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10.13.09

Secrets of The Simpsons

With The Simpsons’s 450th episode airing Sunday, John Ortved tells the inside story of how the show’s creators and Fox lawyers did everything they could to stop his unauthorized history of the show.

The letter referred to me as “Mr. Ortved”—my first sign that I was in deep, deep trouble.

No one calls me Mr. Ortved. I’ve been “Johnny O,” “Ortved” (at prep school) and even “John John.” The only time I’ve ever been “Mr. Ortved” is when addressed by the employees of telecommunications companies and lawyers. The letter was, unfortunately, from the latter, specifically the legal representatives of the Fox Corporation, which owns The Simpsons.

I should not have been surprised. I was writing a history of The Simpsons without their consent—as I had done the previous year in an article for Vanity Fair—for my book, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History published this week by Faber and Faber. Hence the letter from Fox’s lawyers, none of whom I have ever met, but who I assume hold some very deep pockets and the temperate nature of a Nicaraguan death squad. (The letter itself contained very few specifics, but offered the vague threat of “carefully reviewing” my book for accuracy.)

One witness to the early days was particularly annoyed that Groening took so much credit for the show’s success, when “the fat fuck just sat up in his office all day, figuring out ways to make more money [with merchandising]” while Sam Simon and the writers churned out brilliant script after brilliant script.

The problem, or delight, in writing an unauthorized history is that someone’s feathers are bound to get ruffled (by the lawyer’s reaction to my book about The Simpsons—an entity that has earned upwards of $3 billion for its parent companies—it seemed that I had engaged less in an act of ruffling than total depluming). In the case of my Simpsons history, the squawking started early, only a few months into the project.

Back in 2006, as a 26-year old associate at Vanity Fair, I was delighted to be assigned my first feature—the oral history of The Simpsons, something I’d pitched knowing that it would be short, fun, pegged to the release of a major film; a cakewalk for a green reporter. Dead. Fucking. Wrong.

the-simpsons-an-uncensored-unauthorized-history
The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History By John Ortved 352 pages. Faber & Faber. $27. ()

Fox wavered, and took their time getting back to me. Months, in fact. So I started interviewing. I spoke to former writers and producers like Conan O’Brien, Josh Weinstein and Jay Kogen; and a current one, Tim Long. People were fairly candid—I didn’t have their cooperation yet, but The Simpsons in Vanity Fair—it seemed like a no-brainer. Finally, the word came back from Fox’s flaks: no go. There would be no cooperation. Why? James L. Brooks, whose company, Gracie Films, produces the show along with Fox, had heard I’d been asking questions about Sam Simon, the show’s exiled executive producer, and the kibosh was on.

Now Sam Simon, along with Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, is one of the show’s original executive producers. He left the series in the fourth season among much acrimony, kept a big piece of the show, and now spends his untold millions rehabilitating abandoned dogs and donating them to the handicapped. All of this is well known. Why was Brooks going ballistic?

Well, The Simpsons is a brand, a very valuable one at that, and like Coca-Cola, Mickey Mouse, Tom Cruise, or Virgin Airlines, this brand’s profitability is directly related to its perceived image, an image my book would be challenging (most egregiously, by removing of some of the credit attributed to the series’ creator, Matt Groening, and giving it to Sam Simon and the writing team he assembled).

It turns out Matt Groening was not considered a great asset by many in The Simpsons writers room; he was not a sitcom writer and didn’t really didn’t know how to tell those kinds of stories, and Sam Simon let him know it. Once while discussing a script where Marge finally lets her hair down, Matt really wanted to reveal that underneath her beehive, Marge had Rabbit ears—Sam, of course, said no. One witness to the early days was particularly annoyed that Groening took so much credit for the show's success, when "the fat fuck just sat up in his office all day, figuring out ways to make more money [with merchandising]" while Sam Simon and the writers churned out brilliant script after brilliant script.

As original Simpsons writer (and the head writer of Frasier), Jay Kogen put it, “I keep reading books about Star Trek where [creator] Gene Roddenberry was not the guy who was necessarily at the head of it, or the stuff about The Godfather, where it’s Coppola and it’s a bunch of other people. It turns out that what they say about TV and movies being a collaborative effort is really true. It’s a large collaboration. But those are hard stories to tell for the press. They like to make stars out of people, so they pick one guy and say, ‘This guy’s the guy who did it.’ And that’s a pretty good story.”

