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Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife

Watching current-era episodes of The Simpsons can make for uncomfortable viewing, particularly if you're a long-time fan of the show. And even more particularly if, like me, you're the sort of person who can rattle off the scripts to just about every episode from the first seven or eight seasons, and can still be moved to actual tears of laughter by episodes from season four (as I was last night, watching Homer at the All-You-Can-Eat seafood buffet in "New Kid on the Block"). It just feels wrong, these days. The voices, for example, all sound completely different - this despite the fact that, to my recollection, the show has only lost three of its "main" voice cast (Phil Hartman, Doris Grau and Maggie Roswell) as the years have gone by. As well as the grating noise coming out of Homer and Marge's mouths these days, even supporting characters voiced by the usually-reliable likes of Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer now sound like pale and harsh imitations of their past selves. And that's even before you get down to the nitty-gritty of the plain and simple fact that the show just isn't particularly funny any more. No amount of madcap, slapstick humour, altering core fundamentals of characters (Barney sober? Patty lesbian?) or ridiculously stereotyped trips to foreign climes can mask the fact that the golden touch of class that ran so wondrously through every one of those early episodes has long-since dulled.

Next week : Alan Partridge appears on Family Guy. No, not really.
Ricky Gervais' character, Charles, in Moe's Tavern

But "Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife", which aired on Sky One this week shortly after hitting American screens last month, isn't about looking at the current (and, indeed, long-standing) failings of a once great (nay, once impeccable) television institution. Perhaps even more for UK audiences than for the Americans (who, like us, saw the episode open with that brilliant live-action version of the titles, originally an advert made by Sky), this is a one-off, an episode to be looked at with new eyes in the context not of the show's current status, but the fact that one of "our own" - Ricky Gervais, in case you've been living under a rock - was taking the helm for twenty-two minutes.

And, you know, it's not half bad. Of course, it's naive to assume, given the way American television works, that the episode was entirely written by Gervais; but his hand is clear to see, whether through the distinctly Brent-style humour shown in the second half of the episode, or even his apparent love of the way The Simpsons used to work with some more "classic" touches earlier on.

The first half of the episode rattles along through a number of scenarios; starting out, pleasingly, in a quite "normal" setting, with a relatively undramatic story - Homer falls in love with Lenny's new HD TV, and decides that he wants one himself. All well and good, and there are some amusing bits littered throughout, particularly Homer's grumbling about "regular" TV not being good enough for him any more. Suddenly, though, we're thrust uncomfortably into later-season "wackiness", with the family going on a tour of the FOX studios and being invited to appear on a Wife Swap-style show. That's not to say these scenes don't contain some good moments - somewhat surprisingly, they do, with the appearance of "Dan Castellanetta from The Tracy Ullman Show" and the "American Idol holding pen" particular highlights. But it's still symptomatic of the horrible "The Simpsons are going to Japan/England/Jamaica/Mars!" gimmickery the show has been guilty of for a good five or six years (or more). The pop culture references are also quite strikingly overt and topical - The Simpsons has always, of course, mined pop culture for much of its humour, but in the past would usually do so in more subtle ways, and would usually make reference to far more timeless sources so that the jokes wouldn't date so damned quickly. The American Idol gag might be fine in Family Guy or the more-deliberately-topical South Park, but here it feels jarringly out of place, funny or not. And a good number of the gags still just don't work, particularly the drawn-out "I'll do it!" bit from Marge, who by this point in the show's life has become almost unbearably irritating.

Still, though, we needed a hook to get Gervais' character in, and given that this is something of an "event" episode, it's less disheartening to see it rely on a more "out-there" plot; it's just a shame that it comes in an era of the show where this sort of thing seems to happen every week. And once David Br- err, sorry, Charles - arrives, the humour level is ramped up somewhat. It comes across as a very strange mix, though, because Gervais is doing what he always does - playing himself-slash-Brent. His naturalised performance and cringe-making gags and asides ("Bit of British humour, there") just aren't the sort of thing you'd normally see in The Simpsons, with the result that the whole thing comes off feeling more like some kind of weird crossover rather than a simple guest appearance.

