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Executive producer Al Jean talks about 20 years of The Simpsons

by Nick Zaino, posted Sep 25th 2009 11:05AM
Al Jean The SimpsonsAl Jean started out with The Simpsons 20 years ago as a writer working a couple of days a week. He was there when the series started, and even before it was officially a series, working on the Christmas show in 1989, when The Simpsons first broke away from its beginnings on The Tracey Ullman Show.

Now he's an executive producer and showrunner, staring down the twentieth anniversary of the official start of the series, which happens in January. I spoke with him this week about this Sunday's season premiere, a bit of Simpsons history, and just how long the Simpsons can keep making people laugh.

After 20 years of doing The Simpsons, how do you find something new to do with the show? How do you generate ideas you haven't done before?

Well, it's the best of both worlds. If something happens to you in your life or to the world, you can satirize it but you get to use these characters that people love and that you're very familiar with. To me, there's a lot of topics that are fresh and interesting.

If you look at The Daily Show, which is obviously on daily, I mean, they're still hilarious after ten years. And we're only on weekly, so we really have the liberty of picking and choosing the ideas that we turn into episodes. The world is a very interesting place and The Simpsons is a great way to view it.

Do you have a big board of things you've already done and somebody brings it up, and you point to it and say no?

They're in my head. Obviously, there are broad areas where you go, just because they lost their home once, you could still have them lose it in a different way. But what I really try not to do is tell any story in the same way or to repeat jokes. We've done it twice but I didn't realize. There was one where Homer and Marge were making out and watching fireworks, and Homer said, "Let's make some fireworks of our own," and then they start actually putting powder in the fireworks and making real ones. We did that twice. But in general, we've been very, very careful.

What's coming up for this season?

The 27th we have our premiere, starring Seth Rogen, and he co-wrote the script. And it's an episode where Comic Book Guy creates a character called Everyman who gets the power of any comic book he touches. And they try to make a Dark Knight-type of movie out of it because they're so desperate for any new characters. And Comic Book Guy has casting approval, so he says that Homer gets to be the lead.

The Simpsons Homer as EverymanAnd Homer gets a trainer who quits, so Homer's weight fluctuates wildly from scene to scene. You see him muscular and then you see him flying through the air fat with a sandwich, and it's a pretty terrible movie. And the issue is whether Comic Book Guy is going to give it a bad review, because that's what he does, or whether he's going to sell out to Hollywood.

And then we have our Halloween show this year, airing in October, and the first segment is a Hitchcock parody in black and white called "Dial M for Murder or Press Pound to Get the Operator." It's a "stranger on the train" thing where Bart asks Lisa to prank his teacher and then he murders her teacher and she's very upset. And we have a Sweeney Todd-type musical segment, the first musical Halloween segment we've done, where Moe opens a microbrewery and when Homer's blood mixes with the beer it makes everybody feel really romantic.

We have a show where Sarah Silverman guest stars as this girl that Bart falls in love with and half the time she really likes him and half the time she can't stand him and he can't understand her mood swings. And we have a show on Palm Sunday, Sacha [Baron] Cohen did voice where the Simpsons go to Israel and he's a really angry Israeli tour guide.

I know you've had this question before but it bears asking again, after 20 years, keeping basically the same cast together, I know it's now as demanding as a live action show, but there still has to be something more than convenience that keeps people together.

Actually, there's three things. One is that it's a very well-paying job. The second is that the characters are beloved, they're doing really great work. And the third thing is, as you say, it allows them to do other things, go to other jobs or to travel, so why wouldn't you do it?

Over 20 years also, regardless of whether the characters are beloved, it must have occurred to you to try to shake things up at some point.

No, no. Creatively, we love the characters. We have so many. There's that phrase, "jump the shark," which may itself have jumped the shark. The reason shows seem to have jumped the shark is because they introduce some new character that can't be undone, like the family has a baby. My goal with The Simpsons is, it's really never had that kind of seismic shift. It's the same basic universe, but it's always there.

Where did you start out with The Simpsons?

I was a writer two days a week, so my credit was consulting producer. That started with the first episode that aired, the Christmas show in 1989.

Did you have any idea then what this would turn out to be?

I thought it would be a good show because of the involvement of Matt [Groening] and Sam Simon. And then when it debuted, the first week I was wearing my Simpsons jacket and people kept saying they wanted to buy it, they were so impressed by the show. So I had an inkling. But I never dreamed it would run 20 years or we'd have a movie and a ride. It's a wonderful surprise.

Does it function the same way, do you think? It was considered crude and cutting edge at one point and now a lot of other shows have upped the ante for that.

We never believed that our mantra was crudity. We always were trying to do stories that Jim Brooks had done on Mary Tyler Moore and Taxi, that kind of story, but animation. The show always had, I believe, and emotional and moral core that it's never abandoned and if maybe society has gotten a little coarser in the intervening 20 years, it's not like we're trying to keep up with anything or do anything except reflect society in a funny, emotional way.

How long do feel the show will continue?

We have the cast signed for two further years, so it's very likely that they would consider it through that point. The numbers are still really good, especially considering iTunes, overseas airings, DVD sales. So after the casts' [contracts] expire it's an economic equation. Frasier, for example, shut down because it was so expensive relative to the numbers even though it was still a really good show. But I don't know. In our case, we may still have some time to go. I have no real idea.

Would it be a numbers thing that did it?

Usually in television. Normally, they'd say to get to 100 episodes, and obviously we've completely shattered that. But there's a phenomenon I understand that the new shows help the airings of the syndicated shows because it's still fresh. I don't know the equation. It's a complicated one. Clearly, it justifies doing the show this year and probably the next few. And our numbers have held up substantially. Obviously like anything on TV, we're down from where we were 15 years ago, but we hold very well year-on-year. We just reran on Sunday and we still had a 2.2 with a third airing of a show, which costs them nothing because they've already paid for the episode.

If it ever came to it, not that you'd give it away, but how could you end this?

I have one idea for an ending, but every time I've had an idea for a good ending, we've done it. So I don't want to say it. But it would've been good, the episode we did where Maggie spoke, it would have been good, the episode we did the Behind the Music parody. We did one called "Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind" that was sort of a look through Homer's mind that wouldn't been good. That would have been good, but it's done, so it's not going to be the last one.

Did you ever think any of those were going to be the last one?

No. It's just in hindsight I've said, oh, if we'd held that, that would've been great.

Then you've got to keep challenging yourself.

Yeah. It's a great problem to have that you continue to blow past endings.

[Watch clips and free episodes of The Simpsons at SlashControl]

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Awesome. Here's to 20 more years.

September 25 2009 at 5:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

wait, the Halloween show is going to air in October?

September 25 2009 at 11:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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