Saturday, April 28, 2018

636: Embarrassing Bans- The Simpsons

Anytime someone tries to push any type of boundary, there’s always someone there to take offense and try to push back. As has been shown time and time again, however, the overreacting prudes are always proven to be the fools they always were. The Simpsons wasn’t the first piece of pop culture that was banned or criticized by reactionaries, but it is one of the more recent examples of something that was criticized by people who never watched an episode, yet eventually became something we take for granted as an American institution.

Flash back to 1989- Jack Nicholson dazzled theater goers with his interpretation of the classic American literary figure The Joker, Milli Vanilli conquered NBC’s Sister Kate before conquering the hearts of America and crude animated filler material was stretched out to fill 30 minutes of dead air on the last place television network. Yes, The Simpsons were about to take the world by storm… However, if various religious and authority types had their way, the conquering of America by this new, subversive cartoon would not have actually happened.

Of course, most of these types decided the show was no good based solely on what they imagined the show to be like. Had they actually watched it, they would have seen a family that attends church every Sunday and truly loves one another. Bart’s underachieving (despite what was on the T-Shirts) was never shown in a positive light. Out of touch politicians like then-president George Herbert Walker Bush made blanket statements that probably impressed the “get off my lawn” retired types, but really just exposed them as the out of touch fossils they were. Schools banned Bart Simpson shirts and merchandise in knee jerk reactions which no doubt made them more popular; misguided parents prohibited their kids from watching the show and there were “boycotts” threatened against stores that carried the merchandise. It all seems ridiculous now, but this was Serious Business[TM] at the time and resulted in various editorials being written and much clicking of tongues. What was to be done about this Homer Simpson? As it turned out, nothing. Once people started watching the show, they realized that it wasn’t anything like the detractors’ imaginations. It was a hilarious, sometimes heartwarming look at modern life. It just happened to be in cartoon form.

Eventually successive waves of Simpsons merchandise and promotions proved that the general public had accepted and embraced this flawed but loving family. So the show became an institution and the reactionaries went on to find new things to be offended about. I’d like to think they really are embarrassed by their ignorant complaints, but those types rarely ever feel shame. This quote from Bart to Helen Lovejoy seems oddly appropriate:

“No offense lady, but what you don’t know could fill a warehouse.”

What a cromulent observation.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

636: The Best of The Simpsons - Bart the Lover

In this episode, we get a heartwarming and hilarious “A-Story”, a funny “B-Story” that could have stood on its own, and tons of quotable lines. Yes, it all came together in the Simpsons episode- Bart the Lover.

The episode begins with a “controversial” parody of those stupid educational films that everyone was forced to watch in school. In the movie, a dweeby kid from the fifties is forced to live in a world without zinc. When he discovers all of the everyday things that do not work without zinc, he decides to shoot himself in the head. Of course, he cannot do this because the firing pin uses zinc. After admitting his ignorance, he begs for the magic of zinc to return, which it does. Closely mirroring the real educational short, A Case of Spring Fever, this parody is classic Simpsons. They get the tone and look of these types of films down and play it all for laughs. (Unfortunately, some people found fault with the kid trying to commit suicide, but the circumstances are so ridiculous that any such quibbles are petty and unfounded.) At the end of the movie, the bell rings and we get a glimpse of Mrs. Krabappel’s lonely life. She sadly calls after her students to stay and learn more about zinc. She even offers to do their homework.

Sad and despondent, Mrs. Krabappel goes home. Everytime she finds herself outdoors, it is raining. As more bad luck befalls her, she happens upon a Personals column in the Springfield Shopper and decides to place an ad of her own.

The next day, Principal Skinner is trying to calm the kids down for an assembly. The assembly is another dead on parody of those quasi-educational assemblies that all of us attended in school. This time, the assembly appears to be sponsored by a Yo-Yo company that is trying to sell more Yo-Yos to kids. Miss Hoover and Mrs. Krabappel sit at the back of the auditorium and debate the educational value of the assembly with the following classic exchange:

MISS HOOVER: I question the educational value of this assembly.

MRS. KRABAPPEL: Ah, it’ll give the kids something to look back on when they’re pumping gas for a living.

