Nov
27

The Simpsons and TV Breakthroughs

The incomparable Matt Groening (his self-portrait, below right), creator of the Simpsons, spoke here recently as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Alongside cartoonist and former college friend Lynda Barry (who frankly overshadowed him with her bubbly storytelling), Groening (pronounced “Gray-ning”) shared a bit about how he got started and a few keys to the success of the Simpsons, still making us laugh and cringe after 21 years.

Amazingly, he still publishes his original “Life in Hell” cartoon, which he considers his “foundation.” This says a lot about the man, maintaining this 30-year weekly streak despite the Simpsons’ incredible run and his many interests and responsibilities, which has recently included developing Futurama, another animated show on Comedy Central. Groening uniquely balances the creative polarities of serious and silly, of preparation and spontaneity, like few others.

I believe the Simpsons to be one of the great breakthroughs in television history and one of the most enduring creative acts of our time. Breakthroughs are distinctive in not being predictable from what preceded them–and irrevocably changing the landscape of the domain.

Two key creative breakthroughs I see in television this generation:

1. The Simpsons. Even though there were cartoons before, the Simpsons created a human-surrogate family and world in a new way, using the limitless parameters of animation to allow us through them to experience realistic and fantastical turn of events and not be worse for wear. Combine that with rare intelligence, more jokes per frame than ever imagined, creative range and satirical commentary on the day’s issue, and you have a breakthough.

2. Reality Television: While there has always been an audience for realistic characters and real-life stories, the breakthough here was in thinking, Why not actual people? Sure “Candid Camera” had at least hinted in this direction and clearly the advent of cheaper video enabled producers to edit hours of film to capture the low percentage of interesting moments. But it was the crafting of narrative–telling a compelling story with real emotions and unpredictable turns reflective of real life–that has resulted in millions of addicted viewers and the prevalence of a new kind of program that did not exist before.

Developing our creative capacities includes cultivating our ability to make breakthroughs, so let me ask:

What TV breakthroughs am I missing here? What do you see as the hallmark breakthrough innovations of television and what enabled them break through?

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