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7 Important Writing Lessons From The Simpsons

The Simpsons Gets An A+++

One of the most popular posts on B2W is my case study of two episodes of The Simpsons. Both from season 10, I break down the plotting of two classic Simpsons episodes, Lard of The Dance and Maximum Homerdrive. You can find that post, HERE.

Since it’s been a few years now, I thought I would revisit The Simpsons and make another case study. Regardless how you feel about the show, most writers have seen multiple episodes, plus at only approx. 20 mins long it is useful for watching in the classroom. As a result, I frequently use The Simpsons in my workshops and one favourite episode is Lisa Gets An ‘A’. Another classic episode from season 10, the logline on imdb reads the following:

When Lisa cheats on a test, she has a moral crisis where her perfect score qualifies the school for grant money; Homer adopts a lobster as a pet.

It should be noted loglines for produced TV episodes have a slightly different function to those pitches we might write for unproduced or unpublished stories … They are to ‘sell’ to AUDIENCES, rather than industry pros. This accounts for the fact they tend to be less ‘zingy’ (actual term! Arf) and more often a straight summary of the story. (I cover this in my new B2W online course, Logline Hacks too).

So, my Simpsons logline above is more of an overview of the episode in question. I will break it down into its story strands, next.

Lisa Gets An ‘A’

As mentioned in that last post on sitcoms, The Simpsons is about a literal dysfunctional family (like most shows of its ilk). It is also what B2W calls a traditional sitcom. This means that in contrast to more modern sitcoms like Friends or Brooklyn 99, traditional sitcoms have just two ‘story strands’ – the A & B story (instead of A, B & C).

Here is my episode breakdown …

Storyline A

Lisa stays off school with a cold. Because she is so busy playing Bart’s video games, she uncharacteristically doesn’t read the book set as homework. As a result, she ends up cheating in a test for the first time ever and gets an A +++. However, as mentioned in the logline, this means the school gets more grant money. This leads to Lisa being struck with guilt. Rather than accept the kudos awarded to her, she tries to sabotage the grant money ceremony. Luckily, Principal Skinner realises she will do this, so sets Lisa up. The school gets the grant money anyway and no one is any the wiser.

Story B

Homer buys a baby lobster with the idea of eating it when it is bigger. Of course it is not as simple as that and he becomes attached to it, calling it “Pinchy” and refuses to kill it. At the end of the episode, Homer puts Pinchy in the bath and accidentally boils him to death.

Who’s the antagonist?

In this episode, Marge links and has an antagonist function in both stories. In the A story, she is first antagonistic by insisting Lisa stay off school when she doesn’t want to. She also wants to ensure Lisa doesn’t learn anything and effectively MAKES her play video games. After that, Marge is the one who dumps Lisa back at school, just in time for THAT test.

Similarly, in the B story, Marge is the one that wants to eat Pinchy throughout. She complains about Homer not killing the lobster, then vetoes the idea of sending Pinchy to ‘a snobby boarding school’. She also seems to be pleased the lobster is dead (though I may have imagined that).

However, Marge is not the only antagonist …

In the A story, Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers act as ‘secondary antagonists’ … First by persuading Lisa to help them get the grant money, then by hoodwinking Lisa over the ‘fake’ ceremony.

The MacGuffin

BUT WAIT! Like so many Simpsons episodes, Lisa Gets An A uses a ‘MacGuffin’. A ‘Macguffin’ is a plot device that acts as a trigger or catalyst for the main plot.

In the case of ‘Lisa Gets An A’, we start the episode in church, with everyone ready to leave … The Simpsons are finally able to escape church and Homer announces he’s taking the family ‘out to brunch’ (brunch being the Macguffin).

Of course, this is BS. Homer ends up taking them to a delicatessen and telling them they can eat all the sample foods, ‘As long as it has a toothpick in it, it’s free!’. Of course, Homer takes his brunch goal way too far as always.

Using a MacGuffin is a great way to structure any form of comedic writing, from a simple skit to a three-act play. The idea of characters pursuing an ultimately non-essential goal lends itself effortlessly to humor.’ From What Is The MacGuffin, Plus How To Use It

So, getting brunch from the store sets up what happens next … When Homer decides he wants ice cream, he shoves Lisa in the freezer to get it for him. Of course, this can’t really give her a cold, it’s just a short cut – a silly reason for what’s really a very silly episode.

Homer’s quest for brunch also means he tries to stick a toothpick in the live lobsters, only to get told off by the store assistant. Forgetting about the toothpicks, Homer realises he can’t afford a grown lobster, which is why he ends up buying Pinchy.

Reset To Zero

I think one of the most interesting aspects of Lisa Gets An A is that both ‘protagonists’ of the A and B stories start off their ‘normal’ selves but act completely out of character once their stories get underway, only to return to their characteristic selves by the end.

