Interview Date: 08/12/2010
Run Date: 08/24/2010
A few minutes before our scheduled chat with “Simpsons” executive producer and show runner Al Jean, the phone rings. It’s a blocked call. Perfect timing for some telemarketing weasel to tie up the line before a really important phone call. We answer…and it’s Al Jean. Why the blocked call? “I’m at Fox,” he says. Not to self: Fox does not want us to know when they’re calling.
Currently in the middle of overseeing episodes for the show’s 22nd season (!) while simultaneously promoting the release of the show’s 13th season on DVD, Bullz-Eye chatted with Jean about which lines the staffers quote most frequently (the answer might surprise you), the dangers of audio commentaries, and the likelihood of another “Simpsons Movie.” On that last point, let’s just say that holding your breath is not recommended.
Bullz-Eye: For those who aren’t familiar with the job title, tell people a little bit about the responsibilities of a show runner.
Al Jean: Well, I started as a writer, until I got to where I am as the head writer, basically. But now I do a lot of other things like editing the shows, both the audio and the picture, working with the composer on the music and the sound effects, working with budgets, deciding which scripts we do, and again supervising the rewriting of the scripts. So basically, if something goes wrong, it’s my fault.
BE: What is your favorite episode from the 13th season?
AJ: I would say, after all this time…I’ll single out two: there is a real soft spot I have for “I Am Furious Yellow,” because we got Stan Lee to play himself, and growing up, he was my hero, as the hopeful writer. And he was hilarious; he comes to the Comic Book Guy’s store, and he won’t leave, and Comic Book Guy says his mind is clearly no longer in mint condition. He also did a commentary with us for that episode, which was just surreal to me. He’s a real living legend. The other one was a script by Jon Vitti that I thought was really funny “Weekend at Burnsie’s,” where Homer becomes addicted to medicinal marijuana. And there’s a part I always love, where we have the Donovan song “Wear Your Love Like Heaven,” where Homer is high, and he cuts himself shaving and rainbows come out of all of his cuts. It’s just one of those things that makes me laugh every time I see it. There are a lot of great moments, but those are the two I would single out.
BE: You should know that I still quote in the occasional piece the bit from this season of Moe talking about how something is po-mo, then giving up and admitting it’s weird for the sake of weird.
AJ: (Chuckles) There’s another Moe thing in that “Weekend at Burnsie’s” episode that I always remember too, where he says “Wanna see a crowbar? This is a crowbar,” then he takes out a picture of a bar filled with crows.
BE: I was supposed to get a copy of the set before I talked to you, but it hasn’t arrived yet.
AJ: Oh, I’m sorry. It’s got a great cover. Ralph is on the box.
BE: I’m going to ask you about that, but tell us what extra bits are on the set that fans can look forward to.
AJ: There was a Season 20 DVD that was sort of put out that we didn’t have time to address correctly, and we’re not going to do that anymore. This is a return to all of the extras that people are used to from the other 12 seasons. We have commentaries on every episode, including a lot of the guest stars. There’s a really funny bit where Delroy Lindo, who was in an episode called “Brawl in the Family,” asks us why we have to have so many producers on the show. Which we couldn’t explain very well, so if you like awkward moments, that’s a good one. We have deleted scenes, just everything that people hope to get on a “Simpsons” season DVD.
BE: The audio commentaries are great fun for the fans of the show, but I have to ask: are they still fun for you? You have to have done well over 100 of them by now.
AJ: It’s mixed. What I didn’t realize was that anything I said on the audio commentary would be taken as a factual history of the show for the rest of time. (Laughs) There’s a pressure on it now, because you read stuff on Wikipedia…here’s an example: I said once that there was a joke where I had Homer doing something my dad once did, and then Wikipedia said Homer is based on my father, which is impossible. Homer was created before I worked on the show, and my father is not Homer Simpson at all, so it was like, “Oh, my God.” I’m trying to be funny, I’m trying to fill the time, but I don’t want to say anything that I read 30 years from now and regret.
BE: There always seems to be that invisible cash register going on in those commentaries. If someone mentions the mere name of a song title, all of a sudden everyone else jokes, “Well, this commentary just went up $60,000.”
AJ: Well, maybe we talk about it too much, but it is definitely an issue that is involved with the production that’s changed in the 20 years that the show’s been on. It used to be that you could clear songs easier and use music. Like, “American Graffiti,” when that film came out, with its incredible soundtrack, the soundtrack cost something like half a million dollars. Now, these publishing companies have gotten very aggressive with songs; something can cost you $80,000. If someone sings “Happy Birthday to You,” you have to pay money to Disney for that. But, if you use the melody but not the lyrics, and it’s not in a birthday context, it’s free.
BE: I got the impression that just mentioning the mere title of it would cost you.
AJ: No, that was a joke. But if you sing some of the lyrics, even if it’s just you singing…
BE: Got it.
AJ: Part of what a show runner deals with, to further answer your question.
BE: Do the writers and creators of the show quote the dialogue as often as their fans do?
AJ: No. I’m always looking ahead, so often I won’t have seen an episode since [I finished working on it]. I edit them, and I see the episode numerous times before it airs, but once it airs, I can really go from then to the commentary without ever seeing it again. The most embarrassing thing is that twice we’ve used lines without realizing it. One was in “Camp Krusty” and one was in “Special Edna.” Homer and Marge are being romantic and watching fireworks, and Homer says, “Now, let’s make some fireworks of our own,” and you see them putting powder in a rocket and literally making fireworks. We did that joke twice. The fans keep us honest, in that area.
