Monthly Archives: September 2012
What if there was a theory that explained the way people are? What if this theory just happened to borrow heavily from a popular video game franchise? Well, if such a theory existed it would probably be called, The Madden Customization Theory, and it would probably blow your mind. I’m not sure if John Madden’s video games were the first to introduce the concept of character customization, but they were certainly one of the earliest and most popular. It is possible that some of you don’t know what I am talking about. You’ve never played a video game, or you’ve never had the experience of customizing a virtual character. Do not fret, explanations are coming.
We don’t have any control over when we’re born, who we’re born from, or even if we’re born at all. It’s really a sobering truth if you give it the thought time it merits. There is an infinity that came before you, and one way or another there is an infinity after you. If that’s not humbling enough, some really smart people believe that you don’t even have free will in this brief life. Either your circumstances, or genes, or God determine your every choice from cradle to grave. Wow, that’s a lofty concept, and I’m willing to bet humanity was never meant to fully understand it. Regardless, it is important to recognize these philosophical and religious concepts of time, will and eternity if we are going to have a foundation for this incredible theory.
In the above image you see numbers and categories. The numbers, or points, range from 0 to 100, with 100 representing the maximum skill in that particular category. Aaron Rodgers is a real football player, so his statistics have been set by the programmers of the game. The custom character screen is similar, except that you can choose how to disperse the points. So if I wanted a player to be fast, I could put most of the points in the category of speed. The catch is that you’re only given so many points to spread around. You have to decide what kind of player you want him to be. Sacrifices must be made. Priorities must be set.
What if we had the ability to somehow determine the kind of people we would be, before we were even born? It would only be fair that each of us would have the same number of “points” to disperse as we deemed appropriate. So, if I wanted to be book smart I could put points towards that, and might have to sacrifice some athletic ability. Or, if a woman wanted to be more attractive she could overload her points in the beauty column and sacrifice common sense. It is a rare person who excels in most categories. For many of us, there are clear strengths and weaknesses, which often appear to be random. The Madden Customization Theory offers an explanation to account for the big guy without a brain and the scrawny guy with an I.Q. of 150. We all had the same number of points, but we all have different priorities.
The Madden Customization Theory probably wouldn’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny from serious thinkers, but I’m willing to bet it struck a chord with you. It’s appealing to imagine that somewhere in a time long ago we had the power to choose who we would become. Maybe the best aspect of this theory isn’t what it assumes about the past, but what it says about the future. We are largely the result of our priorities. It matters who we want to become. That’s how real characters are created.
I can say without any exaggeration that The Simpsons has influenced me more than any other television show in existence. As a child I would watch in the presence of my older brother, noting what he found humorous, so I knew when to laugh. He would often explain why something was funny, since my 8-year-old self missed most of the high-level humor. For instance, when Homer becomes a big brother to a poor child named Pepi, Pepi says, “Papa Homer, you are so learn-ed.” Homer corrects him, “It’s learned, son. Learned.” If you don’t know how the word is really pronounced, the joke is lost. I believe this kind of humor, this “high-level” humor, is what made The Simpsons a great (perhaps greatest) comedy. It’s not what makes it great because, let’s face it, the show hasn’t been good for about 13 seasons. Right around season 10, it started the long and steady decline toward mediocrity. Now, when I do give it another chance, it is like visiting an old friend who is dying of a painful terminal illness. It’s sad, it’s tragic, and it’s at the point where you just want their suffering to end. The Simpsons needs to die.
It’s hard to begin. How does one describe the comic genius that made The Simpsons special? Well, here are 2 clips that I’ll use as examples. This first one comes from ” Deep Space Homer” in season 5. We’ve just seen a shot of Homer’s space shuttle and an escaped ant moved past the camera. Here is Kent Brockman’s reaction.
As a member of the media, Kent Brockman is prone to sensationalism. We see it in an earlier episode in which Kent claims, ” I’ve been to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together.” He is referring to a rebellion at Bart’s summer camp. The writers are poking fun at how ridiculous the news media can be in an attempt to make a story more interesting. But what really makes this funny is that Kent clearly believes his own sensational claims. He jumps from one radical conclusion to the next and even accepts that the invasion is a foregone conclusion, which is why he is already trying to convince the ant overlords that he can be useful. This is very silly, but we in the audience can see the work of intelligent people behind the scenes.
In this next clip, we find Mr. Burns attempting to win Homer’s trust. Homer has become the head of the union at the power plant and Mr. Burns is threatening to remove their dental plan. This clip comes from season 4, and the title is, “Last Exit to Springfield”.
