They say that simple things please simple minds and here I declare my devotion to the American television animation series The Simpsons which, at times when I am bored or otherwise waiting for something, I occasionally seek out either on Channel Four or on Sky.
Decades ago I worked in television myself and so had a fleeting acquaintance with the world of sit-coms and light entertainment. I’m generalising here, but in this genre there is a gulf in approach between Britain and America.
Generally-speaking, British producers hire a single (or pair) of scriptwriters and let them get on with it – think Till Death Us Do Part, Last of The Summer Wine, Only Fools and Horses or Man About The House.
America, however, may start with a similar scriptwriting line-up, but then tends to go on to add teams of gag-writers in order to ensure ‘best quality’ and consistency – partly because it tends to commission longer, and greater numbers of, series of each project.
(I’m not suggesting one or the other approach is superior, just pointing the difference out).
The Simpsons is a excellent example of the American way. As I understand it, one or two writers come up with a ‘scheme’ for an episode and/or write the basic script. Then the producers call in a team of additional writers – sometimes up to twenty – whose job (sometimes in creative sessions sitting around a table) is simply to ‘improve’ the story and/or pump in gag after gag.
By this route, The Simpsons operates on multi-levels. Kids can just enjoy the storylines and jokes for what they are – whilst adults may wallow in the deeper (or more adult and knowing) gags, or indeed references to moral and other issues of the moment.
Let me give two examples which illustrate my point.
The first was a long-ago ‘watershed’ event for me – the moment I registered just how brilliant The Simpsons can be.
Yet another episode was beginning – it could have been any one of hundreds – and I had barely begun to concentrate upon the story, not least because the opening credits were still rolling.
Homer (the everyman slob/father of the family) and Bart (the mischievous son) were returning from the video store, having been tasked with selecting a video for the family to watch together that evening – and this time, specifically not a male interest, shoot-’em-up action movie of the type that (left to their own devices) they would normally go for.
Marg (the long-suffering wife) greets them with a query “Did they have Waiting to Exhale?” [a then highly-popular chic-flick rom-com movie].
Homer replies “Nah – the guy in the shop said they had it, but there was a queue for it … and I shouldn’t hold my breath …” and continues walking through to the television room.
And that was it. It doesn’t ‘read funny’ particularly, on the screen as I look at it now. But two points: (1) if you think about it, the link between ‘waiting to exhale’ and ‘don’t hold your breath’ is a great gag; and (2) as previously mentioned, this is a throwaway line, a gag simply tossed in, before the episode in question had even properly begun.
That’s when I ‘got’ The Simpsons.
Whatever the storyline, whatever the scene, they’ve got comic writers chucking in ideas and gags by the handful, which makes watching always a worthwhile experience and a delight. Even if you miss an individual gag, or it doesn’t amuse, there is going to be another coming along in ten, twenty or thirty seconds. One of the reasons you can watch each episode of The Simpsons several times is that you can enjoy the jokes again and again, but also now and again get hit, by or appreciate, a different one that maybe you didn’t take on board previously.
Now to my second example, which occurred as I watched an episode (that I had not seen before) last night.
In it Homer had deliberately applied for bankruptcy, under the assumption that thereby he could protect his assets from his creditors, but the judge – pointing out that the law had changed – allocated an accountant to help Homer get a grip on his finances.
Under pressure, one of the ‘savings’ that Homer decides to make is to rid himself of the expense of his ancient father Abe living in a retirement home. Thus Abe comes to live with The Simpsons at their suburban home and soon causes major disruption with his lifestyle and unusual (often anti-social) antics. After a few examples of this, Marg raises the issue with Homer as they are retiring to bed one night:
“I’m sorry, Homey – I’m just finding it difficult living with Abe in the house …”
To which Homer replies “Why are you telling me? He’s your father-in-law …” and turns over to go to sleep.
It was a stone cold ‘laugh out loud’ moment for me – one of many I have enjoyed over the last twenty years.