Of course, this assembly leads to “Yo-Yo Fever” at the school, which slowly drives Mrs. Krabappel over the edge. Right after admonishing her class to stop submitting Yo-Yo related homework, Bart accidentally breaks the class aquarium with his Yo-Yo. Mrs. Krabappel confiscates the Yo-Yo and gives Bart after school detention.

While serving his detention, Bart recovers his Yo-Yo from Mrs. Krabappel’s desk and happens upon her personal ad. Armed with this information, Bart decides to write a letter to Mrs. Krabappel that purports to be from a mystery lover named “Woodrow”.

Meanwhile, Marge decides that Santa’s Little Helper could use a doghouse. As she prepares to head to the store to buy one, Homer stops her and decides that he wants to save money by building a doghouse himself. As he attempts to do so, he discovers that it isn’t as easy as he had first thought. His constant swearing is overheard by the Flanders boys next door. Todd begins to pick up the bad habit and Ned decides to figure out what could be causing it.

Bart receives a response to his first letter as Woodrow. Mrs. Krabappel has seen fit to include a picture of herself seductively posing on a bed in a negligee. Flanders begins his detective work and traces the bad language back to Homer. He confronts Homer and they agree that if Homer stops swearing in front of the Flanders boys, then Ned will shave off his mustache. When Homer brings this up to Marge, she agrees with Ned and suggests that Homer use a swear jar to help him stop his blue language. Homer grudgingly agrees. We then get treated to a hilarious montage of bad things happening to Homer that result in deposits to the swear jar, the most hilarious being one that takes place in church! (We also discover that Ned began getting offers to appear in television commercials after he shaved his mustache off and now receives hefty residual checks, to Homer’s obvious chagrin.)

In the world of Bart, Bart cruelly invites Mrs. Krabappel out on a date with “Woodrow” in order to laugh at her when she gets her hopes up. Sure enough, Mrs. Krabappel is devastated when Woodrow fails to show up. Homer, on the other hand, suffers injuries that would make the Pope curse like Ozzy Osbourne yet can only muster a “Fiddle-Dee-Dee”. Cured of his swearing, he decides to destroy the doghouse he’s been building. Marge takes the brimming Swear Jar to the store and buys a doghouse for Santa’s Little Helper and a six pack of Duff for Homer.

Bart decides to confess to his crime and asks his family for advice. They all agree that Bart has been cruel, but that he cannot confess for fear of making Mrs. Krabappel even more embarrassed. They decide to write a letter for the ages, one that will explain Woodrow’s absence, yet still make Mrs. Krabappel feel loved. (and doesn’t include the phrase ‘I Am Gay’) They accomplish this admirably and so ends the greatest 22 minutes of television.

What makes this episode so great? This episode gets everything right. The Simpsons is at its best when it is hilarious, sharply satirical and also heartwarming. When The Simpsons first came out, so many people focused solely on the hijinks of Bart and totally ignored the underlying love and respect woven into each story. Despite the fact that everything that can go wrong often does go wrong with Our Favorite Family, good always triumphs in the end and the love that the family feels for each other always wins out. Despite the fact that Bart acts cruelly in this instance, his humanity and conscience win out and he seeks to make things right regardless of the consequences.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

636: Homer Simpson’s Many Careers

Over the years, Homer has had many positions. One of his more interesting positions was as a Hollywood assistant. Homer literally fell into his dream job- as a personal assistant to Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Eager to keep their presence in Springfield secret, they hire Homer to run errands for them. Homer is ushered into Hollywood's upper echelon, becoming friends with producer Ron Howard and rubbing elbows with the likes of Brian Grazer. Other high profile celebrities consider moving to town until Homer outs his new friends. Media descend upon the Baldwin/Basinger compound, resulting in Homer's firing.

After listening to a voice in his head whom he does not know, Homer decides to open a traveling museum featuring things he stole from the celebrities to get even with them. This eventually leads to the departure of the celebrities and Homer must return to the nuclear power plant.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

636: Made Up Cromulent Words

The Simpsons have made more than just television history- they’ve made their mark on the world as well. Several words coined on The Simpsons have made it into the dictionary as well. Words like “embiggens”...


And more importantly, “D’oh!”

Monday, April 23, 2018

636: An Un-enchanted Episode

The original pilot for The Simpsons was Some Enchanted Evening, which featured Penny Marshall as the diabolical Ms. Botz, who turns out to be The Babysitter Bandit.

