Monday, 7 December 2015

2015 In Memoriam: Sam Simon and Sir Terry Pratchett

8th March 2015 – Sam Simon, 59

American screenwriter and producer who worked on Taxi and Cheers, but became best known for his role in bringing The Simpsons to screen. He had risen to become the producer on both Taxi and Cheers, and met Matt Groening when he was the executive producer of The Tracey Ullman show. It was thought that Simon's superior knowledge of TV would be the yin to the yang of Groening’s artistic talents.

If you stretch the writing of Double Indemnity to four years, then you did get genius out of the shared minds of Sam Simon and Matt Groening. But the strain on their working relation would never recover.

“In 1989, at 34 years old, Simon was already a television veteran when James Brooks, his fellow producer on The Tracey Ullman Show and a colleague from his days on Taxi, approached him to help turn Matt Groening’s one-minute cartoon shorts into a fully fledged series. Over the next four years, Simon took personal responsibility for assembling the team of writers that would propel The Simpsons to great acclaim: John Swartzwelder, George Meyer, Jeff Martin, Mike Reiss and Al Jean. He used his professional clout with The Tracey Ullman Show to secure one of its most talented writing partnerships for The Simpsons: Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky. In 1991 the story editor Jon Vitti referred to Simon as “the most undermentioned guy in the series”, with a presiding influence over storyboards, scripts, soundtracks and the direction of recording sessions. He introduced sophisticated storytelling techniques and three-dimensional characters.”

Telegraph obit

“Simon would depart from The Simpsons after its fourth season, leaving behind much acrimony with Matt Groening over creative differences and compensation. Simon’s lawyers negotiated a lucrative deal for him, he left without severance but retained a piece of the show (which earns him between $20 and £30 million annually to this day). While many of the early staff, particularly the writers, remain loyal to Simon, calling him an “unsung hero”, it is clear that Simon was difficult to work with and not an ideal collaborator for Groening... Simon told 60 Minutes in 2007: “Any show I’ve ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy, I hate myself.” For his party, Groening has said: “I think Sam Simon is brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I’ve ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced.”
John Ortved, Simpsons Confidential

That Groening quote, about being a genius at the writing bit but a bit anti-social otherwise, could sum up some of the great writers of the time, mind you!

““Sam brought a level of honesty to the characters. Is it too bizarre to say he made cartoon characters three-dimensional? His comedy is all about character, not just a string of gags. In The Simpsons, the characters are motivated by their emotions and their foibles. ‘What are they thinking?’—that is Sam’s contribution. The stories come from the characters.”
Ken Levine, Simpsons writer

Simon's’ contributions to The Simpsons world include: focusing more on Homer as the main character (a choice which added longevity to the show, the eternal battle between Homer Simpsons slightly innocent selfishness and his enduring love for his family providing the backbone of the show with more heart than the more brat like adventures of Bart at the time). He came up with the character of Mr Burns. Before his burn out with the show, he wrote some of the better early episodes, including Some Enchanted Evening (the one with the babysitter bandit), Black Widower (the one where Sideshow Bob marries Selma) and the loving Edgar Allan Poe pastiche of The Raven from the first Treehouse of Horror.

His name remains in the credits, and justly so. Temperamental or not, he provided the moxie to the artistic whim, provided the editorial sounding board to keep The Simpsons on air beyond its difficult first season, and his critiques brought transformed it into what became one of the US’s greatest running shows.

“''If you leave out Sam Simon,'' Jon Vitti says, ''you're telling the managed version. He was the guy we wrote for.'' Jay Kogen, a former producer at the show, agrees. ''Sam had this amazing conception of Springfield,'' he recalls. ''He kept expanding the idea. He knew the freedom that animation provides and utilized it to the full extent. The big story at the time was 'Cartoonist breaks through into TV.' It could also have been, just as easily, 'Old-time TV producer breaks through into TV.' 'Simon's account of the show's beginnings squares with Groening's on some points, but his interpretation is different. ''I didn't think the show was going to be successful, but I knew it would be good, and fun to work on,'' he says. ''So what I used to say was, 'Hey, come on, we're 13 and out, so let's have fun and do what we like.' '' As for Groening himself, Simon says: ''When I see Matt now, I shake hands and say hello. I can't lie and say that Matt did what he didn't do, but I do appreciate him creating that family. Thanks to Bart Simpson I have a pretty good life.''

