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2002 Simpsons Writer Discussion

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2002 Simpsons Writer Discussion

This document is done

This is from May 2002, but there’s lots of great info & discussion in here, from OFF writers past & present. This is edited to only concern OFF from the full-version, which, if you really need to see the whole thing, I posted it in “itchy & Scratchy Studios”: An Animated Discussion: Primetime ‘toon titans examine their booming biz. Written By Alan Waldman (From the May 2000 issue of “Written By”)

Primetime animated television shows are experiencing an unprecedented boom, with eight series airing on five major broadcast networks and at least three others on the way. Animated hits such as The Simpsons and South Park can generate gigantic rewards for its writer-creators, including big returns from video games, merchandising, and various ancillaries. And compared to the massive $5 million to $6 millionper-episode budgets of hit sitcoms like Frasier and Friends, animated half-hours are cheap to produce–running only about $2 million an episode.


Patric M. Verrone: Let’s begin by talking about the current landscape of animation. We now have four shows currently on Fox: Futurama, King of the Hill, Simpsons, and Family Guy. In a few weeks The PJs will return. NBC had God, The Devil, and Bob. We’re told they also have Sammy coming down the pike. ABC has Clerks soon. The WB might return Mission Hill and also has Baby Blues and The Oblongs. With that in mind the obvious question is: “Is this glut going to continue?” Do we think that CBS can put up an animated show?

Mike Scully: They’d have to get an animated audience first.

David X. Cohen: Really, with the exception of The Simpsons, there’s not one show here whose ratings could be described as “through the roof,” so I’m not sure they’re going to be that enthusiastic about a lot more animated programs.

Mike Scully: I take no position. [laughter]

Richard Appel: You have to draw the kids in first, through the animation. Kids don’t feel guilty or stupid sitting down to watch a cartoon. Once you get the kids into it, you can kind of suck the adults in when they realize that the show is not just for kids. But there’s still a lot of adults who have a problem just sitting down to watch an animated show on their own.

David X. Cohen: Or if you are The Simpsons, you can just wait until they grow into the 18-to-49 demographic. [laughter]

Patric M. Verrone: Eleven years ago The Simpsons came on and was the first animated show since The Flintstones went off 23 years before. It took five years before King of the Hill established a beachhead. Since then we’ve had two or three other shows kind of come and go and come back and go again. I wonder, are there going to be this many at any point in the future? Eight years ago, with the exception, of Mike [Scully], none of us was in animation. We were mostly variety writers, sitcom writers, a lawyer, a graduate student–whatever. Animation wasn’t hot eight years ago. Eight years from now, where will we all be?

Richard Appel: I wonder, too, how much the proliferation of shows is directed just by the studios or networks as much as by the writers who I worked with at The Simpsons for four years. There are a lot of advantages to doing an animated show. I think that possibly the shows that were developed after The Simpsons and after King of the Hill were also fueled by writers’ desire to work in a more protected environment, where you have a little more freedom and the production timetable is less demanding. You have more freedom in the direction of the shows as you’re deciding things from the storyboards to when they air. Although you work with first-rate actors, The Simpsons is not known as the Dan Castellaneta show.

Mike Scully: It is among the writers. [laughter]

Patric M. Verrone: Let’s talk a little about the process.

Mike Scully: You’re basically getting those same five days [in which live-action shows produce one episode], but they’re spread over nine months. You’re always working on seven or eight different episodes at the same time, which are in different stages of production.

Patric M. Verrone: Let me turn to David and ask about Futurama, where we try very hard to make what is actually unlimited animation resemble the limited animation.

David X. Cohen: One of the interesting things about our animation is that we strive to give it the sort of hand-drawn look, even though there are usually several computer-animated scenes in every episode. It’s interesting that some of the highest-tech animation being done is being employed to make good stuff look bad. There’s something funny about Matt Groening’s hand-drawn style, so a lot of effort goes into making a spaceship have an overbite that matches his drawings. The more you work with editing the more you realize that people’s attention is so drawn to the face of the character talking that they don’t generally notice that the rest of the scene might be literally frozen stiff. You grow to love those scenes where everything is frozen stiff because then you have remarkable editing possibilities on the one thing that is moving. People are so trained to focus on the face of the person speaking that you can get away with murder.

