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An insider's look at The Simpsons

He was already tackling a TV geek's nightmare: the first extensive, behind-the-scenes history of TV's longest-running comedy show, The Simpsons.

But while researching the 2007 Vanity Fair magazine story that would become his new book, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, John Ortved realized something more daunting:

Almost no one who still works on the program was going to speak with him on the record.

So Ortved tapped a mountain of past press interviews to include the three guys most responsible for The Simpsons' best work: cartoonist-creator Matt Groening, executive producer James L. Brooks and long-gone executive producer Sam Simon.

Other big names did talk to him, some lured by Vanity Fair's name, including Fox TV owner Rupert Murdoch, the network's first CEO, Barry Diller, voice talent Hank Azaria (Apu, Chief Wiggum, Moe) and former Simpsons writer-turned-late-night-star Conan O'Brien. The result is a sprawling oral history detailing the triumphs and petty personal battles behind a 20-year-old, $3 billion TV institution.

And the stories are priceless: Hollywood powerhouse Brooks (Taxi, Terms of Endearment) standing by as a longtime friend with cancer was cut out of Simpsons profits; the mercurial Simon quitting the show with a piece of the program worth $20 million to $30 million annually; the oddity of the day Michael Jackson appeared as a special guest (Azaria said, "I remember, even then, staring at his nose, and it was all about 'Don't stare at his nose.'?")

Here are a few fun tidbits from the book:

• The character of Waylon Smithers was based on a real person. Sorta.

Brooks' assistant, seen by some as a hatchet man, inspired some classic story lines featuring callous boss Monty Burns and his obsequious aide, Smithers, Ortved said. "Jim Brooks had some medical condition where he needed blood, and he sent this letter around to the staff (which) came across like 'Your blood could be running through the veins of a very important Hollywood mogul (laughs).' I think that made it into the episode 'Burns Needs Blood.' "

• Although a team of the best sitcom writers in Hollywood were cranking out Simpsons episodes in its heyday, Groening took the lion's share of credit, sparking resentment.

"These big brands like to have an ambassador. … it's easier to have Matt Groening as the figurehead and James L. Brooks as the genius behind it, never mind that there was also Sam Simon and a room of 10 guys who can write circles around Groening. It's just easier and ultimately more profitable to have a public perception that the ambassador carries the company on his shoulders."

Wading through two decades of squabbles over The Simpsons' history can make you seriously cynical about show business.

"The nice people in Hollywood are the ones you never hear about. They're dead, you know … or poor."

Festival of Reading

John Ortved will appear at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Saturday at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He will speak at 11 a.m. in the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute.

An insider's look at The Simpsons 10/18/09 [Last modified: Sunday, October 18, 2009 1:47pm]

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