Simpsons Confidential by John Ortved [A Review]

In Simpsons Confidential John Ortved chronicles the origins of the cultural phenomenon that is The Simpsons; from the people who created and managed it from its early stages, its rise and golden period and its long plateau/slow decline. Mostly told by quoting the agents themselves from interviews, Ortved’s account could use more original thinking, opinion and insight. Nevertheless, there does exist a class of Simpsons fan – myself included – who will enjoy what this book does contain.

Cover image of Simpsons Confidential by John Ortved

It is fair to say that I came to this book with low expectations. The first reason is that I had already heard one thing about it – that it could have been better named. ‘Simpson’s Confidential: The Uncensored Totally Unauthorised History of the World’s Greatest TV Show by the People Who Made it’ creates an expectation of previously unknown inside information or an alternative take on an accepted narrative. Which is not something the book really delivers.

The second reason is that way back in 2014 I read Planet Simpson by Chris Turner. It became one of my favourite non-fiction books; a book I found so profound I could not bring myself to write a review or to adequately describe it to friends. I was so blown away by insights that had never previously occurred to me, on a subject I thought I knew, that I did not know where to begin. This book would therefore struggle in comparison.

Ortved is not ignorant of the difficulties faced in making a book like this. He knows that dealing with a subject with many fanatics means you cannot please everyone or even come close. You must also check any confidence you might have that you could produce something genuinely objective. He also shares his own difficulties in writing it such as failing to get cooperation from James L Brooks or any of the current (at the time) staff.

It is difficult to know who the target audience for this book is. A Simpsons fanatic would likely not find anything new to consider in this book. But people with little interest in The Simpsons would be unlikely to give it a read. But I do love The Simpsons. Or at least I have fond memories of its heyday. And while I may not jump at everything produced about the show, I was always going to give a book like this a chance.

The first eight chapters or so, almost half of the book, is essentially an origin story of The Simpsons. It consists of mini-biographies of Matt Groening and James L Brooks; how various people behind the show came together; the decisions and the people who made them that in hindsight made a big difference, like the choice of the show’s colour scheme; a little about the cultural factors that created a space for The Simpsons to make its mark and the background to early difficulties and near disasters that could have ended the show before it started.

People who like the show but don’t know this history would probably enjoy this story and learn a lot from it. Although Ortved could have said more about how the actors were cast and gone into more detail about the design of the characters. But if you are a fanatic or even just an enthusiast like myself there is almost nothing here of substance that you did not already know. Also, most of the book consists of verbatim quotes from the relevant people, not of Ortved’s commentary, thoughts or analysis. It was at around this point that the book produced its first genuinely profound moment – and it came from a quote from Turner’s book, unfortunately showing why Turner’s is superior:

Chris Turner (from his book, Planet Simpson): The truly rare cultural force that The Simpsons tapped… was resonance. Pop-cultural resonance is what distinguishes the millions of records sold by The Beatles from the millions sold by Pat Boone… When a pop hit has resonance, it isn’t merely consumed. The audience connects with the resonant cultural object, identifies with it, absorbs it.

At this point the book has concluded its origin story phase and moves on to what happened next. How the show’s success and huge inflow of money strained relationships between writers, producers, animators and the network, ultimately leading to the departure of Sam Simon who gets a lot of credit for making the show what it is. There is a chapter about how The Simpsons was, thanks to Simon, from its early days a writer-driven show and the talent of the writer’s room was responsible for the show’s golden era. A chapter on Conan O’Brien, whose monorail episode (Marge vs. the Monorail) marked a turning point in the show’s history, was unfortunately mostly about how Conan got Late Night.

Much of The Simpsons’ success can be traced to two main sources: an independence from network interference and a complete dedication to the writing, no matter how many drafts, or how expensive that process became.

Again, this history is familiar to many fanatics and others who lived through and enjoyed this era. The show became an institution; people would quote from it in everyday conversation; focus began to shift from Bart to Homer; other characters became more complex; referential humour become a major device and continuous reruns made the show a part of your day every day. Ortved does share more opinion in this part of the book rather than just transcribing an already well-described history. But is still not very insightful unless, again, he is quoting Chris Turner, which he does more of in this part.

