Talking to Longtime ‘Simpsons’ Writer Matt Selman

First hired to write for The Simpsons at the start of its ninth season in 1997 (it’s now in its 24th season and it’s currently 2012, for those of you who aren’t keeping score), Matt Selman never thought his job on the show would last this long. Over the years, Selman has risen to the ranks of executive producer and become one of the most prominent writers in Simpsons history. This Sunday, The Simpsons is airing an episode written by Selman that’ll be of interest to comedy geeks everywhere because Fred Armisen, Carrie Brownstein, and Patton Oswalt are guest starring as The Simpsons’ cool new neighbor family from Portland. I recently had the chance to talk to Matt Selman about the Armisen/Brownstein/Oswalt episode, how he’d like The Simpsons to end someday, the time he upset the people of East St. Louis, and the likelihood of another Simpsons movie:

So, tell me about this Sunday’s episode.

I wanted to write a script where Lisa convinces the Simpsons to move to Portland. That would be like Lisa’s dream city, right? My idea was that when they got there, everyone liked it except for Lisa. She was the only person that didn’t like it, the message of that story being that sometimes your problems aren’t with where you are, your problems are inside of you, and no matter where you move, your problems will go with you. So, Lisa’s just the sort of person who can never be happy anywhere [Laughs], whereas the other Simpsons can find the best in anything, which I think is a true observation.

Also, Matt Groening is from Portland. There’s a special connection between Portland and Springfield. Matt named the characters after the street names. It would have been fun to do a travel episode. Then, the show Portlandia aired… I said, “Well, wait a minute, Portlandia is so great and smart and quirky and fun. What if we tried to do an episode that brought Portlandia to Springfield, which is better in a way because you can use the Springfield characters that everyone loves? Whenever you do a travel show, you’re abandoning your regulars. You’re leaving the fun of them being in the show.

The story had to be completely different… I’m gonna use the word “hipster.” I don’t really like the word “hipster.” This episode will be perceived as “Homer the Hipster,” and to some degree, that is true. I think the word “hipster” has lost all meaning to me and has become kind of a cliché, so I literally excluded it from the episode, but at the end of the day, it’s all about hipster shit.

So, Homer meets this cool dad who’s voiced by Fred Armisen and whose wife is voiced by Carrie Brownstein. “Oh my God, this guy is cool, and he has kids? I want in on that.” So, Homer adapts his lifestyle to do the sorts of things that this cool dad is doing. Fred Armisen’s son is played by Patton Oswalt, who is sort of a dick. He’s pretentious and too cool for everything. When he and Bart have a fight, a family feud ensues, and Homer tries to make the cool family nextdoor leave town, but it’s too late. They’ve already tweeted and humblebragged about how great Springfield is for cool families. They take over and turn Springfield into a cool city, or for lack of a better word, “hipster” city… It’s definitely a very cultural episode. It’s very reference-heavy. I was sort of nervous when I was writing it because every joke is a reference, as opposed to an actual joke, but I think have a weakness for Simpsonizing the actual world.

Did you write the parts specifically for those guest stars, or did you cast it afterwards?

I definitely had Fred and Carrie in mind for the cool parents. I thought, ‘Better to just do it with their participation than have us accused of ripping them off,’ you know? I’ve known Patton for a long time, and he was sort of the first person I thought of to be this dickhead pretentious kid who was too cool for everything and doesn’t watch TV and makes fun of everything Bart likes. He and Bart don’t get along. A lot of it is about the culture clash between the Simpsons and a cooler family that goes to art-walks, breast-feeds, and goes on midnight bike-rides.

Did you get to work with the guest actors or was that done off your watch?

Fred and Carrie came here, and they improv’d some dialogue. We kept working on it over the course of production and kept writing new lines for them to make sure they were well-represented. Colin Meloy from The Decemberists also has a line in the show, which he wrote himself.  The Decemberists also wrote some original score, which turned out beautifully.

For all the years you’ve been at The Simpsons, do you have a favorite idea for an episode that didn’t get used, whether it’s from you or from a different writer?

Oh man. I wish I did. I would do it! If I did, I wish I could remember it. One time, I pitched a story about them joining a black church, which I thought was fun. Maybe I’ll do that again.

Was it shot down for being too edgy or did it just not come together?

It just didn’t come together. You know, the people who decide what stories you do, you have to respect their judgment. It doesn’t mean that it’s bad; it just means that there’s other stuff they’re more excited about. I’ve been around this show long enough to know that you just roll with it. Always roll with it.

