The Simpsons Folder
Al Jean Interview
October 2, 2001, By Greg Suarez, Digital Bits
Whether you know his name or not, it’s very likely that Al Jean has tickled your funny bone on more than one occasion. You see, after a writing stint on the popular sitcom Alf, and serving as a producer for Showtime’s acclaimed series It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (among many of his other projects in the 1980s) Al made a move that would change his life through the 1990s and beyond – Al moved to Springfield.
Winner of four Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award for his work on The Simpsons, Al is responsible for such fan favorite episodes as Lisa’s Pony (Homer has to take a second job at Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart to support Lisa’s pony), Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner (Homer becomes Springfield’s hated food critic) and Lisa’s Sax (where we learn the origin of Lisa’s sax and Bart’s bad attitude), among the myriad of other episodes he’s written and produced.
In light of the recently released The Simpsons: The Complete First Season 3-disc set from Fox, I recently had an opportunity to sit down and chat with one of The Simpsons’ cleverest and most enduring writer/producers, Al Jean. Join us as we discuss future Simpsons DVD releases, what has made the show so enduring, and even a few “D’oh’s” and “Mmmm’s.”
Greg Suarez: Thank you for taking time out of your schedule to talk with us. A lot of our readers and the staff of The Bits are big fans, so this is a real pleasure for us.
Al Jean: Well, thank you.
Greg Suarez: Why don’t we start by letting the readers know a little background about yourself, and tell us how you became part of The Simpsons family?
Al Jean: I’ve been in TV for about 20 years. I was working on shows like The Tonight Show and Alf, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. They were hiring a small staff to help turn The Simpsons into a half-hour show; you know they only had the Tracy Ullman Show shorts at that point. My partner and I were offered the job, but some of our friends weren’t so interested because it was a cartoon, and they didn’t think it would last very long.
Greg Suarez: Is your partner Mike Reiss?
Al Jean: Yeah, he’s been my partner, although he now works only part-time – he still works on The Simpsons, but technically now I’m alone (laughs), but he’s very amicable. So, we were the first staff writers that were hired. Jim Brooks, Sam Simon, and Matt Groening [the creators] were developing the shorts Matt had done into a series. We [Jean and Reiss] were there working as writers for the first thirteen episodes, both scripts we had credit for writing, and also scripts we helped rework. I ran the show in seasons three and four, and I’m currently running it. I have had some breaks where I just wanted to get away from the characters a little bit, but I’ve had something to do with the show every year that it’s been on the air.
Greg Suarez: When you say, “running it,” do you mean Executive Producing?
Al Jean: There are a lot of Executive Producers, I’m actually the Show Runner, which means I have the ultimate responsibility for how the scripts are read at the table, what they look like, the guest voices, the music – I have to supervise all that.
Greg Suarez: Let’s talk about the DVD set. Other than participating in the commentary tracks, were you involved with the creation of the Season One box set? Did you work at all with Matt Groening in pulling all the material together?
Al Jean: No, I just worked on the first 13 shows. The commentaries were kind of like a reunion, you know, we’d come in every time they’d screen an episode, and just talk over it, and remember how it came to be.
Greg Suarez: How did you find the experience of recording commentary tracks?
Al Jean: It was a lot of fun, and nostalgic – I saw some people I hadn’t seen in a while – and it was also daunting. I’m running the show currently, and thinking “Oh, man! These stories are so clean and so pure.” The hardest thing at this point is just thinking of fresh ideas. People are so on top of things that we’ve done before, so the challenge now is to think of an idea that’s good, but hasn’t been seen.
Greg Suarez: What do you hope the fans get out of the commentary tracks?
Al Jean: From what I’ve heard from people who have heard the tracks, and didn’t know what went happened back then, it’s interesting for them to see what went on during the making of a show that they grew up with.
Greg Suarez: I remember being amused by the story I heard during the commentary for the supplemental early footage of the first show that was animated. It was mentioned that Brooks was so disgusted by what he saw at the time that he walked out of the screening.
Al Jean: Yeah, some of that early footage is on the DVD, and I think it’s very fascinating. Basically, the director had gone in a different direction, and it had to be redone. When the second episode came back – David Silverman directed it – it was great, and the series was off to the races. But it really was a very serious concern at that point, whether we could air the show.
