October 2009

Benjamin Jacob Hollars


The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved

Any book that asks us not to read it half as often as John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History might just be worth listening to. “If you bought this book to learn something about comedy or its workings, I suggest you return it,” writes Ortved in the opening line of his preface. Pages later, he discourages us yet again, noting that if we’re interested in individual episodes we should “go on the Internet” rather than bother with his book. Ortved’s snide humor and disrespectful attitude toward the reader in no way encourages us to read further. Rather than welcoming us into the world of The Simpsons, on occasion, he seems to lock us out.

Ortved classifies his book as an “oral history,” though it reads more like a hodge-podge than a mosaic. To his credit, he does quote over seventy-five Simpsons personalities -- from creator Matt Groening to guest star Steven Tyler -- but this chorus of voices is often more dissonant than harmonic. Ortved’s own contributions to the book are few, and his occasional insertion seems to be for the sole purpose of stringing one quote to the next. It is this artlessness that disappoints the reader most. When Ortved begins quoting commentary from The Simpsons DVDs, we begin questioning his journalistic excellence. When he begins quoting unnamed sources, we question it further. In the rare instance when Ortved does take a stab at synthesis, it is often shrouded by his own self-consciousness. At one point he notes an “awesome” trend he’s noticed, though the use of the word in and of itself manages to stomp his credibility. We are often left asking: Are we dealing with a journalist or a crazed fan? The answer doesn’t come easily.

The book is strongest when Ortved allows his sources to talk uninterrupted, and since his sources do contribute to over 90% of the text, the uber-Simpsons fan is in for an informative read. However, this book is only for the uber-fan, which Ortved makes quite clear when he references jokes that only the well-watched fan might pick up on. It’s funny if you’re in the know; it’s alienating if you’re not.

But the book manages to disappoint even the uber-fan, often reducing Ortved’s oral history to a chorus of money-hungry producers and cast members publically sniping one another. We can’t blame Ortved for this, though the book does seem to revel in the bitterness residing just below the show’s surface. At times it feels like a trumped up marketing ploy, the front flap capitalizing on the show’s supposed discontent, noting the “outside egos clashing with studio executives” every chance it can.

Yet despite its flaws, Ortved’s book does offer a new lens for Simpsons fans, shedding light on the various names we’ve watched flash past us on the show’s credits for hundreds of episodes. There is valuable information here, if you’re willing to wade through the muck to find it. And in the end, despite Ortved’s insistence that we put the book down, we’re pretty glad we didn’t.


The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History by John Ortved
Faber & Faber
ISBN: 0865479887
352 Pages

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