When the finished episode was submitted from Korea, the animation looked terrible and Fox was reluctant to air it. Instead, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire became the first  episode that would air. Some Enchanted Evening would be reshot and become the first season’s season finale.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

636: Humble Beginnings

When Fox originally approached Matt Groening to produce short cartoons that would air on The Tracey Ullman Show, they wanted him to base the shorts on his comic strip Life in Hell. A meeting between Matt and Fox executives was quickly scheduled and he prepared some concept drawings for them to look at.

While Mr. Groening sat in Fox's waiting room, however, he began to panic. These were his characters, his life's work. He would have to sign away his rights to them to get these cartoons made. What if the show got canceled? Matt pondered walking out of the building completely. 

But then, he had a spark of  inspiration. He quickly began drawing a strange looking family. The cartoon could follow their adventures. He wasn't sure if the network would like the idea, but at least he wouldn't burn any bridges by walking out. 

The executives loved the idea. Using his Life in Hell characters might have been too edgy. But this dysfunctional family? They'd be perfect. Strange to think that the phenomenon that became The Simpsons began on a whim.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

636: The Simpsons Make History

On 12/17/1989, television history was made when FOX aired Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, the first episode broadcast of The Simpsons. It was a mega-hit, though dismissed by some as a crude fad that would quickly flame out. After the initial hype wore off, however, viewers settled in for an amazing run. 

Homer would become a giant slayer, taking down NBC's flagship program at the time- The Cosby Show. The show itself has become an American institution; in fact it is hard to imagine that there may be a time when it is no longer in production. The show still seems to be going strong- when FXX first aired a Simpsons marathon, the network’s ratings went from 97th place to 1st place literally overnight.

And now, the show will mark two milestones in the next week; tomorrow it will tie Gunsmoke’s record for most episodes of a series- 635. Next Sunday it will break that record with episode 636. An amazing accomplishment for our favorite family. Congratulations and thanks for the laughs!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Pilot Week! The Oddities of TV Land

The saddest fact about pilots is that the vast majority of them will never see the light of day. The networks receive thousands of scripts each year. They buy options on hundreds of them, produce about 25 or 30 and purchase 10-15 of them. It’s a struggle for any project to make it air, much less get renewed. Even if the show does get picked up, there are few guarantees that it will last long. Typically new shows will get a 10-15 episode order for a first season with an option for what is called the “Back 9” which fills out a full season order. The competition to get a role in a pilot can be pretty fierce. Sometimes, even if one gets a role on a pilot they might not go much further even if their show gets picked up.

The most visible case of this was Empty Nest. The show was originally supposed to star Rita Moreno and Paul Dooley as a married couple who lived next door to The Golden Girls. They were introduced in a back door pilot, though when it got picked up the next season, only David Leisure and the set returned. Richard Mulligan took up residence in the house and its previous occupants were never spoken about again.

Growing Pains originally featured a different actress in the role of Carol Seaver- Elizabeth Ward. When ABC picked up the show, it held a viewing of the pilot before a test audience. After evaluating the feedback, the network chose to replace Elizabeth Ward with Tracey Gold, who had originally been rejected for the role. To save money, the network only reshot Carol Seaver’s scenes. Eagle-eyed viewers can still catch a glimpse of Elizabeth Ward in the background of one scene.

Most of the time a show whose pilot was rejected is, for the most part, dead. The networks typically won’t revisit a project they’ve rejected. In the case of ABC’s The Middle, the original pilot starring Ricki Lake as Frankie Heck was rejected in 2007. Two years later, ABC would revisit the show with a mostly new cast. The only actor who was asked back was Atticus Shaffer.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Pilot Week! Backdoor Pilots

Backdoor Pilots are episodes of existing television shows that double as pilots of new spinoff shows. These types of pilots allow a network to hedge its bets by producing a pilot that it knows will actually get broadcasted and produce revenue. While most other types of pilots will never see the light of day, these pilots typically always get a broadcast. The added benefit of this type of pilot is that it typically gets a larger audience than it might normally attract. An example of this type of pilot was NCIS, which was a Backdoor pilot spun off from Jag.

