3 Simpsons Showrunners Reflect on New Fans and the ‘Classic Era’ Myth

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Photo: FOX

Simpsons episodes are written. Yes, every episode of every show that has ever aired has been written. But with scripts nearly double the length of those of sitcom standards, The Simpsons is different and the show's writing staff aspires to squeeze as many jokes, character moments, and story into 22 minutes as possible. (Just look at the signs, store names, and billboards in any episode to get a sense.) Al Jean was one of the show's original writers. He went on to co-showrun the show during seasons three and four. After taking a diminished role to work on other projects, Jean took over as showrunner again in season 13 and has stayed in that job ever since. David Mirkin came to The Simpsons as an outsider with a great reputation. Yet his two seasons in charge — seasons five and six — still go down as the show's apex. Matt Selman is arguably the greatest Simpsons writer of the latter seasons, and many of the newer episodes on our list of the 100 best were written or co-showrun by him. With the show's 26th season premiering this Sunday on Fox, the three sat down to talk about "Simpsons World," which will allow fans to stream the entire series for the first time, writing episodes that mess with the traditional structure, and the myth of the "classic era."

Between the "Every Simpsons Ever" marathon and the weekend at the Hollywood Bowl, it feels like the show is having a moment again for the first time in a long while.
Al Jean: Finally! After 25 years. [Laughs.] No, it’s great. The FXX marathon was really emotional for me and I think everybody. We got to reconnect with people we’ve worked with and see our lives flash before our eyes. And the Hollywood Bowl thing: It was a lot of work that we did for the fun of it, but people really loved it.

David Mirkin: It was amazing to be in a space with 17,000 fans screaming at the top of their lungs for their money back.

[All laugh.]

Matt Selman: And we also have the Simpsons World that’s coming out in October, right?

AJ: Yeah. Although the only feature in October will be [to] input your name. [Laughs.] It’s going to roll out and actually have a bunch of stuff. And then have a bunch more stuff in 2015.

MS: The app is going to be really interesting because we’ll be able to connect to the fans in a new way and see more directly which episodes they like, and what clips they’re sending, and what episodes they’re fave-ing, and which they’re streaming. It’s going to be really cool.

AJ: It’s going to be a fan-driven. We read people wanted the ability to take the clip of "The bee bit my bottom, now my bottom's big" and send it to their friends. That’s what they said they wanted to be able to do.

MS: Also, the app is so suited to our megabrand. We have so many episodes, so we can package them in so many different, interesting ways. We'll have celebrities curate stuff.

AJ: We did say, like, let’s do a John Swartzwelder channel and all of those types of fan things that you might think of.

DM: For the Swartzwelder channel, it should all be subtitled in German.

[Laughs.]

MS: It’s always the goal, with the Bowl and with the app, to try to surprise people, to overwhelm expectations.

AJ: First lower, then exceed.

MS: Exactly.

AJ: The reason we haven’t done another feature is because those things are so hard and nobody wants a crummy sequel. I would rather eat my foot than have a crummy Simpsons sequel come out.

Al, can you talk a little bit more about what the marathon was like and what made it so emotional?
AJ: Well, luckily I was here at the beginning. And I mean, I remember the making of the Christmas show that started it. A few things popped out at me. I noticed stuff that we tended to repeat, like in season two, we got in this kick of ending every episode with a fake laugh like Starsky and Hutch.

MS: I like that it got Mirkin tweeting.

DM: Yeah, it was interesting to connect with the fans that way when my episodes were on and to see the reactions. They’re much more aware of the details of the show than we can ever remember.

AJ: We were gratified that the ratings went up every night and peaked on the last day. Some people had said, “Oh, they’ll stop watching the minute season eight ends,” and that didn’t happen. Just the opposite happened, which was wonderful.

Why do you think the show is built for the streaming culture?
AJ: Well, to begin with, we really put so much data in the show. We debuted when pretty much everyone had a VCR, so we’d put in freeze-frame jokes, we’d write sign jokes, there’d be things you couldn’t even watch and get — you’d have to go back to get them. It’s only gotten more complicated with HD.