There have been hundreds of episodes of the show. Do you ever find yourself pitching things and then kind of realizing that something similar’s been done already?

Yeah, it happens a lot. It’s pretty hard. I think our show is pretty forgiving. In my mind, the show has a Groundhog Day-type reality. Every episode is sort of a reset. Not that all the other stuff didn’t happen. It’s just that the Simpsons don’t necessarily know that it happened. No normal family could have experienced everything that these people have experienced and still remain actual human beings, right? They’d go crazy.

Especially in such a short time span.

Exactly. Over the course of one year. So, because they don’t age [and] the show’s been on TV for 25 years, you have to make conceptual concessions. Obviously, you don’t want to do exactly the same thing you did before, but it’s okay to repeat the same emotional beats and stories of jealousies and families and fathers and sons and daughters and moms, I think we’re allowed to repeat ourselves on that. At least, I do. I’m also never the one to say, “Oh, Family Guy did it, we can’t do it, or South Park did it, we can’t do it. Unless it’s a hyper-specific take, I don’t consider it stealing. There just aren’t that many ideas [for] six really strong primetime animated shows.

We did a show about a cruise that wouldn’t end, and Bob’s Burgers did one a few weeks later about a cruise that wouldn’t end. They were the same one-liner – the premises. The execution was totally different because those shows are so different tonally, and I thought they were both funny and unique. I would not have wanted either to show to say, “Oh, we can’t do that because the other show did it.” A family is stuck on a cruise that never ends, that’s the one-liner, but I would not say “Don’t do it” because the characters are different and the tone is different and the world is different. Bob’s Burgers is so smart and funny and unique I would love to see their take on stories we’ve “done.”  Bob should build a monorail.

It’s a whole different group of people writing and voicing it too.

Yeah, obviously, the “Simpsons Did It” episode of South Park is a fantastic episode of TV, but I would say they really shouldn’t let that stop them. If they do it, it’ll be different. Obviously, we wouldn’t want to do an episode where Bart does the plot of “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” but two shows can do the same premise or area or idea and have it be more than okay…

I think it’s pretty easy to tell where the line is and how not to cross it. If Family Guy did an episode where Peter intentionally gains weight to go on disability, I would say, “Yeah, they stole that from ‘King-Size Homer.’” But if they did Peter intentionally gains weight for some other reason, where they were making an entirely different satirical or comedic point, I would say, “Go for it.” Also, they don’t care what I would say, so it doesn’t matter. Nobody would care what I would say, so I’ll say it to you. [Laughs]

What was the first script you wrote when you were starting out as a writer, before The Simpsons?

I don’t want to age myself, but I guess I wrote a Larry Sanders spec script, so that would be 1994 or 1995.

What was your Larry Sanders spec about?

It was a ripped-from-the-headlines story about Larry’s agent is leaving his agency and tries to convince Larry to go with him, and Larry is insecure. He doesn’t know if it would benefit or hurt him. His agent is, in the middle of the night, leaving his agency. It was based on when Ari Emmanuel left wherever he left to form Endeavor in the early ‘90s.

Did you submit that to other shows to try to get work?

Yeah. That weirdly got me hired on Seinfeld, but then, I was fired from Seinfeld. But then, luckily, I was hired on The Simpsons.

What were your experiences at Seinfeld like?

I don’t know. I would say I was emotionally ill-equipped for a job of such high status. That’s my summary of it.

How’d you become involved with The Simpsons?

Mike Scully hired me based on other stuff I had written, based on probably other stuff I had written by then. Maybe stuff I had written at Seinfeld and a crazy pilot I wrote about – wait for it – real-life superheroes. [Laughs] I know, I know, you never heard that idea before. It’s so fresh you’re gonna freak out. “What would superheroes do in the real world?” I know you want to steal it and write it for yourself. I can hear that in your voice, but in the ‘90s, that idea was only moderately out of date. In 1994, that had not been done 50,000 times. Deconstructed superheroes. Now, sure. It’s pretty hard.

I don’t know that that had been done at that point. That was probably a fresh idea at that time.

It wasn’t ultra-fresh, but it was fresher. Show me a male comedy writer who hadn’t had that idea. Older writers have girlfriends and kids and relationships, you know, life stuff to actually write about. It’s a good early 20s idea that every person thinks of.

So, was the Simpsons writers’ room intimidating to come into?

Yes, it was. I wasn’t gonna get fired by both of my dream shows. Only one. I was determined not to get fired by both.

