The Simpsons’ Al Jean and Matt Selman Talk Series Longevity, Brick Like Me!

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This week’s episode of The Simpsons (Fox, Sundays, 8/7C), Brick Like Me, is the show’s 550th – a number very few shows have reached (Gunsmoke, Lassie, the original Doctor Who being three). The show’s Executive Producers, Al Jean and Matt Selman, took a bit of time from the demands of the show to speak with a group of journalists/bloggers about the show’s remarkable longevity, this week’s Lego-inspired episode and the show’s upcoming twenty-fifth season – including Treehouse of Horror and Simpsorama.

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Matt Selman: Al, do you know how many bricks?

Al Jean: More than two.

Selman: It’s a lot; I mean, not as many as in the LEGO

Jean: [indiscernible] more than two bricks. Yes.

Selman: Not as many as in the LEGO Movie, but I think we used up our full budget of bricks.

Jean: And I’ll just say I think it was a beautiful product and it was I think about as labor intensive as any episode Simpsons has ever done.

Selman: Well, yes, because to do that much we were lucky enough to be able to do like if the episode is 21 minutes I would say about 17 of the minutes are in CGI LEGO animation, and so that’s more expensive so you really have to plan everything ahead of time and make sure you’re not going to change your mind. LEGO was really helpful to us in holding our hands through the animating process and teaching us how to use CGI brick animation and make the show look as beautiful as it did. We just had terrific support from them.

Jean: And I just learned there’s a LEGO Movie, so I hope it’s as good as this episode.

Selman: Well, the movie, it’s funny. I was nervous about the movie, like oh it’s going to be too similar or redundant, because some of the themes are similar and they both involve sort of traveling back and forth between real world and toy world. But watching both of them I feel that it’s a complementary story to the LEGO Movie and they kind of go hand-in-hand rather than being contradictory.

Jean: They interlock, as it were.

Selman: They interlock. Yes, they interlock. I think they interlock beautifully. Well, that’s the great thing with the LEGO system all the pieces fit together, like a DUPLO or a brick from 1962 fits together with a modern brick; it all fits together.

Was that helpful? Is that good enough? Got enough stuff?

No. Yes, definitely. Did you guys think that you would make it to the like 550 episodes?

Jean: I had always predicted we’d get to 549, so I’m just honored to have gotten this far. Honestly, everything is an amazement to me: the number of episodes, the broad base of the people that enjoy the show. It’s the greatest place in the world to work, and every day you go, “Wow.” You pinch yourself.

Selman: Yes, I mean wouldn’t you say that the world keeps delivering us terrific material to reflect back in Springfield [indiscernible].

Jean: Yes, and it’s a great template that Matt and Jim and Sam created. It’s just everybody has a family, so you can just reflect whatever goes on.

Selman: Right. The world changes but our family doesn’t change.

Jean: No, except they get iPhones.

Selman: They get iPhones, yes, and now it’s actually quite logical for any character to hold up an amusing video at any time, which as writers is very helpful. We don’t need an excuse to cut to an amusing parody or a funny thing, like no, everyone has a comedy delivery device in real life in their hands all the time.

Watched Sunday’s episode, and it’s really fun. I was wondering, obviously both LEGOS and The Simpsons have been around for many years, what about now made you guys think that this was a good time to do a crossover episode?

Jean: Well, I should just point out it was actually two years in the making, and, contrary to the joke I just made, the episode was in production long before any of us had seen the movie or knew anything that was in it.

Selman: Right. I mean it sort of speaks from the fact that we’ve all loved LEGO for our whole lives, too. I mean we’ve been working on the episode for at least two years, but—I’m not being articulate—you know we have a lifetime love affair with the LEGO toy system of LEGO bricks and we’ve done little LEGO jokes along the way, and we used to have a fake version of LEGO on the show called Blocko, but I think it just seemed like an amazing opportunity that LEGO would actually partner with us to make a sort of legitimate cooperative bringing together of funny little people with round yellow heads.

Jean: And I don’t think the show’s ever done as seamless a transition between CGI and hand drawn animation as this.

Selman: It’s also like our animators, led by like Tom Klein in “Film Roman” and the Director of “Mathnastics”, who’s so talented, had to learn all these new skills and work with a whole—instead of working in Korea for the execution of the animation they worked with a company in India, and it was a real learning curve for them and they really pulled it off beautifully on the technical and the creative side.