In the A story

Lisa starts off salivating at the thought of ‘oven roasted cud’ as a life-long vegetarian. She’s also accepting of her father’s insanity (as usual) and is helpful to him (as ever), even though his request is ridiculous (get in the freezer).

Also, when Marge wants to call the school to report her absence, Lisa does not initially want to stay home. She even wants to strike a deal with her mother (MARGE: ‘You don’t have anything I want!’).

When Marge suggests playing the video game, Lisa initially is unimpressed. However, she is soon swept away by the game and forgets all about her homework. This is when she starts acting out of character because she does everything she can to avoid a) a bad mark and then b) taking responsibility for it. She also allows herself to be talked round when Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers ask her to keep quiet.

It’s only at the prize-giving ceremony Lisa falls on her sword … just like Skinner predicts. Her circle from characteristic à uncharacteristic à characteristic is complete.

In The B Story

Homer starts off wanting to eat Pinchy. He also does a variety of stupid things to facilitate Pinchy’s growth, so he can eat him. Basically the kind of things we expect from Homer.

However, when it is time to shove him in the pot, Homer can’t do it. This is quite weird when we consider not only will Homer eat anything, we have seen him eat LIVE starfishes and even squirrels in various other episodes without batting an eyelid.

But instead, Homer starts treating Pinchy as ‘one of the family’ and even shows the lobster more interest than his own children … It’s very telling Homer’s walk on the beach with the lobster and Marge does not include the kids!

However, from there Homer ends up killing the lobster by accident by putting him in a ‘nice hot bath’ after he got dirty in the yard. Like Lisa’s in the A story, Homer’s circle from characteristic à uncharacteristic à characteristic is complete.

One of the conventions of sitcom is that everything ‘returns to the status quo’ or ‘resets to zero’. By the end of the episode …

  • Lisa is pleased to have her mark regraded as an F.
  • Homer eats the dead Pinchy: ‘He would have wanted it this way’.

Summing Up …

In this episode of The Simpsons, it worked out like this …

  • The A story or “major” thread is often the situation, focusing ultimately on particular character: in this case Lisa.
  • The comedy is kicked off BY A SPECIFIC ACTION OR ACTIONS of another character, often in the “minor” thread, in this case Homer re: Pinchy. (In this case, this all happened in the MacGuffin).
  • Structured in two storylines A and B – 65% vs 35% – brought together with Marge as the link AND antagonist in both strands. As the A story requires substantially more plot than the B story, Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers are dropped in as antagonistic forces too.
  • Reset to zero at the end.

What Writers Can Learn Here

1) Characters CAN behave the opposite of what we expect. Consistency is important in characterisation, but even established characters or tropes can be subverted whenever we want.

2) Compare and contrast characterisation. However if we want to subvert expectations, we need to ensure it’s obvious what we’re doing … otherwise it will just look like a BIG MISTAKE. In this episode of The Simpsons, the writers compare and contrast both Lisa and Homer’s journeys to show they are BOTH acting ‘out of character’.

3) Using MacGuffins can be a GREAT addition to comedy or mystery … However we need to know what the device is and why we’re using it, otherwise it will just seem like we’re writing random stuff.

4) Structure and character are inextricably linked. We can’t have one without the other. Great characters DRIVE plots and great plots REVEAL characters.

5) Sitcoms are great to learn structure. Sitcoms are highly structured and pack a LOT in, in just 21-22 minutes. Being so short, we can watch and compare many episodes in a short period of time. We can learn a lot from them, regardless of whether we’re actually writing sitcoms or not. I studied sitcoms to learn novel writing, true fact!

6) Conventions are important. In sitcoms, there are certain things we HAVE to do in order for them to qualify as sitcoms … it’s what audiences sign up for. If we don’t do them, the viewers will feel cheated. But that is not a ‘formula’, because we can do what we like within those perimeters.

7) Loglines of produced shows can differ to spec loglines. When we see a logline on Netflix, Amazon Prime or somewhere else, it has a different job … it’s still a ‘sales line’, but it’s asking the audience to watch. This means they may be more descriptive, rather than ‘pitchy’.

For more on this, check out my course Logline Hacks and grab your free worksheet, HERE. Have fun!

More on Sitcom, TV & Structure on B2W

Two more case studies of The Simpsons 

How To Watch & Break Down A TV Show 

The writers of The Simpsons & Other Comedy Writers Share Their Secrets

The Friends Pilot, Broken Down

How To Avoid A B.O.S.H (‘Bunch of Stuff Happens’) Screenplay 

2 Simple Tips To Spot Structural Problems In Your Writing 

Why Being A Structural Expert Helps Your Writing

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