'The Simpsons' at 500: Show runner talks angry Homer, Julian Assange
This post has been corrected. Please see the note at the bottom for details.
"The Simpsons" will air its landmark 500th episode on Sunday.
To put that into context, that's roughly 200 straight hours of show (minus commercials), stretched over 23 seasons, with hundreds of guest voices from Oscar winners, world leaders, esteemed novelists and notorious international figures. It's become a billion-dollar industry for the Fox network and made millionaires of its creators.
Executive producer Al Jean has been with the show since the beginning. He worked on the first episode to air in 1989 ("Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire") and has been through two stints as show runner: during the third and fourth seasons and again from the 13th season to the present.
To celebrate 'The Simpsons' reaching 500 episodes, Fox held an 86-hour showing to break the world record for longest TV marathon. Is it strange to have people watch your work under stressful conditions? [Viewers competed to see who could last the longest — for a $10,500 prize.]
Yeah. It’s the kind of thing they do to brainwash people. [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s what we were intending when we were writing these little half-hour comedies. I just pray they don’t have a psychotic break when my credit comes up.
Was there a plan from the beginning to feature Bart as the star of the show?
Well, he was the one that really popped with the general public first. I think with the writers it was always slightly easier to pitch Homer ideas because Homer was an adult male and he was somebody they could relate to. But Bart’s a great character. Two of the episodes that center around him and the school are still really popular. There was never a conscious change. We just do episodes that we think are funny and there’s always a point where we think "Hmm, we had too many Homers in a row. Let’s break it up." I like doing Lisa ones too. They're all great characters.
Have you seen the character dynamics change over the years?
My goal is to keep the characters the same. The situations change, but you're seeing the reaction of a basic family to what happens in the modern world. Homer was originally a little angrier and got a little dumber. I’m trying to take him back toward the angry end of the spectrum. With Lisa there's always the danger that she gets to be a know-it-all. You try to back off from that. She's an 8-year-old kid, too.
Has the style of comedy changed at all over the years?
When we were running it in Seasons 3 and 4, we tended to do more cutaway humor. We also did "The Critic," which came out at around the same time. That style has caught on and I think we do less of it just so we stand out a little more. But in terms of the pace of the show, it sped up after Season 2 a little bit, probably just because the first two seasons were coming with no animated precedents. There was never any conscious effort to change things. I think the show is fast-paced now because television just is faster paced. You even watch live-action shows like "30 Rock" and those shows have been influenced by our pacing and style.
So you're on for two more years at least?
Right. We're going to do 559 episodes but that's not necessarily the end.
Have you ever been tempted to throw out the playbook and go in a different direction?
I don’t think so, because you can do that in individual episodes. We just did a Christmas episode set in the future where Bart and Lisa are parents. But I think if you threw it out and completely change the template — say, where you aged everybody and Bart and Lisa are in high school — people would go, "That's it, that's where the show is different. It's not what I like." If we were going to do that, I think we would rather just end the show and do an animated show about high school students.
Is running the show down to a science?
It's never an exact science with comedy because you never know what's going to work. And when you get to the table, jokes you think are great bomb and jokes you're not sure about do really well. We have 20 writers. We have two rooms going at all times. The biggest production changes have been in animation. Where digital coloring has taken over. Where there are just so many faster and sharper things we can do with the animation than we could do in the original years. With writing, the two biggest changes are one: Google. Just researching something is so much easier than it was 20 years ago.
Has the time it takes from writing to airing the show shrunk?
No. It's about the same. Eight months to a year from conception to air. What's changed is the amount of change we can do with the animation in that period, but the production schedule really is sort of the same as it's been since Season 4.
"South Park" famously does a show in a week and puts it on the air the day they finish.
Yeah, they have a totally different process.
Have you ever been tempted to do that?
No. I'm not saying it's not good for them, but I just think we do what we do. And be true to ourselves. With certain modifications due to technology, that's what we do. There was even a big debate whether we should switch from ink and paint to digital coloring and the reason that was a settled issue is because there was no one left doing ink and paint. It was like being the last person riding the horse on the freeway.
What process do you have set up to keep track of past jokes or gags or plots?
Just my brain and the other writers' brains. We have a show log, where you can search by the keywords, but no there's no Simpson-Vac 3000. It's just me and Matt Selman, who has an excellent memory for that. Usually something slips by us, but not too often.
How do you get the more reclusive personalities to be on your show, such as Thomas Pynchon, Banksy or, in the 500th episode, Julian Assange?
We have these wish lists, and our casting director Bonnie Pietila is amazing at tracking down Pynchon, Banksy, now Julian Assange. And usually it's that we’re "The Simpsons." Maybe they have a kid that loves it. Maybe they loved it as a kid. Because we are who we are, it's how we get so many people.