A.O. Scott, New York Times, 4 November 2001

“It turns out Matt Groening was not considered a great asset by many in The Simpsons writers room; he was not a sitcom writer and didn’t really didn’t know how to tell those kinds of stories, and Sam Simon let him know it. Once while discussing a script where Marge finally lets her hair down, Matt really wanted to reveal that underneath her beehive, Marge had Rabbit ears—Sam, of course, said no. One witness to the early days was particularly annoyed that Groening took so much credit for the show's success, when "[he] just sat up in his office all day, figuring out ways to make more money [with merchandising]" while Sam Simon and the writers churned out brilliant script after brilliant script. As original Simpsons writer (and the head writer of Frasier), Jay Kogen put it, “I keep reading books about Star Trek where [creator] Gene Roddenberry was not the guy who was necessarily at the head of it, or the stuff about The Godfather, where it’s Coppola and it’s a bunch of other people. It turns out that what they say about TV and movies being a collaborative effort is really true. It’s a large collaboration. But those are hard stories to tell for the press. They like to make stars out of people, so they pick one guy and say, ‘This guy’s the guy who did it.’ And that’s a pretty good story.”

John Ortved, When Homer Wont Take Your Call, Daily Beast 2009 (on how his Vanity Fair article was nearly pulped by FOX for talking to Sam Simon)

Apparently, it is believed that the episode “Flaming Moe's” is an analogy of the Groening/Simon relationship with Moe as Groening and Homer as Simon. We couldn’t possibly comment.

But really, when the history of a fall out stems mostly from second hand sources, and the main instigators don’t really talk about, its a bit daft for fans to take one side or the other. Without either man, the show wouldn’t be what it was today. Nor would it have survived five minutes. And then we’d never have got A Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace, to unfairly pick but one five minutes of genius.

And Sam Simon might have been tetchy (certainly his Twitter account attested to that), but he helped make the world a funnier place, and then spent his millions helping charities across the world. Far more convivial people have done less to help the world.

12th March 2015 – Sir Terry Pratchett, 66

Death, The Grim Reaper himself, using Twitter.

This is the owner of the ideas, stalking through them with a preoccupied air. His name is Terry. But not any Terry. This is the Terry whose particular sphere of operations is, well, not a sphere at all, but the Discworld, which is flat and rides on the back of four giant elephants who stand on the shell of the enormous star turtle Great A’Tuin, and which is bounded by a waterfall that cascades endlessly into space. Scientists have calculated that the chance of anything so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one. But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.

We could carry on the story of Mort (the previous paragraph lifted entirely from the first page of the book of the name, with one word changed. I’ll leave you to work out which word...) but someone, somewhere has no doubt done that, and better, since.

Terry Pratchett, creator of worlds, and inspiration of millions of stars, died. There was that disturbance in the force, as felt when Ray Bradbury and Douglas Adams went, as though billions of book lovers all let out a shriek, and that the great writing hand of their hero would write no more.

Not even a tweet.

Terry Pratchett was an overnight success. Naturally, by overnight success, we mean it took seventeen years of hard work to make a breakthrough. The press would frequently focus on the success and not the hard work, as though riots and volcanoes explode without any underlying work going in. This would bemuse Pratchett, and he would use it as part of his writing advice for novice writers. Or, as he would put it, the best way to become a writer is to imagine how a championship boxer became the top of his field, and then do everything that they did. Except in a writing sense.

