No one knew it at the time, but television history was going to be made on December, 1989. That was the month when a little watched interstitial series Fox’s “The Tracy Ullman Show” was going to put on a full half-hour holiday special entitled “Simpsons Roasting on a Christmas Fire.”
One of the writers working on the special was a hardworking craftsman Al Jean. Two years later he and longtime professional partner Mike Reiss would be named producers of what was now “The Simpsons” animated TV series, which thanks to a licensing deal with the Butterfingers candy bar was rapidly becoming the flagship of the Fox TV empire.
On Sunday, September 27 at 8:00 p.m. eastern, with the airing of this year’s season debut, dubbed “Homer the Whopper,” Springfield, USA’s first family becomes the <a href=http://www.newsarama.com/tv/090926-simpson-gunsmoke.html>longest running scripted primetime series</a> to ever air on American television. Jean seems to be as impressed with the accomplishment as anyone else.
Then again, Jean’s own television history is pretty impressive itself. A Harvard graduate, he actually roomed with Reiss during his college days, and both of them worked on the seminal school magazine The Harvard Lampoon. From there he parlayed his college experience to a job on “ALF” and “The Gary Shandling Show.” As he explains in this interview, another Shandling veteran, Sam Simon, needed extra writers for “The Simpsons,” and Jean and Reiss took the job even though the pay circumstances were no where near the same as the live-action comedy.
Yes, Jean and Reiss would often take time off from Matt Groening’s auspicious series over the years, but like “The Godfather’s” Michael Corleone, they keep dragging him back. Yes, he still reports to Groening and the master’s partners, TV legend James “Jim” Brooks and Simon. Yet from the sounds of the interview, he certainly doesn’t seem to mind.
No matter what, “Homer the Whopper” should be of particular interest to Newsarama fans. The episode centers about one of the show’s favorite themes, comic books, especially Hollywood’s obsession with turning the funny pages into half-baked cinematic foibles and follies. Find out for yourself when “The Simpsons” leads off the latest Animation Domination block this Sunday.
Jean talks to Newsarama about 21 seasons of "The Simpsons"...Newsarama:How amazing does it feel to see the Simpsons celebrating its 20th Anniversary?
Al Jean: It’s unbelievable. When I started on the show in 1989, I thought it would be a good show because it was Matt, Sam Simon and Jim Brooks. I never would have dreamed if it would have lasted this long, nor have a feature film, a ride or all those other things it has. The guest stars who have been on it have been unbelievable.
Nrama: How did you start…as an animator?
Jean: No, I was writer. I was on the ‘Gary Shandling Show’ as a writer. Sam Simon worked there before I did with Mike Reiss, my writing partner. Sam was looking to staff ‘The Simpsons.’ It was two days a week. It was animated, so it wasn’t Writers Guild at the time. Most of the people we knew weren’t interested in it.
Yet I thought, this was a chance to work for Jim Brooks, if nothing else. I also liked Matt’s work on Life In Hell.
Nrama: How is Mike Reiss these days? This is the first time it’s just you, solo.
Jean: I see Mike once a week. He comes to work here. He’s doing well. He’s doing children’s books. He was one of the writers on ‘Ice Age 3,’ which is a huge international hit. He lives in New York now. He and his wife live in Times Square. They really like it.
Nrama: What do you think it is that has let the Simpsons last 20 years?
Jean: I think it’s three things.
The fact they don’t age is paramount. If they did Bart would be 30, living in his parents’ house, living in his boxers. That would be horrific. Homer twenty years on would be dead.
Number two, the structure that Matt, Jim and Sam created is incredibly rich. It has this whole world of character. It gives us over 50 different combinations to work off of. We are always combining one against the other for storylines.
We also work really hard. We’ve always treated it like this could be the last year. We never take it for granted.
Nrama: Now isn’t it true that Sam, who used to run the writing room…
Jean: He did. He ran it seasons one and two. The Mike and I ran it for seasons three and four. I’ve been running it now since season 12.
Nrama: But haven’t you always had a philosophy of keeping the writers rotating? It kept new blood flowing.
