Thursday, July 5, 2018

Books and TV - Reading books about The Simpsons and Sex and the City

Alas, I am not one of those avid readers who does not have a television, although I went through a period when I kept my television in a storage locker and only took it out for special occasions. Sometimes I imagine how many books I might read if there was no television in our house (or computer that streamed well enough to be the equivalent), but the truth is that at the end of a long time, I have trouble concentrating enough to read, unless I am completely absorbed in a book. When it comes to starting a book or making way through a book where I haven't yet been completely hooked, there's nothing like early morning reading. That's a helpful hint to you folks who complain about not reading much, yet see it as a bedtime activity. Try it at 5 in the morning!

That said, recently I read two books about television that offered the same sense of escape that TV itself brings me. The first was Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for the Simpsons, from Mike Reiss with Mathew Klickstein. Reiss wrote for the show for a number of years and with his writing partner, Al Jean, took a turn as show runner. For the Simpsons aficionado, this book is jam packed with information, character origins, background on stories, jokes, and why some actors who ask for more money are accommodated while others have their characters killed off. I admit I haven't really kept up with the show for the last five years, but I'm quite fluent in Simpsoniana for the first 10-15 years of the show. And that's enough to enjoy the book.

Mike Reiss has had a long history writing for comedy, including live action shows like Alf, late night talk shows, and even the Pope. The last one almost seemed like a parlor game - write a joke that touches on Catholicism and the weather for Al Roker. It can't be in bad taste or insulting. Read the book to find the answer. His stand-up background comes out in much of the writing. The Simpsons was a groundbreaking show in its rat-a-tat humor (more jokes that you can digest in one viewing), and you can say the same for Springfield Confidential.

In addition to The Simpsons, Mike Reiss and Al Jean developed The Critic, an animated show on ABC and Fox about a know-it-all film critic voiced by Jon Lovitz. Apparently I do like my cartoons as I was a fan of that show in the day and never realized its connection to The Simpson. There was even a cross-over episode. Reiss has some interesting things to say about the show's ultimate failure - cancelled despite okay ratings because the network chief really hated the show. When talking about his career, Reiss is not afraid to call out folks he thinks made bad decisions and that hearkens back to my quibble about the book - I'm worried that maybe the trash talking is in jest, and these are the lies that are referred to in the subtitle. I'm worried I'll be quoting some outrageous thing, only to find out it didn't happen. I'm guessing France didn't actually boycott The Simpsons because of the Paris episode, but you never know.

While I would have been drawn to a book about The Simpsons like a bee to a flower, I could not imagine reading a book about Sex and the City, and probably would not have had we not agreed to host Jennifer Keishin Armstrong for Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love. I had been a fan of both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Seinfeld, so hose were easy and obvious reads. Both our BID director and another bookseller on staff were enthusiastic about reading the early copies, and since I'd only seen one or two episodes, and hadn't taken to either, I couldn't imagine what I would get out of the history, despite my having read the Sex and the City column in The New York Observer when it was first being written. My friend John had a subscription and used to pass off old issues to me. That's pre-Jared Kushner.

So we hosted Armstrong and I listened to her talk and wound up enjoying it a lot. Afterwards I went home and realized there was a Sex and the City marathon on E. I watched a few episodes and liked it enough to tape a few more. I had to see the episode where the catchphrase "He's just not that into you" was coined. I had to see the sticky note breakup. And so on.

Then there was all that news about Cynthia Nixon running for governor, followed by the feud between Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall over film number three. But this is one of those things about pop culture - when I'm not connected to a show, all the details wash over me. I knew they liked cosmos and shoes, and that the show was a boon to Magnolia Cupcakes, but I couldn't even have named the four name actresses and what their archetypes were. Was there a one-to-one correspondence between Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte and Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia? Had I read an article claiming such, I would have believed.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong's pop culture history covers the story in pretty much chronological order, with an occasional aside. It all starts with Candace Bushnell's column, where Candace soon takes on the alter ego of Carrie Bradshaw. The columns were peppered with pseudonyms, including River Wilde, who was Bret Easton Ellis. I wouldn't have minded a addendum with every fake name and who the person was most likely to be. Meanwhile, young Darren Star was flush off his success (but overwhelmed by the grueling schedule) of Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. He wanted to see if he could be successful on his own, without the partnership of Aaron Spelling.

His project? Not Sex and the City but the now-obscure Central Park West. It didn't last very long. But in this time, he met Bushnell and they struck up a friendship. Jamie Tarses at ABC was interested*. But they were worried that they'd have to take the oomph out of the book to pass censors. Could it even be called Sex and the City? HBO would have no such restrictions. The problem with HBO was that it was such a male-dominated channel, best known for theatrical release movies and simulcasting boxing matches. They hadn't yet developed their brand of auteur television. Many think that The Sopranos was the groundbreaking show, but Sex and the City beat it by six months.  (Pictured at left is Jennifer Keishin Armstrong at Nail Bar, above right at Cafe Hollander on Downer Avenue with the mixologist and SATC fan).

As she did in Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and Seinfeldia, finds the most fertile ground for new material in talking to the writers, who often brought their own life stories into the plotlines, even when one of the writers developed breast cancer. If there's a downside to the story, Armstrong isn't able to finagle much juicy gossip out of the story. Sex and the City and Us devotes some time to highlighting some of the episodes downsides, such as having bisexual and transgender stories that didn't age well, a lack of people of color in the casting, and a particularly clunky episode where Samantha dates a black record company executive. In this way, the show has had some similar difficulties aging as The Simpsons, which has found controversy with The Problem with Apu, which Reiss addresses in his book, but probably not to the satisfaction of those concerned.

I wound up devouring both books, but I don't expect to read any other television books in the near future, mostly because the shows I like the most never seem to get any traction. My two favorite shows of this year, Great News and LA. to Vegas, were cancelled without fanfare. And much as I love it, I just don't think they'll ever write a book about Happy Endings (*which was executive produced by Jamie Tarses long after she lost the competition to acquire SATC).

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