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The Pictures...They're Coming to Life: Our History with The Simpsons

Bugsy: Hello, Dear Readers. We have decided that, at this point in the development of Never Say Dice, it was time to reveal our Dark Secret. You see, this is not our first collaborative project. Twenty years ago, in the spring of 2000, we started Disco Stu - to my knowledge, the very first Simpsons Tribute Band. And so, due to having too much going on in the past week in honor of this anniversary, we thought we would talk about our experience with the Greatest and Most Important Series in the History of Television, and something that has shaped our friendship for over a quarter-century: The Simpsons.

Andy: Of course. Having watched it for the majority of our lives at the time, and seen re-runs over and over in syndication, it had just become a part of us. You could likely say that about Simpsons and a significant part of our generation.

Bugsy: I consider myself very lucky in that I was able to start watching from (close to) the beginning. Probably Season Two? The first "Simpson-Mania" was fading - the original merchandising glut with the characters on shirts and other junk along with their catch-phrases, but no actual reference to the show or anything from it. So I got to be around to see the series create its own world, and become entrenched enough in society for a second round of merchandising to appear, where the stuff on the junk referenced specific episodes and characters for other fans of the show. And, of course, syndication helped each and every line burrow its way into my memory forevermore. I'm sure that, years after I die, people can visit my grave and hear Simpsons quotes the way you can still detect radiation at the graves of the Radium Girls.

Andy: We had a portable black-and-white TV that sometimes made it into my room as a kid. I’d turn the volume low to 3, medium brown and my parents couldn’t hear it, but I could. I’d stay up late when I was lucky enough to have it and watch reruns of Carol Burnett, usually falling asleep at some point. Mysteriously when I awoke the TV would be off. When another female-led variety show came to the screen, I was set to try the Tracy Ullman Show. I don’t remember it really, but I do remember watching Simpsons shorts in black and white late at night. When they earned themselves their own Christmas special in December of 1989, I was all about it. Which reminds me that my eldest son is about the right age to start watching.

Bugsy: I wonder how a totally new fan might respond to that. I remember when all the stuff in the early episodes about the family living in near-poverty was seen as a thing of the past... I'm sure it will feel disturbingly contemporary now.

In my most recent rewatch, those very early episodes still feel deeply subversive, although I haven't yet been able to figure out quite why. Something about them feels very counterculture. I think I picked up on that as a kid, but at the time it just felt like it was different than anything else on TV.

Andy: Absolutely. I think you can even still feel that into the golden age of the show. I suppose once it became a prime time network it slowly softened, and culture slowly caught up a bit.

Bugsy: Which was palpable in the switch from Thursday nights to Sundays.

The Golden Age had its own subversive moments, but it was a different tone. Season three and four are where you see the "as many jokes as possible, as quickly as possible" approach. Have you seen the Super Eyepatch Wolf video where he takes five seconds from an episode (Bart's bike being run over by a steamroller in "Bart Sells His Soul") and breaks down how many jokes there are in that length of time? The DVD commentaries reveal that a lot of this was from different writers trying to out-do each other.

Andy: Indeed I had not seen that until now, but it was exactly what I was talking about without having the reference. At this point I should admit I haven’t watched the Simpsons in about 12 years. It saddens me greatly to know that the current version of the show isn’t even as good as the last season I watched. Which of course was still far removed from the heyday but still had enjoyable moments. As the video says though, it couldn’t last forever nor should it.

Bugsy: It's probably the question that all us oldschool fans ask each other, but what's your cutoff point? Where do you stop? For me, I think the last season to care about is Season 10, which nestles pretty neatly with the start of Futurama. Some of the people responsible for the Simpsons' best years moved over there, and their absence is felt. Something was... off at the start of Season 11, the beginning of the Mike Scully era. The wackiness, reference-for-the-sake-of-reference gags, and countless celebrity cameos became an end unto themselves, rather than serving the episode or characters. Appropriately enough the chalkboard gag in the last episode of Season 10 ("Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo") is "I'm so very tired."

Andy: Now you’ve forced my hand into looking at episode lists. I think my watching habits became inconsistent after season 13. I did see the movie though in the theater. I’m not sure we even want to get into that. There are a few wacky episodes that are definitely worth a watch after your proposed cutoff. It does go to show you though that it wasn’t a complete drop off but a slow decline.

I don’t think we started this to talk about something we grew to dislike. Started this conversation to talk about a show we loved. The unforgettable episodes, characters and quotes that helped shape our lives. Possibly even changed our roles as storytellers.

Bugsy: You're right, of course. Memorizing Simpsons lines taught me so about the rhythm and timing of humor... of language. There's so much craft and beauty in that writing, there's a reason they stick in your head.

And the actors delivering them did a perfect job, every time. One reason I enjoy the DVD commentaries so much is that makes you realize that these are things that people made, one part at a time. They didn't spring into being naturally, but it was done so well that it felt that way.

What are some episodes that just impress you as a storyteller, where things come together that shouldn't fit, but Simpsons Magic makes it happen? I would probably pick "Homer's Barbershop Quartet." The premise of combining the history of the Beatles with the weirdness of the mid-80s - and through barbershop, no less... it's amazing that it works at all, let alone as beautifully as it does.

Andy: I think I really appreciate it when different parts of the story, say A Plot and B Plot end up intertwining. Treehouse of Horror V and 22 Short films about Springfield come to mind. Sort of the building joke described in the video you mentioned, but on a grander scale.

Bugsy: "22 Short Films" is a masterclass in pacing and narrative flow. It never feels too crowded or busy despite its relentless pace. Just one memorable bit after another.

Andy: I think almost everyone loves that episode. Everyone else loves Ned Flanders.

One wonders how they even syndicate that episode. I know I’ve watched old episodes and found jokes I missed because they cut them for extra commercials during syndication run. Something that fast do you even begin? Maybe they just don’t play it. I don’t even know if/where Simpsons is syndicated anymore.

Bugsy: I think streaming has replaced syndication. Sometimes, the cuts would be tiny seconds here and there rather than whole scenes. But a few episodes made it into syndication without cuts, that may have been one of them.

I'm rather irritated at the current streaming form, though. To make the image fit a modern 16:9 screen, they cut the top and bottom off of the image and just show the middle - completely removing some jokes, like the fact that all the different Duff flavors come out of the same pipe. Sure glad I have my DVDs!

To wrap it up, what do you think is the most important thing you've learned from the Simpsons, as both a storyteller and an entertainer? In other words - as a GM?

Andy: Considering I’ve learned almost everything I know from the show, that is a tall order of a question. I think building a world with your players is important. Or in a more general sense building a scene with your audience. You build your performance off of them, and they in turn build off of you. You end up with this shared experience with “in jokes” that forms this close knit group that others may appreciate but find it hard to understand without digging into the history. The same can be said of Simpson’s, though the group is much larger, and the show was our entertainer. Fans of the golden era have this common bond. The ability to hold an entire conversation in nothing but Simpsons quotes. If you can build that with your players or audience, everything else is that much easier.

Bugsy: I was going to say something similar, that if you and your audience/players can get in a shared mindset of tone and expectations, the possibilities are limitless. It's crazy how much stuff the Simpsons threw at us during its peak, but always felt right. Now it's our turn to keep that tradition going in our own shared storytelling experiences.

If our readers can't tell, this is something we can talk about for hours and hours... and we have! But that will be it for this week. Until next time, keep watching the skis!*

* skies

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