Had you been a Simpsons fan from the start?

Yes, I knew it was special to me from the get-go. You know, I started in Season 9. I did not realize it would last – we’re now finishing up Season 25. I know, quite a run.

Do you ever think about how much longer it will last or are you just focused on the work?

I just try to make every episode I work on good [Laughs]. I don’t know, it never seems like it even comes close to ending. I never believe they’re gonna end it. It’s still too successful. It makes too much money, and I think the show still works as the world keeps changing, so we can keep reflecting new things as the world evolves and devolves.

I’m going to start calling this Sunday’s show “Homer the Hipster,” even though I have nothing but contempt for that self-dumbing down of my concept. I wish this episode had aired four years ago because then it would have seemed unbelievably well-observed and unbelievably fresh at the time. Now, I think some people will say, ‘Oh, The Simpsons – this old show – is trying to get in on kicking hipsters while they’re down or whatever. Even the people who are complaining about the show, at least they’re aware of it, so that’s good.

I think people are really gonna dig it. We made a culturally-dense episode, and I think people will really like it. Here’s a little trick: once shows are in syndication, you don’t know when they first aired. Maybe it did air in like 2008 first, when we would have seemed unbelievably prescient, for all you know, right?

And the process of animating the show and producing the show takes a little while.

It took a year. It literally has been a year. I can’t believe this show hasn’t aired yet. I started writing it last July.

Is that every frustrating, trying to comment on the world but having that delay that other shows don’t have?

Well, this one, it was a little frustrating, but it’s the same thing that keeps you from doing topical stuff that’s forgettable. Like, astronaut diaper jokes. Remember when that lady went nuts and went to get revenge on the other lady, and she was so intent on it that she was wearing astronaut diapers so she could pee her pants and she was an astronaut? That’s a very topical reference and is not gonna have a long lifespan.

Yeah, it’s the Paul Ryan work-out photos of its day.

Yeah, exactly! It keeps the show from being a Leno monologue, which is good. But at the same time, if you want to be the first show on the scene to show on the scene to… show your take on it, it’s really hard to do that, whereas South Park obviously can.

So, is there a plan amongst the writers hypothetically for if the show were to end? Is that something you guys have talked about? Do you guys have an ideal ending in mind if that were to ever happen?

Um, I don’t think so. My plan for all the writers would be “Save your money. Save your money now.” I don’t there’s like a last episode. Al Jean has said he has some ideas. Al Jean is our showrunner and an iconic Simpsons writer. He said he has some ideas. I, personally, would rather do a small family episode, not try to change anything or wrap anything up and just do like a regular show. There would probably be self-aware jokes about it, but fundamentally, I personally would like it to go out just the same way the show went in: just funny family stories about a family whose emotions don’t yield even though the world is very crazy.

But I imagine, since the show is such an iconic cultural thing and has been on for such a long time, it would be a thing where it would get hyped up. “The last episode of The Simpsons.”

I would think it would get a lot of hype.

But you guys don’t talk about that stuff in the room very often?

Well, we talk about it, but it sort of seems highly theoretical. Obviously, Matt Groening and Jim Brooks… are involved in every episode. They’d be very involved in that episode. They would probably figure it out.

Has there been talk of another Simpsons movie?

I am unaware of any plans for that to happen, but I’m sure there are people who would want that to happen. I would say, as far as I know, there are no plans, but that’s not to say that’s impossible either.

What else does the show have in store for fans in terms of future episodes or guest stars?

Oh my God, I can’t remember. I can’t remember anything else that’s happen. I wrote one in July, where we find out that - you can’t tell this show is in Season 25 [Laughs] – where you find out that Grampa used to be an old-time Gorgeous George-type wrestler. We have a wrestling episode. I like old, old-time wrestling. That doesn’t have any guest stars. I don’t know. Episodes I write, I’ve been here for so long, I tend to do kind of weirder Adult Swim-type episodes. They’re about very specific subcultures.

Brian Kelley wrote a really funny show about Homer becoming an end-of-the-world “prepper.”  Carolyn Omine wrote a sweet show were we find out Homer used to have a puppy as a kid and how that screwed him up.  And comedy legends Tom Gammill and Max Pross wrote their first Simpsons script, a hilarious show about Milhouse growing up too fast.

Can you tell me anything about the episode Judd Apatow wrote in the ‘90s that you guys are producing now?

