Don Payne: The TV Squad Interview
We originally sat down with Donny P. to talk movies, but c'mon. You try sitting down with a Simpsons writer and NOT bringing up the wonderful town of Springfield. Here's what Mr. Payne had to say about his experiences with Hope & Gloria, Pride & Joy, Men Behaving Badly, and (especially) The Simpsons.
TV Squad: For our readers who might not be familiar with the early works of Mr. Don Payne, could you briefly describe the differences between Hope & Gloria and Pride & Joy?
Don Payne: They all fall under the category of "paying your dues." As a TV writer (or any writer starting out), you have to take whatever work you can get to break into the business. It might not be something you love or something you're particularly proud of, but you've got to do it to pay the bills and get your foot in the door. You hope it leads you to bigger and better things -- something you love. Something that, when you tell people what you're doing, they don't give you a blank stare -- or walk away.
TVS: You often get to work with some good people on those shows, though. And any sitcom opportunity has to be seen as a great opportunity for a new writer.
DP: The writing staffs of television shows are filled with amazingly funny people. Sometimes that doesn't always translate to the finished product, for many different reasons. And yes, absolutely. Just getting through the door is the hardest part.
TVS: From there you moved on to an American version of a Britcom called Men Behaving Badly, which lasted two seasons. Seriously now: were you surprised by how sexy Justine Bateman turned out to be? And what the heck happened with that series?
DP: I actually only worked on the first season of that show. I thought the show was funny (at least in the first season). Justine Bateman was actually pretty hot. The show just kind of imploded, though, and never realized its full potential.
TVS: According to my IMDb expertise, you joined the Simpsons writing staff in 2000, and your first on-screen credit came during Treehouse of Horror 11. Is that accurate? Please tell me you wrote the line "At least stop basting yourself!"
DP: At the time (and up to a few years ago) I was writing with a partner -- a friend of mine named John Frink. Truthfully, I'm not sure who came up with that line! That was our first episode to air, but the first one we actually wrote was the one where Krusty found out he had a daughter, voiced by Drew Barrymore.
TVS: How does one "get" a job writing for The Simpsons? Other than by being a Harvard graduate, I mean. Does someone call you up and say "Hey, you're a funny guy. Come in and talk to Al Jean, and wear a suit."?
DP: My partner and I were actually working on one of a long string of failed sitcoms (and most sitcoms are failed sitcoms!) On the day a show is officially cancelled, it's kind of a tradition for the writing staff to go out to a restaurant, eat a nice meal, and drown their sorrows. On the way there, a writer named Jace Richdale (who had also worked on The Simpsons) told my partner and me that The Simpsons was looking for some writers. He wanted to know if we'd be interested in it, because he would recommend us. My jaw literally dropped. So he contacted the show-runner, a guy named Mike Scully, who read our spec script and met with us, then hired us on. It was a life-changing event. I was a huge fan of the show. My only worry was that if it turned out to be a bad experience, I'd never have the chance to enjoy the show without it being tainted for me. But, thankfully, it all worked out.
TVS: So was there a moment when you first sat down and realized "Whoa. I'm on THE SIMPSONS writing staff?!?!?!"
DP: Yes. It was surreal. And it was very intimidating. You go into the writers' room on the first day and you look around and go, "Please God, let me keep up with these guys."
TVS: What's your response to the long-faithful yet still-crotchety section of the fanbase who claim that The Simpsons has long since lost its luster? Isn't it normal for a 17-year old entity to have some natural peaks and valleys?
DP: I'd say ... obviously it's not easy to stay fresh after 17 seasons. But I think we still do some great episodes, and I'm really proud of the show. A lot of people like to turn on the thing they love, for some reason. It's been said before, but I think even the worst Simpsons episode is better than 95% of the shows out there now. And I know that if I wasn't on the writing staff, I'd still be tuning in every week.
TVS: But some of the knee-jerkier reactions from fans have to be hard to swallow sometimes...
DP: It's no fun to read negative posts about the stuff you're doing -- particularly when they're based on blatant misconceptions. But you have to be thick-skinned to do anything at all these days -- especially when you're working on something that's such a big pop-cultural phenomenon. And a lot of people just enjoy trashing stuff. The negative criticism is just the price you have to pay for being a working writer. It's a pretty good life, otherwise.
TVS: I know that the Simpsons writers give all credit to the group process, which I always thought was pretty classy...
DP: Well, it's more than classy, it's accurate.
TVS: Describe a normal sit-down within the Simpsons writer tank.
DP: A writer comes up with an idea for an episode and pitches it to the show-runner. (Sometimes an idea is assigned to a writer.) The writer will then sit down with a few other writers and break out the story over the next few days -- act breaks, story structure, jokes, etc. So even from the outset it's a collaboration. The writer will then take his notes and go off for a week to write a detailed outline -- usually around 20 pages or so. The writer will get notes on the outline from the show-runner and other executive producers, and then go off for two weeks to write a first draft. After that draft is done, it's handed over to the room -- it becomes everyone's property. Scripts can be rewritten 15 times before a show airs. They change drastically. So everyone has a hand in every show, regardless of whose name is on the script.
TVS: So here's a really tough question: How do you know who gets credit and where??
DP: The person who wrote the outline and the first draft always gets the credit.
TVS: OK, just one more Simpsons question, and I have to apologize. We planned to talk movies, but I'm such a Springfield Geek that I can't help but pick your brain...
DP: We're cool.
TVS: You're trapped on a deserted island with three Simpsons characters of your choice. Who are they?
DP: That's an interesting question. Obviously, Homer is hysterical, but I don't want to be stuck on an island with him because I'll inevitably wind up dead.
TVS: (Ha!) Just like poor Frank Grimes.
DP: Right. I'd say Lisa, Professor Frink, and, oh, let's say Princess Kashmir.
TVS: 'Nuff said! So you're living the life of a happy Simpsons writer and life is good. Where'd Super Ex come from?
For Part 2 of this interview with Don Payne, in which we discuss My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Fantastic Four 2, and geeky stuff in general, please visit us at Cinematical.