humor writing

Reclusive Former Simpsons Writer John Swartzwelder Emerges to Share Writing Advice

Thomas Pynchon voiced himself in a 2004 episode of The Simpsons. The paper bag over the reclusive writer’s head is as good a representation as any of John Swartzwelder for this piece. Photo: The Simpsons/Fox

Is there a word for the best kinds of gags on The Simpsons, that are “dumb and smart at the same time”? Simpsons writer Matt Selman calls those jokes “Swartzweldian,” referring to the media-shy comedy writer John Swartzwelder, who wrote a whopping 59 episodes of The Simpsons from 1990 to 2003. Swartzwelder avoids giving interviews, having devoted himself since his time helping shape The Simpsons’ golden age to self-publishing a series of absurdist detective novels. On Sunday, May 2, Swartzwelder broke his silence in an interview with The New Yorker, conducted over email by Mike Sacks. This was a significant moment for fans of the reclusive, mysterious writer, whose public persona has mostly been formed by word of mouth. For any readers who want to know the secret behind the writer who penned such episodes as “Homer the Great” and “Bart Gets an Elephant,” Swartzwelder shared a writing tip. We’ll call it the “crappy little elf” school of comedy writing:

Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue — “Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.

Swartzwelder not only has advice on how to write, but where to write. “Diner booths are a great place to write. Try it,” he insists. It helps, he reveals to The New Yorker, that he has two diner booths installed in his home.

Simpsons Writer John Swartzwelder Shares Writing Advice