Mike Scully: But at the same time I think you’re under the obligation to take advantage of the fact that you’re animated. At the end of each episode, you shouldn’t look at it and say, “We could’ve done this exact same show live-action.” There should be a point to being animated. A lot of times a script will come in, and even if it’s in good shape, we’ll realize it could just be done live-action. So we’ll deliberately go in and insert some dream sequences or flashbacks or something that you just couldn’t do on a live-action show.

David X. Cohen: There’s also an amount of physical comedy you can do. Homer would have a lot of brain damage by now if he were an actor. So it’s kind of interesting that it’s a writer’s medium, yet you’re often writing these fairly visual, slapsticky kind of jokes.

Mike Scully: Yeah, we’re going to do one next year that we’re working on right now where Homer goes on a hunger strike. What we want to do is have the weight coming off in weird places. His neck is getting very skinny. But he always has the gut, no matter what. You could never do that joke in live-action.

Patric M. Verrone: As I look around this room, virtually every one of these shows, with the possible exception of Futurama and King of the Hill, has had some big problem with a group of people who have found the show objectionable in one respect or another.

Mike Scully: You know, The Simpsons might actually be the only show on TV now that has a minister as a regular cast member.

Richard Appel: That was your demographic.

Mike Scully: You want to get that religious audience. We get our share of letters because, like Matthew said, the minute you say God and put Him in any context, people just get uptight.

David X. Cohen: There was one great letter when I was writing for The Simpsons. Some joke had been made about the Protestant Reformation on the Halloween show–

Richard Appel: –Always a go-to category for humor, the Protestant Reformation.

David X. Cohen: And this letter came from Father Somebody on this church letterhead, First Church of Somewhere or Other, and it started, “I saw this joke about the Protestant Reformation . . .” I was getting ready for one of the standard complaints, but it went on, “. . . and I have to say I was roaring with laughter. Good work, and kudos to your whole staff.” We had it posted for a year or so.

Richard Appel: We do well if we just stick pretty closely to the 24-episode suggestions we get from the network. We have an episode [of King of the Hill] coming up where Bobby is mistaken for a reincarnated lama–

Mike Scully: Oh, shoot! You guys are doing that, too? I’ve always tried to point out to people who do complain about the religious jokes on the show, that The Simpsons are actually one of the few families on TV that you see going to church every week–outside of maybe Seventh Heaven, where that’s his job. But they do go every week. Marge goes willingly. Homer goes grudgingly, but he goes. There’s something to be said for that.

Patric M. Verrone: Do you ever get some indication from network that you should be writing for a specific demographic, or do you try and appeal to as wide an audience as you can?

Mike Scully: In the beginning when Jim Brooks, Matt Groening, and Sam Simon set The Simpsons up at Fox, they established the principle of “no network or studio notes.” So we really operate pretty independently, and we just do whatever we think is funny. We don’t specifically target groups, but if you look at the history of The Simpsons, Bart carried it for the first couple years, and then gradually, as the adults started to watch the show, Homer evolved as the real star. That’s what happens with animation.

David X. Cohen: We’re really only writing for adults. Matt Groening’s theory is that when you do an animated show you get the kids for free, and they are yours to lose. But as long as you don’t do anything to get rid of them, they’re there. It’s the nature of our show, Futurama, that there’s a lot of stuff in there that kids are interested in–rockets and robots and monsters and stuff. So really, just by virtue of the subject matter, we’ve got the kids. We aim the jokes and the storylines more at adults.

Patric M. Verrone: Let’s change gears a little bit. How does one get into this business?

Steve Tompkins: I’ve always heard people say, “Write a primetime spec.” They’re still looking for the best quality writer.