Jean: Well, it was never a philosophy. There were two dynamics at work. In the 1990’s, there were a lot of comedies on the air. People who were on ‘The Simpsons’ got all these offers to work elsewhere. So they would leave, often to head their own projects. So we’d replace them.
This decade, unfortunately, comedy has not been doing so well. If people are doing a good job, then I keep them. So it doesn’t rotate as much. Still, I’m encouraged by this year’s ratings. Comedy might be back on the upswing. ‘American Family’ has started off really well.
I actually started comedy writing back in 1983, when I worked on ‘ALF.’ At that time they said comedy was finished and here comes Bill Cosby. So I never think comedy is finished. People will always want to laugh. It’s just a matter of connecting in the right way.
Nrama: Now I don’t think we would have an Animation Domination, ‘South Park’ or even an Adult Swim if the Simpsons hadn’t taken off. Would you agree?
Jean: I would agree, personally. Now ‘South Park’ is its own thing. It probably would have existed anyway, but it would have been more difficult for them to get a network deal. Certainly, I don’t think ‘King of the Hill’ would have existed, if we hadn’t come along, even though it was a really good show.
I think that clearly there was a wave that we started. In fact, there have been several crests of it. First there was a series of shows that no one remembers like ‘Capital Critters,’ ‘Family Dog,’ ‘Fish Police’ and ‘King of the Hill’ and ‘The Critic’ were the last of them.
Then ‘King of the Hill’ inspired a wave that led to ‘Family Guy’ and ‘Futurama.’ Now ‘Family Guy’s’ success has inspired this wave that we have now with ‘American Dad’ and ‘Cleveland.’ It’s been four generations, the children and grandchildren, since ‘The Simpsons.’
I will say that Animation is such a great medium. Sooner or later, it would have flourished without us. History is just being at the right place at the right time.
Nrama: It didn’t hurt that ‘The Simpsons’ was smart and looked good, too.
Jean: The key thing that Jim’s influence brought in, it was written so that adults could connect to it emotionally. That was something that was not being done too much in prime time, at least not in this country.
I know ‘The Flintstones’ broke a lot of ground. They created the process, but it was still primarily a kid's show.
Nrama: Yet I remember as a kid, and yes I’m that old, there used to be a lot of animation on network TV at 7:00 p.m. My family and I used to watch the likes of ‘Huckleberry Hound’ and ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle’ then. ‘The Flintstones’ were originally on at that time too.
Jean: ‘Rocky & Bullwinkle’ came the closest. I thought that show was brilliant. It’s not just one of the best animated, but one of the best shows, ever. Even that was sort of ghetto-ized by the networks to 7:00 p.m., the family hour. They never would have shown it in repeats later that night, although that one might have stood up.
What Hanna-Barbera did is at that time people were saying that you couldn’t do animation at prime time, and they did it. That, I think, is their biggest contribution we all owe to them.
Nrama: Moving on to the new season, the opener was amazing.
Jean: We really had a lot of fun doing it. Having now worked on the movie, we really worked out our frustrations.
Nrama: The overall comic book theme was perfect.
Jean: Yes. I would say for me the most influential writer I had growing up was Stan Lee. I just loved Marvel. That was the first time comic book were aiming for college students, and I just loved them.
Nrama: Obviously, comic book movies are big business these days.
Jean: We did think, because we did the Radioactive Man episode, that we didn’t want to repeat ourselves. The theme that resonated with me is how comics have taken over movies. Everything is now a comic book movie. That scene where the studio execs are trying to think up an idea that hasn’t been done really is what they are doing these days.
Seth Rogen was the one who came in and pitched the idea of the character who gets his powers from comic books he touches. Once we had that, it really lended itself to cinematic treatment and be easy to satirize.
Nrama: Comic books have never been far from your hearts. One of the first things Matt did after his success was start a comic book company, Bongo.
Jean: Yeah! All our Halloween shows have spooky names. That’s us trying to do what Marvel did.
Nrama: You also had Alan Moore, Art Spielgleman…
Jean: We also had Stan Lee on.
Nrama: You don’t deny your roots.
Jean: Yep. My hope is that some day they actually do green light an Everyman movie at Fox. They do own the rights.More on Newsarama: