How I ended up in Morgan Spurlock's Simpsons documentary (barely)
An A.V. Clubber recounts his brief, brief appearance on national TV
Last Sunday, my six-month odyssey as a first-time documentary subject came to a very, very quick climax. It occurred about two and a half minutes into The Simpsons 20th Anniversary: In 3-D! On Ice!, an hour-long special that aired on FOX after the venerable animated series’ 450th episode. There I was, arm-in-arm with the show’s director and star Morgan Spurlock, eating a humongous pink-glazed donut outside a Kwik-E Mart at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. And there I went, approximately .6 seconds later. (I won’t hold it against you if you missed me. I understand that blinking is an involuntary reflex and all.)
So, how in the world did I end up munching on a big-ass donut on national TV with the Oscar-nominated director of Super Size Me? What makes me—an obscure writer and editor from Wisconsin whose greatest honor to date is winning a Milwaukee Press Club award in 2006—uniquely qualified to fly halfway across the country in order to hang outside a fake convenience store? Well, there’s a mildly interesting story behind all this, let me tell you. For starters, I should mention that at one point I had a more significant part in the show. Along with flying out for a shoot in L.A. this fall, I traveled with Spurlock and his crew to Albuquerque, N.M. in August, where we took in an Albuquerque Isotopes minor league baseball game. And after that I hosted them at The Onion office in downtown Milwaukee for a shoot in October. You can see some of this footage in this segment cut from the special and now up on YouTube.
Can you believe these two minutes of pure gold didn’t make the cut? Sure, the special was packed solid with big-name interviews with the likes of Conan O’Brien, Brian Williams, Moby, and Seth MacFarlane, but everybody knows that pasty, no-name pop culture scribes from the Dairyland are what really bring in the ratings. (I was told that more than 200 hours of footage had been shot for the 42-minute program, which took most of the sting out of being edited out.)
As you can tell from the clip, my role in the show was to be a dissenter. I grew up a huge Simpsons fan, but I haven’t watched the show regularly in about 10 years because, well, it has sort of sucked for a long time. Unless you’re a deeply deluded Simpsons fanatic, it seems pretty obvious that the show is several years past its peak. Anyway, that’s the gist of what I said in this Crosstalk I wrote with Nathan Rabin more than two and a half years ago. Fast forward to July 2009, when I got a call from a producer working for Spurlock. She was looking for somebody to make precisely that argument, and after reading the Crosstalk she wanted me to be a part of the show. Finally, gleefully pissing all over a beloved pop-culture institution had paid off!
One month later I was in Albuquerque for a baseball game. The idea was that Spurlock and I were going to watch the game, talk about the show, and hopefully make a bunch of clever quips for the camera. To answer a frequently asked question: No, I really didn’t know I was going to throw out the first pitch. And, yes, I really was booed by thousands of New Mexicans—mostly because I couldn’t get my throw to home plate. In my defense, even major league pitchers get warm-up tosses, and yet I, an amateur, had to go out there cold. I tell you, if you give me five minutes in the bullpen I’ll give you some serious inside heat.
Other than being publicly embarrassed by my physical ineptitude, doing the documentary was a blast. Spurlock was extremely nice and really good about making me feel comfortable on camera. His producer and crew were also really cool people, and I’ve kept in touch with some of them. I was blown away by how recognizable Spurlock was to the dozens of people that walked up to say hello while we were shooting. Apparently way more people saw Super Size Me than I imagined.
The Simpsons shoot ended up being a huge media event in Albuquerque, with the newspaper and local TV stations turning out to cover the story. (You can see some ONN-esque coverage here.) The funny thing about standing next to a famous person is that people will assume you’re famous, too, especially if you have camera following you around. Several Spurlock fans even asked me for an autograph—even though they had no clue who I was—including a group of rambunctious kids who wanted me to sign their baseballs. I still wonder what the children of Albuquerque are going to do with their limited edition and completely worthless “Steven Hyden” baseballs.
Still, considering the likelihood that adorable little tykes will again run across baseball stadiums so I can write my name down for them is slim to none, it was pretty awesome to have the opportunity, if only for a day. Memories like that ensure that my Simpsons documentary experience will likely remain one of the more memorable adventures of my life, even if I did end up on the cutting room floor. My moment in the spotlight might have been fleeting but I’m not complaining. As I see it I still have 14 minutes and 59.4 seconds left of fame to cash in.