WITH A NAME LIKE HOMERPALOOZA, just how bad can an event be? That's what I figured when I trucked down to sunny Los Angeles in late October for the first ever Simpsons Global Fanfest, a three-day gathering celebrating the 10th anniversary of America's most beloved yellow-trash family. Promised to be "the largest international event of a television series brand and its fans," the Fanfest ought to be a blast, I thought, a planetary convention of die-hard Simpsons freaks, all geeking out over what US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky hails as "a penetrating sitcom [which] teases its form, and cavorts inventively within that form, the way a poem by Thomas Campion sports through the rhymes and stanzas of English verse."
Well, obviously! The point is, as the Best TV Show Ever (not counting the 2000 Election), The Simpsons deserves a commemorative weekend of its own, an acknowledgement not only of its teasing and cavorting, but of its universal appeal and continuing brilliance.
Alas, it is not to be. The press release pretty much sets the tone of the festivities: "More than 30 dedicated marketing partners from around the world worked in conjunction with a diverse group of 26 divisions of News Corp. to create and implement a variety of fan-related promotions, activities, and events in support of this endeavor."
Uh-oh. Yes, the most subversive series of all time is to be used by Rupert's real-world Globex as little more than a marketing tool. Though the Fanfest is said to be attended by sweepstakes winners from around the world, it appears that the "global" influence seems to run to Fox—erm, News Corp.—affiliates (though there are representatives from various international sponsors, including the fine folks at Nutella and Galleries Lafayette).
For the first night's festivities, we are directed to the aforementioned Homerpalooza (the official Fox press release notes "use of Lollapalooza trademark courtesy of Perry Farrell") at the evil House of Blues. Simpsons-related "celebs" like executive producer George Meyer—the funniest man alive, according to no less an authority than The New Yorker—roam around the McClub noshing on free Homer-themed liquor and eats (though for some reason, there are no donuts! Mmmmm . . . donuts.). Alas, there's also no top shelf booze available, which is fine if you like mixed fruity drinks, I suppose, but really blows if you've a hankering for single-malt Scotch. Despite my readiness to cough up cash, the bartenders give me a choice between Early Times and Clan MacGregor, which is no choice at all, really. But I digress.
Considering the remarkable lineup of musical talent that has appeared on the stages of Springfield, one would expect this "night of music, food, and fun celebrating The Simpsons" to feature some pretty cool guests, right? Wrong. For some reason known only to the promo people at Fox, we are treated to none other than Sheila E. performing her greatest "hits." Why? I have no idea. The erstwhile bandleader of The Magic Johnson Show lets loose with "The Glamorous Life" second song into her set, virtually guaranteeing a reprise later. Before that inevitable encore, we get a number of Simpsons clip reels, seemingly chosen at random, with little or no relation to the Homerpalooza ("use of Lollapalooza trademark courtesy of Perry Farrell") event. Later Ms. E. is joined onstage by none other than fellow former Prince fuck buddy Apollonia (who trills an execrable rendition of "When Doves Cry") and Ron Taylor, the voice of Bleeding Gums Murphy (dead since 1995, incidentally) who performs the worst version of "Born Under a Bad Sign" imaginable. What any of this has to do with The Simpsons is anyone's guess. My two cents? Fox realized late in the game that they had to do something to keep the contest winners busy, and Sheila was both cheap and available. Buzzed and queasy from the rotgut Scotch, I am so outta here.
Saturday's itinerary includes a trip to visit the Simpsons' star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, but given the choice between that and sleep, sleep seems the way to go. I also blow off the "Bart's Extreme Extravaganza" skateboard and in-line skate competition, as well as the Treehouse of Horror Marathon (it's not like I haven't seen them all hundreds of times), both of which are again clearly designed to keep the contest winners busy.
Sunday is the Big Day, The Simpsons Global Fanfest Backlot Bash on Fox's lot. Sadly, the morning sky is deep, dark gray and precipitation seems inevitable. The Theme is played over and over and over again as fans flow onto the Krusty Karnival midway, which features games and attractions skewed for Simpsonia: Sideshow Bob's HMS Pinafore Game, Springfield Isotopes Ring Toss (Go Topes!), and so forth. Hundreds of Fox-employed flunkies scurry about, doling out red and blue rain ponchos to attendees as the drizzle begins.
