The Simpsons

My Favourite Christmas TV Specials

Via: IGN

OK, yes, I mentioned some yesterday, but those were live-action specials, not the animated kind.

When it comes to animation, there is invariably the holiday special because, well, kids don’t notice, but adults (and networks) do. They are inevitably set around Christmas time of the year and may involve either an escapade based around the presents or one based around Santa.

Sadly a lot of them are somewhat formulaic although when it comes to the whole concept, there’s not a lot of ways you can deviate from the expected.

The Simpsons gives us a great Christmas story in the ‘Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire’ which also happened to be the premiere episode way back in 1989. Instead of the usual kids-and-Santa focused antics, it very much laid out the fact that Homer had to struggle his way through Christmas, including taking a job as a department store Santa. This was certainly a deviation from the norm and is worth of a lot of praise for exploring a fact that is rather glossed-over in this country.

On a side note, there is the other Matt Groening Christmas film, Olive, the Other Reindeer which although very much simpler in form than The Simpsons, also contains little nuggets of adult humour. It’s also worth checking out if you happen to find it on TV over the holidays.

As for my favourite Christmas special, well, that one would be Futurama. “Xmas Story” is rife with all the usual quirks that Futurama has become known for. Being set in the year 3000, Santa is actually a robot who’s sensors have been set to high and thus everyone is judged to be ‘naughty’ and is killed on sight.

The episode does go off in a whole load of silly directions with the concept (including Fry indulging in a bit of Harold Lloyd-esque clinging to a giant clock) but in the end, it epitomises the whole idea of Christmas bringing people together and being thankful for what you’ve got.

Well, looking a that list, it’s fair to say that it is pretty much completely dominated by Matt Groening. He has a monopoly on my favourite Christmas shows! Well, no he doesn’t, there are dozens of specials aimed specifically at kids but I cannot recall them all at this point of the morning. Perhaps next year I can list off my favourite cartoon Christmas specials instead.

All I Learned About American Politics I Learned From The Simpsons

Apologies for the lack of a post yesterday, you can collectively blame that deadline at work.

Today is Election Day here in the States and as a result, just about everything you see, hear and touch today will be tinged with politics and as you can imagine, trying not to post something political is really hard without showing off your colours.

Being Irish, my colours are green, so that doesn’t really matter and besides, they’re not having an election over there today.

Instead, I am going to encourage you to watch the one episode of the Simpsons that pretty much taught me everything I knew about US elections until I actually arrived here: Sideshow Bob Roberts

Via: Wikipedia

Being of the “classic” era, there are tons of jokes, references, one-liners and a plot that manages to tie them all together. In it, we see Sideshow Bob at perhaps his most menacing. He doesn’t murder anyone, but he does actually succeed in his plan until thwarted by Bart & Lisa.

The episode is as much a satire on the political system itself as it is on the politicians themselves and in a move that garners some praise, it manages to keep the leanings pretty much within the boundaries that the show has traditionally stayed in.

If you must watch anything today, watch this. I’m, not going to link to it because of the [ahem] temporary nature of the links but you should know where to look.

And before you go, here is the defining, hilarious quote from the episode:

Hmm…I don’t agree with his Bart-killing policy, but I do approve of his Selma-killing policy.

Anomaly Appraisal: The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History

Via: Uncrate

This book was launched around this time last year (wow, time flies eh?) and at the time was the result of a considerable amount of press exposure for the simple reason that nobody from FOX or The Simpsons themselves would comment on it. Of course the logical excuse offered up was that an ‘official’ history will come along at some point which will naturally contain all the official stories and anecdotes.

This book however, is the unofficial version, replete with warts-and-all tales from inside and outside the show. For a loyal stonecutter’s take on the book, I suggest hitting up the Dead Homer’s Society for their review, which is refreshingly realistic in its synopsis.

John Ortved should be commended for putting together a tome that combines more first hand accounts of the show than any I care to remember. In contrast to Planet Simpson, which I posted about last week, which was a much more existentialist view of the series and its characters, this book looks past all that for what was going on behind the TV screen.

The book very much follows the shows own timeline, from pre-conception to the present time (well, 2009) so sa you can expect, the climactic, exciting stuff is in the middle, not the end. Ortved lays out in some detail the conflicts and fall-outs that have been the reality behind the greatest TV show ever made. Although he rightfully points out money and egos as being the main ingredients, he does present the facts in a reasonably fair and balance way. In other words, he doesn’t take sides in the war.

I loved reading first-hand accounts from people involved in the show, from writers, to the voice-actors all the way up to Rupert Murdoch himself. Although I found the transcript form of the book weary at first, it became a much easier read in the end (more on that later). The sheer number of stories (both humourous and otherwise) from these folks are gold to a Simpsons fan such as myself.

