Sam Simon (1955 - 2015)

Simpsons executive producer and animal rights activist Sam Simon died Monday at the age of 59 after a two-year battle with cancer.

Simon grew up in Beverly Hills and attended Stanford University, where he drew cartoons for the college newspaper as well as the San Francisco Examiner. He was later hired at Filmation Studios, where he worked on cartoons like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (recently, he alleged Bill Cosby "had two of the writers write his phd thesis."). After submitting a Taxi spec script, he was promptly hired as a writer by executive producer James L. Brooks, and soon became showrunner. He later wrote and produced for Cheers, It's Garry Shandling's Show, and The Tracey Ullman Show.

Simon was hired by Brooks to help develop The Simpsons as it transitioned from a series of one-minute shorts to a half-hour series (Simon's then-wife, Jennifer Tilly, had tried to talk him out of it.). As Brooks had his hands full with being a mega-producer and creator Matt Groening had limited television experience, it appears most of the day-to-day responsibilities fell upon Simon, who became the show's first showrunner and head writer. In this role, Simon was a major architect of the show's template and tone, even designing some of the secondary characters. He put together the legendary writing staff of the first few seasons; the show's two most essential writers, George Meyer and John Swartzwelder, were allegedly plucked from Meyer's underground comedy magazine Army Man, which was making the rounds in comedy circles (other Army Men contributors, including Ian Maxtone-Graham, Tom Gammill and Max Pross, would join the show in later years). In some respects, the hugely influential writer's room Simon assembled became what Mad Magazine's "Usual Gang of Idiots" had been to an earlier generation.

During the show's development, Simon and Groening had gotten along just fine; they had even collaborated on one of Groening's Life in Hell comics. Tension soon mounted after the show premiered and became a smash hit out of the gate. Groening had become the public "face" of the show, and seen as the sole auteur by the media and general public. Simon felt he wasn't being given enough credit (in a 1991 interview, writer Jon Vitti theorized it was "because there's no book of Sam Simon cartoons you can read") and wasn't being paid enough, particularly when merchandising took off and made Groening an instant millionaire.

As early as February 1990, reports of a feud between Groening and Simon had become public. In a Los Angeles Times article about the show, Howard Rosenberg noted, "One senses from talking separately to Simon and Groening in their Fox offices that the two are as incompatible and out of tune with each other as the Simpsons." Simon condescendingly characterized Groening's role as the show's "ambassador." The friction between them grew incredibly petty, some of which was detailed in John Ortved's 2009 oral history of the show, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History. Brian Roberts, a former editor on the show, recounted one instance:

When we'd do a screening, it was Matt, Sam, and I. And they were like two five-year olds not speaking. We'd be watching an episode and Sam would say, "Do this." And Matt would say, "Will you tell Sam Simon I think that's the stupidest idea I've ever heard." Sam would say, "Would you tell Matt Groening that he doesn't know his ass from third grade." We were all sitting shoulder to shoulder! It was extremely uncomfortable for me.

Allegedly, the Season 3 episode "Flaming Moe's," in which Moe takes all the credit for a flaming cocktail invented by Homer, was inspired by the acrimony between Groening and Simon.

One of their major disagreements was over the content and vision of the show. Generally, Simon wanted the show to be grounded and free from sitcom cliches. As Vitti said, "Thanks to Sam, Bart will never be hypnotized, there will never be a show with Bart lying in a hospital bed with cut-in clips from old shows, and nobody will ever get amnesia and have to be reminded of what happened by cutting different episodes together!" (Yes, these all happened later in some form or another.) Matt Groening, on the other hand, had some rather oddball ideas in the initial years. As Simon told Rosenberg:

"What really elevated 'The Simpsons' is that a lot of really talented people have come in from the Tracey show. Matt's (creative) voice is certainly in 'The Simpsons,' but initially he was talking about a show where there'd be Martians and a lot of fantasy," said Simon, grimacing. "I'm glad we rejected that."

One of Groening's ideas was that Marge Simpson was secretly a rabbit from Life in Hell, who was hiding her large rabbit ears in her hair. Simon firmly rejected the idea, but it appears Groening snuck the idea into The Simpsons Arcade Game without his awareness.

According to Ortved, Simon became increasingly difficult to work with, and his relationship with Brooks and his studio, Gracie Films, began to disintegrate. Eventually Simon reached a deal to leave The Simpsons, but keep his producer credit and all the money that came with it (an estimated $20-30 million a year). Since then, he made just a handful of contributions to the show: a self-portrait as an elderly recluse with really long fingernails in "The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular," and changing his "spooky name" in recent Halloween episodes to "Simonsam@twitTERROR," replacing the usual "Sam 'Sayonara' Simon."