“At first, Discworld was used as a background for a series of comic sendups of other fantasy cliches but, as Pratchett himself said, if that was all, he would have run out of steam after a couple of books. Discworld constantly evolved, and part of its fascination for readers was the way in which the background became deeper, more complex and in some cases darker, but nonetheless remained a background. Forty Discworld novels appeared. The emphasis was always on the comedy, the foibles and peccadilloes of the characters, a gentle cynicism about the ways of the world, a joy in puns, a love of irritating footnotes, a relish for the bathetic puncturing of the bombastic – and above all an irrepressible and infectious silliness.In a publishing world where popular success often equates to ill-written or hackneyed work, Pratchett’s novels, although in a racy, readable style, were constantly witty, with many cultural, vernacular and literary references. You never quite knew where the next association was coming from: you would find sideways references to HP Lovecraft, William Shakespeare, Beachcomber, Sellar and Yeatman, Thomas Hughes, Peter Shaffer (a good joke about Salieri), JRR Tolkien, Egyptology, vampirism, dragons.”
Christopher Priest, Guardian obit

His Discworld series of novels, loved by millions around the world from Neil Gaiman to my dad, brought the whimsical, the deliberately literal, and the turn of phrase and deft prose to fantasy that Douglas Adams had to SF. Complete with a mastery of characters who were genre savvy (they knew the tropes of fiction) and those who were wrong genre savvy (they knew the tropes of fiction, but for the wrong type of story to the type they were in).

“The literati sniffed at his fantasies, but he gave as good as he got. He had no intention of writing literature, or adding to the piles already mouldering about. Instead he ornamented Discworld with Unseen University, which was never precisely Here or There, where faculty such as the Professor of Indefinite Studies had only to show up for meals, and where the Librarian was an orang-utan who, swinging through the shelves with his prehensile limbs, had reduced all existential inquiry to a craving for bananas. Sir Terry had not been to university himself, Seen or Unseen. He had just about scraped through High Wycombe Technical High School. Astronomy was his passion, but his star-gazing was not backed up by being any good at maths. He learned instead—mostly from P.G. Wodehouse and H.G. Wells—that universes could be explored in other ways, and could be funny and dark and slyly topical, all at once.”
The Economist obituary

There was forty-one Discworld novels published between 1983 and 2015, an output that ranks even with the most prolific of novelists. His final novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, was just released. Rest assured, I am not The Guardian, and so there will be no spoilers of it in this obit.

“I have to say that I simply hate it when reviewers call my work "wacky" or "zany". Those people are going to be hunted down by the Mafia! Seriously, I suppose around the fifth or six Discworld book, I discovered the joy of plot. I think it was Esther Friesner who said you have to have tragic relief. If a book is nothing but funny, then it is nothing but funny. There is no contrast and it's hard to take anything seriously. It's hard to worry about the fate of a character. You do need those moments when you bring people down to Earth... Writing those scenes taught me a few things. One of the things it taught me is that you should never regret. You should never say, "If only I had taken that job. If only I had not done this or I had not done that." Because you don't know what else would have happened. If you had taken that job, yes it would have offered better promotions and more money, but if you had been going to work to that job on a particular day, you'd have been run over by a bus. You don't know what other things would have happened as a result of the decision. So, basically, you better just take what comes down the pipe.”
Terry Pratchett, Internet Writing Journal, April 2000

“I get asked all the time, in letters and emails and questions from the floor: ‘Can you give me a few tips about being a writer?’ And you sense that gleam in the eye, that hope that somehow, this time, you’ll drop your guard and hand over the map to the Holy Grail, or, preferably, its URL. I detect, now, a slightly worrying edge to all this, a hint of indignation that grammar, spelling and punctuation have a part to play and that the universe is remiss in not making allowance for the fact that you don’t have the time. So instead, I give tips on how to be a professional boxer. A good diet is essential of course as a daily regime of exercise. Pay attention to your footwork, it will often get you out of trouble. Go down to the gym every day – every day of your life that finds you waking up capable of standing. Take every opportunity to watch a good professional fight. In fact, watch as many bouts as you can, because you can even learn something from the fighters who get it wrong. Don’t listen to what they say, watch what they do. And don’t forget the diet and the exercise and the roadwork. Got it? Well, becoming a writer is basically exactly the same thing, except that it isn’t about boxing. It’s as simple as that.”

Terry Pratchett, How to Be a Professional Boxer, foreword to the 2006 Writers and Artists Yearbook.

Terry died after a long battle with Alzheimer's, in which he fought to increase public understanding of this common and dreadful disease.