Jean: It’s so complex, just going from the two intermixed and back and forth. And yes, I totally agree with what Matt just said.

Selman: I mean if you also—have you seen the episode?

Yes.

Selman: You’ve seen it? Good.

Yes.

Selman: So if you watch it again, we put in so many funny little LEGO reference background jokes like at every opportunity we could find, from like the photos in the back to like stuff in the church to the love tester at Mo’s. We tried to do 100% LEGOification to really reward the viewer who will go back and see how obsessively we mushed these things together.

I mean would you two describe yourselves as LEGO aficionados or other writers on the show did you guys bring that background knowledge to it?

Selman: What do you think, Al?

Jean: I think Matt and Brian Kelley are probably the two biggest aficionados. I’ve always loved LEGOLAND, and—

Selman: LEGOLAND is a fantastic theme park.

Jean: Yes, I mean it’s just sort of the way almost anything can be built from LEGOS is always amazing, and I think that comes through in the episode.

Selman: And also Brian Kelley, the writer, and I both have young children now, who are obviously huge LEGO fans, and for us to rediscover LEGO through them I think was also kind of an impetus for the episode, going back to that earlier question. So sometimes playing with your kids if you’re a dad can be very boring, but actually building something with them is actually stimulating and fun, and so like to rediscover LEGO through them is probably what pushed us also to want to do an episode. Thematically, if you’ve seen it, you can see what we’re talking about.

Jean: You know what else, too, I should mention, when Matt first thought of this it was before there was a Simpson/LEGO tie in. People are probably looking at it going, “All this all fits and it’s a plan.” It’s like actually, no, it was just the love of LEGO and it wasn’t any cross promotional. It was just a creative idea.

Selman: Yes, so all the cross promotion was just gravy, delicious gravy.

Jean: Delicious gravy in a red brick.

Selman: Plastic gravy.

Having watched the episode I think the most interesting, the funniest aspect of it for me was how some of the classic Simpsons characters get transformed into LEGO form. I think Comic Book Guy looked a heck of a lot better; he looks like he’s been on a diet. Like Marge really looks like she’s put on a little weight. I’m wondering if, just in terms of this transition, was there anything visually about this project that surprised you when you actually saw how it was going to turn out, either in terms of characters or structures or background, anything visually that surprised you?

Jean: Before Matt answers, parenthetically I’m considering turning myself into LEGO.

Selman: And that’s funny, yes, it’s like the fat people in town got slimmer–we drew little bellies on; their bellies are just drawn on–and the thinner people got wider. But that was honestly like we got so much great guidance from the official LEGO people and how to make everything look legitimately like the real thing, like we really wanted it to look exactly right and they just gave us so much help with that.

What other surprises? We wanted to make sure we could put as many recognizable classic figures in the episode as well. Right. I mean I was saying to someone else like the two people I regret that aren’t in the show are Itchy and Scratchy; I wish we could have done a LEGO Itchy and Scratchy. That would have been really funny and fun. Maybe, I don’t know, Al, you think they’ll let us do another one? If we can think of a good—

Jean: Sure, let me just hold a bake sale.

Selman: Yes. Yes. Or a brick sale. Hold a brick sale.

Jean: Yes. No, I mean we are always trying to bend the parameters of what we can do with animation, and, as Matt said, the directors, like Matt Nastuk, and Supervisor, Mike Anderson, they’re always, every time you give them something where you go ‘it’s not just what we normally do,’ they love it and they’re great at it.

Selman: I mean I would also add that one of the things that we’ve been doing in the show that Al has really spearheaded has been in finding our beloved animators from around the globe and in America like who we’re now giving the opportunity to put their stamp on the show in these extended couch gags, and they’re just so beautiful.

Jean: Yes, we call it noble outsourcing.

Selman: I mean, Al, I don’t remember the name of the guy who just did the one that is on YouTube now, but it’s amazing.

Jean: Michal Socha, no E in Michal. It’s M-I-C-H-A—

Selman: And the French one? I don’t know any of the names.

Jean: Sylvain Chomet of Triplets of Belleville. (Parenthetical Editor’s Note: If you haven’t seen Triplets of Belleville, check it out. It’s brilliant!) Yes, and these guys are heroes. Like Chomet, I couldn’t believe he said yes. I just thought for him drawing animation there isn’t a better guy.

Selman: Yes. I mean I felt like did that take him like four years to make it there are so many drawings in it.