Nevertheless, the bitterness between Groening and Simon lingered for years afterward. In a November 2001 article in the New York Times Magazine, Groening called Simon "brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I've ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced." Simon was more charitable: "When I see Matt now, I shake hands and say hello. I can't lie and say that Matt did what he didn't do, but I do appreciate him creating that family. Thanks to Bart Simpson I have a pretty good life."

After his departure from The Simpsons, Simon worked on The Drew Carey Show and created a short-lived sitcom starring George Carlin. It appears Simon hadn't become any easier to work with: "Lesson learned: always check mental health of creative partner beforehand," wrote Carlin on his website. "We all knew Sam was crazy," cast member Phil LaMarr confessed to the A.V. Club. "I would say that any show I've ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy. I hate myself," Simon explained in a 2007 60 Minutes profile.

Simon had a number of interesting hobbies. He participated in a number of poker tournaments, and for a time had a poker show on Playboy TV called "Sam's Game." He also coached champion boxer Lamon Brewster, and was named World Boxing Organization's Manager of the Year in 2004.

Using the fortune he was earning from The Simpsons, Simon became a philanthropist. In 2002, he founded the Sam Simon Foundation, which rescues dogs and trains them to assist veterans and the disabled, provides spay and neuter services in the Los Angeles area, and provides vegan food for the poor. In 2012, he donated a $2 million ship to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, for their efforts against Japanese whalers. It was christened the SSS Sam Simon. He also donated to PETA (one of their headquarters buildings bears his name) and Save the Children. According to Inside Philanthropy, Simon wasn't sure how much he had given away to charity.

In March 2013, Simon announced he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had been given only months to live. For the next two years, Simon provided his Twitter followers with a candid look at his chemotherapy and treatment with good humor, posting pictures of his nurses, the seemingly endless medical procedures he undertook, and the marijuana and paraphernalia friends had given him.

On January 22, he tweeted: "Btw, even if I die tomorrow, Which i wont, i have beaten cancer. The past two years have been the happiest of my life."

"New" Simpsons Theory Circulates Web

ouroboros

Huffington Post has an article about some Buzzfeed guy's article about some reddit guy's theory about the later seasons of The Simpsons all taking place inside Homer's imagination during a coma. Where have I heard that crazy theory before??? Oh yeah, from me, in a footnote from this article I wrote in 2011, and while I'd love to take credit for that stupid theory, it's been floating around since at least 2002 as this posting to the alt.tv.simpsons newsgroup by a "Dr Music" shows. Everybody is aggregating everybody else's content, the end.

Thousands Protest Timeslot Change

Thousands of Simpsons fans in Bolivia staged a massive protest after the channel Unitel changed the show's timeslot.

...wait, what? *makes wacky Jon Stewart befuddlement face* That can't be right. We're talking about the show that's been on for like 30 years and hasn't been funny since the Clinton Administration, right? Let me read the article again just to make sure...

Hrm, yeah, everything checks out. Huh. That's weird. Looks like they succeeded, too. Good for them.

[Latin Times via New York Post]

The Next Simpsons Movie Was Almost About The Simpsons Meeting The Aliens

kang & kodos

Tonight's Simpsons episode, The Man Who Came To Be Dinner, features the family getting launched into space and meeting Kang & Kodos in their first major appearance in a non-Halloween, non-clip show context.

The episode has had a long, strange journey: it was first announced back in September 2012 and scheduled to air in May 2013 as the Season 24 finale, but it was mysteriously postponed just two weeks before it was supposed to air. It also did not air in the following season as expected, but is now finally airing in the middle of the current season, nearly 2½ years after it was announced.

Fans had a number of theories about the delay: Animation problems? A lawsuit from Disney? Cold feet about the out-there premise? Saving it for the series finale?

Producers Al Jean and David Mirkin finally revealed the real reason on Twitter: at some point they seriously considered scrapping the episode and reworking it into a sequel to The Simpsons Movie.

The Simpsons Has Been On For A Quarter of A Century Now

25 years of the simpsonsCongratulations to Matt Groening, Al Jean, and co. on achieving this meaningless milestone.

Now, please, for the love of God, do the merciful thing and end it. It's too late to bow out with dignity. You will never surpass Sazae-san. There are no more plaudits left to achieve. You ran out of ideas over a decade ago. The next episode is about the Simpsons meeting the aliens. You are just throwing stuff at the wall now.