I don’t really have anything to add other than what’s already out there.  Our showrunner, Al Jean, heard an interview with Judd where Judd said he wrote a Simpsons spec script in the early ‘90s.  Al, smartly, thought it would funny to actually produce that script 25 years later.  So I guess Judd is going to dig it up and we’ll do it.

I suppose it sends a terrible message to spec script writers, to make them think that someday their material will be produced. It will keep hope alive when we should be killing hope.

Is that a direction you’d like to see the show go in more often? Doing more Adult Swim-type episodes?

No, I think because I have the freedom to do those, so I do, but I wouldn’t want everyone to be that way. I think it’s fun for me to try to be a little experimental in terms of the types of stories we write about or the types of adventures the family has. The thing every episode has in common is the emotional story has to work and has to be at the core of it. All the good episodes have really good emotional spines. All the unbelievably cool hipster references you jam in aren’t gonna swing anything if there’s not a relatable emotional situation, and these references are fucking cool, man.

Before I let you go, would you mind telling the Mayor of St. Louis story?

Sure, I don’t mind at all… Well, I had very foolishly given an interview to a newspaper in St. Louis after I wrote an episode where we took a shot at East St. Louis. And then, a reporter a called me and said, “Why’d you take a shot at East St. Louis?” and I said “Because it’s a crack-ridden slum.” That was not a very politic way to phrase it. Unlike today, you and me talking, in which I’ve been incredibly careful not to get myself in trouble. Then, I went away on vacation, and apparently there was a real-life minor brouhaha. The people of East St. Louis were offended that I referred to it as “a crack-ridden slum,” which it may or may not be. I haven’t checked recently, or ever. I guess that was one of the problems: I had never been there. When I said it was “a crack-ridden slum,” it was based purely on hearsay and conjecture.

So, [the other Simpsons staffers] decided to teach me a lesson. They told me the actual Mayor of St. Louis was going to be in Los Angeles for a Mayors’ conference, and he wanted to talk to us. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna have to go apologize to this guy and man up. I was an idiot. Now, I’m going to have to go apologize. I understand that.’ One day, a very dignified African-American gentleman in a tie and a short-sleeve button-down shirt shows up [and] talks to all the writers during lunch… It’s starting to get very awkward because he’s sort of addressing his whole speech to me and putting me on the spot and humiliating me and saying, “Who said this about East St. Louis? Have you ever been to East St. Louis?” I’m feeling very uncomfortable and awkward. ‘Oh man, I’m so dead.’ I unfortunately showed my true colors by selling out the others writers by saying that I didn’t write the joke in the show about East St. Louis [and] someone else wrote it [and] we all wrote it together, even though my name was on the script. So, everyone finds out that you’re a snake and a weasel.

So, finally, the confrontation gets more heated and intense, and the Mayor of East St. Louis is saying how his daughter is being teased at school and the East St. Louis Fox affiliate is going to lose their license and all these terrible things are going to happen. Other Mayors are disrespecting him. I was sweating and freaking out and losing my shit. So, he asks the showrunner Mike Scully if he can take me into the next room and talk to me. I’m like, “Yeah, sure, sure. Just leave the door open.” He takes me and grabs me by my shirt. I’m freaking out. ‘Is he gonna beat me up?’ Then, he just starts to crack up. The whole thing was an incredibly elaborate prank. That was soon-to-be Simpsons writer Marc Wilmore, pretending to be the Mayor of East St. Louis.

I guess it speaks to my own narcissism that I thought ‘Okay, I really am in this much trouble. I really caused this scenario to happen.’ Apparently, people behind me the whole time, people were cracking up and biting their hands and punching themselves in the face, and I never once was aware of it. People prank a lot in real-life, but this was a highly-ambitious prank and it worked perfectly. I was so relieved to find out that it wasn’t real. My only reaction afterwards was just pure relief that I wasn’t really going to be beaten up by a Mayor.

Everything came together. It’s one of those rare moments in life where everything beautifully comes together. It really taught me my lesson. I mean, have I said anything to you that you think I could get in trouble for [or] that would require an elaborate hoax to teach me a lesson again?

I don’t think so.

Okay, good. [If I did], please don’t use it because I don’t think the second time would really be bad. [Laughs]

You probably wouldn’t fall for it a second time, right?

I don’t know, I don’t know.

The Fred Armisen/Carrie Brownstein/Patton Oswalt episode of The Simpsons airs this Sunday at 8 and new episodes of the show will continue to air Sundays at 8 until long after we’re all dead and gone. Follow Matt Selman on Twitter @MattSelman.

Talking to Longtime ‘Simpsons’ Writer Matt Selman