The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History Author John Ortved on Today’s 20th Anniversary and How Male Simpsons Fans Can’t Get Laid


Twenty years ago today, Rupert Murdoch’s upstart network FOX aired the first-ever half-hour episode of The Simpsons, a holiday special in which a financially strained fatso dad named Homer ends up at the dogtrack, where instead of Christmas-present money, he and his son Bart walk away with their own “gift”–a loser pooch named Santa’s Little Helper. Two decades later, The Simpsons is not only the longest-running prime-time entertainment series of all time, but, well, The Simpsons.

In honor of this milestone, John Ortved, author of The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, will be speaking tonight at the Brooklyn Public Library. His two-month-old book, the spun-off product of a 2007 Vanity Fair feature, digs into behind-the-scenes backstabbing and lesser-known struggles with creative authorship. But it’s ultimately, as Ortved says, “a celebration of the show.” We spoke with the West-Village-based author earlier this week about researching a Simpsons book without FOX’s cooperation, his “unpleasant” experience meeting Matt Groening, and how men who love The Simpsons just can’t seem to get laid.

You’ve done six public appearances in support of this book so far. Who’s been showing up? Real-life Comic Book Guys?

Crazy people. Nerds. People who live in libraries, the kind of people who come to book talks. Generally crazy people and Simpsons fans, and I don’t think those things have to be mutually exclusive. There’s always a certain percentage of the audience that’s hardcore fans, and they want to talk about the show, and that’s a big audience for my book too.

But in this day and age, trying to get anyone to come to an author talk is a little bit like trying to get people to come to a Medieval Fair: there’s a built-in audience–and it’s small. And there aren’t a lot of girls.

When you say you like The Simpsons, as a girl, it definitely works to your advantage.

The nerdiness of The Simpsons is a theme throughout the book. Both in the show, its fans, and the people who made it.

There’s a funny story I was told that they went around the writers’ room at one point and asked everybody how many women they had slept with. It’s all boys in the writers’ room–nerdy boys, but it’s all boys. And the guy who recounted this story to me–it’s in the book–said the number was surprisingly small, even for this group. This was a group of very smart guys who could probably solve any math problem, any joke problem, but they haven’t really figured out how to get laid. That was an equation that remained unsolved.

In order to give context to this book, you have to talk about the fact that you didn’t get Fox’s cooperation, that [Simpsons executive producer] James Brooks sent out letters to anybody who’d worked on the Simpsons, and still worked there, requesting that people not talk with you. But why wouldn’t Matt Groening talk with you initially?

We actually didn’t run after Matt Groening to begin with [for the Vanity Fair feature]. We approached James L. Brooks and his company Gracie Films, who essentially own the Simpsons and make every creative decision about the show. So originally, I approached FOX Studios marketing, who then took it to FOX TV and on–let’s just say there were two months of discussions about whether or not they should do this piece with Vanity Fair, which seemed like a pretty no-brainer easy dopey piece: “History of the Simpsons.” So over those two months, I started interviewing people and I asked them about everything, including [former Simpsons executive producer who left acrimoniously after season four] Sam Simon. And it came back to them that I was asking about Sam Simon and they quickly canceled all cooperation.

I read that you eventually did get to talk with Matt Groening at a party and it was “unpleasant.” What’s the story there?

It was unpleasant. I was out in L.A. doing some work, and I happened to get invited to this party that Matt Groening was throwing for somebody else. I introduced myself, and it was unpleasant in the way that it’s unpleasant to meet anyone who doesn’t really like you. He’s like, “Oh, I hear you’re writing a book now.” His beef with the Vanity Fair story and the reason he claims that people didn’t want to talk with me after I did the story, was that I didn’t say explicitly in the story that he and James Brooks didn’t speak to me, which he described as a “journalistic standard.” Vanity Fair understands “journalistic standards,” and I think it was pretty clear that they didn’t speak with me, the fact that they weren’t quoted in the piece. So I saw that as disingenuous. Then I walked away and heard him say, “That was the guy. . . ”

I would have loved to have had an interview with him. In an ideal world, I’d speak to everybody. It was great to talk with Rupert Murdoch, it was great to talk with [former chairman and C.E.O., Fox] Barry Diller, but frankly I didn’t really need to hear Matt Groening or James Brooks’ stories that they’ve told 500 times before. What would have been nice would have been their reactions to what other people said. But that wasn’t going to happen, so you have to work with what you have.

Are you aware of any fallout with the people who did speak with you on the record? Like, is Matt Groening pissed at [his old friend/cartoonist/Pee Wee’s Playhouse set designer] Gary Panter?

Nooooo. No one talked a lot of shit on the record. Let’s be honest, there’s some controversial stuff in this book, but ultimately, it’s a celebration of the show. It really is a story of how this series became the biggest thing on TV ever. There’s some backstabbing, and there’s some funny anecdotes about people screwing each other over and battling for credit, but that’s as controversial as it gets. You definitely get to see how the sausage gets made, but it all tastes so good.

Who was your biggest “get” for the book?

There’s some off-the-record people who’d be great to tell you. But it’s the same for the article: Conan O’Brien. There was so much great material he gave me that I couldn’t put in the article that I got to put in the book.

Brent Forrester was a big one. He’s just become a big writer in Hollywood. He sort of runs The Office and ran King of the Hill. He’s one of those guys who’s just too powerful to give a shit what Jim Brooks or anyone else thinks. He’s got a movie with Judd Apatow, he’s just got his own thing going. He’s a young, kind of hip guy, and a really smart writer. And I think he didn’t really like that they were trying to shut down a journalistic enterprise–enterprise? I mean endeavor. You should see the West Village apartment I’m sitting in right now–if this is an enterprise, enterprises are in trouble.

Also, Matt Groening’s ex-wife [Deborah] was a big get. I didn’t ask anything about personal stuff–that’s not what the book was about, the book was about The Simpsons–but she really had the key to the origins of Life As Hell and of getting Matt’s ideas on TV.

I was really disappointed to read that you haven’t watched every episode.

Really? Have you seen the later episodes? The manatee episode? Let’s just say that if I was writing a history of the United States, I don’t necessarily have to have traveled to every state.

At what point in this process did you get sick of The Simpsons?

I’m not sick of them. I watched the first two DVDs of season five the other day. I was actually doing last year’s taxes, and I was punching numbers into a calculator, and I wanted something on in the background.

That’s a great DVD by the way. It starts Homer’s barber shop quartet and Burns Bear episode–they’re such good episodes, they’re nearly flawless.

You’re reading on Thursday, which also happens to be the 20th anniversary.

I know, I’m getting a tattoo that day.

Are you really?


You should get DuffMan on your deltoid.

I know. If I was friends with Matt Groening and I could get him to draw me a Homer, I might get that drawn on me.

Since you’re not getting a tattoo, what do you have planned?

Thursday, my little sister is in town. Hopefully all the young beautiful Simpsons fans in Brooklyn will come, and then we’ll all go back to my house and have a Simpsons party. But I think in the real world, I’ll go to dinner with my sister and then go home alone.

John Ortved discusses his The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History at the Brooklyn Public Library tonight at 7pm.

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