Mrs. Krabappel Is Writing Scientific Articles From Beyond The Grave

Mrs. Krabappel

It's a Christmas miracle! Dearly departed Springfield schoolmarm Edna Krabappel has returned, and she's writing scientific studies with her colleagues Margaret "Maggie" Simpson and Kim Jong Fun.

The trio's latest study, about a "new methodology for forward-error correction," has been accepted for publication into two real-world scientific journals.

Unfortunately, it's all a cruel hoax, as Vox explains:

Of course, none of these fictional characters actually wrote the paper, titled "Fuzzy, Homogeneous Configurations." Rather, it's a nonsensical text, submitted by engineer Alex Smolyanitsky in an effort to expose a pair of scientific journals -- the Journal of Computational Intelligence and Electronic Systems and the comic sans-loving Aperito Journal of NanoScience Technology.

Yes, Smolyanitsky's intentions were good, but did he really have to drag a beloved dead woman into his twisted scheme and give us false hope that she might still be out there, somewhere???

While this incident certainly doesn't bode well for Krabappel's future in academia, we can only hope she continues to send more cryptic messages from the great unknown.

[Vox via The Washington Post]

The Simpsons Predicts The Past

Here's an intriguing headline from Vox:

The Simpsons predicted Russia's current economic downturn back in 1999

And here's an excerpt from the actual story:

Of course it was not actually "predicting" today's Russian economic downturn, but rather riffing off the earlier downturn, of which there have been several.

So, basically, the show didn't predict it at all and your headline is a blatant lie. That's some good reportin' there, Lou.

Wait a minute... this was all a ploy to get us to learn about the Russian economy, wasn't it?!

Learning? Russia? Let's get out of here!

Simpsons Writer Leaves Show In Twitter Huff

Simpsons writer/producer Marc Wilmore announced his departure from the show in a strange series of tweets.

Previously a writer/performer on In Loving Color and The PJs, Wilmore joined The Simpsons in 2000. He was the sole black writer to have been part of the show's writing staff (Michael Carrington, who co-wrote "Homer's Triple Bypass" and voiced Sideshow Raheem, wasn't technically part of the staff).

On Thursday and Friday, he tweeted self-deprecating jokes about his newfound unemployment and suggestions the parting was less than amicable. It's most certainly all part of a comedy bit, but... what if it wasn't...?!?

Judge for yourself...

Simpsons World Now Live

lisa simpson computer
Simpsons World, the much-anticipated Simpsons streaming service from FXX, just went live a few hours ago. Here's my initial impressions of it. Please note I'm just using the web version, so I don't know if there's anything different about the mobile version.

Jan Hooks (1957 - 2014)

Jan Hooks, Saturday Night Live alumna and voice of Apu's wife Manjula on The Simpsons, died Thursday at the age of 57. According to news reports, she had been suffering from an unspecified illness.

At HitFix, TV reviewer Alan Sepinwall praises her tenure at Saturday Night Live, characterizing her as a "glue guy" who never got her due:

On a show that so often prizes big performances, preferably in characters that can be repeated over and over and over (like [Rob] Schneider's copy machine guy), the quiet consistency of a Hooks didn't stand out as much... [b]ut like [Phil] Hartman, she gave it her all in every sketch, whether as the straight woman or the comic centerpiece.

For just six episodes of The Simpsons, Hooks played Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon, betrothed wife of Apu and mother of their eight children (Anoop, Gheet, Nabendu, Poonam, Pria, Sandeep, Sashi, and Uma), beginning with 1997's "The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons" and ending with 2002's "Large Marge." The role was taken over by regular cast member Tress MacNeille, who had originally voiced a younger Manjula in 1996's "Much Apu About Nothing" and filled in whenever Hooks was unavailable. Manjula was not exactly a breakout character, but Hooks imbued in her a sense of quiet dignity that, like her performances on Saturday Night Live, went largely unnoticed.

Don Hertzfeldt Animated Tonight's Couch Gag

I am a banana
America's greatest living independent animator Don Hertzfeldt (Rejected, Billy's Balloon, It's Such a Beautiful Day) is doing the couch gag for tonight's The Simpsons episode (the one where Krusty's dad dies).
UPDATE (10/2/2014): And here it is:

John Swartzwelder's Long-Lost Western Pilot Is On YouTube

Pistol Pete

Pistol Pete, a 1996 pilot for a Western spoof written and produced by legendary Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, has surfaced for the first time thanks to a mysterious benefactor on YouTube:

The show centers around Pistol Pete, a fake cowboy starring in a New York City Wild West stage show who becomes the real sheriff of a Western town, played by the impeccable Stephen Kearney. It's kinda like the Adam West Batman series set in the West with absurd Swartzweldian gags.