NCIS, in turn, provided a launching point for NCIS: Los Angeles, which had its own Backdoor pilot episode of NCIS.

NCIS also launched NCIS: New Orleans in a Backdoor pilot episode.

Not every Backdoor pilot results in a successful launch, however. One of the most notorious Backdoor pilots that didn’t get a pickup was Kelly’s Kids, which concerned a couple who lived next door to the Bradys of The Brady Bunch. The never before seen neighbors adopted three kids and the show would have followed their lives as they dealt with their newly expanded family. The show didn’t get picked up and the neighbors were never seen again.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Pilot Week! The Unairable Air

As the cost to make just about any television programming skyrocketed, so did the cost of making a pilot. The costs became less tenable considering that most of these pilots would never see the light of day. (Even a show that got picked up might not have a usable pilot.) The television networks were literally throwing away millions of dollars on programming that was not intended for broadcast. 

How could the networks try to recoup some of their losses? By airing the shows in the summer offseason. CBS introduced a show called Summer Playhouse where it could burn off its unused pilots to at least make something from them. ABC actually tried to do something greater with its unused pilots- it ran many of them during the regular season as Love, American Style. While most of the episodes were comedic pilots, some non-pilots were mixed in. Despite being a place where failed pilots were supposed to die, it gave a very famous, hugely successful show a second chance. Happy Days was originally rejected by ABC and its pilot was burned off as an episode of Love, American Style. This successful airing would result in the show getting picked up.

It was easy to string together half hour sitcom pilots and find a place for them on the schedule. It was often difficult to do this for hour long dramas. It soon became common for networks to produce dramatic pilots as made for television movies. During the heyday of the Movie of the Week, it was easy to find room for a two hour pilot. Such was the case in 1987 when NBC aired Bates Motel, a planned spinoff of the Psycho franchise. After the costly pilot was rejected by NBC, it recouped some of its investment by airing the pilot as a film.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Pilot Week! An Industry Standard

Pilots have been around since the early days of television. Early television executives felt that the only way to tell if a show was viable was to see a sample of it on the screen. This was seen as being a strange method for determining the viability of a project by the legacy Hollywood studios who saw these pilots as a waste of money. While Walt Disney was one of the first studio chiefs who “defected” to television as a way to finance DISNEYLAND, he chafed at ABC’s insistence that he make a Pilot. In the end, he didn’t have to make a pilot, but that was still the exception and not the rule.

Part of the reason why the legacy studios were reluctant to produce pilots was because it was considered to be a waste of time and resources to produce something that might never air on television. Even if a show was picked up, the network would often request drastic changes which made the pilots obsolete. Characters would get recast, sets changed, and premises altered. Sometimes these changes were so drastic they required extensive reshoots. Many times the pilot had to be completely reshot; the original discarded or forgotten.

One of the most famous shows of the 1950’s was I Love Lucy. It became synonymous with early television and was one of the first shows to record on film. At the time, most shows went out live and were not recorded for posterity. Desi Arnaz, co-producer of I Love Lucy, anticipated a future in which reruns of television shows would be aired by local affiliates for a fee, providing a future revenue stream. Despite this visionary thinking, the I Love Lucy pilot had been discarded and was lost for decades until a copy of it was discovered under a bed.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Harry Anderson, 1952 - 2018

Pilot Week! - “Pilot Season”

While most people look fondly on this time of year as the beginning of Spring, in Hollywood it is Pilot Season. Pilot Season is when the television networks produce sample episodes of programs they’re considering for Fall. From the thousands of scripts the network receives each year, hundreds get evaluated and a handful actually get produced as pilots. Despite spending millions of dollars on these pilots, only a fraction of them will ever air. This week, we take a look at the crazy world of pilots.

The original ‘Empty Nest’ Pilot did not feature Richard Mulligan.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Streaming Saturdays: “On My Block”

Looking for a fresh, new comedy to binge watch this weekend? Why not try the charming Netflix series On My Block? Unlike other shows that depict life in the ‘hood, On My Block features a group of regular kids with regular problems who just happen to live in South Central Los Angeles. They are bright, quirky and normal- and despite the fact that they live a short drive away from Hollywood, their stories are rarely told. On My Block is bingeable, fun and refreshing. Check it out on Netflix!