“In the beginning, I was skeptical it could be successful, but I was not skeptical it could be good. I was hoping for 13 episodes that my friends would like. It’s a good lesson, isn’t it? If you do something trying to make your friends laugh and that you can be proud of, you can also be successful.”
—Sam Simon on his work on The Simpsons
After the recent passing of Sam Simon on March 8th, I’m sure most people noticed a brief news tidbit that mentioned that a creator of The Simpsons passed away. As one of the three names that comes up on the iconic television to begin each Simpson’s episode, for many years I completely ignored the name Sam Simon and never gave him much thought. The DVD commentaries I exhausted had no inclusion of him and my only real portrait of the man came in the “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular.”
The Simpsons books that I devoured as a child all had commentary from Matt Groening and I assumed that Groening was thus the main creator and developer of the series, all the while ignoring this mysterious Sam Simon. Over the past few years, I’ve realized how mistaken I was as a child, especially considering my first memory of The Simpsons was a story assembled by Sam Simon.
In fifth grade, during Halloween, my teacher decided that it was appropriate to play a Simpsons video. I’m sure most of us had heard of the series, some may have indeed watched the antics of the family before, but my virgin eyes had yet to watch a single episode of the Simpsons. I remember my grandmother condemning the program at one family gathering where my uncle had it on before he finally switched the channel. Now, here in this fifth grade classroom, I was about to watch this forbidden program. My eyes fixed their gaze on the overhead television when Mr. Fall first hit the play button and the animated family appeared.
The segment he chose in honor of Halloween featured Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” as retold by Simpsons’ characters. With the explanation that it was a nice lesson on classic poetry, Mr. Fall must have felt a certain glee (at least, I would have felt a certain glee) in presenting many of these children their first viewing of The Simpsons. With our paper photocopies of the poem, photocopies none of us bothered to read along with, we stared at the opening scene of Bart and Lisa sitting in their treehouse telling each other ghost stories and a lull fell over the room.
The idea to adapt “The Raven” was originally Sam Simon’s and it met fierce backlash from creator Matt Groening who feared its pretension would alienate viewers. Instead of alienating viewers, this retelling of the classic poem set the Simpsons on the tract that allowed intelligent humor to permeate the series. In fifth grade, I was already enchanted upon my first viewing. Sure, some of the finer marks of Poe’s writing were lost on me, and thus some of the intricate visual gags didn’t make sense. As James Earl Jones’ voice narrated “The Raven,” I realized that this was a show I needed to watch more of despite any protests that my family might make; in retrospect, as I watch the segment years later, it’s an astounding demonstration of what cartoons have the power to do.
Years later, rewatching the adaptation of “The Raven,” I find it be the only truly frightening moment in the history of the Treehouse of Horror Specials. The later Halloween specials made humor first and foremost the goal of the episode. However, this adaptation forgoes humor for something with much more gravitas. Sure, there is some humor to be found in the voices, the visuals, and the interjections of Bart and Lisa while it’s being read, but the faithful adaptation of “The Raven” retains the solemn nature of the poem and the mark of loss it reflects. In the end reflecting on the segment as a whole, it is primarily a vessel to retell the poem itself – not a way for comedic gags to overpower the tale itself. It’s interesting to notice my similarity to Bart when I listened to it as a child, dismissing the poem as simply not scary and a product of its time.
“Bart: Lisa, that wasn’t scary. Not even for a poem.
Lisa: Well it was written in 1845. Maybe people were easier to scare back then.
Bart: Oh, yeah. Like when you look at “Friday the Thirteenth, Part 1”. Pretty tame by today’s standards.
(Marge calls the kids to bed, and Bart brags that he won’t have any trouble
falling asleep tonight. As the kids descend, we see Homer sitting outside
the treehouse, shivering.)”
Yet, years later I feel much more like the shaking Homer who listens in on the story and trembles the night away. The humor is what originally drew me to The Simpsons and, without a doubt, still is its strongest trait. However, its legacy for me comes through the brilliant writing that leads to more serious moments and grander themes than simply making a comic joke. The Simpsons excellence comes from Sam Simon’s insistence that it had the capability much more than a simple children’s cartoon. By fighting for the right of the show to retell “The Raven,” he made it certain that The Simpsons would not be defined by its humor alone. Instead, the ability to elicit a laugh might not even be the primary focus for an episode of The Simpsons.
Sam Simon’s legacy for The Simpsons was the creation of a cartoon that an educated person could watch and not be ashamed at; the humor would be intelligent and not dumb itself down for the lowest common denominator. Here, against Groening’s fear of pretension, was Simon taking a stand that this television program would not simply rely on the familiar cartoon elements but take a serious stand on presenting well-developed and interesting ideas. Groening’s fear was that the episode lacked gags; instead, the episode made it clear that The Simpsons could and should do more than simply make viewers laugh. Instead, Simon articulated his belief that the Simpsons had the power to entertain and touch individuals’ emotional pallets and make them think. Simon wished to assert that cartoons had their place on primetime television.
Crucial to the development of The Simpsons was the development of the voice acting. Sam Simon made clear his hopes from the early days of The Simpsons when it came to voice acting:
“I wanted all the actors in a room together, not reading their lines separated from each other. ‘The Simpsons’ would have been a great radio show. If you just listen to the sound track, it works.”
I believe that the Raven retelling is the best example of when these hopes came to fruition through Simon’s guidance. The voice work, the performances of Poe’s writing, is enough to carry the show and make it a vehicle for moments of touching emotional release. In particular, I find James Earl Jones’ conclusion of “The Raven” to be one of the most haunting moments in television history as the narrator succumbs to a fatalistic outlook on life. Fundamental to this success is the practice that Simon imposed of voice actors recording their material at the same time to heighten the storytelling elements of the program. Simon’s insistence that this recording happen at the same time heightens the emotional release and forces the voice actors to do so much more than simply read lines.
A legend that has transpired through the Internet concerns a classic season three episode, “Flaming Moes,” and the insistence that the story reflects the inner-workings of The Simpsons at that time. The basics of the story concerns Homer inventing an alcoholic beverage (with the help of cough syrup that turns it suspiciously into resembling purple drank), while Moe takes all the credit for it. So the legend goes, the story resembles Matt Groening taking the majority of the credit for creating The Simpsons while Sam Simon’s work behind the scenes, the primary force that powered the show to fame, went unnoticed. Indeed, supposedly one of Simon’s criticisms of Groening was the amount of time he spent working on merchandise which is even alluded to in the episode when Homer laments to Moe, “If there was any justice, my face would be on a bunch of crappy merchandise.”
Regardless of the truth to this rumor, Simon’s influence on The Simpsons has assuredly been overshadowed by others. Nevertheless, I’ll always hold a special place in the knowledge that my introduction to the series was through his fine handiwork. There’s a damn good reason Sam Simon’s name begins every episode of The Simpsons.