And that was the story James L. Brooks and Fox wanted to stick with. Fox tried to get me to write a different story, “How about,” one flack told me, “you do a history of how The Simpsons Movie came to be,” adding that this was something they could get on board with (Entertainment Weekly did this exact story when the movie premiered—with quotes from Brooks, Groening, and the cast—you can fall asleep to it here). I declined this very generous offer and continued to work on the story, resulting in some hilarious calls from Fox publicity, with them informing me “There is no Simpsons story in Vanity Fair. We said ‘no’!”

Something I gleaned early from this experience is that Hollywood publicists are so used to journalists kowtowing to their every request that they no longer understand what journalism actually is. We’re talking about cartoon characters here, not Watergate, but the light subject matter doesn’t exclude the possibility of doing real research and telling interesting stories. They actually thought that we were all on the same team, trying to get their client the maximum exposure, using our words and outlets only to extend their message. Vanity Fair and other magazines are complicit in the lionization of celebrities that has led to this imbalance of power, but the editors at Vanity Fair understand that at the end of the day they’re very much a journalistic entity, and pursue stories accordingly.

The story ran in the August 2007 issue, and by the fall I’d signed on with Faber and Faber to expand the material into a book. When word of this got out, Brooks sent a letter to every current Simpsons employee, and all the former ones he thought mattered, asking them not to speak to me. The writers’ agents sent denial after denial for interview requests and eventually stopped responding altogether. When I asked a mutual acquaintance to put in a query with Ari Emanuel, chief of the Endeavor agency (now WME Entertainment)—where many of the Simpsons writers were represented—Emanuel told my friend he couldn’t even begin to talk about it. James L. Brooks was on the warpath.

At one point in my research for the book, I was poring over court papers, trying to decipher what really happened when Tracey Ullman took Fox to court back in 1991. Ullman and the other executive producers of The Tracey Ullman Show were entitled to part of The Simpsons money, because it had been spun off from their show, and had felt like they were not being properly compensated. It was a complicated trial, and Ullman ultimately lost. I emailed Brooks’ representative on the case to see if he could explain some of the finer points—I was coming to Los Angeles later that month, and suggested that if he preferred to talk in person, we could meet over a coffee or lunch. I got back a very formal memorandum, telling me that under no uncertain terms would he discuss James Brooks (still a client) or anything to do with The Simpsons. Furthermore, they knew about the book and would be watching it closely, and so would the lawyers at Fox, copied on the memo. I wrote back, “Does this mean you don’t want to have lunch with me?” That was that.

There was one “D’oh!” in James L. Brooks and the Gracie Films master plan: Many people don’t like James L. Brooks. No one gets as successful as Brooks in Hollywood without making enemies, but people carry a special dislike for the man whose power and smart media control has managed to project an image of an avuncular, loveable neurotic for the better part of 50 years. The book I ended up writing quotes more than 75 sources—some of them Simpsons staffers, former and current, who opened up because they considered his and Matt Groening’s attempt to stomp on my project very “un- Simpsons.”

I have absolutely nothing to complain about—my Simpsons reporting turned out better than if I’d had Fox and Gracie Films’ cooperation, and I received an informative lesson in rudimentary investigatory journalism. But the real educational experience was in dealing with major players, the people who are so rich, or famous, or besotted with themselves that they believe they are above the rules of physics, never mind the First Amendment.

It did not occur to the folks at Fox that the risk of not cooperating could be worse for their bosses’ images than feeding me the story and maintaining some control (and by “bosses” here I mean Brooks and Groening—Rupert Murdoch was forthcoming in our interview and totally helpful). I have to think that they really thought “no” meant “no.” And God bless them. I found sources and stories about the series I probably would not have had time or reason to dig up if I’d been too busy laughing at their writers’ and actors’ charming anecdotes: like the time Matt Groening ate three interns then used their blood to make a devilishly ironic cartoon about mean Republicans and yuppies. (This did not really happen—according to Fox publicity.)

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John Ortved was raised in Toronto and received his bachelor's degree from McGill University. A former editorial associate at Vanity Fair and the youngest feature writer to be published in that magazine, John’s work has also appeared in New York, Interview, Vice, The New York Observer and he is the author of The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History . He has won no literary prizes or journalistic distinctions, but is considered an “Alien of Extraordinary Ability,” by the Department of Homeland Security—of which Barack Obama is ultimately the boss. Living between New York and Toronto, he is an occasional member of the band Henri Fabergé and the Adorables, and maintains the Web site Artisdumb.org.