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simpsons movie revisited

PhotobucketI had quite a bit of vitriol for The Simpsons Movie, but I didn't really think much about the film after its release. It's out on DVD now, so I decided to be fair and rent the movie via NetFlix, if only to hear the writers justify the choices they made. Six months later, I still don't like the film, but I am a little happier knowing that my assumptions about the production of The Simpsons Movie were, for the most part, completely true. Please note that I am desperately trying to write this without sounding smug.

Listening to the commentary, it wasn't shocking to hear current showrunner and head writer Al Jean explicitly state, "We made this movie for people who don't watch the show," nor was I surprised when the discussion of every joke and scene eventually led to a discussion of said joke/scene's effect on test audiences (and in some cases, which specific test audience liked or didn't like certain things). Most filmmakers despise the idea of test audiences, as they often force movies to be dumbed down for the lowest common denominator; on The Simpsons Movie, however, the writers embraced the idea of the test audience.   

The commentary discussion made the writers' relationship with test audiences sound like an elaborate courtship ritual: they would change joke after joke after joke until test audiences stopped thinking things were "too scary," or when certain jokes were too subtle to make anyone laugh. And from the obscenely self-congratulatory tone of the commentary, it didn't seem like the writers cared that they had to rewrite jokes multiple times--often getting rid of funnier alternatives--in order to win the favor of fickle test audiences. Oh, and surprise, surprise; test audiences laughed the hardest at pain jokes, which explains why the movie is full of so many uncreative, unfunny instances of "Man fall down... funny." And, keeping the test audiences in mind, you can probably guess why the Spider-Pig thing was beaten into the ground so much after Homer's cute, funny song.

As a Simpsons fan, I don't think I'm owed anything, but writing a movie full of lukewarm, safe, and inoffensive jokes is completely antithetical to the spirit of the show. Back in the better days of The Simpsons, a group of extremely talented writers decided what was funny, which is why the show was so damned good. Today we have Al Jean seeking approval from Ma and Pa Wal-Mart, when the movie would have made just as much money at the box office if it was at least as intelligent as one of the better modern episodes. For me, The Simpsons Movie is more of a disappointment than a source of anger, because the writers of the show had a chance to top themselves in a way that had never been done before; but instead, they decided to pander to an audience when pandering wasn't necessary--the movie wasn't sold on its content, but by its name alone. 

I'd be happier if The Simpsons was completely restaffed with cranky, childless Harvard grads instead of these frightened old men that we have today.  There's a certain mentality you need to write for The Simpsons, and these guys lost it a long time ago.

EDIT: Oh, and when they were first working out the movie's plot, Hank Scorpio was meant to be the original villain.  Do you know how much better that would have made the whole movie? 


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 16th, 2008 06:35 pm (UTC)
Ugh, I'd be happier if they just let Simpsons die already. It's far, far too late for it to die with dignity, but they could at least just end the suffering once and for all.
Jan. 16th, 2008 08:02 pm (UTC)
I like the way Snrub thinks.
Jan. 16th, 2008 10:25 pm (UTC)
They need enough episodes to start the "All Simpsons, all the time" network without repeating within a 6 month period. So, almost there.
Jan. 16th, 2008 07:35 pm (UTC)
As someone who followed The Simpsons since attending grade four, the very idea of a Simpsons-oriented focus group depresses me mightily.
Jan. 16th, 2008 07:46 pm (UTC)
while listening to the commentary, i had visions of the poochie focus group from "the itchy and scratchy and poochie show." ah, so nice to see that they're doing what they used to make fun of.
Jan. 16th, 2008 07:54 pm (UTC)
"So you want a realistic, down-to-earth show... that's completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?"

"Yeah! And also, you should be able to win stuff while watching!"

My brother summed up the movie for me nicely:

"Have you seen the trailers?"

"Well, yeah."

"Then you've seen the movie."
Jan. 17th, 2008 01:45 am (UTC)
Testing, Testing
Speaking of Simpsons and test audiences, did you know that the Robot Richard Simmons part on the season five episode where Mr. Burns adopts Bart as his heir was rejected because the test audiences didn't like it. It wasn't until David Silverman (one of the Simpsons directors) began showing deleted scenes to college audiences that they realized they've made a mistake in cutting out the Robot Richard Simmons part and that's how they made the season seven clip show episode "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular" (which has the Robot Richard Simmons scene in it).