That said, though, it's still very funny at times. Once you get over the shock of hearing Gervais' voice in the show - and, unlike many previous British guest stars, he actually still sounds like himself - there's plenty to enjoy, and pretty predictably he gets all the best bits. Indeed, aside from one quite funny bit with Homer ("What's that delicious smell?"), you wish they wouldn't bother constantly cutting back to the Simpson household and uninspired and unfunny character of Charles' wife, and just stick with Charles' attempts to woo Marge. Which, by and large - from the joke-telling to the already-famed "Lady Di" song - are pretty funny stuff. The plot by this point is pretty much nonexistent - Charles falls in love with Marge, she says no, and Charles' wife runs off with the oh-now-she's-a-lesbian-she-has-to-wear-a-lumberjack-shirt Patty. But it doesn't really matter so long as the rib-ticklers keep flowing, which they admirably tend to (quite what this says about the show's current reliance on convoluted plots at the expense of honest-to-goodness good jokes, I wouldn't care to speculate).

All in all, this curious experiment does, just about, stand up to scrutiny. Gervais has delivered an episode of The Simpsons geared towards his own comedic sensibilities without making it feel too markedly like a completely different show, and on that basis, for him, it can be judged a success; particularly as it stands up so well in comparison to the last couple of series. For the makers of the series, however, it's harder to see how this does them much credit - all it really does is show up the inherent flaws in the current setup, by demonstrating that an outsider (and, furthermore, an outsider who frequently admits to being a massive fan of the show as it used to be) can come in and outdo them. Given that the show is still massively successful, no matter how lacklustre it's become, it's hard to envisage them treating this episode as the template for a bold new era, regularly turning the show over to guest writers from outside the usual sphere. As such, while Gervais can stick this on his CV as a successful attempt to do something else (even though crossing the Atlantic and moving into a different medium didn't stop him from employing the same sort of comedy - and the same character - he's already known for), in terms of the Simpsons canon this looks destined to go down in the annals as an amusing curiosity rather than a significant landmark.

3 Stars

About this entry


I have to say, I think you're being pretty charitable. I admit I'm not much of a fan of Ricky Gervais' work (though oddly enough I find the man himself incredibly entertaining) but I think the episode wasn't of significantly better quality than any other recent one. I can't tell if that's because the usual Simpsons writers added in the shitty jokes they seem to favour these days, or because Ricky Gervais' humour doesn't fit the Simpsons well, but were it not for the fact he was basically playing himself, I wouldn't have noticed it was him doing the writing at all. It was slightly less shit than the majority of this series, but not by enough to make it remarkable.

The current state of the Simpsons (if you'll allow me my soapbox a moment...) is one of the most depressing things about modern television. By my own standards, the show is now more than 50% crap in terms of the number of good to bad episodes. I have this suspicion part of that is because the people writing it now either don't understand why it was funny in the first place. There's no excuse, really, when Futurama was so good, that the Simpsons should stay this bad. Maybe there're just no new jokes left. Like everyone, I have my own ideas on how to "fix" the Simpsons but I have to admit, I'm unlikely to get in the position where I could act on them. Plus it's pretty clear they're not worried about the artistic integrity of the property anymore...

By James H
April 25, 2006 @ 4:47 pm

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but I think the episode wasn't of significantly better quality than any other recent one

Well, it made me laugh in places, and didn't make me want to claw my own eyes out in utter despair. Which is something it immediately has over just about every episode made in the last four or five years.

By Seb
April 25, 2006 @ 5:07 pm

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It got worse from season 8 onwards, although it was still bearable until around 2000, when it went beyond aid. The movie is 5-10 years too late.

By performingmonkey
April 25, 2006 @ 11:28 pm

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Yeah, that movie, fucking hell. Loads of debate as to what it could possibly *be* since the Simpsons TV series has covered so much ground in itself ("Simpsons outside Springfield", "Something or someone significant visits Springfield", "Character steps out of character and something profound is revealed and/or adventure happens", "Anything unusual happens simply because circumstances cause them to"). And definitely 5-10 years too late. I think it's past the time when a movie will re-invigorate the series too, frankly.

By James
April 26, 2006 @ 11:57 am

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>I think it's past the time when a movie will re-invigorate the series too, frankly.

100% agreed. But I'll still see it anyway, I'm sure. It could still be good.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
April 26, 2006 @ 12:13 pm

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The voices, for example, all sound completely different - this despite the fact that, to my recollection, the show has only lost three of its "main" voice cast (Phil Hartman, Doris Grau and Maggie Roswell) as the years have gone by.