Jean: Yes, it’s amazing. It was a while. But, yes, it’s like Matt Groening, it’s like we’re creating our little museum of couch gags, and it’s a wonderful thing. I mean there’s more to come, by the way.

Not to get too ahead of us here, but my question is about this lingering death that we keep hearing about. I’m wondering if there’s anything you guys could say, either when it might be happening or how it might compare to previous deaths.

Jean: Whose death? I’d say it’s going to be a bigger deal than King Joffrey on Game of Thrones. What I would say, to reiterate what I had said—

Selman: The yellow wedding.

Jean: In a conference call [indiscernible] was the character that dies is portrayed by an actor who won an Emmy for playing that character. People who reported on it then reported they were killing “an iconic character.” But I would like to say it’s a great character, but I never used the word iconic. It’s a terrific character, and it’s the premiere this coming year.

Selman: I mean we have no plans in this direction also, but like you know in the past, dead people, we don’t bring them back to life, but with Halloween episodes, and we always have kind of a flexible reality, too, so you never know.

Jean: Well, what we told the performer was this does not mean the end of your participation in the The Simpsons. Yes, there’s ghosts, dreams. If anything, it’s easier to write for you.

Selman: We might forget we killed the person and then just accidentally put them back in–

Jean: Yes, I will say, too, you know at the conclusion of the game we were trying to be correct, so it has been figured out by some people.

Selman: But in the LEGO episode you can’t die. That’s one of the rules, right; you cannot die in the LEGO world.

Jean: Yes, and I should just add, too, just next year we’re going to air “Simpsorama”, the air dates are still being determined, and also the episode “The Man Who Came to Be Dinner” directed by David Silverman. So we have a lot of really great things upcoming. Those will air by February, I would say, at the latest, and intermixed with—we’re not just airing three episodes next year. It’s going to be more than that. Oh, and Matt has a great one about fracking, which is also airing in the fall.

Selman: Guess which side of the issue we’re on. No, really, guess. But, Al, I was talking to an 11-year old, and the 11-year old was like, “You should do an episode where Futurama and The Simpsons come together and the same characters are together.”

And I’m like, “Well, guess what, you know they are.”

And the kid’s mind was briefly blown, and then said, “You mean you’re going to do a whole series where every episode is that?”

I’m like, “No, just one.” Then the kid was angry.

Jean: That’s like when the movie came out and the question people had at the first week was when’s the next movie coming out, and I was like oh my, what do we have to do.

You guys actually… you mentioned a Halloween episode earlier, and I was kind of curious how did you decide that this was going to be a story that more or less took place within the context of Springfield as opposed to something like “Treehouse of Horrors”, which is outside the continuity?

Jean: Oh, it’s not a Halloween episode. The Halloween show is separate and so—

Right. Right. But I’m saying how did you decide that this LEGO episode was going to be in the context of that world?

Jean: Well, the LEGO one I think clearly, if you’ve seen it, it’s very clear how it fits in.

Selman: Have you seen it?

Yes. Yes. Yes, I’ve seen the episode.

Selman: So I think it was we needed to think of a way where we could maximize seeing as much fun LEGO Springfield as possible without it being something that, again, like you were saying, happened in a realm outside of the canon. Obviously we can play with reality, but I think, once you’ve seen the episode, people will feel like oh this is still an episode that took place in the real world, in as much as anything in Springfield is real.

Jean: I’d say, I don’t know about you, but I have dreams that occur in fully rendered CGI animation that costs $3 million.

My question is did you ever consider a character other than Homer to be the POV character for the LEGO episode?

Selman: That’s a good question. I think no; I think it was pretty much always Homer from the beginning. I mean we really locked in early, like I remember me and Brian pitching the story to Al and Jim Brooks and we said, “It can’t just be, there has to be like,” and like this is coming from them, like the direction that they’re always giving us, and it’s like, “there has to be strong, relatable, real family emotion at the heart of it, or it’s just going to be a bunch of craziness.” Right. And the area of like parents and how they interact with their children and children aging and playing with children is so part of our daily lives we really thought we’re like we’re the Homers of our own life now with our kids. We’re 42, you know, so it’s like we really kind of wrote it from the perspective of the dad watching his kids grow up.

Jean: Yes. I’d say between Matt and I we have four daughters, so I think we all relate to that dynamic.

Selman: And like, yes, and then sometimes they think you’re cool and then sometimes they don’t.

Jean: It’s called getting older.

That’s awesome—

Selman: Because I know we’re not getting less cool, so it must be the daughters who are changing; that’s the only explanation.