Richard Appel: I was at The Simpsons probably nine months before I was assigned a script, and I was happy that it was that long because it’s a very easy show to write badly. People tend to think that if there are no rules, you can do just about anything. I believe that I could not have written a good spec King of the Hill or Simpsons or any of the shows around this table unless I had spent a few months trying to get the sensibility of the show and seeing what the rules are in those worlds–because they do have rules.

David X. Cohen: One thing I’ve noticed just repeatedly, in the animation spec scripts I get, is that people have a tendency to assume that because it’s animated, they can go in 18 different directions, bouncing from one incident to another, and they don’t really need a solid A-story. To a lot of people who watch casually, that’s what the show is. But if you actually study The Simpsons or read the scripts or put some thought into it, you realize that 98 percent of the time it has a very solid A-story.

Richard Appel: I know the [shows represented here are three-act shows] too, and I think that’s a hard script to write. We’ll write the first act break with a twist that we love, and then for months we’re just trying to break the next twist that could end the second act, and we haven’t yet cracked it. If it were a two-act show, I’d feel much better about it.

Mike Scully: One of the most common mistakes I see is when people submit a Friends or Seinfeld spec script that has three or four storylines going at once. The odds of you writing four great, solid stories to go through your spec script are so slim that you’re better off just coming up with a solid A and maybe a B, and that’s it. Try to write those funny instead of trying to juggle multiple storylines.

David X. Cohen: The other thing I tell people is that they literally wouldn’t believe the number of man-hours that go into one of these scripts. You have 10 experienced writers sitting around a table for a week or more, for 10 hours each day, in addition to someone spending several weeks writing a script and a group of people pitching out the story and giving the jokes. So the number of man-hours is tremendous–greatly exceeding the amount of time one person could put into a spec script.
Mike Scully: Animated comedy writing is really all about the characters and having a solid story. In spec scripts you have to have a real solid story, with a strong emotional through-line. You have to have really good jokes, too, but that’s like third on the list. Finally, it has to be less than 50 pages.

Patric M. Verrone: Let me touch on the subject that’s important to the Guild and its members these days, which is the diversity issue, both onscreen and behind the screen.

Mike Scully: In terms of behind the camera, I know NBC has made a deal where if your show is on after one year, it’s mandatory you hire a minority writer–and the network pays for it. I just feel that’s not the way I would want to be hired on a show. Writing truly is color-blind and ethnic backgroundblind. When you’re opening a script up, you have no idea who wrote it. They’re not color-coded or stamped when they come over. You just want the best person for the job–as clich├ęd as that sounds. I don’t know what the statistics are in terms of minority writers, but I think when you start making it a forced thing, it’s the wrong answer. That being said, if I read a couple scripts that I liked equally and met the writers and one of them happened to be a member of a minority, I might lean that way a little because opening the door up is a good thing to do. But then at that point you’re hiring a qualified person.

The panelists were:

Moderator Patric M. Verrone won an Emmy for Muppets Tonight! (1997) and was also Emmy-nominated for Futurama (1999) and The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. Verrone wrote and co-produced The Critic (1993–95), was a staff writer on The Tonight Show (1987–90) and is currently supervising producer of the hybrid computer-traditional animated series Futurama.

Mike Scully has written on The Simpsons for eight seasons, executive-produced it for four, won three Emmys and two nominations for that work, and currently executive-produces that perennial Fox hit series. He began as a writer on the 1986 syndicated Yakov Smirnoff sitcom What a Country and also worked on Eddie Murphy Television’s 1991–92 CBS show The Royal Family.

Richard Appel won two Emmys for The Simpsons (from 1995–98, rising to co-executive producer) and another for the Texas-accented animated series King of the Hill, which he has executive-produced for the past two seasons.
David X. Cohen developed and executive-produces Futurama (1998–2000), for which he was Emmy-nominated, and garnered two Emmys and two more nominations for The Simpsons.

Steve Tompkins began as a staff writer on In Living Color (1989–93), earned an Emmy and a nomination for The Simpsons (1994–98) and was nominated again in 1999 for The PJs, which he co-created and executive-produces. He has also written for Everybody Loves Raymond, Working, The Edge, and The Critic.