'Simpsons' producer Sam Simon brings his poker buddies to the screen
Sam Simon, who developed "The Simpsons" with Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, has had a fair amount of time and even more money on his hands since setting the little cartoon out on the road to becoming one of the most popular TV shows of all time. In the decades since Bart’s bow, Simon has busied himself as something of a canine-centric philanthropist and as host of one of what must be the most hilarious home games of poker in Hollywood, filling the seats around his card table with some of comedy’s biggest names.
Now Simon is bringing his game to the public. “Sam’s Game” premiered last week on Playboy TV. Re-creating Simon’s home game in a penthouse at Vegas’ Palms Hotel, the show’s table is populated by comedians Dave Attell, Norm Macdonald and Jeffrey Ross, Howard Stern regulars Artie Lange and Ralph Cirella, actress/Simon ex-wife Jennifer Tilly, as well as Playmates Brande Roderick (pictured above with Simon) and Deanna Brooks.
We spoke with Simon about the show and his life beyond, at and away from the poker table.
Q: Tell us about the new show.
SS: We just film my home poker game. I think some people are really going to love this show. There’s poker on TV and some of it is high-stakes poker oriented to see really good players. But I think it's kind of fun to see average players, and below. I do think you get a sense of all the camaraderie and the action because we really are all friends. Some of these people I’ve known for 20 years, and so as opposed to other shows where they just throw a bunch of random celebrities together, this is really like watching a real home game.
Q: How much of the show is banter and how much is poker?
SS: I wanted it to be half and half. I think on ESPN they play 30 hands an hour, some of our games, it’s like five or something. It just depends what happened. We shot for three nights. Some nights people were playing hands, some nights they were telling stories and we just kinda went with the flow. And some nights, people got drunk. I’m editing that one now.
Q: Do you play crazy games like night baseball?
SS: I wanted to. I thought that would be fun, but this was a licensed casino game in the state of Nevada so we weren’t allowed to do that. But we don’t really play that stuff anyway. This is actually higher stakes than my home game, where we play dollar, two dollar. People used to leave my house when it started $20,000 or $30,000 down. I felt horrible. It was like, you invite people over and take their money? People would get miserable. So I lowered it a little bit and lowered it more. And at a dollar, $2, people still stayed until 10 the next morning and went crazy and had the same experience.
Q: When you are worth as much money as you and your friends are, is playing for a dollar fun at all?
SS: For me personally, I’m not a high-stakes player. Sometimes I play high-stakes poker. I like playing well the best I can, and I think that’s what motivates me. You’re just trying to take everybody’s chips. It doesn’t matter how much money it is.
Q: Who’s the worst sport in the game? Who takes losing hardest?
SS: There aren’t actually bad…Ralph [Cirella] I know once was losing and he’d take a card and throw it on the floor so we didn’t have a full deck. I think that’s about as low as it's gotten.
Q: Has there been anybody who comes to the game who doesn’t work out with the group?
SS: No, not at all. But Dave Attell…I don’t know where this thing that we were playing for charity got started, but he lost a lot of money and then didn’t know he was playing with real money.
Q: How did he take that?
SS: I think he was mad. I was really having a hard time figuring out what he thought he was doing for four hours. Why would he just call every bet? But anyway, I said, if you want me to, I’ll eat yours. But then he hit a huge hand and he actually ended up making money.
Q: Has everyone on the show played in your home game?
SS: Yes, except I made a deal with the devil to do the show. Playboy said there must be a Playmate at the table at all times. I thought about that long and hard for about one second and said OK. And Brande Roderick was actually pretty good. We were just watching her, there’s one night when everybody’s pretty drunk and I really can’t figure out whether she’s doing the most masterful job of bluffing and following through with table talk consistently. Supposedly it’s very difficult to maintain a consistent lie about your cards. If you’re talking and talking, you’ll say something screwy about your cards. The jig will be up. But she does this so well and she gets Phil [Laak], a professional poker player, to lay down a really good hand.
Q: You learn a lot about people from the way they play poker. What did you learn about your fellow players from the game, Artie Lange for instance?
SS: First of all, for Artie, that was a real solid favor by a great pal to come out on his week off and help me out in my game. I love Artie. He’s hilarious on the show. There are people that play to kind of participate like they are watching a little movie, and they want to be in every pot. I guess there is some chance that their cards are good. Not surprisingly, and again I say this with love, Artie was not the most disciplined player. On the other hand, he lost some big pots where his play was pretty reasonable.
Q:What about the others?
SS: Norm [Macdonald], he’s a degenerate. He called a thousand-dollar raise pre-flop with 4-8 against me. Jeff Ross is a good poker player.
Q: You work with animal rescue.
SS: I have the Sam Simon Foundation. Our flagship program is we rescue dogs from the L.A. kill center, dogs that have four days to live, and then we train them to be certified assistance dogs for the deaf. Our new program is for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Then we give away the dogs. Isn’t that nice?
Q: How’d you get involved in that?
SS: It was kind of my own idea. When "The Simpsons" went into syndication, I wanted to do something that combined my interests. We’re also the largest provider of spay/neuter in Los Angeles.
They did a "60 Minutes" profile on me and I got a lot of letters of people who wanted me to pay for operations for their dogs. I didn’t know what to do with those but my reaction was to take out a mobile spay neuter clinic and once or twice a week we do any free surgery your dog needs as long as you show us proof of low income.
-- Richard Rushfield
photo credit: Shane O’Neal/courtesy of Sam Simon