Like its mysterious creator, Pistol Pete gained some notoriety because pretty much nobody outside the people who produced it had ever seen it. Will Harris of Antenna Free TV wrote a comprehensive account - or at least as comprehensive as you can be about something you've never seen - about it last year, scoring interviews with Kearney and co-star Mark Derwin. Apparently, Swartzwelder was in such high demand that the studio pretty much gave him whatever he wanted. Unfortunately, the Fox network declined to pick it up as a series, possibly because Rupert Murdoch was feeling sleepy when the executives screened it.

Upon discovery (...?) of the video, Swartzwelder e-mailed it to Harris, who then tweeted it to the world. Now, perhaps the only big Simpsons writer "holy grail" that remains is George Meyer's script for an unproduced movie that was to star David Letterman.

[YouTube via Twitter]

Bowl Taken

The Simpsons live show is over now, with far less casualties than the usual Hollywood Bowl event. In defiance of the rules, some audience members recorded it with their cell phones and cameras. Here's a video of the Friday show, which could be taken down at any time:

Dead Homer Society has some more videos of the Saturday and Sunday shows, but I'm not going to bother watching them.

Some observations:

  • "Unlike Seth MacFarlane, Matt [Groening] will not force you to listen to him sing" burnsauce
  • Whoever recorded this decided to leave it on for part of the intermission, but ran out of battery during Jon Lovitz singing the Planet of the Apes musical, and then somehow regained power immediately after. Okay...
  • Jon Lovitz is basically a more likable version of Ricky Gervais.
  • Host Hank Azaria got to live his greatest nightmare onstage because nobody told him a clip he was setting up was cut.
  • The Alf Clausen tribute seemed abrupt and a little at odds with the rest of the show's tone. Still, nice to see the Sideshow Bob motif get its due...
  • Conan O'Brien seemed energetic, but "The Monorail Song" isn't really much of a song, come to think of it.
  • "Do The Bartman" was really disappointing. Granted, it's hard to do the Bart voice while singing in front of hundreds of people with limited stage experience, while also trying to make sure you don't fall off the stage, but still...
  • Here's the weirdest thing: Harry Shearer (who generally doesn't agree to anything that's not in his contract because he feels cheated by Fox) apparently didn't give permission for his voice to be used in clips. So, twice they had to replace him with a "scratch" voice that's REALLY OBVIOUS AND WEIRD. Shearer also declined to do The Simpsons Ride, but his voice is still present in episode clips that play while you're waiting in line, so I don't know what the deal is.

Matt Groening's "I Think We Are Closer To Wrapping It Up" Comment Was More Than Half The Series Ago

Matt Groening giving an interview

During an interview with London's Financial Times back in April 2002, Simpsons creator Matt Groening mused "I think we are closer to winding it up." It was a fairly innocuous comment - the show had been on for over 12 years at that point, and he naturally didn't think it would go on for another 12 - but our alarmist media took it to mean the show was ending immediately, causing something of a global panic. It was all very stupid:

D’OH! THEY’RE MAKING FUNERAL PLANS FOR… THE SIMPSONS (New York Post)
Save the Greatest Show on Earth; Can Simpsons Creator Matt Groening Be Persuaded Not to Quit? (The Evening Standard)
'The Simpsons' may be . . . D'oh! (Philly.com)
Are Homer's days numbered? (Daily Telegraph)
'The Simpsons' soon to bow out (CNN Money)

In an effort to quell the uproar, Groening later clarified, "I don't want anyone to think I am predicting the demise of the Simpsons. They will live on with new adventures for years to come. As long as there are things to make fun of we will be around." The next episode's chalkboard gag also addressed the issue.

At the time of the "wrapping it up" comment, The Simpsons had been on the air for 4,517 days. It has now been 4,518 days since that comment was reported, and there is still no end in sight.

Matt Groening To Play Self In Role Of A Lifetime

matt groening
America's most famous Portlander Matt Groening will guest star as himself in the upcoming fifth season of Portlandia. Groening's previous acting roles include himself, a greaser, and a talking car.

Meanwhile, Japan's most famous Portlander Kamenosuke Yamamoto will guest star in a commercial for Cup Noodle.

[Splitsider]