The book is excellent overall but there are just one or two areas where I was disappointed. Firstly, Ortved’s own writing is quite lacking in the fact-checking department. The biggest one I found was getting Binky and Bongo from Life in Hell mixed up.

Besides the factual errors, the book seems to have this dark overtone. In more than one occasion I found footnotes that were gratuitously politicised. Personally I don’t really care, but please, I’m reading a book about a funny show, there’s no need to bring up your own politcal leanings for the sake of it.

Lastly, there is the discussion about certain folks on the show. While I have mentioned above that Ortved stays pretty impartial to the infighting, there is a substantial imbalance in how he meters out praise and scorn. For example, David Silverman gets one mention whereas Al Jean is single-handedly ridiculed for allowing the show to decline over the last decade. Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t, but I firmly believe that you should meter out praise much more than criticism.

Overall, this is a must-read for any Simpsons fan. It helps set the frame of the Simpsons as an institution of American culture and helped me to see the show in a new, more compassionate light.

Anomaly Appraisal: Planet Simpson

Via: The Ontario Library Service

I’m currently just beginning a different book on the Simpsons (which I’ll post about in due course). So far I’ve read the first chapter or so, but it has already made me think back to the first book (and I mean real book here) I read on the show.

Nearly two years ago, I picked up Planet Simpson by Chris Turner and ate it up like it was ice-cream. Now I bought it simply because it was about the Simpsons and because it looked like it was of a slightly higher intelligence than the usual lot. However, I was in for a bit of a surprise.

Of course I was already familiar with how the Simpsons came about and I assume you are too, but if not, click here. What I found in this book was a much more substantial essay on how the Simpsons defined and were defined by, everyday life and the cultural changes occuring in the US at the start of the early 90s.

First off, it’s clear the Turner is a huge fan of the show. The book is full of quotes and cross-references that any fan worth their salt will immediately recognise. Secondly, what makes the book stand out, at least structurally, is that each character in the family has their own chapter, within which various other topics are mentioned and discussed. Turner does a very thorough job of detailing the complexities of each character and prodding me into seeing them in a slightly different light. For the record, Lisa is my favourite of the whole bunch.

Turner does an excellent job of analysing the connections between the Simpsons and the real world on which it is based. Pop-cultural references in the show itself, the characters themselves as a reflection of contemporary civilisation, the life of a worker in the radioactive ooze of an American corporation and the ability to see the lighter side of it all in the end are what attracted fans to the show. Turner looks into all of them all and then some.

The book is not a light read (440 pages and no pictures). While it is certainly interesting, don’t expect to read a pile of fluff. Turner knows how to write (unlike yours truly) and the ample peppering of quotes and references helps break things up and induces plenty of reruns inside your own head.

The nice thing about Planet Simpson is that it doesn’t try to prove a point. There’s no hidden agenda and I finished the book feeling that although my thoughts on the Simpsons hadn’t changed, I had a little more respect for the team behind it that put it all together and how they are (were?) the smartest people on television, and are likely to be for decades to come.

If you are looking for a deeper understanding of The Simpsons as it pertains to modern life, this book is definitely for you.

The Declining Quality of Animation on FOX

It was akin to a religion for me, and the only night of the week when I would absolutely have to watch “my shows”, yet recently, I have begun to skip Sunday nights altogether. Yes, FOX still has a full schedule of animated shows that is completely unrivalled by other networks, save for perhaps [Adult Swim].

What happened? Where has the love gone? Well, I’m not entirely sure. Let’s start at 8 o’clock and go from there.

The Simpsons. What can I say that hasn’t already been said ever since Principal Skinner was outed by Martin Sheen as an impostor. The quality of the show has clearly fallen since the heady days of the 90s and some people have been actively campaigning for the show’s cancellation in recent times (shoutout to the Dead Homers Society).

While it is clear that the show will be around for a wee while yet, it is unclear just how much farther it can fall. For example, last Sunday night’s episode was about a beached whale and not much else. If it wasn’t for the combination of a thunderstorm and some ice-cream, I may well have nodded off.

The Simpsons continues to hobble along being a mere ghost of it’s former self. Even the shows that supposedly outdid it are themselves falling into laziness (see below). The future beyond The Simpsons does not seem particularly bright as they are such a hard act to follow, here’s hoping FOX makes a decent choice.

Moving on to 8:30, we now have the Cleveland Show. For the previous decade, we were treated to a mild-mannered Texan and is cronies. Looking back, I should have been more appreciative of Mike Judge’s unique brand of humour. In between the launch of The Cleveland Show, were were treated to the severely underrated Sit Down, Shut Up. I’ve made my thoughts known before, but suffice to say, I believe SDSU was sorely needed in a full-time slot. Sadly, FOX didn’t agree.