DM: It was always the goal to make the show more dense than anything on television and to reward people for paying attention. It was really perfect to grow as the computer and online culture grew, which celebrates minutiae.

AJ: Not always celebrates. [Laughs.]

So let’s say you have an adult who’s never seen the show before. Which episodes would you recommend starting with?
AJ: I think "Flaming Moe's" isn’t a bad one. It's a real animation tour de force. One I liked that was really recent was "Gone Maggie Gone." I think that’s one of the best ones we did in our whole run. Mirkin, you must have some.

DM: You would definitely recommend [a] "Treehouse of Horror" in there somewhere to show the flexibility of the show.

MS: I would pick a really sweet episode — like a "Lisa’s Pony" — one about the core family dynamic, to show that this is a real family. And then move on to the crazier ones.

DM: I think people need to buy every single DVD.

MS: Especially now.

DM: Whether or not they can afford it. It’s just part of the education. It’s better to take the money you would use for college and spend it on Simpsons DVDs.

Speaking of, will the DVD commentaries be available for streaming?
AJ: We’re not sure yet. They’re still going to be selling the DVDs, and that would be the one thing that you couldn’t get, so we'll probably keep them there. To be honest, in the long run, I think everything will be available online. Like, why not? It’s also unfortunate right now that the Simpsons World app isn’t available outside of the United Sates. I hope that changes.

MS: Yeah, it’s not even in Canada.

DM: I think Al made it clear. In the future, the commentaries will be there, but now the only way to get it is the DVD. And everyone needs to know that they could die at any time, so they need it now.

In your opinions, what makes a good episode, and what makes a less good one?
AJ: I think it’s the same as with almost any comedy or drama: A good story makes a good episode. Things come easily if it has resonant emotion — something that someone will see and say, “This is true.” And the bad ones are the ones that might be a little less direct and maybe the acts don’t really lead into one another that well. Though, during the marathon, I was amazed at how much work was put into every episode. We never give up. 

DM: That’s the great thing about nine months from start to finish: You’re constantly rewriting over that period and getting a fantastic distance from the material, so that if you’re not in love with anything that isn’t working after a while, you try to improve it up until days before you see it on the air.

AJ: I wonder if there’s any other great thing that takes nine months to make. I don’t know.

Do you each have a favorite character?
AJ: I would say Lisa’s the one where most of the writers put the way we think into her voice. I always liked writing Homer and Lisa episodes. I have two daughters, as does Matt. I really relate to the father-daughter relationship.

DM: For me it’s Homer, because there’s no one like him. I love all our characters, but Homer is so specific and odd and weird and changing. He almost has the most flexible IQ and the most flexible personality, so he can handle it. And one of the things that is consistent about him is that he’s endlessly optimistic and positive. He's a strong force of nature either for good or for bad. So there’s endless possibility in him.

MS: I mean, certainly Moe has become a very prominent character in the show recently but has had great episodes throughout the series. He’s a writer favorite because he’s dark and demented and he’s suffered a lot, but he has a tender, vulnerable soul, so you have him do terrible things, but you still feel sorry for him. Writing Moe episodes, the amount of unusable material pitched is very high.

Could you break the show down into a pie chart of influences? Say, this much of it is Matt Groening’s subversiveness and that much of it is James L. Brooks's heart, and so on?
AJ: What’s funny is I’ve seen at different points people will say, “Oh, The Simpsons is the work of Matt, or George Meyer, or this person.” The truth is The Simpsons, which has a very large credit roll, is the work of a lot of really smart people collaborating. And what’s great is everyone learns from everybody else. You're thinking, How would Jim do this? and What would a visual joke be? And Matt pitches very sweet things that people think might be Jim.

MS: Jim pitched a talking rack of ribs yesterday. There’s not a lot of that stuff in Terms of Endearment.

DM: Everybody imitates each other. We rip each other off, in a way. Swartzwelder writes in a certain way, and then other people are going to write Swartzeldian stuff. And other people are going to write Brooksian stuff. It’s this great big soup. But I will say the reason the show attracted such great people comes down to Jim Brooks. It was Jim [who] first had an interest in Matt to begin with.

