The Awl Bookmobile: John Ortved's "The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History"

John OrtvedJohn Ortved’s “The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History” is out and available for purchase by you! (It is currently only #285 in books on Amazon; you can help!) Would you like to try a small sample? In this excerpt, we learn about how love money hurt the show’s co-developers Matt Groening, Sam Simon and James L. Brooks.

While creative differences caused a divide in Matt Groening and Sam Simon’s relationship, the division of The Simpsons’ spoils created a chasm. After the first season, when the show was blowing up and the money started rolling in, Sam felt that he was not being appropriately compensated. Today, Simon has made more than $200 million from the show, but at the time, issues over money only added fodder to his war with Groening. “Once, Sam got an envelope from Fox, and opened it up, and looked at it, and angrily threw it down on the ground,” says one witness from the early Simpsons days. “We knew it was a check, but we didn’t know what it was for. Later, Sam stormed out of the room. We crept over to see what it was, and it was a check for $34,000, which Sam had felt was not enough for whatever his part of this payment was-it was merchandise-and that check sat there for a couple days on the floor. We all just looked at it longingly, cause to us it was still a lot of money.”

Daria Paris, assistant to Sam Simon (1989-94): I think a big issue came up when the merchandising started rolling in. And Sam was seeing a smaller portion of it than others, which wasn’t really fair.

Jay Kogen, writer/producer (1989-92): I think Sam did okay. [Laughs] Part of it may have been money, but I think it was a combination of stuff.

Gavin Polone, former agent for Conan O’Brien, Simpsons writers; executive producer, Curb Your Enthusiasm: Back then, you used to make different deals than today. People got what was known as “adjusted gross.” I think Sam may still be getting $50,000, $60,000, whatever, per episode.

Brian Roberts, editor (1989-92): Matt used to be the king of merchandising. He would just sit in his office and sign posters and create more ways of doing merchandising. And meanwhile, Sam and the writing staff were churning out brilliant episodes. (And just as a side note, Fox is so cheap we never got any animation cels or anything. I couldn’t even get one cel from the episode I wrote. But there was no shortage of Butterfingers. You could always go up to Matt’s office and grab yourself a big handful of Butterfingers, because those were free, because Matt signed that Butterfinger deal. No shortage of those. To this day, I can’t eat a Butterfinger.)

The hatred between the two of them just became deeper and deeper for I don’t know what reason. I think Jim sided with Matt. I don’t understand it. I think Jim fell in love with the myth and the legend and said, “Hey, let’s ride this deal.” That was the beginning of the end, I think, for Sam.


Conan O’Brien, writer/producer (1991-93): Friends of Matt’s would be traveling and they would find bootlegged Simpson merchandise. Sometimes they were funny and sometimes they were disturbing. Like a Marge made out of a lizard’s skull, or T-shirts that were from some country-recently liberated from the Iron Curtain-that had Bart saying weird phrases that were mildly threatening or racist. I remember Matt cracking up once. “Did you see what they just found? Ceausescu had this in his basement.”

Also not amused by the knockoffs was one James L. Brooks. One story, which circulated throughout the Gracie Films building, involved Jim in New York City soon after the show had hit it big. Brooks spotted an African-American street vendor hocking counterfeit Bart Simpson T-shirts. Jim accosted him: “You’re taking food out of the mouths of my children!”


Ken Estin, writer/producer, Taxi, The Tracey Ullman Show: Whatever Matt got, [Fox] stopped giving [to others] instantly, because in the first season of The Simpsons they were already making phenomenal money-money that nobody ever dreamed of. When I first met Matt, I don’t even think he had a house. Once he started working [on Ullman], he got a house in Venice that I think he was renting. Then he bought it. Then when The Simpsons came out, he bought the house next door and turned it into a game house where he just had Simpsons things in it. He put in pinball machines and toys and toothbrushes and light fixtures, just everything you could possibly imagine-I was amazed. You’d be in one house and then you’d walk next door to the other house and there it was. It was The Simpsons house-his game house-but he made money so fast that then he sold both those properties and bought a huge house somewhere else.