How Alt.tv.simpsons Embiggened a Generation of Obsessive Fans

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Sept. 26 2013 12:00 PM

Best Message Board Ever

Twenty-five seasons of alt.tv.simpsons, embiggening a generation of obsessive TV fans.

(Continued from Page 1)

In hindsight, there’s something quaint about a writer from a hit TV series happily feeding inside information to people on a message board. But Oakley shared their love of The Simpsons. Had he not ended up writing for the show, he says, “I would’ve been one of them.”

The forum’s seemingly high collective IQ also intrigued Cohen. In May 1995, after “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” aired, he says an alt.tv.simpsons user was the first person to solve the mystery. (Alas, the poster didn’t win Fox’s official “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” contest because it required entering via sponsor 1-800-COLLECT.) Cohen, who has a master’s degree in computer science from University of California–Berkeley, also enjoyed hiding geeky Easter eggs in episodes just to see what kind of reaction he’d get. In the background of “Homer3,” a computer-generated segment in “Treehouse of Horror VI,” Cohen planted an equation that appears to—but doesn’t actually—disprove Fermat’s Last Theorem. As Cohen expected, alt.tv.simpsons seized on it. “They also put up a not-quite-true counter-example to Fermat’s Theorem,” Joel Rubin posted on Nov. 7, 1995. “No proof, though. I guess they didn’t have enough space in the margins of the film.”

There’s little doubt that the denizens of alt.tv.simpsons were smart. “You had to have a degree in computer science or you had to have access to a mainframe to post these things,” Oakley says. “That selects a certain crop of people who were usually pretty intelligent.” But that didn’t guarantee civility. After all, this was still the Internet.

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As the series progressed, the Itchy-sized knives came out. It was inevitable. But for Oakley, the constant critical feedback became tough to take. “Even when you have 20 compliments and one criticism,” he says, “you obsess over the criticism.” At his office, he started getting angry phone calls. Soon after that, around 1994, he disconnected his dial-up account. Oakley says he didn’t look at Internet comments again until the late ’90s, when he left the show.

The Simpsons, however, struck back at its online critics. “Radioactive Man,” penned by legendary writer John Swartzwelder, was the first episode to directly reference alt.tv.simpsons. It aired on Sept. 24, 1995, and included the slovenly Comic Book Guy monitoring newsgroups and mentioning “alt.nerd.obsessive.” If those were subtle jabs, then “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” which aired on Feb. 9, 1997, was a Drederick Tatum uppercut. The plot involves show-within-a-show Itchy & Scratchy adding a new character, Poochie, in a cynical attempt to boost ratings. The episode, written by Cohen, featured this exchange:

Comic Book Guy: Last night’s Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured that I was on the Internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world.
Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain? 
Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.
Bart: What? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them. 
Comic Book Guy: Worst episode ever.

Unsurprisingly, Cohen plucked the oft-quoted “Worst episode ever” from a 1992 alt.tv.simpsons post. Its author, John R. Donald, was expressing his displeasure with the episode “Itchy and Scratchy the Movie.” To this day, Cohen does a near-perfect impression of Comic Book Guy petulantly uttering “Worst episode ever.”

Although Salon called the episode “a hilarious, slightly cruel kiss-off from the writers to the Internet fans,” Cohen now refers to it as “the ultimate homage to alt.tv.simpsons.” And at least a section of the board, it seemed, took it in that spirit. After all, who wouldn’t like being referenced on their favorite TV show? “A good episode that wouldn’t be nearly as relevant to viewers unfamiliar with the fan community,” Jonathan Haas wrote in his review.* “Grade: A, because the writers would mock me if I gave it anything else.”

As Chris Turner points out in his book Planet Simpson, the show’s wise-ass tone actively invited this kind of sarcastic commentary. Couple that with complex, detail-packed, multilayered episodes, and there was a lot for alt.tv.simpsons to dissect. The early incarnation of The Simpsons was so smart, so damn good, that its biggest fans held it to an impossibly high standard. After all, we don’t just watch the shows we like—we pore over them, judging and praising even their littlest details. But unlike, say, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, or The Wire, The Simpsons wasn’t limited to a relatively short run. It’s not easy to sustain greatness for 500-plus episodes. “TV comedies don’t go eight, nine, 10 years,” Cohen says. “That’s the extreme outside edge of where TV comedies go. Except The Simpsons.”

As The Simpsons begins its 25th season on Sunday, the show is indisputably not as hilarious or groundbreaking as it was in its magical early years. But viewers continue to talk about it online. Alt.tv.simpsons still can be accessed through Google Groups, and a chunk of the forum’s best content is neatly curated on The Simpsons Archive. The A.V. Club also regularly reviews classic Simpsons episodes; at the bottom of those recaps, fans sometimes post old critiques from alt.tv.simpsons.

Online Simpsons fans still sum up the Internet as a whole: simultaneously angry, happy, knee-jerk, brainy, cromulent, and deranged. “There’s people who really take the show seriously and really know a lot about it,” Oakley says. “Many of their critiques are correct. That was the thing. You had to be able to sort out the valid criticism from the insane blather."

Correction, Oct. 16, 2013: This article originally misspelled Jonathan Haas' last name. (Return.)

Alan Siegel is a writer in Washington, D.C. You can reach him at asiegel05@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.

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