AJ: Still, if there’s no Matt, there’s no Simpsons; no Jim, no Simpsons; no Sam Simon, no Simpsons. But it did make it these last 25 years because of people like us — a lot of people like us.

Do you have specific Jim Brooks memories? Every time I read interviews, he’s like a guru in terms of notes that completely open up an episode.
AJ: The Michael Jackson episode — at the very end of production, we had the color printed and we were set to go and we give it to Jim, and he just goes, “I’d just have Lisa say, ‘You’re a credit to dementia.’” And so we go, "Alright," and we put it in. And every critic says by far the best line is “You’re a credit to dementia.” That happened so many times.

DM: When I was running the show, Jim was incredibly busy doing multiple films, so he couldn’t be here as much. But still I would get a call from him and he would say, “You know, I have an idea that we go to the future — I don’t know how we go to the future, I leave that to you — and Lisa meets the love of her life and he can’t take the family, he can’t deal with the fact that it’s the Simpsons.” And that’s all he said. I knew it immediately that it was a brilliant, brilliant idea. And that would happen all the time.

MS: Well, there was the one where we had this really complicated script about Iceland, and the table read was really confusing. Jim just has this really unbelievable gift of seeing what he loves about an episode and being excited about that, and in that particular episode, the story was very convoluted and he just said, “Guys, guys, this is Lenny’s story.” And that's when we decided to play Lenny’s attitude through the whole thing.

AJ: And that's why it was called "The Saga of Carl."

Al, do you have a definitive Sam Simon moment?
AJ: Early on, there was a script that Mike [Reiss, Jean's former writing partner, and season three and four co-showrunner] and Sam and I wrote, and he pitched a joke: “Boy, did you do this just to be popular?” And Bart goes, “Yes.” And Homer goes, “Well, that’s good, because boy, being popular is the most important thing in the world.” That really summed up the take of the show, which was that Homer was giving terrible advice—

DM: Terrible, but also truthful, in a way.

AJ: That was the sort of thing Sam would come up with on the spot.

At the beginning of each episode, it says “Created by Matt Groening, Sam Simon, and James L. Brooks." But, how much ownership do you feel for the show?
AJ: I'll say this: When I first saw the first episode, the Christmas show, I thought, This is the best thing I’ve ever worked on, by far. And I’ve never lost that feeling.

Something that doesn’t get mentioned much is the show's directors. Everyone says it’s a writers' show, but I actually have no idea what a director does for an episode of The Simpsons. Can you walk me through that?
AJ: We record the script and there are basic stage directions, but they’re responsible for taking that and turning it into drawings, which are funny and relatable.

DM: A really great director will pick all the right angles, all the right sizes and close-ups. Also, they’ll time their drawings in a way that the jokes pay off perfectly in terms of movement and timing. We’ve said this many times, David Silverman [a longtime Simpsons director, whom we interviewed here] draws funny. So literally, just the expressions that he comes up with on their faces, the timing he puts in, and the camera angles he chooses are very good.

AJ: Think of it this way: In a live-action comedy, the actors are really funny people making their faces and doing their performances. For us, the director has to provide all these visuals, has to provide the acting for all the characters.

Do you have a favorite bit of animation from the show? Like a completely visual moment?
AJ: David did in a pretty recent Halloween show where Homer blew up the nuclear plant with his tongue, which I think is a really great illustration of David’s drawing style and the acting that he gave it. I mean, you know, it’s reminiscent of a classic Tex Avery kind of joke.

DM: Also on "Deep Space Homer," David didn't direct it, but he did the potato-chip sequence, the first shot-for-shot of the Kubrick thing. You just can’t ask for it to be executed better than that.

Structurally, The Simpsons is like a sitcom, but culturally, it’s become an institution, expected to comment on the times. How important or unimportant is being topical?
AJ: One little criticism we got was after we depicted Bush the First in a very whimsical, Dennis the Menace–type way, that we didn’t do that much for George W. Bush when he was president. People said, “Oh, you’re ignoring the issues of the day.” But watching those episodes when George Bush was president, I’m certainly glad he wasn’t popping up every two minutes.

