Morgan Spurlock on the Simpsons 20th anniversary documentary
by Joel Keller, posted Jan 7th 2010 2:02PM
I've been holding this interview for almost six months, but I think it was worth it. When I was in Pasadena last summer for the TCA press tour (whose winter edition I'll be leaving for on Friday morning... eep!), I spoke to Morgan Spurlock about the 20th anniversary film he was making about The Simpsons. FOX has finally decided to air that film, entitled The Simpsons 20th Anniversary Special -- In 3-D! On Ice!, on January 10, along with the venerable cartoon's 450th episode.
Spurlock was just in the initial stages of filming the documentary when I talked to him, but his views on the show, how it and the perception of it has changed over the years, and some of the interesting things he learned about the show made for a fun interview. Since I didn't know how long the movie was going to be, I start the talk by expressing some surprise about its length.
The movie's two hours?
It'll be one hour.
One hour. On a show with such a long history...
How do you tackle 20 years? I cry a lot. I pray a lot. I mean, for us, the way we're going about it now, I'm trying to look at this as trying to pick and choose moments that were kind of key moments in the show's history, the effect that it had on our culture, on people, the way that it offended people internationally.
I mean, this is a show that literally was a fantastic...when you look at what's on television today and you think back then, it's hard to believe that people were so upset about The Simpsons. And this show that was so fantastically satirical and smart and incisive, but people were offended by this. And not only in the United States, but around the world. So we're gonna touch on all those. As much as it's the most loved show, we lose sight of the fact that it really pissed a lot of people off back in the day.
Because Bart said 'Eat my shorts.'
Eat my shorts, and he's an underachiever and proud of it, you know.
When you think about, say, who's writing, who's on The Simpsons staff now, and realize like how young they were when the show started...
And some of these guys who are on, they say there's like a couple of guys I think who literally have never lived a day that The Simpsons haven't been around. I think they've got a couple guys that are like in their early 20's.
Is that difficult for you to wrap your mind around?
Well, it's amazing... I had this conversation with somebody else, and I said what's interesting to me is that we can take a step back and look at the world through a prism of a time when The Simpsons didn't exist, and understand what television was, and what existed on television, The Huxtable world that was there before The Simpsons came along and this idea of embracing a dysfunctional family.
And I think that now there's people who literally the only prism they've been able to see the world through is through the prism of The Simpsons, which I'm fascinated by.
What was one of the better insights you got from one of those younger people who've only known a world with The Simpsons? It's like people who only know the Yankees winning. It's that kind of thing.
(chuckles) Well, yeah, exactly. I think there's a fantastic... I don't know... snarkiness that comes from a lot of... I look at my nieces and nephews, who are literally in that window. Kids who've grown up their whole life with The Simpsons. And when we came home from school and turned on the television, we would watch Gilligan's Island or what was the show... another show that was always on...
Bewitched or something, or I Dream of Jeannie...
Bewitched, yeah, something like... Brady Bunch. Always on. Every day. It was on every day on TBS when I would get home. And now, kids come home and the syndicated shows they're watching are The Simpsons, these shows that have a great point of view, and are very sharp, and very witty.
And I feel kinda cheated. I feel like there's kids who have a much different sense of humor when they look at the world. I don't think it's fed the complacency, but I think it has fed this distrust. There's a distrust now that I think kids have that I think The Simpsons have helped feed.
Just of like parents, of society, of government?
Of parents, of corporations, of government; like this one thing I think's at the root of that show is there is this kind of, there's this distrust of the big behemoth, whatever that big behemoth may be.
Is that healthy, do you think?
I think a little distrust is always healthy. (laughs)
Well, that's true. I've watched enough of your stuff to know that for sure.
Yeah, I think that I'm a believer that people are inherently good, which I also think that that show really embraces, that at the heart of everyone, people are inherently good. But at the same time, you shouldn't trust everybody.
What do you think motivates Matt Groening, Al Jean, some of the guys who've been in the show since the start or almost the start?
Piles of money. (laughs)
Creatively, at a certain point, you just are skating along. But these guys seem to be energized every year.
And I think there's stuff to always cover. I think the film did a great job of really taking it to another level of really showing that the show was still very relevant, it still had a huge audience impact. I mean, you gotta think, (The Simpsons Movie) is the number one movie in Argentina. It beat Titanic. You know, it's phenomenal.
But it's interesting, because the show is much more difficult to put together than a normal sitcom.
It's nine months... It's so difficult, and like you look at South Park, where South Park has now gotten it down to where something could be on the news and literally a week later, they have a show about it. I think that for The Simpsons, it still always comes back down to the writing defining something that can have this evergreen quality to it so it's topical, yet it isn't like day and date. And I think that they've done a great job of really being consistent that way.
How much of the show will you go back and watch for this movie?
By the time we are finished, I will have watched every episode. All 440 multiple times. And like right now, I'm about halfway done.
In these "later years" that long-time fans maybe aren't as appreciative of, how loyal of a watcher are you?
Oh, I mean, I think after I got out of college, and once life started, it was one of those things where it wasn't destination TV for me anymore. So I probably dropped off around season five or six. And it was one of those things where if I would be home and there, I would watch it. But I wasn't like pushing to go see it.
So have you re-examined some of the later episodes at this point?
Yeah, I mean, I've started...I mean, we've piecemealed stuff together. Especially like international ones that we're trying to find stuff from to watch. And I still think that it's strong. The people who say that the show's gone downhill or the show's falling, I don't agree with that.
Was it surprising that they had strong episodes?
No, I don't think it's surprising. I think that when you look at the pedigree of the show, I think that of course they had strong episodes.
Is this maybe a case similar to Saturday Night Live, where people remember the era where they grew up watching the show and that's their favorite?
I think that's part of it, but the difference with Saturday Night Live is there's different people who come in. There's a revolving door of new characters, of new bits. You know, it's like, if Chevy Chase was still there falling down stairs, you know, we probably would be kinda tired of it. But the thing that's kept Saturday Night Live interesting and exciting is a new cast every four or five years.
With The Simpsons, I think that what's consistently kept it sharp is new writers coming in and out of that circle. So it's people who've been inspired by the show, who've kind of learned from the show, who come in with brand new ideas of, well what if we tried this? And I think that's kind of kept this fire going.
What's the oddest looking international version you've seen?
The oddest international version? Well there was this great Saudi Arabian... it wasn't Saudi Arabian, but it was a middle eastern rip-off called The Sansooms... Shanshoon... I can't even remember what the name of it is now. But they did this middle eastern version of The Simpsons, which is spectacular.
And all the characters are different?
All the characters are different.
And Marge is wearing a burqa?
(laughs) Yeah, pretty much. It's amazing though. Yeah, very much set in a middle eastern home.