There is this Infinite Monkey Theorem that assumes if a monkey were to hit the keys on a typewriter into infinity, it would eventually write Shakespeare. A variation is that an infinite number of chimps (or some really high number) banging on typewriters would eventually produce some great piece of literature. I actually wrote about this in A Universe of Infinite Chimps. Anyway, in the clip we can see that the monkeys are smoking and focusing intently on their work, just like a bunch of human writers. They are also chained to their typewriters. I’m sure the writers who wrote this scene were thinking of themselves. When Mr. Burns reads what the monkey wrote, it turns out to be the first line of Charles Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities. But the monkey wrote “blurst” instead of “worst”, so Mr. Burns completely overlooks the incredible feat and judges the animal like he would some great author. It plays on our expectations, and Mr. Burns’ sincerity and serious tone throughout the exchange makes for the perfect contrast to the ludicrous event.
The main point I want to make with these clips is that the early episodes were cleverly written by intelligent people who were aiming high at their audience. Sure, there is plenty of slapstick to be found, but slapstick is only funny if it’s carried out by a person or entity with dignity and intelligence. The Simpsons often referenced classic literature and film in these great episodes. Even now, I find myself discovering things that I first learned from The Simpsons. Perhaps I’ll recall a scene after watching a classic Alfred Hitchcock film, or Citizen Kane. In 6th grade I got a congratulatory letter sent home for knowing what the scientific name for the Northern Lights was: aurora borealis. I learned that from Principal Skinner.
As I’ve previously mentioned, it was around season 10 that the show started to suffer creatively. If you search around the internet you’ll see a consensus on this moment in the show’s history as the beginning of the end. Some blame the shift toward a younger audience. Some blame new producers, or the exodus of Conan O’Brien from the staff (though he left after season 5). Others simply believe that the show had run out of clever ideas, like any long-running program. I’m sure there were a number of reasons for the decline, but the fact remains that The Simpsons has shuffled on into an endless sunset.
Here’s a preview of the first episode of season 23.
So here we have Homer in a ridiculous situation with a celebrity guest star. This is the norm. Critic Jim Schembri of The Sydney Morning Herald summed it up pretty well when he wrote, “Now the show has in essence fermented into a limp parody of itself. Memorable story arcs have been sacrificed for the sake of celebrity walk-ons and punchline-hungry dialogue.” He is absolutely correct. Once rich characters have been emptied of intelligence, emotion and dignity for the sake of selling out to the lowest common denominator of humor and entertainment. It’s pathetic, and a lesson in the cost of pride and greed.
This show is a cash cow, and has been for many years. The voice actors make millions and the producers make even more. They have nothing to prove and nowhere to go. I imagine Matt Groening, the creator, has become much like George Lucas. Both men made something that the people loved, and they gained incredible wealth and fame. But at some point they lost touch with the original vision, and traded it all for just a little more. Look at this quote from Groening in 2006.
I honestly don’t see any end in sight. I think it’s possible that the show will become too financially cumbersome… but right now, the show is creatively, I think, as good or better than it’s ever been. The animation is incredibly detailed and imaginative, and the stories do things that we haven’t done before. So creatively there’s no reason to quit.
You know that once a storyteller starts focusing on the “incredibly detailed” animation, he has lost his soul (i.e. James Cameron with Avatar and George Lucas with everything since Star Wars Special Edition).
It saddens me that The Simpsons now has more mediocre and bad episodes than good and great ones. It also saddens me that I wish for its swift death, so that the memory of what was right isn’t overshadowed by what is so very wrong. All we can do is re-watch those episodes from the golden age, and hope that future generations will understand that The Simpsons was at one time the greatest show on television. And not because it was the most popular, or the longest- running, but because it was clever and profoundly hilarious.
I know this is old news by now. The Democrats started their own convention this evening. But I can’t help but dwell on the speech that Clint Eastwood gave at the Republican National Convention. In it were moments of goodness and straight talking, but those moments were smothered by more moments of awkwardness. I’m a conservative guy, and I’m a big fan of Clint, so I want to pretend for a moment that I had the ability to edit his speech before he went out on stage. Perhaps we can get to the heart of things by shaving off the distracting bits.
Let’s start by watching the actual speech.
It’s a little painful to watch. Clint seems to stumble a bit and make some disrespectful jokes about the president. At times he seems a little lost. But once again you have to admit that there were parts worth keeping.
Now, here is the version of the speech that I would have approved.
EASTWOOD: Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you
very much. Save a little for Mitt.
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, what’s a
movie tradesman doing out here? You know they are all left
wingers out there, left of Lenin. At least that is what people
think. That is not really the case. There are a lot of
conservative people, a lot of moderate people, Republicans,
Democrats, in Hollywood. It is just that the conservative
people by the nature of the word itself play closer to the vest.
