about Krusty getting, then falling in love with, a female sidekick… not so strong), then run it back, only doing a split-screen showing the actors performing it… I think it would’ve been edge-of-your-seat attention grabbing.
8 | I think Jerry Springer forgot he was on The Simpsons
I interned at the Jerry Springer show back in college, so I think I have a tiny bit of insight into Jerry’s mind and his process. And I’ll tell you: Based on his interview in the documentary, I’m pretty sure he forgot he was in a Treehouse of Horror episode a decade ago.
It seemed odd for him to do an interview about “how he could see The Simpsons being on his show”… ya know, without mentioning that they actually were on his show at one point.
Celebrity does such strange, strange things to the mind. I think it may be more damaging to the brain than untreated syphilis. (Or maybe there’s a connection there.)
9 | Did the Catholic League really think this would be an unbiased forum?
In this era, when South Park has a statue of the Virgin Mary firing menstrual blood into people’s faces and Family Guy has a barbershop quartet singing “You’ve got AIDS!”… The Simpsons seems like a comparatively tame alternative.
Yes, they’ve caused some controversy — more when they first began, and concerned parents thought that Bart being an “underachiever and proud of it” was going to poison their kids — but “controversial” is not an adjective that would come up in my top 55 if I was to describe The Simpsons.
That makes it even more ridiculous that Bill Donohue from the Catholic League would (1) be interviewed for this documentary (2) think, even though it was a FOX-sponsored puff piece, it would be objective and (3) actually be outraged over one or two lines about Catholicism on The Simpsons.
I’m not sure what ingredients were in the cocktail in Donohue’s head that told him this would be a savvy move… I’m sure it was some mix of “get publicity for the Catholic League”, self-righteous blindness, inability to grasp satire and general obliviousness, I’m just not sure the ratio.
It’s particularly unnecessary because, on the whole, The Simpsons take on religion is pro… or, at a minimum, neutral. The Vatican has even praised the show. It’s one thing for the Catholic League to get outraged over the show because it’s not in sync with the general public’s tastes in humor… it’s another thing for them to be so blindly/knee-jerk outraged that they’re not even in sync with the Vatican.
10 | The argument over which Scottish city can claim Groundskeeper Willie is pointless
Sure, in the Sherry Bobbins episode he says he was the ugliest man in Glasgow. And yes, he roots for Aberdeen.
But we all know he’s either from the Scottish Highlands, near Loch Ness (based on the episode where Mr. Burns captures the Loch Ness Monster and we meet Willie’s parents in the nearby flooded town)… or, as he says in the grease episode, he’s from North Kilttown.
11 | The special was just an odd reminder that we’re already in the nostalgia phase… for something that still exists
If I’ll have one takeaway from this 20th anniversary special, it’s that The Simpsons, due to longevity and diminishing returns, has reached an unprecedented zone. We wax eloquent with nostalgia for the show while it’s still on the air.
This is a strikingly unusual phenomenon. This documentary almost exclusively featured footage, stories and references from the 1989-2002 period of The Simpsons (aka the extended golden age). All the lists that other publications put out to commemorate this anniversary heavily skewed toward that era as well. Other than a brief mention in the documentary about how Internet fans bitch that the show hasn’t been good in a decade, there was little mention of the modern era Simpsons.
It’s inevitable to wonder if The Simpsons needs to come to an end sooner rather than later. I defend the modern era more than most fans, yet when I was putting together my list of the 11 Best Simpsons Episodes of the 2000s, almost all were from the early portion of the decade.
The first 250 or so Simpsons are burned in our minds because they were fresh and exciting, from a different era… plus, they’ve been repeatedly bludgeoned into our consciousness through syndication. I’ve had my TiVo for seven years — the first day, I set up a season pass to record the syndicated Simpsons episodes that the local FOX affiliate shows, and that’s the only season pass that still persists to this day. When I was in college, we rarely watched TV… but every night at dinner we’d all sit there and watch the syndicated Simpsons.
Newer episodes may never get that treatment. The archive is too vast now — odds are, we’ll never watch episodes from the past few years 10, 12, 15 times, like we have with the power plant strike episode, the monorail episode, Frank Grimes, Lisa’s Wedding, Homer as an astronaut and so many more.
Spurlock’s documentary focused, like one would suspect, on that beloved era of The Simpsons. The episode that aired before the documentary was a classic example of The Simpsons: The New Class — a few decent laughs, a famous guest star and a plot we’ve basically seen a dozen times before.
BUT… to me, all that doesn’t mean it’s time to bury (or, from a more cynical stance, euthanize) The Simpsons. It’s just a readjustment in what we believe The Simpsons is.
I feel like a modern Simpsons is still a good thing. I still like watching new episodes and, more than that, I love that new episodes continue to come out. It’s been 20 years but I’m not done with these characters. I’m not done watching them have new adventures. Even if those new adventures kinda feel like their old adventures, and none of these new adventures is a true classic.
So I’ll celebrate The Simpsons at 20 years somewhat differently than this documentary did — thinking back on the golden age fondly, but not forgetting to be thankful that this show is still alive, kicking and, once in a while, digging down deep and finding its fastball again. It’s the 20th anniversary and counting, and that’s a milestone that’s truly worth celebrating.