BE: It’s interesting that Ralph Wiggum is on the cover for the DVD set, because this was around the time when he became a breakout star. Did you guys ever see that coming, and once it happened, did you suddenly receive notes from the network asking that you inject more Ralphisms into the scripts?
AJ: We never get creative notes. The notes we get are what any show on broadcast television would get, which is broadcast standards. There were a number of notes when we did the medicinal marijuana show. When you watch it, you’ll never see Homer making a joint or putting it to his lips, because they didn’t want kids to see how it was done. So those notes you get, but in terms of Ralph, or any other character, we don’t get requests to beef them up, or do more with them. Ralph was somebody, Mike Reiss and I put him in a script we did, “Moaning Lisa” in Season 1. We were trying to think of a character that was a Lisa-aged version of Homer, and he’s named Ralph because I always loved Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners.” And he just grew into this popular character that we even had him run for President in 2008, and the slogan was “Pick a winner,” where he had his finger up his nose.
BE: If I’m online, and I’ve hit a wall with someone in a conversation, I say, “My cat’s breath smells like cat food.”
AJ: Ha! That’s a great line.
BE: You came back to the show right around the time that Matt Groening was getting “Futurama” off the ground. What was that like in terms of divvying up the writing staff?
AJ: I came back in Season 10 full-time. Every year I had been at least a consultant or done extra episodes, so there was never a season where I didn’t do something. With “Futurama,” it was mainly David X. Cohen who went over, and Ken Keeler, but mostly they hired a different staff, so it wasn’t like taking the “Simpsons” staff and dividing them in half.
BE: But since then, doesn’t Josh Weinstein write for them now?
AJ: He does, but he went and did a lot of other things between “The Simpsons” and “Futurama.” We’ve had people come and go [between the shows]. On our staff, we have Stuart Burns and Bill Odenkirk, who worked on “Futurama.” It’s a very friendly relationship. I think David is a terrific guy, and I really like those guys at “Futurama.” We wish them the best.
BE: Matt Groening has mentioned in early commentaries about how much he hated to include moments that were un-real, i.e. that couldn't happen in the real world. Has he just thrown up his arms in defeat on that front?
AJ: No, I would never say that he’s defeated. Well, first of all, I think the show in general adheres to reality. You don’t think of Bart as Bugs Bunny; he doesn’t just disappear and come back dressed as a woman. And I’m not saying Matt is the only one who has that feeling. I always say, if you don’t believe these are real characters, if you don’t empathize with them, then we’re lost. There were things that came in now and then that were really funny, but by and large, in the non-Halloween episodes, nothing happens that’s impossible, unless it’s in a dream or a fantasy.
BE: What I meant was more in the animal kingdom. Like General Sherman winking at the camera. Wolves huddling up like football players, that kind of thing.
AJ: He didn’t want General Sherman winking, but we do very few of them. Again, if you look at the history of the show you’ll see very few incidents…now, we have animal things that are slightly far-fetched, but they don’t talk; they behave like real animals, pretty much.
BE: Has there ever been a guest voice who was just on the cusp of getting booked but died before recording?
AJ: Yeah, but I don’t want to say who it is, because I’d feel badly. That’s an interesting question, and the answer is yes, but I won’t say who.
BE: How many years do you think you have left in you?
AJ: Me personally? (Laughs) Me, I hope I have a good 30 years left. The very accurate answer is we’re doing Season 22, we’ve just wrapped 13 of the 22 episodes for that season. The cast is signed for Season 23, so that’s likely, I would say that’s a 90% shot. The next hurdle is that the cast would have to sign a new deal for Seasons 24 on, and at this point in the lifetime of the show, there’s an equation based on how much the show derives in revenue versus what the costs are, and if it doesn’t hook up, then you don’t have a show. That being said, I still think that there’s a lot of money in the show, and that we could go three more years, or more.
BE: Have you ever thrown around ideas of how you would finish it off? Have you had discussions of ‘When we get to our last episode, we’re killing everyone on the show,’ or anything like that?
AJ: Very, very briefly. A long, long time ago, Matt originally thought that he was going to have Marge actually have rabbit ears, like her “Life in Hell” character [Sheba]. But he’s since said that “The Simpsons” has grown so far beyond that that he wouldn’t do it. Different people have different thoughts. I have one, but I won’t say, in case there’s a chance that we would do it. Jim Brooks said his hope was that the last episode would give the kids a chance at a better life. I would say that it’s extremely unlikely that in the last episode we would have a tragedy, both because that’s not the way people see the show, and secondly, we’ve learned that you never want to do anything that suddenly puts you in a corner that you can’t get out of. You always want to keep doing it.
BE: That question came more from a quote I read from Michael J. Fox, saying that he wanted the last episode of “Family Ties” to end with a plane crash, so there would be absolutely no chance of “Family Ties Goes to Hawaii,” or something like that.
AJ: You just never know. There could be a Broadway show; you never know how they mat reappear. William Shatner talked about “Star Trek,” and said, “I can’t tell you how many times I said, ‘This is dead, and it’s not coming back,’ and it came back.” That was about three incarnations ago.
BE: That’s fair. I just wanted to poke around the minds of the show runners to see where you thought it would go, but that makes sense to keep options open for a Broadway show. Or another movie, because the first one was great.
AJ: Oh, thanks! Yeah, we would wait until we had time, and a script that we really believed in, so there’s no urgency for that.
BE: Well, our time is up. Thanks so much for talking with us, and best of luck with the show.AJ: Thanks. Take care.