Greg Suarez: There’s been some speculation about when Fox might come out with subsequent seasons of The Simpsons on DVD. Do you have any idea when that might happen?
Al Jean: Season two is imminent – it’s been recorded. Judging by the sales of season one, it won’t be long. I know everything got postponed a little because of recent events, but judging by how well season one has been doing, I assume they’ll do them all. I don’t know why they’d leave that money lying around (laughs). There might be some sort of pattern that they develop; you know, an appropriate gap between releases.
Greg Suarez: So, have you already recorded commentaries for all of the episodes?
Al Jean: Yes, of season two.
Greg Suarez: Is that something that The Simpsons staff is planning on doing for every single season?
Al Jean: I assume that for every season, the people involved will record a commentary on every episode. So far that’s been the pattern.
Greg Suarez: So what are the chances of getting John Swartzwelder [my favorite Simpsons writer] to come out and do a commentary?
Al Jean: I know him well. He’s actually a very charming, friendly fellow. He’s just disinclined to come in and talk. I always feel a little weird speaking for him. But he does exist; he’s not a pseudonym for the staff, which has been alleged by some (laughs).
Greg Suarez: He’s responsible for a lot of the good episodes.
Al Jean: Oh, yeah! He’s a great writer, and he’s unique. He’s not like any other writer I’ve met; he has a real original voice. What’s great about The Simpsons is that so many different voices all have a place in the product. You have people who like writing for Lisa, or for Homer. You have people who like writing silly, broad stuff, and others who like writing different kinds of comedy. It’s all in here.
Greg Suarez: I’ve always felt that one of the show’s strengths, and what makes it enduring, is its variety of humor. At one moment the show can be incredibly smart, with the most intelligent comedy on television, and then turn around the next moment and be completely slapstick.
Al Jean: Yes, and from week-to-week you don’t know what you’re getting. I think the viewing audience is so jaded now that you have to keep throwing them curveballs.
Greg Suarez: Now let’s talk about The Simpsons in general. How do you personally approach writing your scripts for the show? And adding to that, what’s your, and the other writers’ secret for keeping the show fresh?
Al Jean: The freshness, I think, comes from a lot of work – we don’t want to just settle on something we’ve done before. The fact that the characters stay the same age, and change very little… you know when Happy Days had Fonzie become a principle, that made it look old. And the fact that there are so many characters – we were just thinking that we haven’t had a Flanders [Ned Flanders, the Simpsons’ next door neighbor] show in a while, I mean we recently had one, but we don’t have one produced for the following year, so maybe the following year we’ll do one. Or, maybe a Mrs. Krabappel show, and I think those put together keep it fresh. As for writing it, it starts with one idea. Like once, I thought, “What if Homer bowled a 300 game?” Then I thought it would be interesting because we usually have him fail, but what if he really did it? So, it’s really exciting, it’s one of the biggest things in his life. Then I thought it would be interesting if he sees that’s all there is, and suddenly he gets jaded. And then we thought, well wouldn’t it be a good idea that because he’s jaded, he becomes closer to Maggie, because that’s what really is important. We hadn’t done a lot of Maggie things lately, so that fit in. And then you pitch it around with the staff for a couple of days, and everybody contributes ideas. That script, which I wrote, I went off and did for a couple of weeks, you know, turning out a first draft. It’s a very segmented show, you go, “Okay, here’s some bowling jokes, some Homer’s famous jokes,” you just put a bunch of stuff in, get it in order, and that’s your first draft. Then it’s completely rewritten – no matter who it’s by – for several weeks. The cast reads it; you see what doesn’t work, and you fix that. You just keep going back and forth until it airs. The principle writer for the show has, at most, written 40% of the script. It’s a real team effort. The first show, the Christmas show [Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, aired 12/17/89] was primarily written by Matt Groening, Sam Simon, Mike Reiss, and myself, although none of us have writing credits on it. It’s a very misleading thing. What happens is – it’s an open secret in TV – there are some shows where maybe one person writes almost everything. I know David Kelly, I think, writes most of the shows he’s responsible for, but on a show like The Simpsons, the writing credit is used to pay royalties. So, if you think of the idea, and you did the first draft, you get all of the royalties. But in terms of whose lines are which, I would say in no episode does any one person have more than 40% of the lines.
