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John Seavey’s Storytelling Engines: The Simpsons

Here’s the latest Storytelling Engine from John Seavey. Click here to read John’s description of what a Storytelling Engine IS, anyways. Check out more of them at his blog, Fraggmented.

Storytelling Engines: The Simpsons

(or “And Then The Children Were Rescued By…Oh, Let’s Say Moe.”)

The storytelling engine of the Simpson family is a pretty familiar one to anyone who watches television. The average family with a not-so-average life is pretty familiar ground for television comedy, and has been ever since the days of ‘I Love Lucy’. Matt Groening (who supposedly based the series on his own family) created a deceptively simple family structure that generates plenty of stories–the dumb-but-loveable dad, the mischievous-but-good-at-heart son, the intelligent-but-socially-awkward daughter, and the slightly-stir-crazy stay-at-home mom each have their own reasons to provide the writer with storylines (and hyphens, apparently.) Groening’s main contribution to the genre was to open up the throttle slightly in a way that works well with the choice of cartoons as a way to deliver the series. Homer isn’t just dumb, he’s cartoonishly stupid. Bart isn’t just mischievous, he’s cartoonishly wicked, et cetera, et cetera.

The series developed the other elements of its storytelling engine over its first few seasons, bringing in supporting characters like Moe and Barney, settings like the nuclear power plant and the school, and gradually developing more ways to generate stories as it went on. This is pretty much par for the course with any sitcom (although as a cartoon, the Simpsons have the advantage of not having to worry about actor availability. You can develop a much larger supporting cast when they’re all really Hank Azaria.) Again, this is nothing we haven’t seen in any sitcom.

But all family sitcoms suffer from the same problem–there’s only a limited number of stories you can tell that don’t fundamentally break the status quo (and let’s not forget, the “status quo” is simply the set of elements making up the current storytelling engine.) One of the key elements of a family sitcom is that in the end, despite the wacky adventures, the family finds a way to put things right at the end of every episode. The more wild the adventure, the harder it is to put things right, and so eventually sitcoms falter as they run out of new wacky adventures.

Which is where the Simpsons broke ranks, back in Season Five. Oh, sure, they’d had a few adventures that were a little outrageous, ones that maybe stretched the limits of the audience’s belief that things would really be “back to normal”, but the episode ‘Homer Loves Flanders’ marked a real departure in the series’ whole direction. In it, Homer becomes best friends with annoying goody two-shoes Ned Flanders, and at the end of the episode, nothing occurs to break up their friendship. Indeed, they deepen their mutual respect for each other in the episode’s climax, prompting Lisa to comment, “Is this the end to our wacky adventures?”

And then the episode ends with a coda, where “next week”, Homer hates Flanders as if nothing had ever happened. From that point on, the Simpsons operates on the assumption that unless a future episode explicitly mentions a change to the status quo, it’s assumed that everything simply resets back to the default state. So Apu and Manjoula really get married, because she shows up in later episodes, but Bart and Lisa don’t wind up trapped on a desert island along with the whole class of Springfield Elementary.

This is a whole new kind of idea, a post-modern take on the storytelling engine that takes it for granted that the audience is not only familiar with the storytelling engine of the Simpsons, but the concept of a storytelling engine in general and the way that a sitcom works. It allows the writers much more creative freedom than the traditional sitcom–they don’t have to come up with an ending that returns everything to normal, they just have to take their ideas as far as they can logically go, and let the audience’s knowledge of the “sitcom rules” do the rest. Arguably, the series has overused the idea a bit, as it moves on into its twentieth season, but then again, the very fact that it even has a twentieth season, when such legendary sitcoms as ‘The Cosby Show’ and ‘All In the Family’ didn’t even run for half that length, shows that the Simpsons’ elasticity is one of the overlooked elements to their long-running sucess.

17 Comments

It’s funny you should mention ‘The Cosby Show’, since The Simpsons was in the same time slot (Thursdays, 8 PM) back in 1989-1990 time frame. Thanks for another well-written piece.

It’s funny you should mention ‘The Cosby Show’, since The Simpsons was in the same time slot (Thursdays, 8 PM) back in 1989-1990 time frame. Thanks for another well-written piece.

The Simpsons even have a character who is a homage to Cosby in recognition of that conflict (Dr. Hibbert).

There’s one other advantage the Simpsons have over the typical family sitcom. Noone ages. They don’t have to worry about Maggie no longer being a cute baby (and do the resulting “Add A Kid”). They don’t have to make up some reason why the smart Lisa has to go to the local community college in order to keep her at home.

this is a rather brilliant observation on the nature of the simpsons. i remember watching “homer loves flanders” the night it first aired and thinking how hilarious the ending was… but i never actually stopped to think how that concept of the simpsons reset button became official at that point. smart stuff, john!! (i would venture to say that the marvel adventures comics — whether consciously or not — have borrowed this concept. for example, last week’s issue of marvel adventures avengers featured luke cage “joining” the team, but i pretty much assumed that this wasn’t concrete enough to become a permanent fixture. therefore i expect next month to find the team pretty much as they were at the beginning of this issue. same with the other mvl adv books — they’ll carry characters thru a couple issues with a bit of continuity, but things pretty much wrap back to their initial state.)

I have always been surprised that so few sitcoms do take their ideas as far as they can logically go, and then simply hit the reset button. It was pretty common practice up to the late ‘Fifties, but for some reason it died out.

