Amir, Jeff, and I are Simpsons nerds. Many times at parties we’ve sequestered ourselves and just started quoting Simpsons lines back and forth until everyone else is annoyed with us. So when we heard author John Ortved had written a comprehensive oral history of the show, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, we invited him over to talk about the’s show’s 20-year history, how Springfield has changed over the decaded, and of course our favorite characters. Pat Cassels
JEFF RUBIN: Favorite Simpsons secondary character?
JOHN ORTVED: I’m cheating a little bit cause he’s not around anymore, but Lionel Hutz.
JR: Mine too.
JO: I think that’s as perfect as a secondary character can get. And I think part of the reason is they never had the opportunity to ruin him. In the early years they’d take a secondary character like Apu or Burns Apu has the immigration episode, Burns has the Burns bear episode where they’d get a little back story in there and give that character a little more residence and you’d love it. You’d fall more in love with that character, or they would make a little more sense to you. In later years they take their secondary characters and they try to fill them with back-story, Comic Book Guy, et cetra. And they try to make these fully rounded characters and falls completely flat.
JR: There is a Troy McClure back-story episode [“A Fish Called Selma”] and it’s one of my favorite episodes.
PATRICK CASSELS: It does have a Planet of the Apes musical. It’s a nice swan song for [voice of Troy McClure] Phil Hartman.
JO: They never really had the opportunity to destroy Linel Hutz and give him a bad back-story or dive too deeply in there. He was just this perfect putty lawyer and failed actor and that’s all he ever was. [Simpsons secondary chcaracter] Gil was this perfect loser and then they decided to make him sympathetic to try and make us care about Gil.
PC: There’s a Lionel Hutz for every institution in Springfield. Lionel Hutz is the worst lawyer imaginable. Dr. Nick Riveria is the worst doctor imaginable. Officer Quimby is the worst policeman imaginable.
AMIR BLUMENFELD: That’s what The Simpsons Movie was based on: everybody’s the worst ever.
JR: What did you think of the movie?
JO: I think the movie is bad.
AB: I liked the movie.
JO: I mean the movie made like half a billion dollars so how bad could it bad?
JR: It can still be bad. Did you see Transformers 2? I remember thinking the movie [Simpsons] was okay. But how fun it was to watch the Simpsons, which you usually watch with a few friends in your living room, with several hundred people. Everyone was cheering. Just the experience with that many people.
AB: It was a good 90 minute episode.
JR: Why don’t we close by each stating our favorite Simpsons episode. Mine is “Lisa the Vegetarian.”
JO: The show runner at the time was David Merkin who’s a former comedian. He was renowned at the Simpsons for being able to convince the executives to do whatever he wanted. And he somehow convinced them that to get Paul McCartney’s voice for the episode they had to fly him to England so he could personally record Paul McCartney, just because he wanted to meet Paul McCartney.
AB: I think mine is “Itchy and Scratchy Land.” (helicopter pilot voice) “Nothing could possib-lye wrong.”
JO: The Simpsons have influenced all the great shows we like and Jon Stewart is one of the. He literally name checks the Simpsons all the time. And that’s one of the ones he does: “Nothing could possib-lye go wrong”.
PC: Mine is probably “Marge vs The Monorail.” The song and dance number. I think I like it partially the same reason I like Itchy and Scratchy Land, because it stays on the borders of the early episodes. Which are really kind of emotional but it’s a little later on and they’re getting a little weird. You know there’s a part where Leonard Nimoy just laughs. And that scene where she goes to the random desolate town and that one woman just cackles for no reason.
AB: The Music Man character is Phil Hartman again.
PC: Conan O’Brien wrote it and you can tell because it’s such a mailgram of science fiction, weird post-apocalyptic movies he was obsessed with.
AB: And musical theatre.
JO: Matt Groening had these rules about how dogs couldn’t talk [on the show]. It had to be an accurate cartoon. They couldn’t have people’s heads exploding and they couldn’t have talking animals, people couldn’t run off a cliff, etc. And that was described to me as an episode where the Simpsons really leave their roots. That episode was so good, like Spock appearing out of nowhere and there was a Monorail in the middle of the town all of a sudden. After that it was so good that the writers couldn’t resist anymore going outside the realms of possibilities. People credit Conan for unmooring the show a little bit.
JO: If I had to watch one episode again for the first time what would it be, either the Monorail episode or the Burns Bear episode (“Rosebud”).
PC: Which also has a weird science fiction twist, when it jumps to the year 10 Million and Mr. Burns is a robot.
JO: It’s such a hyper, elusive episode. It’s one of those episodes that show how smart the writers are but also they’re not exclusive. It’s a very open episode where anyone can watch it. I watched it without having any idea what Citizen Kane was, but it’s a half hour parody of Citizen Kane. It has the Ramones in there, Ramones sing Mr. Burns “Happy Birthday” and he doesn’t like it. He says to Smithers, “Have the Rolling Stones killed.”
AB: Is there any show that you like as much as the Simpsons?
JO: Currently or all time?
AB: All time.
You can buy The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History here, check out John’s YouTube Channel here, and nerd out with our entire uncut conversation here.