How The Simpsons Took on Hollywood and Got Its Audience Back

An executive producer talks about the show's sendup of the film industry's illegal-downloading obsession, which earned rave reviews and big viewership. 

Last month an Ohio man walked out of a showing of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit bespectacled with his Google glasses, probably wanting nothing more than a refund. What he got instead was a thorough grilling from the FBI, who suspected he intended to record and distribute the Chris Pine-fronted flick.

The headlines that resulted made for yet another example of The Simpsons presaging real life. (Other examples include the Manti Te’o fake-girlfriend affair and the Seahawks facing the Broncos at the Super Bowl). Days earlier, the show had tackled Hollywood’s zeal to prosecute movie pirates with an installment called "Steal This Episode." “It’s always magic when something in real life happens alongside the silly stuff in our show,” says Matt Selman, an executive producer on The Simpsons.

In “Steal This Episode,” Homer wants to see the latest Radioactive Man Re-Rises—so he illegally downloads it. That transgression kicks off a serial tirade of piracy until Marge sends a confessional letter to Hollywood (including a check), spurring Homer’s arrest by the FBI (who shut down one of his backyard screenings), followed by escape and immunity offering by the Swedish embassy.

It was unadulterated cultural commentary on piracy, mainlined through Homer’s naïve one-liners (“Illegally download it? Is that legal?”). The most-watched Simpsons episode in three years, it set Reddit ablaze with several threads and hundreds of comments and was praised by critics, who called it a return to form for the show. Shortly after the Google Glass incident, the episode’s prescience was proved yet again in ironic fashion: Fox ordered a man to pay $10.5 million in damages for hosting links to watch The Simpsons.

I spoke with Selman about what led to one of the most talked-about installments of The Simpsons in recent history.

At the beginning of the episode, Homer’s coworkers Lenny and Karl strike up a conversation at the water cooler about the latest Radioactive Man film. Is this a common occurrence?

Homer comes in and everyone’s talking about the movie and he doesn’t want it to be ruined. It’s what we felt was a common phenomenon of modern life, where you have to avoid something really popular that everyone has seen but you. It’s sometimes really hard to avoid finding out what happens. Certainly at work on The Simpsons, someone will come in Monday after a big [episode of] Game of Thrones and we’ll all be talking about it and we’ll be like, “If you haven’t seen it: get out.” Or a big episode of Breaking Bad or a serialized TV show. [“Steal This Episode”] is mainly about movies but I think a lot of the stuff talked about applies to TV shows with all the downloading and spoilers and the way people experience media now.

Has anything been ruined for you?

A small example is something from another Game of Thrones [episode], where I really didn’t want the show to be ruined and then I read an interview with George R. R. Martin about who would win—Jaime Lannister or Aragorn—in a fight. That’s a safe article for me to read, right? Spoiler alert if you’re reading this article at home, but the first thing out of George R. R. Martin’s mouth was, “Well of course the fight would take place before Jamie’s hand gets cut off.” And I was like, “Fuck!” I tried so hard to avoid that.

With this episode, are you trying to comment on things that have relevance now?

We were trying to be somewhat current, but reference bigger trends that will be around for a while. The Simpsons isn’t going to do an episode on Justin Bieber being arrested while drunk or whatever he did, but maybe we’d do a story on the trend of bad behavior in teen stars. When Homer was upset in the theater, I think we needed a reason for Homer to pirate movies that isn’t just him being greedy. You’re not as involved in his story if his reasons are selfish. His reasons are benevolent and you can’t really not relate to them. And that’s a way more involving story. When you’re sitting in a theater and you’ve paid and there’s a whole ton of ads—$20 for the 3D ticket and $20 for food and $20 for parking and a babysitter—and you go see a movie that probably isn’t even that great and now you’re going to show me an ad: I mean, come on! The line of integrity in even popular entertainment and advertising has been obliterated. Which is obviously the kind of point we’re making in that episode. At the end of the episode we’re trying to sell you aftershave.

Why is the topic of piracy relevant now?

I got into this story because of that guy Kim Dotcom. He’s a very entertaining character. Obviously, for whatever reasons media companies are fighting people’s feelings [about] media companies. It’s never going to be a black and white issue. And that’s what was interesting about it for us, that this is not a black and white issue. Movie streaming and downloading is a crime; however, the people they’re stealing from are also criminals.

I just like the overall theme that when there’s a conflict over money, both sides will try to cloak themselves in nobility. The movie corporations will say, “You’re putting craftsmen out of work.” The movie corporations, given the opportunity, will steal and deny the money they owe people until they are literally forced at gunpoint to hand it over. People streaming these movies and stealing them are definitely exploiting the hard work and creative content that other people are literally owed for, but they’re not really costing the companies that much money. The movie pirates are saying, “We’re doing it in the name of freedom! And openness and an open world!” But really, they’re just pocketing money. Corporations would say you’re stealing from craftsmen. You’re putting these good people out of business when they’re equally as malicious and rule-breaking as the pirates.

Presented by

Trey Taylor is an editorial assistant at Dazed & Confused magazine.

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