The Simpsons (Fox, Sundays 8/7C) is the most successful animated half hour in TV history. It’s done that by never falling into a routine; by always taking chances and finding new things to explore, whether within the show, or by finding things from outside to reinvigorate it (there’s a reason that when The Simpsons parodies something, the show is at its best).
Shortly before the show’s 25th season premiere – with a Homeland parody called, reasonably enough, Homerland – showrunner Al Jean spoke with a group of bloggers/journalists about the show’s success and never taking it easy.
Hi. How are you?
Al Jean: Great.
Congratulations on 25 seasons.
Al: It’s an astounding number to all of us.
Do you guys have any concerns about running out of material?
Al: No, actually. I think that the upcoming season’s one of our best ever. There are a lot of things happening that reinvigorate us. It’s the best job to have, that’s why we all want to keep it going.
Can you talk a little bit about your experience as executive producer versus showrunner?
Al: Usually a showrunner is an executive producer, but there are more executive producers than that. Showrunner – it’s funny, the term wasn’t in existence, really, when the show started, but has come into vogue and it just means, basically, whatever happens that goes wrong is your fault. You’re in charge of making sure the show goes from idea to execution and appears on the air and works.
It’s just a constant low level stress because you’re always thinking how can I make The Simpsons better, and I’ve been thinking that way – I’ve been on the show 15 years total, now.
Just curious, in all of your experience, what have you not been able to do that you wish you could have done? And what do you hope to do that pushes beyond what you have done in the past?
Al: Well, I’ll tell you one thing that we didn’t do that we wished we’d thought of which was Pixar would parody outtakes at the end of their movies, we thought oh, there’s a brilliant comedy animated gag that we didn’t do. I guess we’ve always said we couldn’t ever get a president on the show, so we finally used the voice of Teddy Roosevelt, and that sort of filled that gap.
It’s a pretty small list of things we’ve wanted to do where we’ve been told no. It’s a pretty long list of amazing things that we couldn’t believe we got to do. Now you can go to a Simpsons live action land in Universal Florida. It’s crazy, just the number – there’s a play on Broadway, that we didn’t write but that’s inspired by an old episode. It’s really nuts what’s come about because of this show.
Any hints about what you might try to do this season that you haven’t done before?
Al: There’s a few things. There are some extremely ambitious episodes that appear towards the end of the year that are unlike anything that we’ve done before. One of them, I can say, there’s a Futurama/Simpsons crossover, which we just read with the cast of Futurama. It went great. We look for that to be the finale next year, in May.
Coming up October 6th, the beginning of the Treehouse, for the first time, we turned over the beginning to a guest director Guillermo Del Toro, which was amazing, what he did.
I was just wondering – I have a couple of questions. One is the season premiere being this sort of send-up of Homeland. Why did you want to use the Homeland thing for the season premiere?
Al: It was actually an idea pitched by one of our writers, Stephanie Gillis. The fact that Homer worked at a nuclear plant lent itself to him being somebody that could be turned by nefarious forces to try to do something terrible. And the fact that you just add an R to Homeland and you get Homerland really made it good.
I think it’s a great episode. You know, there is just such a distinctive – I think the show Homeland is great, and I think the Claire Danes character is just so fascinating, we thought it would be great to satirize her in the show.
Also, I feel like the last big, main character death was Maude Flanders. Do you guys ever think of possibly killing off any of the other characters at all? Or will there be any more death in the coming seasons?
Al: We’re actually working on a script where a character will pass away. I’ll give a clue that the actor playing the character won an Emmy for playing that character, but I won’t say who it is.
Did you know you were going to be going against Homeland when you created the series premiere?
Al: No, it was a complete accident. I didn’t realize Homeland was premiering – we’re actually not against them. You can watch both shows on the same night because we’re at 8:00 and they’re at 9:00 or 10:00, I forget. But that was great that it just timed out that way.
We’re very friendly. The producers at Homeland have offices that are literally 100 feet away. They were really helpful with DVDs. Our composer, Alf Clausen, talked to their composer, Sean Callery, about how they do the show. If you want to pull that FOX-Showtime Channel switch, it’s fine with me.
How did you keep the show so fresh after 25 years? I had two really big laughs in the season premiere and completely blown away by the opening to Treehouse of Horror.
Al: Oh, that’s great. Well, to the opening, I’d say our secret is we farmed it out to Guillermo del Toro, who is, I would say – and I’ve met some people who like scary things – he is the greatest expert on horror movies, etc., that I have ever encountered. There are so many references in that opening that he put in. It’s really brilliant.
Then, in the general sense, we’re about a family, and families always have problems. I think that keeps us fresh. Unfortunately, as times get worse, there’s more to satirize.
We just work really hard. I’m always doing the show, always thinking about the show, always open to a way to make it better.
You guys have certainly done many spoofs over the years. Obviously, one of the most recent standouts is the Breaking Bad, Crystal Blue Persuasion bit. I’m just curious how you think the Homeland one is going to stack up?
Al: Oh, I think it’s really good. What we’ve found is it’s easier for us to satirize a drama just because comedies are already funny, then you move from satire to are we just ripping them off? So we really try to stay away from that.
Homeland, when you have just a basic, great, dramatic premise, which was is this person a traitor or a hero, that’s something that I think you can turn into comedy really easily. Particularly the scenes where his daughter was discovering what he was doing what he was doing we thought would work really well with Lisa and Homer.
