The Simpsons: Guest Stars and Nothing More

Posted by Anthony Mango Monday, December 6, 2010

The Simpsons was always my favorite TV show by far...but fans of the first dozen seasons all agree that the show went downhill afterward and has never recovered. The first 10 seasons, amazing. The next 2 or 3 were still good, but weren't as good as before. Then there was a noticeable drop in quality. This occurred when most of the writers started leaving and being replaced. Naturally, different writers means a change in quality, but it seems as though the Simpsons has never even really tried ever since. Instead, they've limped on, relying on repetitive simplistic lame "jokes" such as the overexaggerated Homer groan ("OooooOOooooOOH") and the issue that I felt like talking about today: guest stars.

It is a cheap tactic to try to gain viewers. WWE adopted it at various times (especially with the "Special Guest Host" concept). Saturday Night Live has always consisted of 3 basic tent poles: celebrity guest host, guest band, and the regular cast sketches. Talk shows like Leno, Conan, and Letterman function in similar fashion. But the Simpsons is a sitcom. It isn't supposed to have a weekly guest star as a gimmick.

In the past, the Simpsons used to be a show that did use guest stars, but they never made THAT big of a deal for them, and most of the time they voiced separate characters, rather than just themselves. One of the best recurring characters is Sideshow Bob, voiced by Kelsey Grammar. Dustin Hoffman voiced Mr. Bergstrom and wasn't even credited, instead going by "Sam Etic". Even Michael Jackson didn't voice himself. Granted, he voiced a mental patient who THOUGHT he was Michael Jackson, but it was still a funny twist. It was two-fold. 1) They weren't the focal point, but instead, an added bonus, 2) they served a purpose and actually had character. Now, they do the opposite. Each guest is shoehorned in and the scripts suffer because they need to focus on putting as much attention as possible on that celebrity, who is really nothing but their name in Simpsonized cartoonish form.

When done right, it works so well. A perfect example of bringing celebrities on the show to play themselves, but actually functioning, is episode 5 of season 10 - "When You Dish Upon a Star". The episode is about how someone can change once they become associated with fame. Homer runs into Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, and Ron Howard. Instead of just showing up, saying their names, and leaving, they stay the whole episode and actually contribute to the jokes. Alec and Kim banter back and forth like a married couple would. Ron is a foil for Homer. Everyone in town makes a HUGE deal out of seeing those celebrities (including Kent Brockman), because they're a rarity...not something that you see every day.

When done poorly, like they always do now, it just flops so badly. Try to remember the last time a celebrity showed up on The Simpsons and it didn't follow this pattern:

1) Character announces to everyone the celebrity's name
2) Celebrity says hello and then one other line
3) Someone reacts, but the joke is basically deadpan.
4) Cut to next scene

That's all they do now. They say "look everyone, it's _____" and that they loved their work on ____. That celeb says hello, thank you, and that's about it. The show operates on soundbites and quick images of pop culture. No substance, just filler. Their model used to be to take a concept, then build an episode of humor around it. Marge is against television violence, let's bring Itchy & Scratchy into this, then go from there. Now, pay attention to the commercials. Instead of advertising what type of mess Homer finds himself in, they advertise that Daniel Radcliffe makes an appearance. Does it matter what appearance? No. Just make sure to say "Daniel Radcliffe" in the commercial. They're not advertising The Simpsons, they're advertising the celebrity. The vehicle just happens to be The Simpsons. This past episode was a Christmas special. It took on the multiple short story structure which they've used for a long time now to stretch out stories they can't figure out how to make a full episode out of. Basically there were 4 segments. The first one rested on a slight parody of The Polar Express. The second rested on a slight parody of Inglourious Basterds. Then we were treated to a segment all about Martha Stewart. Then a segment all about Katy Perry. The Katy Perry one was done in the style of the Muppets, obviously joking about the Sesame Street debacle (you can read about it here), so while I could give them some credit for trying there, its still just a matter of them taking something that recently happened in pop culture and then throwing it in there. It has nothing to do with Christmas, nor is it something the sitcom used to do. This is the type of thing that ruins parody films. Scary Movie, Not Another Teen Movie, and the other good ones took a model and built jokes off that (just like The Simpsons would do when they'd make a short parody of something). The shit films like Superhero Movie and "Meet the Spartans" literally just go from one pop culture reference to another whether or not it fits into the overall idea. Katy Perry has nothing to do with Christmas? Who cares, people will want to see Katy Perry, so let's put her in there.

Is that what The Simpsons has become? For a show that used to be so utterly fantastic, it is a shame that it has come to this...lazily limping on year after year with no ammunition other than whatever pop culture icon they can put in their commercials, then not even bothering to craft jokes to make up for it. Its sad that what used to be the show that I loved has turned into what I can only describe as a consistent waste of my 20 minutes every week.

".......that's the joke." - Rainier Wolfcastle

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