DM: A policy that I always try to follow — and that really everybody does— is that you’re really trying to write something that’s going to be funny 20 years from the time you write it. We’re just interested in that syndication money. It’s big money; you don’t want to screw around. [Laughs.] We always think of not dating the show. And therefore it can become timeless. And that’s what classic things are. It’s not fun to see something 20 years later that’s laden with references that no longer work.

MS: Also, we live in a day now where there’s so much topical comedy being generated by everyone.

DM: Brilliantly. To try to compete with the Daily Show or Colbert would be a folly.

MS: And also moronic — as soon as anyone twerks, there’s all these knee-jerk twerks. And we would never try to get on the bandwagon of like a "Harlem Shake" or anything like that ...

AJ: [Laughs.] Thirty-two million views. But we didn’t do "Gangnam Style."

DM: There’s a huge twerking episode coming up, right?

AJ: It’s a three-parter.

MS: Actually, Al and Mirkin co-wrote an episode that’s coming up that’s very funny and directed by David Silverman, by the way.

AJ: It’s actually a Jim Brooks idea of going to the planet of Kang and Kodos.

DM: I have no memory of any of this.

[Laughs.]

MS: No, it’s really funny and beautiful and I think captures both of their sensibilities wonderfully.

That’s this season?
AJ: Mid-January, yeah.

Can you guys think of certain episodes or moments that changed the rules of what could happen on a Simpsons episode?
AJ: Well, I didn’t work too much on the first "Treehouse [of Horror,]" and I thought, Wow, this is amazing — it’s like three stories, any one of which could be its own. I was really impressed.

DM: I loved how much the "Monorail" episode pushed the limits and did it brilliantly and tastefully. Once you sort of set up that there’s flexible reality, then you’re going, Well, we could flex in this direction, we could flex in this direction. And as long as you come back to center, you can get away with those moments of fantasy. And throughout the show, there have been conversations between the writers about how far it can go and how far it can’t go.

AJ: Early on, there was also a debate about the bowling instructor [from the episode "Life on the Fast Lane"]. For Marge, they actually contemplated having an affair in what was a "children’s show." And she went pretty far down that path.

MS: "Behind the Laughter" was kind of a stylistic jump.

AJ: Oh, yeah, that was one that Matt co-wrote, with I think it was [Mike] Scully and George [Meyer] and Tim [Long]. That one I really loved. I mean, that’s the great thing about it: You can do something that’s intimate and personal, and then you can do something that’s a direct parody, and the reality changes week to week.

And you all have played with the form of the episode. Do you have any fear or trepidation to play with something that’s now so well-established?
AJ: I think the things that are the most risky usually turn out to be the best episodes. There was a debate about when Homer fell down a cliff the first time [in "Bart the Daredevil,"] about how bloody that was going to be, but it turned out really funny. I’m a little more scared when there’s unanimity.

DM: In the history of the show, when there’s a huge amount of resistance to something within the staff, that often becomes a classic moment.

AJ: Oh, I remember when we did a crossover with The Critic ["A Star Is Burns,"] all these people that we hired and were here for like two weeks were like, “You can’t do it, you’re going to ruin the show.” And I still think it was a really funny episode.

DM: It’s a funny thing because sometimes green writers come in, or young writers come in, and they’ll have these huge opinions, and you look at them and think, Well, it’s going to take you time to find out how wrong you are, but you are. Sometimes new people came in and were brilliant and totally onboard; others were frightened by anything new. And you would sort of look and go, “I don’t know what kind of success you’re going to have thinking like that, because you’re thinking too inside the box and with too much fear.”

AJ: They’d think, Uh-oh, he’s going into space. But it was a logical setup. It was one of our best episodes, and it’s beloved now.

DM: Yeah, the same group that didn’t want to do the crossover with The Critic was also very frightened of the Homer in space episode ["Deep Space Homer"]. It’s been talked about as a controversy, and it so much wasn’t for me because I never told the vast majority of the staff that story. It was just because when I was coming up with it, the timing wasn’t right, I didn’t want to talk about it, we weren’t at a story retreat. But, when I came up with the concept, I sat down with Conan O’Brien and George Meyer and went over the story with them and what I wanted to do. And they loved it. They both could be very critical in a great way, so once they were onboard, I knew it was fine. Al and Mike Reiss were still consulting on the show, and it was the same thing: The guys that were running the show said, “This is great, there’s no problem here.” So the higher levels of the show, we weren’t worried at all. But there was a lot of energy going on underneath that we weren’t even aware of.