Like the mini-bios of figures in the origin story, this phase also includes mini-bios of those responsible for The Simpsons’ golden era – George Meyer, John Schwartzwelder and the showrunners and their influence. It is only at this point that the book takes a look at something contentious – David Mirkin’s era as showrunner and differing views of his impact.

The golden period over, Ortved takes a brief look at the show’s long plateau and slow decline – what might also be called the Al Jean era. It is not a fault of the book that reading it in 2022 as I did means it is a little dated. But it was published in 2009 – so, this ‘long plateau’ was not even that long back then! Jean, who started as showrunner in 2001 stayed on until season 33, 2021!

Critically speaking, Scully’s last seasons were the worst the show had seen. There was a hope that Jean would bring the show back to some recognisable level of quality. Despite some bright spots here and there (“The President Wore Pearls,” for example), he has largely failed. Trying to explain the decline of the show’s quality over the past eight seasons, current and former staffers tend to use two words more than any others: Al Jean.

After digressing to discuss contract negotiation issues and the impact of the show’s many guest stars, in the last three chapters of Simpsons Confidential we finally get some material from Ortved resembling analysis and opinion. This last section of the book is the strongest. Here Ortved shares his thoughts on the show’s post-golden era decline supported by evidence. He is good to discuss the issue from multiple angles and share the counterarguments though he himself disagrees with them. Most of all, Ortved compares and contrasts The Simpsons to its two chief rivals – South Park and Family Guy. Ortved’s insights here were the highlight of the book for me, a clear instance of the insight that the book could have used a lot more of.

I said it is hard to know who this book is for. In a strange way, I am the perfect target. I am a fan but not a fanatic. I can’t say I have ever ventured anywhere online where true fanatics analyse every little aspect of every episode and the show. A book like this would therefore appeal to my interest but I would not get myself too worked up about its content. Despite the fact that I learned little from it, think it spent far too much time on history and I wish it had more original or profound things to say, I could not help but enjoy it. That is because, as a fan, I too am nostalgic for The Simpsons. I enjoy reliving its heyday and appreciating its achievements. Though little of substance may have been new in this book, the little anecdotes you may not have heard add pleasure as well as colour. I enjoyed this book like I enjoy reliving favourite sports games through YouTube highlights.

What also makes me a perfect target for this book is that, though it was published in 2009, I can’t say I can recall many Simpsons episodes released since then. Many episodes after season 20 I have not watched more than once and I have not seen recent seasons at all. I should perhaps have made more of an effort. The pay-tv service I subscribe to has recently moved The Simpsons off their basic plan so I now have to make even more of an effort. It is a sign perhaps of another stage in the show’s long decline.

And it saddens me a little. There is a quote included in this book from someone who runs one of those online forums that was especially disheartening. But contrasted with quotes from Ricky Gervais, Matt Stone and Seth MacFarlane of what The Simpsons’ achievements mean offer a different perspective. Simpson’s Confidential can offer a fan like me a little solace.

Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy, American Dad: It is still funnier than any live-action show that’s on television right now, let me put it that way. If I did Family Guy for eighteen years, I don’t think it would be as good as it is now. There’s only so much you can do with a certain group of characters. The Simpsons has sustained better than South Park.

It offers both nostalgia and a reminder that I am very much not alone in my love of the show.

Many television series have survived, and many more have been funny, but The Simpsons remains the most powerful, lasting, and resonant entertainment force television has ever seen. Not many people reference Home Improvement in casual conversation, or write scholarly essays on Cheers. Roseanne and Frasier were both hilarious, intelligent shows, and for the most part, their ratings drowned The Simpsons – yet they have very little cultural influence. The Simpsons, by contrast, has entrenched itself so far into our culture that its content has seeped right into the popular vernacular and ingrained itself into our imaginations.

We, as a culture, speak Simpsons.


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