I also wanted to ask you guys how do you feel about the upcoming FX marathon that FXX is planning for The Simpsons?

Jean: Well, we had a glimpse at the website that they’re doing that you can go on, I believe it’s called Simpsons World, and it’s unbelievable. I think it’s going to answer everybody’s wishes about being able—you know it won’t all be up immediately—but when it’s all up and running to be able to reference anything The Simpsons has ever done ever with a click and finally in one place you know if you want to see the newspaper headline “Old Man Yells at Cloud” with Grandpa in it you can just click right on it. You know I was thrilled.

Selman: And I think we can finally announce that if you watch the marathon, every episode in the whole marathon, only at one time the secret clues will reveal the real location of Springfield. You should watch every episode in that marathon.

Jean: [indiscernible] the doctors forced us to stop.

Selman: Oh, my God, that was so funny.

Jean: Halfway through people were really—it was not good after a point to keep them watching.

Selman: Yes that was a scary act of courage on their part.

Okay, my question is compare and contrasting was there any major differences in making this episode and the other episodes before?

Selman: You mean the LEGO one?

Yes.

Selman: Well, the main thing was just plan, plan, plan. It’s really like we plan a lot on our regular episodes and work really hard, but this was just like there was no room for error. Just work so hard on the story, make sure Al loves it, make sure Jim loves it, make sure we love it, make sure everything makes sense, make sure it’s good for kids, because obviously a lot of young kids are going to watch this episode; it was like a military battle in terms of just a two-year campaign where the reward was hopefully excellence. I mean, Al, what would you say, is there anything else?

Jean: Yes. I’d say excellent and I’d say honestly I believe that it is true to The Simpsons, it really is. It’s a new format, and it was true to everything we always aspire to do with the show.

Can you tell me more information about the person who’s going to die next year since everybody who has been on the show has won an Emmy that is a lead voice?

Jean: Well, here’s the problem; if I give away too many clues then that’s it. But here’s a clue: performer won an Emmy, has appeared more than once, and at the time the news came out the performer didn’t know that we were killing that character, and it is the premiere this fall. And I cannot give out any more clues without making it too easy.

Okay.

Jean: And like Matt said, yes, I have no doubt that the character will reappear you know in Homer’s memory or whoever’s.

And what else can you tell us about the upcoming season?

Jean: Well, we [indiscernible] the “Treehouse” yet, which has I think like the most ambitious Stanley Kubrick parody we’ve ever done. The basis of it is a Clockwork Orange, and Matt actually had a suggestion that we see Mo as an old droog who’s retired and misses the life, and then we fit in everything, even Eyes Wide Shut, which I think is ripe for parody. We have a satire of The Others, where there’s a family that’s very familiar that’s haunting the Simpson house. And we have a thing where Bart goes into hell to school, and it’s actually like a great private school where he thrives, and that’s coming up. We have a script—

Selman: If there’s one thing TV writers can pitch on it’s jokes about private school.

Jean: We have a show that was originally pitched by Judd Apatow 25 years ago that we just recorded that will air, and the premise is that Homer he’s so stressed at work he goes to a hypnotist and believes he’s 10-years old, and suddenly he’s Bart’s best friend, and it actually is a very sweet story and we’re really thrilled to have that. And we have one show where there is a new teacher for Bart. I’m not saying this teacher will last, but it’s quite the opposite of Mrs. Krabappel.

Wow, I’m looking forward to it. Very cool. Thank you guys so much, and thank you for the 550 episodes.

Selman: Wow, 550. I think we’re going to get 600.

Jean: Lassie is 588, so we’re gunning for them.

Selman: Oh, really. Yes, I’m taking that dog down, that dead dog down. That dead dog is never going to know what hit it. Excuse me, that pile of dead dogs who all played Lassie are never going to know what hit them.

Jean: Don’t Donald Sterling yourself.

Selman: That’s all I ever think in life, and I still screw it up.

Jean: I’d just say the LEGO episode is one of the very best we’ve ever done, and that’s not hype, it’s just the truth, and I think people will be very pleased when they see it. And there’s a lot of exciting things to come.

Selman: Yes, I mean every time the writers get together to pitch stories we never run out. People always bring in these funny, great ideas, and it’s never like I never have that feeling of the well has run dry.

Jean: And after the call, “Oh, God.”

Selman: Thank you, everybody.

Photos by Gage Skidmore/Art courtesy of Fox