I think I’ve figured out “The Simpsons” problem.See, in the sweet old days of “The Simpsons” (circa seasons 3-11) the jokes were so slick and nimble that it made you feel smarter if you got them. You could tell they were written by Ivy League smartasses, but they were accessible Ivy League smartasses that knew how to raise us up without condescending to us.
Nowadays, and for the last several years it seems, the writers have been unable to capture the zeitgeist despite being new teams of fresh writers. And I don’t buy that they’ve run out of material, because the story origins have crisscrossed and redacted themselves so many times that they’re now essentially telling us new versions of old episodes. Surely there’s new comedy gold to mine in these old tunnels. And yet, it is as if the writers don’t know how to craft a slick line. Gone are the double (and triple) entendres. Each “zinger” and punch comes across like something I could have written (and that’s not a good thing), and in some cases, I find myself going, “Oh man, I wish Homer had said _________ instead. That would have made me laugh.”
I further don’t buy the George Lucas-inspired, “It’s the same great material, you’re just older so it doesn’t seem as resonant to you.” Good writing and sharp plotting are timeless (see: “It Happened One Night” or “Animal House”). This current vid of Mr. Burns siding with Mitt Romney is beautifully indicative of “The Simpsons” problem. The premise is that Mr. Burns, being a rich old (evil) coot, likes the other rich old (relative to Obama) coot. This is a one-liner expanded into a full bit. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. Here it doesn’t.
Then the bit delves into all the ways that Romney is evil in a style that suits Burns, culminating with him bringing in “the dog that rode atop Romney’s car” to coax it into saying it liked the trip. Wisely, the dog chooses neither of the “two evils” and creates a mortal third option for itself. The windup is that we are screwed either way. But where is the pizazz? Yes, I enjoyed the books on “binders” and “women,” but sight gags are merely sweet icing on a turd cake. An analogy, for me, that really sums up the crux of my issue: on one of the show’s old DVD commentaries, a writer explains that Bart’s hero is the superhero, “Radioactive Man.” And Homer works in a nuclear power plant, which essentially makes him a “real-life Radioactive Man.” That is the brilliance that is completely missed in the modern-era Simpsons. Can you find even a shred of depth of character insight in this Mr. Burns/Mitt Romney clip? Nope. It’s all face-value humor.
“The Simpsons” typically takes nine months to film a full episode, so for once they had the rare ability to make an incisive commentary on contemporary pop politics (ala South Park) in this two-minute clip. And you could almost feel that the entire clip evolved out of the fact that “broccoli and meat” sounds an awful lot like “Barack and Mitt.” That and some liberal writer wanting to remind people that this guy once drove with a dog on top of his car. If that is the brand of humor Harvard is producing, tell the writers to save their money and go to Gudger College … or worse, Rutgers.
I’m not smart enough to tell “The Simpsons” how to fix their writing — I’m only smart enough to recognize they should.