The Simpsons is widely regarded as one of the best comedy shows ever to appear on television, setting the record as the longest running scripted TV show in American history. This fall will begin the series’ 29th season, which is an impressive run for a show that began as a poorly animated sketch on The Tracey Ullman Show. But things haven’t been all fine and dandy for The Simpsons lately.
Two-time Emmy winner Alf Clausen, the show’s composer and the man behind several iconic Simpsons songs and themes, has recently been fired from the program. A spokeswoman from 20th Century Fox declined to comment on the situation, according to Variety. It’s just another incident in what has been a serious downward spiral for the once-great comedy. We decided to take a deeper look into the more recent history of The Simpsons and how the show went from hysterically funny to painfully unwatchable.
The good old days
The answer might vary depending on who you talk to, but the average Simpsons fan thinks that the golden years of the show fall between seasons three and eight. You can make an argument that the years following season eight were still of high quality, but no longer up to the extremely high standard that the show had set for itself.
But at its best, The Simpsons was the epitome of comedy greatness. Episodes like Mr. Plow, Cape Feare, A Milhouse Divided, and You Only Move Twice show off the tremendous ability of both the writers and the voice actors, and it’s the kind of stuff you can watch over and over and still find hilarious. Despite the animation of the first two seasons being extremely sub-par, the episodes from the show’s prime remain relevant over 20 years later. But they’ve had their share of problems since the turn of the century.
Battles with Fox
The creators of The Simpsons have had a notoriously contentious relationship with Fox, their home network since 1989. James L. Brooks, the show’s co-creator, originally negotiated into the contract with Fox that the network would be unable to meddle in the show’s creativity. A big part of what made The Simpsons so successful in the early-going was the lack of creative oversight from network executives that knew what sponsors wanted but may have cared less about the viewer.
The success of the show was a boon for Fox, but their inability to act as a buffer between the writers and what went on television put the network in an uncomfortable spot numerous times. Between the frequent digs at entertainment news channel Fox News, the occasional caricature of Rupert Murdoch – once portrayed as being in prison – and their tendency to mock the unoriginal comedy writing that has been rampant on the network, the relationship has appeared publicly as fairly strained.
The decline in quality
The creative freedom was a major positive early on, but there is no doubt that the serious decline in quality of the show has been a problem. It’s hard to remember the last time that The Simpsons was considered one of the funniest shows on television, but if we generously say that the title was accurate through Season 12, then the top-shelf run of The Simpsons came to an end around the same time as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Malcolm in the Middle, Scrubs, and Six Feet Under were just getting started.
The Simpsons have remained in their primetime slot on Sunday evenings, but dwindling ratings have left the creators to come up with gimmicks to stay relevant. Promises to kill off characters and running contests to allow fans to create a new character – who was killed off as quickly as they were introduced – have been mediocre plot devices, at best. While it can be argued that the best long-running shows would need to find new ways to adapt as time goes on, the adaptation of The Simpsons has often moved away from the brilliant and often intelligent writing in favor of jokes and storylines that fall flat.
Original writers moving on
A big reason for that is that much of the original cast has moved on. While not the most prolific writer from the golden era, the most well-known name among former Simpsons writers is Conan O’Brien. In two years with the show, O’Brien was responsible for one of the biggest fan-favorites: Marge vs. the Monorail. Arguably the best writer from the show is the notoriously reclusive John Swartzwelder, who wrote 59 episodes – a show record – including a ton that fans would consider the best that ever aired.
But Swartzwelder’s stint with the show ended in 2003, and he only wrote 10 episodes after Season 12. George Meyer was among the original staff but left after the sixth season in 1995. He returned briefly, but left again in 2006. Jeff Martin, Al Jean, and Mike Reiss all exited the show after the fourth season in 1993 but returned to the show at various times after working on other projects, while Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky left in ’93 and never returned.
Voice actors pay dispute
If you think the contentious relationship between The Simpsons and Fox is bad, the relationship between the network and the voice actors behind the residents of Springfield is even worse. The Hollywood Reporter does a great job breaking down the individual incidents, which includes originally hiring the main voice staff of Dan Castellaneta, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner, and Yeardley Smith.
But after the first eight years, things got contentious. The actors were getting $30,000 per episode when many demanded a more appropriate total, given the success of the show, in 1998. Fox threatened to hire new voice actors for the well-established hit show, which didn’t go over well with the fans. Eventually, the problem was settled with new contracts.
The staff went on strike in 2004, and after a month of work stoppage they were given between $250,000 and $360,000 more per episode. In 2008, the voice actors again halted production of the show due to contract negotiations. Once again, the dispute was settled with a substantial raise, but the history between the network and the employees is clear; Fox made a lot of money off The Simpsons but was reluctant to share the fruits of success with the ones responsible for it.
Nearly losing Harry Shearer
Early in 2015, voice actor Harry Shearer – responsible for such iconic Simpsons characters as Ned Flanders and Mr. Burns – was prepared to walk away from a considerable payday (via EW):
Back in May, Shearer, who had battled with the studio/network previously over compensation, indicated that his departure was not tied to a money issue, but rather the flexibility in his schedule. The actor — who hosts the radio program Le Show and stars in the web series Nixon’s The One — tweeted, “I wanted what we’ve always had: the freedom to do other work.”
But Al Jean, who by then had returned to the show and was now the executive producer, wasn’t buying any of that as an excuse.
“Everybody on the show does lots of outside projects. He actually gets to record on the phone and do the [table] reads on the phone. So we’ve never kept him from doing that stuff.”
Eventually, it all worked out with Shearer. He signed the same deal that was given to his acting counterparts to return and lend his voice talents. In the end, it appeared to be nothing more than a misunderstanding, but it took some very public bickering for it to be resolved.
Firing Alf Clausen
The most recent event was The Simpsons firing composer Alf Clausen after being with the show for 27 seasons. Not only was Clausen responsible for the tone-setting music throughout the length of the show, but true Simpsons fans will remember several classic songs like “See My Vest,” “Gonna Paint Our Wagon,” “Springfield, Springfield,” and every bit of the memorable Planet of the Apes parody Broadway production.
According to Clausen, he was let go via email.
While the reasons for letting Clausen go haven’t been stated publicly, it almost certainly had to do with the rising cost of production. The ratings are down while salaries for voice actors are at their highest levels. The 35-piece orchestra, which show creator Matt Groening insisted upon at the start, likely became far too expensive to be feasible. In the end, the average viewer that still tunes in every week to watch The Simpsons may not notice or care about the difference in the music. But it’s just the latest hint about a once-great show that seems to be running on fumes.
Information via IMDB.