What the Simpsons Can Teach Us about Effective Storytelling in an Age of Multi-Media

Posted by Owen Matson, Ph.D. on March 3
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Once Upon a Time, There Were Linear Stories 

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Linear stories are straightforward, literally - they present a beginning, a middle, and an end. Wherever we are in the story, we are aware that there are pages preceding and pages to come.  Epic poems and, later, theater, followed the more linear progression we might better associate with a scroll or bound book.  In all these forms, the linear progression of the story sets our path for us. We do not surf across novels in varying directions. We can’t skip ahead or turn the channel while watching a play.  Our place in the scroll, book, or third act indicates how close we are to finishing, and our emotional experience is entirely bound up in time.

Stories in an Age of Distracted Interactivity

Then came interactivity. And with it, a new form of attention.  Perhaps more than any postmodern development, the remote control changed the way we related to the information pouring through our screens.  True to its name, the remote gave us new control over the information pouring through our screens--the programming, its commercials, and the story structures on which both depended. Previously, leaving the couch and walking up to the television to change the channel might cost more effort than merely enduring an advertisement.  But with a remote in hand, the viewer can click a button and move away effortlessly.

Control is a big thing—even when it comes in a diminutive, battery-powered plastic stick, the remote control wields power as great as any mystical wand. 

Add cable television and the ability to change channels without retuning the set (not to mention hundreds of channels to watch instead of just three), and the audience’s orientation to the program has utterly changed.  

The child armed with the remote control is no longer watching a television program, but watching television—assuming new control over information. Take note of yourself as you operate a remote control. You don’t click the channel button because you are bored, but because you are irritated. Someone you don’t know is imposing on your time—your entertainment time, your free time!  Maybe it’s a commercial trying to make you feel bad about your hair (or lack of it) or your laundry detergent—whatever it is, you click away in frustration. Or you simply refuse to be dragged still further into a comedy or drama when the protagonist makes just too many poor decisions. The remote means escape—freedom, control! 

Your tolerance for irrelevant information goes down as your ability to escape becomes increasingly easy. And so today’s television viewer moves from show to show, capturing important moments on the fly. Surf away from the science fiction show’s long commercial break to catch the end of the basketball game’s second quarter, make it over to the first important murder on the cop show, and then back to the science fiction show before the aliens show up. 

Deconstructed in this fashion, television loses its ability to tell stories over time. It’s as if the linear narrative structure had been so misused and abused by television’s incompetent or manipulative storytellers that it simply stopped working, particularly on younger people who were raised in the more interactive media environment and equipped with defensive technologies. And so the content of television, and the greater popular culture it leads, adapted to the new situation. 

Without the time or permission to tell a linear story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, television programmers had to work with what they had—the moment. To parents, educators, and concerned experts, the media that came out of this effort has looked like anything but progress. 

But, in fact, as new technologies—from, the TV remote to Google—increase consumer control over information, viewers have developed new ways of interacting with stories.  And changes in viewership have led to new forms of narrative—new styles of storytelling.

The Simpsons 

The Simpsons epitomizes this new style. While The Simpsons episodes have stories, the plot never seems to be the point. There are no stakes. Characters die, or do things that would kill them, yet reappear in later episodes. The fact that Homer (after the Greek hero) Simpson might have caused a nuclear spill does not create tension in the typical sense, and nobody watching particularly cares whether the town of Springfield is spared the resulting devastation. We are not in a state of suspense. Instead, the equivalents of recognition or reversal come from recognizing what other forms of media are being satirized in any given moment. When Homer picks up his daughter from childcare, she is perched on a wall next to hundreds of other pacifier-sucking babies. The “a-ha” moment comes from recognizing it is a spoof of Hitchcock’s The Birds—and that institutional childcare has taken on the quality of a horror movie. Unlike his ancient Greek counterpart, Homer has no heroic journey. He remains in a suspended, constant present, while his audience has all the recognitions. 

Still on the air after all these years, The Simpsons, along with the many satirical, self-referential shows that followed its path (the creators of Family Guy, South Park, and even The Office all credit The Simpsons as a seminal influence), offers the narrative-wary viewer some of the satisfaction that traditional stories used to provide—but through non-narrative means. 

Family Guy (1999), canceled by FOX in 2002 but revived in 2005 when its popularity online kept growing, seems tailor-made for the YouTube audience. The show’s gags don’t even relate to the story or plotline (such as they are), but serve as detours that thwart or halt forward motion altogether. 

In one episode the mom asks her son to grab a carton of milk, “and be sure to take it from the back.” Apropos of nothing, a black-and-white sketch of a man’s hand pulls the child into an alternate universe of a-ha’s iconic 1984 “Take On Me” music video. The child runs through a paper labyrinth with the band’s front man for the better part of a minute before suddenly breaking through a wall and back into the Family Guy universe. This reliance on what the show’s YouTube fans call “cutscenes” turns what would have been a cartoon sitcom into a sequence of infinite loops, each one just as at home on the decontextualized Internet as they are strung together into a half hour of TV. 

Viewers have no need to channel surf past shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy. Instead, these shows incorporate channel surfing within the very structure of their narrative design.  Rather than simply scripting pop culture references into scenes, The Simpsons and Family Guy use these references more as wormholes through which to escape from the temporal reality of the plot altogether—often for minutes at a time, which is an eternity click-fast distraction. 

How are you telling your story?

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Topics: storytelling, Thought Leadership, Marketing Theory, B2B Content, B2B Digital Marketing

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