The point is: even when The Simpsons was at the top of its game, they still had to pander to a test audience. Why do people think this is a good show when it's basically a cartoon re-enactment of almost every sitcom situation you can name. There are some Simpsons episodes I like, but at the end of the day, I like stuff like Futurama, American Dad, and yes, the low-brow Simpsons clone known as Family Guy (and FG doesn't have to pander to test audiences; they do have to compromise with the censors, but they do have on staff someone who re-edits Family Guy episodes so that way the jokes that didn't air on FOX can be shown on Adult Swim [and on DVD]).
Jan. 17th, 2008 02:30 am (UTC)
Re: Testing, Testing
the closest the simpsons (on tv) comes to a "test audience" is the table read for each episode, which is made up of all the writers, that actors, and a few random other people. in a sense, the jokes are "tested" here, but they are tested on people who know what is and what isn't funny.

and stuff like futurama, family guy, american dad, etc. all have table reads. there's nothing wrong with that, because then the writers get to hear how their jokes sound in action.

Edited at 2008-01-17 02:31 am (UTC)
Jan. 16th, 2008 09:21 pm (UTC)
Benders Big Score, on the other hand...
Jan. 16th, 2008 09:31 pm (UTC)
it could've been better, but at least it was good.
Jan. 16th, 2008 09:40 pm (UTC)
It was tight. The narrative, not so good. I mean come on, nudist scammer aliens and everyone falling for it? But the jokes came right out of NOWHERE, the retcons and flashback-and-forward sequences and all the little nods and tips of the hat and references, they were amazing. Shakespeare was a hack. Academia is in denial, but he was a hack who recycled plots aimed at the lowest common denominators with new stereotyped characters from new countries. You can't tell me that's not true. Compare any of his most celebrated works with any of the highest nerd-lust rating episodes of Futurama. Time travel sequences. Expressions and entanglement of love. Complex character histories and unique historical significances. The writing for Futurama should be praised, should be federally funded, should be academically recognised the world around as superior to the commonly praised works of the past. Every literate person should know this.

So that counts one who is running when he's already lost the race, one who got reinstated after losing due to DVD sales, one continuing to run the race due to a cult following, and a slew of single-season new contenders. Where does that leave Futurama? OH, that's right, CANCELLED. I want Firefly back too. They can keep Arrested Development, it was getting stale.
Jan. 16th, 2008 09:28 pm (UTC)
when i saw it at the theater people booed afterwards.

and no, they werent saying 'boo-urns.'

i wonder if mst3k would have jumped the shark had it run for 20 years??? DISCUSS.
Jan. 16th, 2008 09:30 pm (UTC)
no, mst3k is essentially self-replenishing and not tied down to narratives or characters or anything like that. it's actually still going on, in many different forms.

and people actually booed? i'm honestly shocked.
Jan. 16th, 2008 10:42 pm (UTC)
yeah. it was the first nite so there were uber-nerds. i wasnt expecting much so i just enjoyed my candy.

hank scorpio??? im the only albert brooks fan i think. too bad dan akroyd ate his face. he could tell you where to get a hammock.
Jan. 16th, 2008 10:24 pm (UTC)
the writers embraced the idea of the test audience

You have to wonder if that wasn't intentional. Like an experiment to see what would result when you focus something like the Simpsons through the lens of "ma & pa walmart".
Jan. 17th, 2008 02:13 am (UTC)
Bob, you should have also mentioned (for this review and the previous Simpsons movie you did) that the marketing for this movie made it look like the movie was plotless. But considering that it's The Simpsons, I'd expect that from them.
Jan. 17th, 2008 02:32 am (UTC)
they wanted to keep the plot a "secret," but that was probably for the best.
Jan. 17th, 2008 05:19 am (UTC)
what i never got about the simpson's was that homer and marge supposedly had bart right after high school, so that would make them only like 28 or 29.
Jan. 17th, 2008 05:20 am (UTC)
p.s. i could possibly be making this up.
Jan. 17th, 2008 05:50 am (UTC)
homer is perpetually 38, so that means he and marge dated for 9 years before getting married and having children.

Edited at 2008-01-17 05:50 am (UTC)
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )