good one

Have You Watched The Simpsons Lately? Because You Should!

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo Courtesy of Fox

When modern-day Simpsons is brought up by fans, the common response is, “Is that show still on?” It’s a comment that speaks to how extremely relevant the show was for a time and how that time was decades ago. But if you tell this incredulous person, “Also it’s really good this season,” ears perk up. It’s an exciting prospect for anyone who knows how good good Simpsons is and a confounding proposition.

And it’s true: The Simpsons has had a strong run since premiering its 34th season in late September. This creative resurgence is best typified by the third episode of the season, “Lisa the Boy Scout.” One of the most inventive, thrilling episodes in the series’ run, “Lisa the Boy Scout” uses the device of hackers leaking “show-ruining” clips as a way to justify a cavalcade of silly bits.

A modern spin on the legendary season-seven episode “22 Short Films About Springfield,” this is the first time the writers figured out a way to use the show’s cast of characters in what is essentially a sketch show. Instead of in-universe, emotionally grounded stories, the clips the hackers play build off simple, non-canon comedic premises such as “What if Lenny were just in Carl’s imagination?,” “What if Selma were actually Marge’s mother?,” and “What if Lisa tried to call the fire department but couldn’t speak to the operator in English because she was in a French-immersion program?”

On Good One, Simpsons writers Matt Selman, Brian Kelley, and Christine Nangle discuss the episode, what it’s like to attempt to do something new 34 seasons in, and annoying the haters. Read some excerpts from the interview below or listen to the full episode of Good One wherever you get your podcasts.

Good One

What was the initial pitch that got to this episode?
Brian Kelley: Matt Groening said he wanted to do an update of “22 Short Films about Springfield.” You’re always looking for a new animation style, a new area that the show has never explored before. And this was just a format we haven’t done in a very, very long time. We just started thinking of what the underlying premise could be — which evolved a lot over the course of the show.

You have all these ideas that can’t work, which is a thing that can be fun, but how do you make a show from that?
Matt Selman: You know, it was hard to zero in on what made an idea unusual. Nangle’s pitch for the Martin story helped give the episode clarity.

Christine Nangle: That started months prior, when I was just writing down episode ideas as a joke: “Martin is a cop in his 30s doing a 21 Jump Street.” It was a silly thing that I knew that I could submit to make people laugh. I come from a sketch-comedy background, so I have to work a little harder to come up with emotional stories — which is why this episode was such a dream to work on. Writing sketch, you don’t have to worry about emotional journeys; you’re just like, Hey, what if this funny thing happened? and then we stopped and moved on to the next thing. So when we got the assignment to write all these ideas down, it was so exciting to me. Jessica Conrad, who’s another writer, actually texted me to say, “Hey, remember that Martin idea? You should submit that for this.”

The idea is Martin comes home after a long day, and you realize that he’s actually in his 30s and really tan and has a wife and kids, but he is going to be posing as an elementary-school student to catch criminals. We didn’t actually get into what kind of criminal he’s looking for but a sort of Philadelphia or Boston kind of movie. When we had Dan Greaney’s initial draft, there were one or two bits that were a couple pages long. We were exploring what would happen if we played out a whole scenic thing that would ruin the show: He comes home, he gets a beer, he’s got kids, the wife’s got the accent. It felt very sketch oriented to me.

A lot of people think of The Simpsons as revolutionarily funny with all these big jokes, but it is such a story-focused show. Even when you do parody, that’s story focused. Was it hard to do, like, a “Simpsons: Oops All Jokes” episode?
CN: We do have the story of the hackers breaking in, falling in love, getting busted, and all that. So much of the push to make the stories emotional and good is from Matt and Jim Brooks specifically. That’s really important to Jim. So, luckily for me, I was like, Oh, Brian’s got to worry about that story part. I can just work on sketch stuff.

MS: It also took a long time to think of the comedy-delivery device of these sketches and a lot of other ideas before we came to “hackers who had a kind of denial-of-service-attack-ransomware thing,” which feels current. I mean, maybe the Guy Fawkes masks are a little out of date.

BK: It wouldn’t be The Simpsons if it wasn’t just a little bit out-of-date.

MS: Jim and Matt Groening liked it. We knew the Richard Curtis–style love story between the hackers was like a little bit of what we call, in the room, “emotion lotion”: If the hackers are just angry and bitter and hacking and greedy, there’s just nothing to hook into, so we thought it would be silly in the spirit of a very silly episode to have them have an anonymous love story. Jim loves love, and I think that, for him, made him connect a little more to the whole thing.

CN: And there was, of course, a lot of discussion about what “ruining the show” means. We’d have an idea and it would be like, Well, we could actually do this or This doesn’t ruin it. But then you saw Matt Selman livetweeting it, and it was so funny because he was actually acting like the show got hacked, and he’s like, “I can’t believe these clips. Can you believe this? This ruins the show.” He tweeted out the still of Martin. I retweeted it, and so many people just thought, Oh, God, yeah, of course, another gimmick. That was actually a kind of affirmation.

MS: They were like, “I haven’t watched the show in years, but they should definitely cancel it now.”

I remember hearing that in the ’90s someone wanted to do a TV segment or a documentary about the Simpsons writers’ room, but eventually they stopped in the middle of the process because it was just too boring. Like, there’ll be a line in the script and no one speaks at all for 30 minutes. Then someone says something, and everyone goes, “Yeah, that’s funny,” before moving on. Is that actually what happens?
MS: It’s a little different, in my experience. The room was a little more freewheeling than a bunch of high-pressure silences followed by classic lines that would eventually be on a “joke of the day” calendar for the next century or two. Whoever is running a comedy room, that creative process, unfortunately or fortunately, becomes a group version of their private creative process. When I’m running things, I have a very scattershot attention span. Everything is acceptable: say bad stuff, say dumb stuff, give yourself permission to be terrible, and eventually you’ll hone in on what you like the best.