What’s it like to interact with them?
With Banksy it was very bizarre. I never actually met him nor even spoke with him. I communicated only through email with an in-between party. Julian Assange, I only talked to him over the phone and directed him via satellite. It's really getting into the land of James Bond. On Banksy I couldn't even tell you if he's a man or a woman. If you put him on a courtroom bench, I couldn't identify him. I assume he's a man, but I don't know.
Was there any push on your part to find out?
No. I was just happy to get him on the show, so I didn't want to do anything to harm that. I always had this feeling that some day I'll be walking down the street and he'll say, "Hey, it's me!"
Was Pynchon done over the phone?
Nope. Met him. Met his son. He’s really nice. Pleasant guy. Did not want his face depicted in the episode and he did the show twice. Matt Selman has a funny story. He met a guy at a party and the guy was a little disdainful that Matt was a TV writer and the guy said, "Well, I'm writing a PhD thesis on Thomas Pynchon," and Selman said, "Well, I was talking to him on the phone today..." And that pretty much ended that discussion.
Is there any piece of "Simpsons" merchandise that went too far?
I generally like the merchandise. There have been bootleg things that have been hilariously ugly. In Spain my wife saw some "Simpsons" rolling papers. So there’s some crazy knockoffs out there.
You are at episode 500. When you hit 200, one producer famously said, “We’re halfway there.” Do you talk about milestones in the day-to-day process?
The one thing we pay attention to, we do keep track of our place against shows like "Gunsmoke" and "Lassie." When we passed "Ozzy and Harriet" it made us the longest-running sitcom. Now it's us and "Lassie" is 588 and "Gunsmoke" is 633 or something. We have an outside shot at "Lassie," but "Gunsmoke," I don't know. That's really a longshot. They did a lot of episodes. But you know, I don’t think back when "Gunsmoke" did its 500th episode, I don’t think they made any kind of deal out of it.
Your experience of the industy must be so different from other writer friends you know.
It's completely bizarre. I’m grateful that the show enabled us to ride out what was a real depression in sitcom work in the last decade. It was very, very difficult for a lot of my friends. Fortunately, I was able to get some of them on this show.
What are your memories of working on the first episode?
The first one that aired was "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," which is a title I suggested, actually. It was a script by a freelance writer named Mimi Pond. And it was really rewritten by Matt Groening, Sam Simon, Jim Brooks, Mike Reiss and myself. We were trying to be sort of satirical of the kind of Christmas show you'd see on series all the time. It was definitely very sad throughout. Everything that happens to Homer is bad. And at the very end, he brings the dog home and it's a great gift even though he didn't realize it. I remember I had pitched this one joke I was really proud of. We were trying to think of a line for Homer where Marge says “What's the name of the dog?” and I pitched Homer saying "Number 8 — I mean Santa’s Little Helper!" And Jim Brooks laughed and I thought, "I made Jim Brooks laugh. That's great. That's really a thrill."
It was not originally intended to be the first episode. It was the eighth one we recorded. But because on the first one, the director did not do a great job — the animation was just off and he tried to add scatological jokes — we decided to hold off and premiere with the Christmas episode directed by David Silverman, one of the really great directors of the show. And when I saw it put together, I thought, "This is by far the best thing I'd ever been a part of."
So you knew right off the bat that it was good?
Yeah, but I didn’t go "500 here we come!" It was just a thrill to work with Jim Brooks.
You've said that any given episode retains at most 40% of the original writer's draft. Is there ever a case of the script coming in perfect with the first draft?
AJ: There's never been a script that's been above 40%. Episodes that have been pretty high were "Homer the Heretic" by George Meyer, one I did called "Lisa's Sax." Recently, there was one Matt Selman did. Even then, we're going over them over and over again. Adding things on.
At this point, you must be able to know right away if something is right for a character or not.
It’s still tough. There's always the dangers. Homer too stupid? Lisa too much of a know-it-all? Once we had Lisa being too mean to her parents and Yeardley Smith pointed out that wasn't right. Moe has a tendency to be too sinister. With Flanders there's a tug of war. What a Christian is has a little bit of a different meaning now than it did 20 years ago. Certainly, what you think when you see a Catholic priest has changed. So Flanders’ character we've made him sometimes a little right wing and sometimes not but he's a good guy at heart. I always say you'd much rather have Flanders as a neighbor than Homer.
[For the record, 9:09 p.m. Feb.18: The second biggest change in the writing given was the use of word processors. Also, the first writer Al Jean named as working on "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" was Matt Groening, not Matt Selman.]
-- Patrick Kevin Day
Photo: "The Simpsons" 500th episode "At Long Last Leave." Credit: Fox