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Matt Groening (#110 of 5)

Review: Mr. Burns at Playwrights Horizons

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Review: <em>Mr. Burns</em> at Playwrights Horizons
Review: <em>Mr. Burns</em> at Playwrights Horizons

D’oh! Mr. Burns is an audacious ode to all things Homeric. What initially seems an obsessive-compulsive mash note to The Simpsons becomes a brain-teasing deconstruction of pop culture, theater, and ultimately nothing less than the storytelling instinct itself. A mashup of the trivial and the epic, the satirical and the tragic, Anne Washburn’s “post-electric play” makes for a bravura exercise in post-apocalyptic post-postmodernism.

The play’s three scenes take us from the near future to the next century, where a sung-thru adaptation of the animated sitcom, performed here in masks, harkens all the way back to Greek tragedy. This loop-de-looping cavalcade of narrative tropes couldn’t feel more up-to-the-cultural-minute.

Just before curtain time, my friend and I sat quibbling over Breaking Bad. He listed plot holes in the final episodes. I thought about never talking to him again. Then the play started, with a small group of people around 30 years old trying to recall every beat of a Simpsons episode—the punchlines, the exact notes of the score—while sitting around a campfire, the proverbial first performance venue.

Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!

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Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!
Fly, Ryan Murphy! Be Free!

Dear Ryan Murphy:

Be crazy.

By crazy, I mean unhinged, unpredictable and inspired. Think Bob Clampett going full-tilt surreal in Porky in Wackyland. Or Chuck Jones starting out spoofing opera in What’s Opera, Doc?, then building to a climax of thunderous spectacle and heartfelt emotion that wipes the smile off your face (until Bugs Bunny restores it with, “Well, what did you expect in an opera…a happy ending?”) Think Frank Tashlin building a live-action cartoon around his already-cartoony leading man, Jerry Lewis. Or Bob Fosse directing an autobiographical musical fantasia while he was still alive, and structuring the entire thing as a deathbed flashback, and devoting the film’s final third to musical hospital staff and equipment as bits of mise-en-scène. Think Alfred Hitchcock staging entire feature films in single locations (Lifeboat, Rope, Rear Widow), ending The Birds with an eerie, almost European-art-film-like anticlimax, and killing off his leading lady in Psycho 40 minutes into the film and turning his focus to her killer, and making you think he’d killed his leading lady in Vertigo only to have her show up again during the film’s second half, by way of setting up an even darker, sicker, more moving story than the one you were already watching.

5 for the Day: The Simpsons

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5 for the Day: The Simpsons
5 for the Day: The Simpsons

Picking the five best Simpsons episodes is well-nigh impossible.

Even if you accept that basically nothing from season nine onwards is going to match up to anything in the first eight seasons (despite seasons nine and onwards having a few choice episodes), you still have to contend with the sheer amount of classic episodes in those first eight seasons. The Simpsons were the cultural institution of the 90s, for better or worse, a touchstone of a whole generation (Slate.com press critic Jack Shafer has argued that we’ll know that baby boomers have ceded control of the media to younger generations when Simpsons quotes start turning up in headlines).

For those who grew up in the ’90s, The Simpsons became the lingua franca of life. When I was in college from 1999 to 2003, Simpsons quotes or references became a kind of conversational shorthand, a way to sound clever on dates, or a way to size up whether the person you were talking to might be the very best kind of friend. It was a common denominator, one of the few things everyone knew about and could agree on. Saying “My cat’s breath smells like cat food” wasn’t just leeching off of someone else to be funny; it was both an ice breaker and a quick way to signify that you didn’t completely suck. And that was in rural South Dakota! Surely the phenomenon was more pronounced elsewhere; TV writer Denis McGrath has talked about how TV writers rooms often descend into long Simpsons quote-a-thons.

Aside from my top choice, the rest of the lineup could change on any given day. If anyone has the exact same list as me, I won’t only be shocked, I’ll be a little frightened. This is all an elaborate preamble to saying that picking the very best is impossible, so I singled out episodes that I think exemplify some of the things the show does best (and I made an effort to pick only one episode per season—otherwise, I could have filled the whole thing with Season Four entries). So, in the wake of the titanic success of The Simpsons Movie (a work that doesn’t rank with the best-ever episodes, but sits comfortably enough on the second tier—which is a pretty damn great tier), here are my five.