It's interesting you should say this shortly after you'd watched DVDs of early seasons. I'd been mainly watching the newer episodes before having a look at the season 5 release and was surprised at how higher pitched everything sounded. I suspect they haven't adjusted the sound on these DVDs when converting from NTSC > PAL which tends to raise everything a semitone or so. I found it especially noticable on characters like Carl and Moe (as well as the title music).

Of course, from the point of view of someone used to watching the earlier episodes on DVD then you'd probably think everyone on the freshly downloaded new shows would appear to be speaking lower than normal.

Having written all that, it's just occured to me that you might be in the USA. If you are you can safely ignore everything in this comment.

By Medd
April 26, 2006 @ 12:59 pm

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I'm not so sure it's a technical thing, though, because I notice it when watching older episodes broadcast on TV, too; and I watched this latest episode on Sky rather than a downloaded US version.

There is a definite difference in the way some of the actors voice the characters now - that much is obvious. It can be compared with the shift between seasons one and two - Castellanetta originally started out doing Homer as an imitation of Walter Matthau, but by the second season, when the character had been softened up somewhat and elements such as his gluttony and often childlike nature were introduced, so too was the voice softened. I think that in later seasons, however, as Homer has become a much more caricatured, blunt, loud and angry version of his old self, the voice has become harsher too - and he just doesn't sound as funny any more. To again cite an example from the episode I was watching the other night - Homer's whimper of "But the sign says all you can eat!" as he's dragged out of the Frying Dutchman is a classic example of the "softer" side of his voice, and is a million times funnier than any example of him shouting at Bart. But you just wouldn't hear it in a more recent episode.

And, like I say, other characters are notably different, too. Marge's voice is particularly harsh, and a lot of Hank Azaria's characters (Moe, Wiggum etc.) are much deeper and throatier rather than nasal as they used to be. It's not just the pitch that changes, though - which, as I say, would rule it out as being a technical issue, to my ears at least - there's definitely something in the intonation. And personally, it all just makes the newer episodes far less appealing.

By Seb
April 26, 2006 @ 1:17 pm

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Could it be the case that the voices of the actors concerned have simply changed as they've got older? Is there a particular point where you can identify a change?

By Tanya Jones
April 26, 2006 @ 1:49 pm

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I'd be interested to know when the specific "main" voice actors changed, and who they voiced. Because "only" three main voice actors could actually be a lot, if this includes any number of the Simpsons household. How many people voice Springfield, in total? Sorry if this is well-known Simpsons history but I'm not so familiar with the later episodes and I'm sure if I searched in wiki or somewhere I'd have to do a fair bit of wading.

By James
April 26, 2006 @ 2:19 pm

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Actually, it only accounts for a very small number of characters :

Phil Hartman, who died in 1998, did Lionel Hutz, Troy McClure and a couple of other guest roles. However, his characters were "retired" after his death out of respect for him.

Doris Grau, who died in 1995, did Lunchlady Doris and one or two other "old lady" voice parts.

Maggie Roswell, who left before the 11th season but has since returned, did various female characters, most notably Maude Flanders (who was killed off after she left).

The majority of Simpsons characters are voiced by the following people, in rough order of how many characters they do and/or their importance :

Dan Castellanetta (Homer, Grampa, Krusty, Barney, etc.)
Harry Shearer (Burns, Smithers, Skinner, Lenny, Kent Brockman, Flanders, etc.)
Hank Azaria (Moe, Wiggum, Carl, many small characters)
Marcia Wallace (various female characters)
Tress MacNeille (various kids)
Nancy Cartwright (Bart and various kids)
Julie Kavner (Marge and all other female Bouviers)
Yeardley Smith (Lisa)

By Seb
April 26, 2006 @ 2:35 pm

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But mainly in order of men before women!

That's interesting - but I'm surprised to see that, say, the voice actor for Marge hasn't changed since you've been bemoaning her current "harshness" as though it was a related issue. Maybe a principle shift then is that the voice actors simply care less now than they used to? I'm not suggesting that this is the case, but could it be a possibility? I remember a story a while back that they were threatening to leave the Simpsons unless their pay increased, or something.

By James
April 26, 2006 @ 3:32 pm

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But mainly in order of men before women!

Well, there are far more significant male characters on the show than there are female characters; and, like I say, Wallace and MacNeille probably do the most voices out of the female actresses, but the male actors always get billed above them. Kavner, Smith and Cartwright obviously get higher billing due to the significance of their characters.

