The Simpsons: 3 Times Fans Spoke Up, And The Show Listened
Comic Book Guy is the walking embodiment of the negative online fan, handing down scathing judgements of pop culture from his message board throne.
And, as it turns out, Comic Book Guy is a Real Guy. (Or perhaps, Real Guys.)
Longtime scribe Mike Reiss admits that Simpsons showrunners would dutifully check online message boards to gauge fan reactions to recent episodes. A site called nohomers.net (still up in all of its message board glory!) turned out to be the source of Comic Book Guy’s most famous catchphrase.
“Every Sunday, minutes after The Simpsons aired, some “fan” would post, ‘Worst episode ever,’” says Reiss in his book Springfield Confidential. “After weeks of this, someone posted at 8:15 P.M., ‘I’m halfway through tonight’s show, but I can already tell it’s the Worst Episode Ever!’ Then, one Tuesday night, someone posted, ‘I just saw the promo for next Sunday’s Simpsons, and it clearly will be the Worst Episode Ever.’”
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em -- Simpsons writers took the online criticism and turned it into a classic comic punchline.
Simpsons writers aren’t the only ones who look to fans to influence their show. When he was producing Community, Dan Harmon confessed to creating scenes specifically for fans to turn into GIFs.
Online discussions and blogs “could have been looked at as an erosion of the television medium,” says Harmon. “But I think it's a way to keep these characters alive and give them more dimension.”
As for the Simpsons? Here are three more ways fans have influenced the show:
Jerk-Ass Homer SyndromeWhy did Simpsons showrunners go through the pain of studying message boards, especially when some fans were calling for those producers to “die in a car crash”? Because, Reiss says, sometimes the fans get it right.
One example that fans were especially sensitive to was “a syndrome they call Jerk-Ass Homer.” Essentially, those are episodes when Homer is written as too mean. The writers listened and steered Homer more into obtuseness rather than out-and-out vindictiveness.
Related: The Evolution of Homer J. Simpson
Sideline Characters Become StarsReiss used to regularly go out and give talks that he called “The Simpsons Backstage Tour.” (Inside joke: there is no backstage at an animated show.)
One surprise he got on the road was when he asked fans for their favorite characters. Surprisingly, “I often don’t hear them say Bart or Homer. I hear Duffman and Disco Stu instead.”
Surprising because both were originally designed as one-shot characters. Disco Stu was simply a pun/typo on a denim jacket. (The rhinestones were supposed to spell out Disco Stud.)
“But because of this feedback,” says Reiss, “we’ve featured them both on the show many times since."
The Resurrection of Ralph Wiggum”I’ll admit it,” confesses Reiss, “around season 4 we were getting tired of the little weirdo.”
Writers believed that lines that once felt inspired -- “My cat’s breath smells like cat food” -- were now getting formulaic. The writers' solution? They simply stopped writing Ralph into the show, limiting his appearances to once or twice a season.
“But when I visited college campuses, I observed how he was the most imitated and most quoted of all our characters,” says Reiss. “When I told the other writers about this, they brought Ralph back from exile.”
Somehow ten years later, the nearly departed Ralph is the character you see opening The Simpsons Movie, taking in money like the comedy vending machine he is.
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Top image: Gracie Films