I was just interested in the celebrity voices that you get on the show. Just wondering how you choose them and whether you have a favorite over the years?
Al: I couldn’t possibly say. Of my favorites, Phil Hartman was brilliant. Kelsey Grammar and John Lovitz have been on many times and were fabulous every time.
In terms of getting them – the premiere, Kristin Wigg is just hilarious. I loved her on SNL and Bridesmaids. You’re amazed when you approach someone that’s that funny and they go, The Simpsons? I’d love to do it. You get that 99% of the time.
We have Zach Galifianakis coming up this season. Elizabeth Moss. It’s amazing the very top of the list people that you get because you’re with The Simpsons.
Have you had time, have you been able to see Dads? I know Mike Scully is EP over there, now. If so, what do you think about it? In terms of the controversy, specifically, is that stuff that would fly on an animated series without even blinking an eye? It’s just that it’s a live action series? I’ll go ahead and let you comment.
Al: Well, I haven’t seen it. I was at the table read of the pilot, which was a really funny read. The main takeaway I had from that was I knew Martin Mull was funny, I didn’t realize how funny Peter Riegert was. I’ve always been a fan of his.
In terms of what you can do in an animated show versus a live action show, there are differences, I know. Finally, yes, Mike is a good friend of mine, so I wish him the best.
If I can follow up to a comment you made earlier, have you tried approaching any of the living ex-presidents and asking them if they’d be willing to play themselves? Or, for that reason, even playing a totally different role, similar to what Michael Jackson in one of the early episodes, just as an inside gag?
Al: Asking a president if he’d be willing to play a mental patient? I’ll tell you, this is the exact list. We approached Nixon; no. This was back when we were at the beginning of the show. Gerald Ford? No. Jimmy Carter; we actually did a joke about him being reviled as history’s greatest monster, which he saw before we sent him the script, so he said no.
Reagan said no, but wrote us a nice letter. The first Bush said no. Clinton we approached really hard and he said – supposedly, I didn’t talk to him directly – it would demean the presidency. So we gave up.
Can you tell us what else will be coming up this season? I know we have death, I know we have some interesting stuff, but what else can you tell us to expect?
Al: Well, we have a show – the Elizabeth Moss show I mentioned, Homer is stuck on an elevator with a pregnant woman and he delivers her baby because she’s giving birth right then. She’s grateful and she doesn’t have a husband, so she names the baby Homer Jr., and Homer actually bonds with this baby better than his own children and Marge gets really mad.
We have a show coming up where Comic Book Guy gets married. The wedding is performed by Stan Lee, and we have Stan Lee playing himself, and Harlan Ellison playing himself in that episode. What was funny was that they both wanted to be funnier than the other. They were both great; it was really exciting for me, as a nerd.
We have a show where Mr. Burns gives everyone, basically, Google Glass as a Christmas gift because then he can spy on them. Homer gives his to Marge and finds that Homer can see what Marge is doing all day and discovers a shocking secret. That’s our Valentine’s episode.
Fun. Who has surprised you most that’s reached out and said I want to be on the show. I mean, look how many legends you’ve had on the show.
Al: It astounded me when we got every Beatle that we possibly could. It really astounded me that we had Tony Blair on the show, and Stephen Hawking. I think that, probably, the most surprising thing was Thomas Pynchon. That really happened and it’s hard to believe.
My question is, so, 25 seasons, very impressive. Really loved the movie; wondering if you’re going to get a chance at another movie or if it’s something that you guys are talking about?
Al: The really honest answer is we talk about it from time to time, we say we’d like to do one. But I will say there is a unanimous view, nobody wants to do a bad movie or a movie that looks like it’s for the money or anything that doesn’t have the attention that the first movie got lavished on it.
If we come out with one, it won’t be for a while. It will only be because Jim, me, everybody working on it would say this is a great movie, we want to do this.
I just had a question about the actual episode that will mark the 25th Anniversary. Can you tell us any more about that episode and what you’re hoping to do for it, if there’s going to be any special references from people from past seasons at all?
Al: There’s a special 550th episode I can’t talk about, yet. There’s no specific 25th Anniversary episode. I would say, to me, the marker is the season finale, which is that Simpsons/Futurama crossover I mentioned.
I would say, not exaggerating, I’ve been here 25 years, we had a read yesterday where the excitement was high as I’ve ever seen. We had John DiMaggio and Billy West and Maurice LaMarche from Futurama, as well as our cast, and I thought this has got to be the greatest voiceover talent assembled at one read I could ever think of. It was really, really great to see Bender interacting with Homer. I can’t wait for that episode. May 2014.
When this show started out on Tracy Ullman, did you think, 25 years later, you would still be on the air?
Al: You know, before The Simpsons, the longest a show had lasted that I’d been on was 13 weeks, 14 weeks. So no, everybody would have thought you were insane.
Although, I will say, what’s interesting is some of the longest lasting shows ever are now animated shows. Not just us, but South Park, Family Guy – you know, Futurama, which I don’t know if that’s going off the air for sure, but that’s been on and off for 14 years. Animation, I think, is just the most evergreen thing there is and I’m glad I do it.
And so are we. Thank you again, for everything.
Al: Thank you.
Art courtesy Fox Television