To be honest, as per the voice changing thing, I think Tanya's right in that a lot of it is certainly to do with the actors getting older. In the case of, say, Marge, that's almost certainly the case, particularly as if you ever hear Julie Kavner speak, her voice isn't that far removed from the one she uses for Marge.

In the case of Homer, meanwhile, you could perhaps put it down to Castellaneta's age; after all, to do Homer's unique voice, he has a strange technique he has to do, whereby he pushes his chin back into his neck. Presumably, after many years, that becomes more difficult to do. With Homer, though, I think it's more than that - I think the writing gives him far less opportunity to be the "sweet" Homer that he used to be. You will never, ever see the Homer of "Homer the Heretic" (a classic example of the character at his very best) in a newer episode. The gags are far more centred around "dumb Homer" or "angry Homer", and Castellaneta does his voice accordingly.

Basically, the "newer" voices - which have changed for any number of reasons, be it actors getting old or simply changing the way they approach it after so many years in the role - are, to me, a symbolic thing; they represent the show as it is now, a horrible, pale shadow of what it used to be (and its underlying problems are far, far more significant than a few voices sounding a bit different), and so when I hear them, the shudder that I get is due to the weight that they carry with them.

By Seb
April 26, 2006 @ 4:11 pm

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> Basically, the "newer" voices [etc] are, to me, a symbolic thing;

Yes, that's the real issue here. They have certainly changed, not especially for better or worse in themselves, but the writing is what's really gone to shit. And like I said, we're at the point where the Simpsons is inarguably more than 50% shit episodes. It's going to keep going for another 3 years at least, as I recall. I have to wonder, is history going to remember the Simpsons as a piece of genius that went bad, or a deeply terrible program that had a moment of brilliance?

By James H
April 26, 2006 @ 4:44 pm

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I don't know if HTML links will work on here so you might have to copy & paste the following links.

The sound on the DVD sets is speeded up and the pitch has gone up accordingly. Have a listen to this - it's the first few seconds of the Simpsons theme taken first from a download of a Season 17 episode followed by the same bit of music from the Season 5 DVD.

When Futurama was released they fixed this change in the pitch after converting to PAL. If you flick between the episode & commentary on that you can hear the music change key. It's surprising they didn't do this for the Simpsons.

I don't think actors getting older is so much of a factor (not counting the very early stuff where they hadn't fully developed the voices). This is another clip of a S17 episode spliced together with a bit of an S5 episode. Even without any pitch correction you could easily believe these came from the same recording session:

And a similar comparison of New Marge next to Old Marge. New Marge doesn't sound any 'harsher' to me, although the technical difference in pitch is more obvious than it was with Homer.

I really can't see a significant difference in the performance of the main actors. Certainly nothing that would cause a 'shudder'.

By Medd
April 26, 2006 @ 4:51 pm

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It makes a huge difference when voices of a cartoon change. If I'm not mistaken Ren and Stimpy went downhill around the same time there was a voice change with them. And people impersonating other vocalists can fuck off. Don't like Disney but that replacement to Robin Williams' genie for the sequel was beyond terrible. Also, I'm also wondering how long the Wallace and Gromit series has in it, given the limit on the speed they can work. I'm not saying Peter Sallis is on his last legs, but...

For some reason now I'm thinking about the cartoon version of Bill and Ted, as well, which went rubbish around the same time the two film actors left.

By James
April 26, 2006 @ 4:52 pm

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"Also, I'm also wondering"

Also I'm also wondering, ladies and gennelmen.

By James
April 26, 2006 @ 4:53 pm

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Don't like Disney but that replacement to Robin Williams' genie for the sequel was beyond terrible.

Want to hear something funny, given the context of what we're talking about?

That was Dan Castellaneta.

If I'm not mistaken Ren and Stimpy went downhill around the same time there was a voice change with them.

A good point, but the voice artist who left was John Kricfaluski. Who also happened to be the creator of the show. He was booted out because he disagreed with Nickelodeon over toning the show down. So when it continued, with Billy West doing both voices (and there was nothing wrong with his Ren voice in terms of mimicking John K.), it was a pale shadow of what it used to be.

(although I would argue that Ren & Stimpy, while good at the time, isn't the work of genius it's now held up to be by many, because a lot of things superseded it. It may be heresy to say it, but I actually think that Rocko's Modern Life looks the better - and cleverer - all-round cartoon in retrospect)

the cartoon version of Bill and Ted, as well, which went rubbish around the same time the two film actors left

No arguments on that one ;-) Although again, Reeves and Winter's departures coincided with something of a change in the show's direction.

