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John Ortved: The Simpsons

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“Objectivity is horseshit,” John Ortved writes in the preface of his book The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, by way of explaining his decision to use an oral-history format. He wanted the stories straight from his subjects’ mouths with “minimal editorial comments” from himself—he wanted “the good stuff.”

That’s euphemism for dirt, as the “uncensored, unauthorized” in the subtitle indicates, and Ortved apparently took the horseshittiness of objectivity as license to insert himself into the narrative, and much more than minimally. Without a doubt, his book is personal—and in a way, how couldn’t it be? “We, as a culture, speak Simpsons,” he writes in the introduction. Still, he repeatedly mistakes his assertions for universal truths: The show’s “campy, humorless” 24 homage in season 18 was “a full-on hand job to Fox”; The Simpsons Movie has “zero replay value”; the new Futurama films have been “disappointing and without much humor.” Ortved seemingly forgets that fans aren’t reading the book for his perspective, but for The Simpsons’ story.


As “unauthorized” indicates, none of the principals participated. Creator Matt Groening, producer James L. Brooks, most of the voice cast, and important writers and showrunners like Sam Simon, George Meyer, and Al Jean appear in the book via excerpts from other interviews. Ortved’s biggest gets were former writer Conan O’Brien, actor Hank Azaria, and media magnate Rupert Murdoch, though he quotes a host of staffers, guest stars, and famous fans.


The book’s other sources, and Ortved himself, mostly divide the principals into heroes and villains. Among the former are mercurial genius Sam Simon and writer George Meyer, who, along with the early writers, gave the show its voice. In the latter: ruthlessly greedy James L. Brooks; his right-hand man, Richard Sakai, the ball-buster on whom the character Waylon Smithers—inexplicably called “Wayland” here—is based; and Matt Groening, a bumbling bystander whose true talent lies in merchandising.


Again, that isn’t terribly surprising, considering the “uncensored, unauthorized” nature of Ortved’s book, but nothing explains its numerous factual errors. When writing about one of the most obsessed-over pop-culture phenomena in history, why wouldn’t every reference be triple-checked to ward off the wrath of a legion of Comic Book Guys? Before the foreword, preface, and introduction have passed, hardcore fans will have several reasons to question Ortved’s authoritativeness: Patty Bouvier is gay, not Selma; Groening’s Life In Hell comic was not based on a one-eared rabbit named Binky (his son, Bongo, has one ear—and Ortved misidentifies him in another reference); Maggie Simpson never “killed a man.” That’s before “Wayland” Smithers arrives, among numerous others problems it’d be pointless to list.

The shoddy fact-checking may only trip the alarms of hardcore fans, but even casual readers may be put off by the book’s redundancy. That’s a side effect of the way it jumps around in time; a chapter devoted to Sam Simon giving the show its voice precedes one that details how The Simpsons even started. (The chapter makes the case for Simon as the show’s true genius, ending with Ortved repeating what his sources said better.) Toward the end of the book, The Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane—gracious as alwaysliterally says the same thing in two different places.


Lucky for Ortved, the material saves him, because the show is such a force (even in its twilight) that insight into its routines and eccentric personalities can’t help but fascinate. As The Simpsons celebrates its 20th anniversary, it’s still good to get a peek—however flawed—behind the curtain.