Al Jean - Still Excited for The Simpsons, 20 Years Later

Here’s s startling fact – Sunday night Fox will usher in the 20th season premiere of Matt Groening’s unsinkable animated hit, The Simpsons. That means that this spin-off of a Tracy Ullman Show skit has been on the air for 19 years and has amassed a whopping 420 episodes under its shorts…it’s mind-boggling, perhaps even "unpossible!"

Yet it’s true, and the cast and creative team together has 24 Emmy awards, a Peabody, and a Golden Globe nomination (for The Simpsons Movie) to prove it. It’s now the longest running animated series in the history of U.S. television and watch out Gunsmoke and Lassie, the cast is signed up for three more years.

Executive producer Al Jean has been with the show from the start and is embarking on his eighth season as showrunner. Wednesday he chatted with Newsarama and some other media outlets about what fans can expect this season, highlights of the show’s entire run and if there are plans for The Simpsons Movie Part Deux.

Newsarama: Al, it’s been two decades since The Simpsons debuted. In the past two decades how have you seen the animation industry change?

Al Jean: I love animation. I think it has been a golden age in both film and TV. The biggest technological change has been the influence of computers. When we started, it was hand-drawn animation in films only, and now with hand-drawn animation, we were one of the last movies ever.

The other thing that has happened is television – even though there were shows in primetime in the past, like the Flintstones - I don’t really think they were aimed at adults. I think they were aimed mostly at children. I’m not saying we tried to have risqué content, per se, although that is partly the case, but we have aimed our show at the adult audience and done things that we think are smarter. The kids won’t necessarily get it, but they’ll watch because of the forum.

NRAMA: As far as all the celebrities you’ve had on the show, is there anybody you just have never been able to get for whatever reason, either in the past or currently?

Jean: Yes, it’s one group - U.S. Presidents. We’ve tried to get them going back to – I think Richard Nixon was actually the first when he was still alive. They’ve all said no. Ronald Reagan, or his assistant, wrote us a very polite no, but that was the closest we got.

NRAMA: The Simpsons has broken TV records for longevity but Law and Order is close in that race. Do you plan to stay on top of them?

Jean: You know, I hate to admit it; we actually do count episodes. I think we’re about 12 ahead of them. They started a little later and they do slightly fewer per year. In number of episodes, we’re ahead of them, but we’re still behind Lassie and Gunsmoke. Gunsmoke did 600, they used to do 40 a year, so that’s a tough one. We are up to 445 in terms of the record [by the end of season 20].

NRAMA: You’ve been doing the show for a very long time. How do you stay interested? Is it just a job now?

Jean: No, it’s never just a job and it’s a great job. What keeps me interested is when you see something that is a good idea, you’re able to take it to the writing staff and translate it into something that is funny and a pleasure to watch. It’s the greatest way to vent what you feel about life, it’s just a wonderful place to be, and I’m really happy to be there.

NRAMA: It’s been announced that Anne Hathaway, Jodie Foster, and Seth Rogen are already down for voices this season. What are their characters?

Jean: That’s true and this week, we also recorded Ellen Page (Juno, X3). With Jodie Foster – sometimes we do these trilogy episodes, and this one has powerful women through history. We do a parody of The Fountainhead, the Ayn Rand book, where Maggie Simpson is in a preschool where she’s trying to build these beautiful block buildings and the preschool teacher keeps knocking them down because it’s too creative. At the end, she goes on trial, like the end of The Fountainhead, and Jodie Foster does Maggie’s voice.

And then Anne Hathaway, we do a show where Bart meets a girl who is really sweet and thinks he’s really a nice kid and not a brat, so he tries to hide his true identity from her and then she finds out what he’s really like and they break up. She was very funny; she’s really hilarious to work with.

Seth Rogen actually co-wrote with Evan Goldberg the episode. The episode that he’s in, Comic Book Guy creates a superhero called Everyman, and his power is that any comic book that he touches, he gets the powers of the hero of that comic. They make a movie starring Homer but Homer is overweight and doesn’t look like a superhero, so Seth Rogen plays a personal trainer who is going to get him in shape.

NRAMA: People look forward to the annual “Treehouse of Terror” every year. But after 19 years of doing all of the horror tropes, do you have a tough time coming up with that big episode every year? And what can we expect this year?

Jean: No, in fact this year is a really fun one, it airs November 2nd. The opening we do a little thing about the election where Homer tries to vote for Obama, but the machine keeps changing it to McCain and then he finally kills him [laughs]. We also do a satire of the fact that they can take dead celebrities, put them in commercials, and do whatever they want, so Homer starts killing living celebrities so they can use them in commercials. Again, we have a parody for the first time of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, where our character, The Grand Pumpkin, totally different legally, comes to life and he’s so mad at the way humans treat pumpkins that he tries to kill them all.

NRAMA: With another Emmy this year, do you guys ever think that there should be an end date for the show or will you keep doing it as long as there is still this kind of popularity for it?

Jean: I’ll tell you, we signed the cast for four years, including this one, just recently and the Emmy was wonderful. I really feel, creatively, we’re still doing terrific work and I don’t see an end for a while. The movie and the ride [that opened at Universal Studios in May] were both huge successes, so I think people still really want The Simpsons in their lives.

NRAMA: It has been awhile since the last complete season DVD. What are the plans for more Simpsons DVDs?

Jean: There is one coming out by the end of the year, I believe November, for season 11. Two reasons they slowed down, we were working on some of the other things, so our time was taken up, and also, we had a movie DVD come out and we had the ride at Universal, so we didn’t want to overdo how many things had The Simpsons name on them. We really do think it’s important to keep the quality up and not saturate the market.

NRAMA: Everyone loves Spider-Pig [from The Simpsons Movie] and you’ve done a couple cameos with him. Could we ever see Spider Pig again, or maybe a whole episode devoted to Spider-Pig?

Jean: We might. The biggest thing with the movie was we wanted to make it stand-alone. We really hoped that if people had never seen the show, they could enjoy the movie and we also didn’t want it to be one of those things where the movie required you to watch the show. We wanted the movie to come to a complete end, but everyone liked Plopper [a.k.a. Spider Pig], so we’ll try to bring him back. We’ve had cameos and if we have an episode; we’ll do it.

NRAMA: Given the success of The Simpsons Movie domestically and internationally, are you considering doing a follow up to, or a second Simpsons movie?

Jean: We definitely would love to do it if we had a script we believed in as much as the first one, but that script took four years to do and that was after it took a while to make a deal with the cast. My preference would be, because it was so much work to do both the show and the movie simultaneously, to wait until whatever that day is when the show is done, and to do another movie. I think it will probably happen, but we’re just not working on it now. And to me, nothing is more important than making the show as good as it can be.

THE SIMPSONS season premieres this Sunday, September 28 (8:00PM – 8:30PM ET/PT) on FOX.

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