MS: I still hate that episode. [Laughs.] I do not get it. I think there are 551 episodes of the show, and that’s the one that did not happen.

DM: I know I’ve said it ad nauseam, but I come from an electronics and aerospace background, so it wasn’t a big deal to me because they were sending teachers into space and stuff. So it wasn’t a huge jump for me to think about that happening. From a personal point of view — and this is why it’s great to have staff, and everyone has their right to this — to me, it was much more insane to have George Bush move across the street from Homer [in "Two Bad Neighbors"].  

AJ: Or like "Homer Up to Bat." Some of the cast was like, What? It had the worst table read ever. We actually did two reads, and the second one had no laughs. When one cast member would pick up his lines from the show, he would go, “Oh, that one again.” And now people go, “Clearly your masterpiece.” Nobody was saying it at the time. I was just trying to get through it. Still, whatever [is] the worst mistake we made — and that’s for other people to judge — it’s over in a week. We don’t ever do anything permanently and I go, "If you don’t try, if you don’t have ambitions, you don’t succeed." You wouldn’t get a Lego episode if you weren’t trying things in different directions.

The show’s been on for so long and had a cultural peak. Does it ever get frustrating, when you feel like you've done a really fantastic episode, that it can’t be considered a "classic" because "classic" means "old"?
AJ: Well, I personally don’t know what a "classic" means. It seems to me that it is whenever you left for college. And by the way, whatever bar there is, it’s moved so many times. And again, I was there then, and I’ve been here the whole time. We do it the same way. Shows now make me laugh just as much as shows then.

MS: Plus, it’s like Al was saying, every fan has their own personal experience. You have an entry point in your life, and it’s natural that you’re going to have an exit point. And we have people whose entry point is episode 300, and then they get tired of it in episode 450, and that’s pretty good. Those are the classics to them. One of my kids is in the fifth grade, and it seems that’s when a lot of young people discover the show. And I am the coolest dad in the fifth-grade class right now. But they don’t know what those classics are.

AJ: My daughter’s the same. Because we have the single DVDs, she watches them like she eats potato chips. And she doesn’t go, “Ooh season three, alright.”

DM: “Well, what the hell happened after season eight?” That’s what your daughter said to me.

AJ: For all of this part of the interview, just put in parentheticals: “Very defensive.”

Okay, last question: You’re going to kill Krusty’s dad, right?
AJ: Okay, a character will die in the season premiere. The actor portraying that character won an Emmy for portraying that character. I’m now going to go through the next week without giving any more information. [Laughs.]

I was just joking, but are you surprised that people care so much?
AJ: Well, it’s funny because people will sometimes say that The Simpsons is out of the Zeitgeist, and I was doing this small interview where someone asked what plots are coming up, and suddenly it’s on newspapers in Argentina, and it’s amazing that even a little thing like that gets this enormous press.

MS: Well, it always has. It peaked when Maude Flanders died on the show. It was a similar thing where we said a character is going to die. We said, “Who will it be? Homer, Marge, Lisa, or Maude Flanders?” And the internet was in its baby stages then, and it just couldn’t grow and foam and explode and obsess, like this current thing has, even though it’s a similar pickle.

AJ: One of my favorite things from the marathon, somebody wrote if you look at the episodes before Maude died, she actually was really nasty and psychotic, and she’s always shutting down fun and being a real jerk, and it almost seemed like we were planning to kill her from the start. [Laughs.] But it was funny.

From the start, Sam Simon said two things: Smithers is gay and Maude’s going to die at some point.
AJ: Well, I thought she was kind of redundant in two ways, which is Maggie Roswell, who did the voice, also did Helen Lovejoy, who is funny and kind of sharper in the same voice; and she was also redundant with Ned — they were always thinking in parallel lines.

DM: Al always believes that if two people, even in life, are too similar, one needs to die.