Today, most sitcoms take a diametrically opposed position to the Simpsons, and have tight continuity, story arcs and cliff-hanger season finales. Now, I’m not saying that is neccessarily a bad thing, but I am surprised that more sitcoms haven’t been tempted to pick up the mantle of looser, zanier predecessors.

” There’s one other advantage the Simpsons have over the typical family sitcom. Noone ages. They don’t have to worry about Maggie no longer being a cute baby (and do the resulting “Add A Kid”). They don’t have to make up some reason why the smart Lisa has to go to the local community college in order to keep her at home. ”

On the other hand, the fact that the characters can’t age limits the story possibilities. On the Simpsons, this is a problem because the entirety of the cast is either younger than 12 or older than 30; the only exception is Otto, who isn’t exactly an influential character. So when the Simpsons tries to find humor in the issues of teens and twentysomethings, they almost always fail at it. Episodes like the one where Lisa pretends to be a college student, Bart starts a T-Shirt business based on his disenfranchisement with his lost youth, etc. have to tackle the subject matter with plots so absurd they often stop being funny and end up just stupid.

Not saying that the Simpsons should age the cast, but the dysfunctional 50′s family premise isn’t nearly as elastic as it used to be, and at this point it’s been stretched way too far.

Yeah the whole not aging thing has apparently led to a “sliding scale” timeline like Marvel & DC have. I remeber a few seasons ago a flashback to Homer and Marge’s highschool years clearly set in the seventies. Recently they had a college flashback set in the 90′s! Homer even started a grunge band. This gave me a very strange feeling of unreality (unusual for a cartoon? Not really) but it somehow took me out of the action of the episode. I really feel they went too far.
Maybe it’s just the realization that Homer and I are now approximately THE SAME AGE!
..DOH!

“THEY KILLED KENNY!!!!!!!!!!!”

Ooops, wrong sitcom.
Excuse me.

“DON’T HAVE A COW, DUDE!!!”

I also liked what Fry said in Futurama

Clever things make people feel stupid, Unexpected things make people scared, at the end of the episode everything has to be exactly as it was.

I’m paraphrasing but you get my point

The “sliding timescale” thing is a running gag of the series, actually; they make a point of counting back in years from the current season, even though they’ve established specific dates for previous flashback episodes. So Bart is born in 1981, in a flashback story set in Season Three, and is two years old in 1984, in a flashback story set in Season Four, and is five in 1990, in a story set in Season Nine. (In fact, in the Season Nine story, they make a point of mentioning that the Tracey Ullman Show is running on Fox. So Bart is both five and ten simultaneously in that episode. :) )

“…Clever things make people feel stupid…”

For years, many women have complained (quite vociferously) that ‘gorgeous’ models in magazines are bad for their gender as a whole, as they represent an unrealistic ‘beauty’ or ‘perfection’ image that cannot be lived up to by normal women. My feelings, which are no less valid, are that ‘clever’ or ‘talented’ people should be banned from TV and magazines – for making me feel like a clod. How can the man in the street live up to the mental gymnastics of Stephen Hawking? Go Homer!

Evan Greene-Terrence

September 24, 2008 at 4:56 am

“…as a cartoon, the Simpsons have the advantage of not having to worry about actor availability.”

Tell that to Lionel Hutz, Troy Maclure, etc.

I think you’ll find that more family sitcoms are hurt by child actors aging than see benefits from young adult storylines. That’s why we get the Cousin Olivers, Andrew Keatons, Chrissy Seavers, and Raven Simones (I can’t remember her character name on Cosby). Going further back, you had tweener Cindy Brady still wearing he hair like a 6 year old and Beaver Cleaver who still talked like he was 8 because the shows were trying to stick to their original premise. Family Ties did several early episode with Alex trying for Ivy League schools, but ends up going to a local school in Cleveland.

On the other hand, the fact that the characters can’t age limits the story possibilities. On the Simpsons, this is a problem because the entirety of the cast is either younger than 12 or older than 30; the only exception is Otto, who isn’t exactly an influential character. So when the Simpsons tries to find humor in the issues of teens and twentysomethings, they almost always fail at it.

Note that this is one of the reasons Futurama centers around young still-single adults – it’s pretty much the one “demographic segment” the Simpsons story engine didn’t comfortably accomodate.

On “actor aging,” one of my favorite bits from SCTV was a documentary about the long-running sitcom “Oh, That Rusty!” A Dennis-the-Menace-like show starring Martin Short, who continues to play the precocious little kid well into his 30s. There are all sorts of funny details, like how they start building oversized sets and recasting, not Rusty, but his parents, as Rusty is adopted by two former basketball players….

Perhaps the reason for no reset button, lies in the fact that the actors and characters do age, and the reality is, you can only move forward by looking back. As it comes to a live action sitcom. The Simpsons has no such restraints.

Good stuff Brian, but to respectfully challenge the idea of a “whole new kind of idea” , Get A Life -1990-1992 predates season 5 of the Simpsons. Chris Elliot would frequently die at the end of an episode.

I’m also surprised that there was no mention of what I would consider the best example of what you seem to be talking about “The Principal and The Pauper”, you know, Skinner isn’t really Skinner, but in the end remains Skinner, going so far as a declaration of ‘We will never speak of this again’.

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