Christine, was it much different from other writers’ rooms?
CN: I’ve heard stories that on certain shows, you had to pitch a perfectly formed joke, and you couldn’t talk unless you did that. But in a room like this, you could say, “Well, what if a brick comes through the window or something?” and have someone else take that and make it good. It was really a gift to be in a room like that. Luckily, I’ve been mostly in rooms like that.

MS: If you create an atmosphere where people are afraid to pitch because it might be bad, you’re not going to get good work from people. It’s just a bad culture.

CN: It’s really important to build a room of people who trust one another and believe, Okay, this person’s good and really contributes to the room. Then you feel more comfortable just throwing out something stupid. Or if you pitch something horrible, they’re going to either make fun of you in a way that shows they love you or just move on. The longer you’re a comedy writer, the better you are at not getting attached to your jokes, so you could just pitch something and it falls flat and everybody just moves on. So it says a lot about the atmosphere that these guys build that allows for that kind of thing to happen.

BK: But a little bit of anxiety is really useful, right? You want ideas to come freely, but I think it’s a good thing to be a little anxious about possibly destroying a show that you love. It’s a little bit of a push to work a little bit harder.

CN: Some of these people on the show are like legends, and when I was making Mike Scully laugh, I was like, Oh my God, Scully is laughing at one of my pitches. This is crazy. That just feels good.

MS: Also I’ve been told so many times that I’ve ruined the show people love that I kind of had to let go of that.

In one scene, Bart comes back from the future and tells the family things that will be coming in the future as a way of making fun of how the show famously predicts things. I assume when you first have an idea for an episode like this, explaining how the show predicts the future comes up quickly.
BK: I don’t think it was idea No. 1, but it was really early. We knew we had to address that just because you can get a little tired of addressing it in real life.

MS: I was on a Chicago AM local-news show promoting a breast-cancer walk. My kids had said to me, “If they ask you about predictions, don’t get mad.” And in the middle of the talk about breast-cancer awareness and prevention, they said, “Well, we got to ask about the predictions!’

CN: I was asked somewhere, and my answer was, “How do we predict the future? By studying the past.” I remember coming back into the room telling people that, and everyone was like, “No, we just guess.” But we’re always trying to put a smarter spin on it.

This season has been really strong. Do you feel like something is happening? Is there something different about the show right now?
MS: We really don’t do anything different. Every episode is its own Groundhog Day mini-universe, micro-reality. People should watch it like that and not think about it as part of an 800-episode, accidental pop-cultural aberration.

CN: Matt’s being very modest. I’d say in addition to Matt, who EPs the majority of episodes along with Al Jean, this year, one of the things that’s been different is there have been four co-runners: Brian Kelley, Tim Long, Carolyn Omine, and Rob LaZebnik. It’s a newer system where these writers who’ve been at the show for a while and have lots of experience are shepherding the writing process in a new way. I think that it does really make the show better with Matt’s commitment to every episode too. It feels good being here.

MS: Brian was the showrunner of this episode.

BK: I’m just having more fun on the show than I’ve had in a long time, and I think that shows in the episodes. We’ve just got a really good group of people, and they’re really supportive and sweet. I just like everyone — I think that’s pretty universal, and I think it shows in the episodes we’ve had that we have a great time writing the show.

There’s a line in this episode where someone says, “The only people still watching The Simpsons are football fans who pass out with the TV on.” Do you feel that way?
MS: I’m proud of The Simpsons being, legitimately, very successful in network television, which is not doing so good. Most of it is because of the quality of the writing, and a small component are the amazing Fox NFL games we get for about eight episodes every fall, where people really do leave the TV on. We’ll take it. It’s part of the sort of self-hating osmosis of like, Let’s just be brutal towards ourselves, towards the completely absurd situation that this show exists and is still successful.

In the fourth episode of the season, Krusty switches format to become a daytime-talk-show host, and Lisa asks Bart if he’s upset. Bart says he isn’t because all the old episodes are online and says once you have enough episodes of any classic show, why do you need to make any more? Beyond the ratings aspect, creatively, why still make The Simpsons?
CN: I mean, Simpsons forever. Why not? These characters are so funny. These actors are so funny. And Dan Castellaneta is in the writers’ room on Wednesdays. There’s just still a lot to say, and these are really fun people to say it with.

MS: I will agree with that and just add that we all know that the world is spiraling into ultracraziness, and I think the world is a little better off being able to hold up the Springfield mirror to that. Maybe the world is turning into Springfield. In a recent episode written by Broti Gupta, Homer says to Marge, “The truth is different these days. It’s more like a hunch you’re willing to die for.” That is as good of a calendar-worthy Homerism you will ever get. It feels very modern and true and funny and dark and sad. It would be sad not to make that anymore.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Matt Groening is the creator of The Simpsons. “22 Short Films About Springfield” is a season-seven episode done in the style of a series of interconnected vignettes. It is where the “steamed hams” scene comes from. James L. Brooks is a Simpsons executive producer and has been involved since its inception. Mike Scully was a showrunner of The Simpsons for seasons nine through 12 and has served as a longtime producer. The Simpsons is Fox’s second-most popular scripted TV show and its most popular scripted show among 18-to-49-year-olds.
Have You Watched The Simpsons Lately? Because You Should!