The Cleveland Show as we all know is a spin-off from Family Guy, which pretty much says it all. Even though the humour is not near as pointed as it’s parent, it is still recognizable for the crass jokes and wacky neighbours. As a show it is funny enough, but the show that follows does not do it any favours.

Family Guy is the comeback king (well, almost, Futurama has to be the comeback king, seeing as it was even deader that Family Guy when it was resurrected a few years ago) and since its return has proven to be a strong ratings success. OK, sure the jokes have gotten even more borderline and the plots have evolved to the point where the characters have practically no, um, character.

When viewed immediately after Cleveland, the similarities are too easy to miss. Both shows together end up leaving me feeling like I wasted half an hour in there somewhere, even though I didn’t.

The best show doesn’t begin until 9:30. Even then, it falls far short of the Simpsons in their prime but that didn’t stop me praising the show a while back. I still stand by that post. Why? Well compared with Family Guy and The Cleveland Show, American Dad! is breath of fresh air. OK, the first season was pretty lame with its overbearing political slant, but since then the show has matured enough to the point that it’s half decent.

For me though, it’s on a bit late, the curse of having to get up at 6 every morning in order to hit the gym before work. This late timeslot also seems to render it the forgotten child in the promos during the earlier shows. In the grand scheme of things, it continues to survive, which I am grateful for.

Having said all the above, I do appreciate that FOX continues to have faith in animation and does continue to look for new shows with the aim of replacing ones as they inevitably peter out. It’s just that right now, the evening is filled with shows that are so desperately boring overall, that I would much rather watch any one of Hayao Miyazaki’s films for the 20th time.

FOX needs to realize that staying in a comfort zone for too long isn’t healthy. I understand that they can’t add more hours to the day, but with the overall shift to on-demand viewing, they could easily vary the schedule from week to week without any severe damage. I have hope for the future, but right now, I’m just one fan who would rather watch something else on a Sunday night.

How The Simpsons Interacts With Other Cartoons

The very first issue of MAD I ever bought (via Fanpop.com)

News comes to us from The Animation Blog about The Simpsons congratulating South Park on their 200th episode. Which brings up an interesting thought, The Simpsons is the longest running animated show on TV (or ever for that matter) right? Well, we all know how other animated shows have honoured, recognized, satirized and downright lampooned The Simpsons, but how have they responded in kind?

First off though, a trivia question: The Simpsons has parodied many shows, but has only ever made a direct homage to one. Which show is it? The answer is at the bottom.

The creators, being who they are, were bound to reference other forms of entertainment linked with animation. Comic books got a look very early on in the life of the series, but so did other cartoons. On numerous occasions, references have been made to various Hanna-Barbera shows. Notably The Flintstones in the opening sequence of “Marge Vs. The monorail” where Homer is shown leaving work in a fashion similar to Fred Flintstone. In one of their trademark couch gags, the family is shown coming home to find Fred, Wilma, Pebbles and Dino in their place (Kamp Krusty).

Satire has often been prevalent. Many will remember when South Park engaged the ire of Marge Simpson (“The Bart of War” which was, in fact, a get-back for an episode of South Park wherein it was inferred that the Simpsons had already done every possible plot in a TV show).

The Simpsons has, over the years, reacted with it’s cousins on the FOX network. King of Hill was done when Bart was watching Hank complain about “propane in my urethra“. Perhaps the most controversial has been the back and forth between The Simpsons and Family Guy.

Both shows are extremely similar and both have an oafish father as the protagonist. Although the relationship between both shows is cordial, and it is fun to see the jokes fly. So far, I count when Homer was run down by Stewie in the driveway, or when Peter Griffin was wanted by the Italian police as a “plagarisimo”.

Over the years the Simpsons has also referenced anime (during the family’s trip to Japan), Czech animation (the Russion Itchy & Scratchy replacement) and even independent films (Spike & Mike’s Sick, Twisted & F**ked Up Film Festival). The comedy in these references and parodies is genius, which has no doubt flown under the radar of the average viewer for years as inside jokes to people in the know (that would be you and I).

So, did you guess it? Here’s the answer:

[livevideo id=http://www.livevideo.com/video/C5FD97BB261A48F1B3C9AB3D075491BA/ren-stimpy-in-the-simpsons.aspx]

If that’s not working, click here!

Yup, that isn’t actual footage, but it is the absolute closest the Simpsons has ever got to featuring another show. Yeah, I know, there was “The Critic” but that’s not the same and requires a post for another day.

What importance  does this clip hold? For one it shows the admiration of the Simpsons creators for the one and only John K. The colours are accurate, the voices are ably espoused by Dan Castellenatta and the animation is spot on. The respect is clear, no other show has been given such accurate reproduction by the Simpsons.

So the conclusion to all this is that The Simspons love John K. and think he’s great!