Greg Suarez: So, in the episode you mentioned where Homer bowls a 300, the whole bit about “Not Lenny!” wasn’t you?
Al Jean: That actually was me (laughs). But I’ll give you an example: when they were on The Hollywood Squares, Homer asks Ron Howard, “How come you stopped acting?” Then Disco Stu [who’s a contestant] said, “Because he’s not cute anymore.” The host said, “Circle gets the square.” That was Mike Scully! It was one of my favorite jokes in that episode, but that’s how it works – I get the money!
Greg Suarez: Aside from the main Simpson clan, who’s your favorite character to write dialog for?
Al Jean: I think it’s probably Moe [Moe Szyslak, the bartender], because they almost always get laughs. He’s so insane; there’s this not so subtle hint of incredible criminality (laughs). Hank Azaria [provides the voice of Moe] deserves a tremendous amount of credit for how funny that character is. I would say Moe is probably my favorite.
Greg Suarez: Hank Azaria, over the last four or five years, has become quite a movie star, and I cannot watch him in any movie without thinking of Moe, or Chief Wiggum, or somebody else he voices in The Simpsons.
Al Jean: Well, I think that what’s good is that these characters are definitely from him, but they don’t sound like he normally does. So I think in movies, if people don’t know, then they don’t necessarily put the two together. Hank Azaria is a very funny man, so I’m happy for any breakouts he’s had. He has a TV series coming out this fall.
Greg Suarez: The beauty of Homer’s signature emotional phrases, “D’oh!” and “Mmmm… [insert item here]” is that they’re not overused. As a scriptwriter, how do you recognize the most opportune moments for Homer to use these character-defining phrases without going into overkill?
Al Jean: Well, we’re just in a script rewrite going line-by-line, and if someone pitches it, you’ll either go, “That’s funny,” or “You know, we’ve done that a lot.” (laughs) Sometimes there’s a danger of overusing it, but with something like the “D’oh!” we quickly said we’re not Laugh-In; we’re not just going to say it time and again, we need a reason every time.
Greg Suarez: What’s your favorite Simpsons episode?
Al Jean: One that I enjoyed working on was the one where Mr. Burns had the softball team [Homer at the Bat, aired 2/20/92]. Sam Simon proposed it, and we go hire a lot of real baseball players to do voices, and I thought we’d never get them, but we did (laughs). That was a real blast! Of the ones that I’ve written, (laughs) the one that might be closest to me is the Mary Poppins parody [Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(annoyed grunt)cious, aired 2/7/97].
Greg Suarez: I remember hearing on one of the commentary tracks that the writers spend a vast amount of their time trying to think of funny names for Simpsons and Itchy & Scratchy episodes.
Al Jean: Titles and signs take up so much more of a percentage of time in the rewrite room than anything else (laughs). It’s really funny! We write all of the titles, but there are occasional physical bits that the animation director will put in, but we write a majority of them.
Greg Suarez: As a die-hard Simpsons fan there’s a burning question I’ve been grasping with for a few years now, and I’m going to take this opportunity to ask an authority on the subject. How many more seasons does the staff have in them?
Al Jean: You know, if you’d asked me 10 years ago (laughs), I would have said, “I don’t know, maybe a couple of years.” But then we’ve gone 10 years longer. The cast is signed for three years – counting the season starting this fall – and the ratings have been going up. We just won an Emmy, so I don’t know. I honestly don’t. Gunsmoke went 20 years; maybe we should just shoot for that!
Greg Suarez: What I consider a reason for the show’s longevity is that it’s always current; there are numerous episodes dealing with current events, be it the O.J. Simpson trial, the Internet boom, and there are plenty of commentaries and lampoons on current films, musical trends, or whatever. Do you think that’s part of it?
Al Jean: It’s part of it, but I think the biggest thing is that if you watch a show from 1994 or 2000, you probably can’t tell them apart. The show is evergreen, in my opinion.
Greg Suarez: Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate the opportunity we’ve had to discuss what’s arguably the best show on television. Here’s to many more seasons!
Al Jean: Thank you!