Snarky self-awareness shook up landscape
Lucille Ball may be the founding mother of the TV comedy, but just about every member of today’s sitcom scribe tribe can be considered one of Homer’s Kids.
That’s because in ways great and small, “The Simpsons” has radically transformed the situation comedy. Those who work in the TV biz say it’s hard to overestimate just how many changes in the form can be traced back to the citizens of Springfield.
“It was the first post-modern TV show,” argues “The OC” creator Josh Schwartz.
In other words, past sitcoms almost always lived squarely in the fictional universe which their creators had fashioned. Mary, Archie — and certainly Fred Flintstone — never winked at the camera; it was rare that sitcom characters even acknowledged a real world outside the four corners of the TV set.
But “The Simpsons,” according to Schwartz, “commented on itself and the culture it was influencing while still being emotional and true to its own world.”
“Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane agrees, noting “The Simpsons” was also “the first show to make aggressive use of pop-culture references from the real world we live in.
“It was the point in which we stopped hearing fake names and breakfast cereals, and started hearing names we all knew,” he says. “It was unusual for a show to mention another show, but they did that, too.”
Now such occurrences are commonplace in network TV. “Grey’s Anatomy,” for example, serves up episodes in which characters complain to each other of too many words with “Mc” attached. “Scrubs,” meanwhile, takes a direct shot at timeslot rival “Grey’s,” with one character commenting he loves “Grey’s” because it’s “like they’ve been watching our lives and then put it on TV.”
“The Simpsons,” along with another sitcom that bowed around the same time — “Seinfeld” — ushered in a new age of TV comedy in which writers seemed to be writing for the other writers in the room, rather than just the mainstream masses.
It’s probably no coincidence that the show bowed as a regular series in 1989-90, just a few years after Nielsen made demographic audience data (read: adults 18-49) quickly available to nets via the advent of People Meters. Webheads — particularly those at upstart Fox — realized they could make big bucks by delivering young, sophisticated urban eyeballs to advertisers, rather than simply aiming to churn out the least-objectionable programs.
“It brought a real latenight sensibility to primetime,” argues “How I Met Your Mother” co-creator Carter Bays, a former David Letterman scribe. “It was one of the first places in primetime where irony and snarkiness had a home.”
Bays notes that “The Simpsons” also “felt like it was written by people who weren’t fans of sitcoms” — which is not to suggest that the “Simpsons” brain trust loathed the genre. Instead, Bays says, they seemed hell-bent on shaking up all of the conventions surrounding it.
Adds MacFarlane: “There was some risk to it. They weren’t afraid to make noise.”
But while other out-there shows of the era got attention by being loud (think “Married … With Children”), “The Simpsons” ushered in its revolution with subtlety.
Because it took the form of a cartoon, many in the audience figured it was harmless family fare. Even early brouhahas related to Bart’s brattiness (“Eat my shorts”) didn’t hint at just how fearless the show would become in tackling a host of social and political hot potatoes.
“Suddenly the edgiest show on television was animated,” MacFarlane says.
“The Simpsons” also signaled the beginning of the end for the traditional family laffer.
“Cosby,” “Roseanne” and “Home Improvement” would last several more years, but the “just add husband, wife, two kids and a couch” brand of TV comedy suddenly seemed irrelevant. There’s a reason that Fox wouldn’t launch another successful family comedy until “Malcolm in the Middle” — essentially a live-action cartoon — came along in 2000.
“There’s not a family comedy that comes along today that doesn’t in some way pay homage to ‘The Simpsons,'” asserts Mike Clements, a Warner Bros.-based TV producer who used to develop comedies for the WB.
Schwartz goes a bit further in assessing the show’s impact.
“I think ‘The Simpsons’ has influenced anyone who has owned a TV set in the past 20 years,” he says.