A pair of faux Moe's Taverns (the birthplace of the Rob Roy), despite lacking the original's legendary dank, offer up free plastic cups full of frosty Duff Beer, though not its more expensive imported counterpart, Dff. For the non-ale swillers in the crowd, there are also bottles of Ugolin and Cesar's California Red and White, emblazoned with the immortal slogan, "Whenever my faith in God is shaken, I think of the miracle of anti-freeze." And who can resist an actual real-life Krusty Burger? Well, said Krusty Burger turns out to be cold, gristly, and utterly unappealing—not unlike the real thing! Blech!
THE MOST INTRIGUING ATTRACTION is the Museum of Stuff—"Look at all the krap with my face on it," notes Krusty—displaying Simpsonia from around the world. Among the highlights are a Bart Nachlicht ("keeps Swiss kids from getting scared at night"), Canada's "Hommer Simpson Baldy Cap [sic]," and from Germany, Die Simpsons Electroflipper ("Mit 2 Schissflippern"). As Bart sez on the box, "Mann, das ist ein non-stop spiel." The most disturbing promo item on exhibit is from Australia, the Homer "Puffa Pal" asthma inhaler cover. I mean, I love Homer, but is that the face you want to see as you gasp for breath?
While I'm pleased to find supporting players like Otto and Lenny throughout the Karnival, where are such little-remembered faves as Disgruntled Goat or Uncle Ant, not to mention Rich Uncle Skeleton, Ku Klux Klam, and of course, Karl? Right there is the problem with the Fanfest: the lack of traditional fan convention ephemera. No one is dressed as characters, no one is debating the important issues, like who'd win in a fight: Kang or Kodos?
The Main Stage Activities kick off with oversized Simpsons characters parading in, capering about as they lead the USC Trojans Marching Band to the podium. Amazingly, I resist the Bartesque urge to step on their giant felt feet (when Homer did it at Itchy & Scratchy Land, he declared himself a political prisoner: "I kicked a giant mouse in the butt. Do I have to draw you a diagram?").
One after another, the staged events—emceed by a cheesy Jeff Probst Lite who will be hosting Fox's up- coming Survivor/Blind Date ripoff, Temptation Island— display little of the series' unerring genius. The very brilliant composer Alf Clausen leads the Simpsons orchestra through a scoring session, demonstrating the oft-demonstrated point that film requires music. A press conference led by Matt Groening and showrunner Mike Scully sees endlessly inane questions, mostly from Canada's Global Network's Entertainment News twinkie.
Next up is the highly anticipated World Finals of Bart Bowl Trivia Contest, with contestants selected from more than 400,000 obsessive fans competing at thesimpsons.com Web site (in Latin America, that's lossimpson.com). Among the dozen contestants, there's Alberto, the 13-year-old Simpsons superfan from Spain, Carlo from Italy, Warren from Belgium, and a handful of nerdy Yanks. Grand total of women: one. Again, another ill-thought-out disappointment, with lousy, excessively obscure questions (compiled by a hefty Comic Book Guy-looking fellow) and not especially funny multiple-choice answers (which, as any trivia fan knows, is for pussies). When the tables are turned and fans are given a shot at grilling the Simpsons staff, the Ivy League-educated writers don't even know who Langdon Alger (he's very quiet and he likes puzzles) is! Doesn't a Harvard degree mean anything anymore?
AS THE RAIN PISSES DOWN, we are at long last treated to the unquestionable high point of the Fanfest, a full-cast table reading of Episode 5F01, "The Cartridge Family," penned by the real funniest man alive, writer John Swartzwelder. Though Julie Kavner is busy doing a Sunday matinee of The Vagina Monologues and Harry Shearer is said to be somewhere in Southeast Asia, the rest of the voices are in full effect. It's simultaneously delightful and disconcerting to see the voices of your favorite two-dimensional characters emerging from the mouths of actual humans, and the read reminds us soaking-wet attendees why we love The Simpsons so very very much: ever-extraordinary writing and equally amazing acting from the finest comic ensemble of our time.
Brilliant as the table read is, I've still been out in the downpour for almost eight hours and quite frankly, I'm ready to go back to my hotel to search for some syndicated episodes. The Simpsons Global Fanfest was a washout, a cleaned-up corporate cavalcade of multitiered marketing feting the most gleefully antiestablishment show in TV history. In a word: D'oh!