By Seb
April 26, 2006 @ 5:29 pm

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"That was Dan Castellaneta."

Yes, now you say so I remember that fact. Although it's struck me as a surprise again, funny how memory works given the context.

I loved Rocko's Modern Life at the time, I haven't seen any for a few years and I remember seeing some duff episodes perhaps a little later, so I wasn't sure if a later series didn't have the same spark, or if the same "toned down to Rugrats coziness" fate had fallen upon it as Ren and Stimpy - wasn't Rocko Nickolodean as well? Unlike with Rocko, I've seen some episodes of Ren and Stimpy very recently, and found it hit and miss, frankly.

But if we're talking slightly dream-like animation, nothing beats the original Betty Boops - I mean before the Hayes Code of around the mid-30s. Check out Minnie the Moocher and then Snow White (in that order I'd suggest) for some fantastically haunting and IMAGINATIVE animation, plus some great Jazz from Cab Calloway.

By James
April 26, 2006 @ 5:54 pm

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"some duff episodes"

What did the beer get its own series!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1

Ha, beat you to it.

By James
April 26, 2006 @ 5:56 pm

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I loved Rocko's Modern Life at the time, I haven't seen any for a few years and I remember seeing some duff episodes perhaps a little later, so I wasn't sure if a later series didn't have the same spark, or if the same "toned down to Rugrats coziness" fate had fallen upon it as Ren and Stimpy - wasn't Rocko Nickolodean as well?

Yes, it was also Nickelodeon and yes, it did seem to get toned down a bit towards the end.

But it was great stuff. It had more of a "cutesy" look and feel to it than Ren & Stimpy, which actually meant that it could get away with being a lot more risque than it might have done had it been completely in-your-face (how many other kids' cartoons have had a scene in which the lead character goes to work on a sex phone line?). There were some terrific episodes, such as the one where Filbert became a lounge crooner (and met his hero "Buddy Gecko", heh heh), and best of all the theme tune was (in later series) sung by Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of the B-52s! What more could you want from a kids' cartoon?

By Seb
April 27, 2006 @ 1:24 pm

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Some incredible sequences in Rocko as well, regardless of plot. I remember loving one which had the gang just going to the fairground, and it consisted (as far as I can recall) of deformed people doing weird things.

I think one of the things I liked about R & S was when the set-up was different each time, and there was no exposition or explanation as to why they were there. Like being two creatures that lived in a spitoon in the wild west, consuming bogies like connoisseurs.

By James
April 28, 2006 @ 10:44 am

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"10 reasons why The Simpsons sucks"

Not sure I agree with all the points made there, but worth a read.

The newer episodes are definitely disappointing when you think about the peak it had from seasons 2-8. However, I still think they're well worth watching, and some are still very good: season 14 has a few great episodes, including "Moe Baby Blues", which did a great job of balancing its sentimentality, and "Old Yeller-Belly". I also like the same season's "How I Spent My Strummer Vacation", if only for the lines "It's only rock and roll camp"/"But I like it!"

Incidentally, "Bart's Girlfriend" was on a couple of weeks ago, which contains one of my favourite pieces of Simpsons dialogue ever:

Marge: Have you noticed any change in Bart?
Homer: New glasses?
Marge: No... he looks like something might be disturbing him.
Homer: Probably misses his old glasses.
Marge: I guess we could get more involved in Bart's activities, but then I'd be afraid of smothering him.
Homer: Yeah, and then we'd get the chair.
Marge: That's not what I meant.
Homer: It was, Marge, admit it.

By Nick R
April 28, 2006 @ 2:55 pm

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I do like that bit :-)

By Seb
April 28, 2006 @ 2:56 pm

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Wow...that 10 Reasons list is interesting, if only because the person who is writing it clearly does have some idea of what makes good television (and good comedy), and it's well written...but he still manages to bungle the argument. I may actually write up a full response to it as all 10 points are worth addressing...but I get the feeling he's attacking most of them from the wrong angle.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
April 29, 2006 @ 2:20 am

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And dammit, Seb, I had a dream last night that Alan Partridge WAS in Family Guy. I don't like this interfering with my brain pattern thing you did.

By Philip J Reed, VSc
April 29, 2006 @ 2:21 am

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