They do not go around hot dogging it.
So — but they are there, believe me, they are there. I
just think, in fact, some of them around town, I saw John Voigt,
a lot of people around.
John’s here, an academy award winner. A terrific guy.
These people are all like-minded, like all of us.
So I — so I’ve got Mr. Obama sitting here. And
he’s — I
was going to ask him a couple of questions.
But — you know
about — I remember three and a half years ago, when Mr. Obama
won the election. And though I was not a big supporter, I was
watching that night when he was having that thing and they were
talking about hope and change and they were talking about, yes
we can, and it was dark outdoors, and it was nice, and people
were lighting candles.
They were saying, I just thought, this was great.
Everybody is trying, Oprah was crying.
I was even crying. And
then finally — and I
cried that hard since I found out that there
is [are] 23 million
people in this country.
Now that is something to cry for because that is a
national disgrace, and we haven’t done enough, obviously — this
administration hasn’t done enough to cure that.
they have is not strong enough, and I think possibly now it may
time for somebody else to come along and solve the problem.
So, Mr. President, how do you handle promises that you have
when you were running for election, and how do you handle them?
I mean, what do you say to people?
Do you just — you know
know — people were wondering — you don’t — handle that OK.
know even people in your own party were very disappointed when
didn’t close Gitmo. And I thought, well closing Gitmo — why
that, we spent so much money on it. But, I thought maybe as an
— what do you mean shut up?
OK, I thought maybe it was just because somebody had the
idea of trying terrorists in downtown New York City.
I’ve got to to hand it to you. I have to give credit where
credit is due. You did finally overrule that finally. And
now we are moving onward. I know you were against the war in
and that’s okay. But you thought the war in Afghanistan was OK.
know, I mean — you thought that was something worth doing. We
check with the Russians to see how did it — they did there for
But we did it, and it is something to be thought about, and
think that, when we get to maybe — I think you’ve mentioned
something about having a target date for bringing everybody
gave that target date, and I think Mr. Romney asked the only
question, you know, he says, “Why are you giving the date out
Why don’t you just bring them home tomorrow morning?”
And I thought — I thought, yeah — I am not going to shut
is my turn.
So anyway, we’re going to have — we’re going to have to
little chat about that. And then, I just wondered, all these
— I wondered about when the — what do you want me to tell
can’t tell him to do that. I can’t tell him to do that to
You’re crazy, you’re absolutely crazy. You’re getting as
Of course we all now Biden is the intellect of the
Kind of a grin with a body behind it.
But I just think that there is so much to be done, and I
that Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan are two guys that can come along.
never thought it was a good idea for attorneys to be president,
I think attorneys are so busy — you know they’re
always taught to argue everything, always weigh everything,
weigh both sides.
EASTWOOD: They are always devil’s advocating this and
bifurcating this and bifurcating that. You know all that stuff.
But, I think it is maybe time — what do you think — for maybe
a businessman. How about that?
A stellar businessman.
Quote, unquote, “a stellar
And I think it’s that time. And I think if you just step
and Mr. Romney can kind of take over. You can maybe still
use a plane.
Though maybe a smaller one. Not that big gas guzzler you
are going around to colleges and talking about student loans and
stuff like that.
You are an — an ecological man. Why would you want to
drive that around?
OK, well anyway. All right, I’m sorry. I can’t do that to
I would just like to say something, ladies and gentlemen.
Something that I think is very important. It is that, you, we
— we own this country.
We — we own it. It is not you owning it, and not
politicians owning it. Politicians are employees of ours.
And — so — they are just going to come around and beg
for votes every few years. It is the same old deal. But I just
think it is important that you realize , that you’re the best in
the world. Whether you are a Democrat or Republican or whether
you’re libertarian or whatever, you are the best. And we should
not ever forget that. And when somebody does not do the job, we
got to let them go.
Okay, just remember that. And I’m speaking out for
everybody out there. It doesn’t hurt, we don’t have to be
(AUDIENCE MEMBER): (inaudible)
I do not say that word anymore. Well, maybe one last time.
We don’t have to be — what I’m saying, we do not have to
be metal (ph) masochists and vote for somebody that we don’t
really even want in office just because they seem to be nice
guys or maybe not so nice guys, if you look at some of the
recent ads going out there, I don’t know.
But OK. You want to make my day?
All right. I started, you finish it. Go ahead.
AUDIENCE: Make my day!
EASTWOOD: Thank you. Thank you very much.
See, there was a good speech in there.