‘The Simpsons’ Showrunner Al Jean Talks the Show, Its Legacy, and the Upcoming 12-Day Marathon on FXX

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Hi, I’m Sean Mulvihill. You may remember from such interviews as Frank Stallone: The Talented One and Friedberg & Seltzer: The Funniest Filmmakers in Hollywood. Well, today I’m here to share a recent conference call interview with Al Jean, writer, producer, and showrunner on The Simpsons. For the past 25 years, The Simpsons has put a mirror up to American life, mocking universal truths of our way of life. Having previously been the showrunner during the third and fourth seasons – some of the best seasons in the show’s history – Jean left the show to work on his own creation, The Critic. Years later, Jean would return to The Simpsons and has been the showrunner since the show’s thirteenth season. Good news for die-hard fans of The Simpsons and meth aficionados, this Thursday, August 21st at 10 am EST, FXX will start a 12-day marathon of every Simpsons episode and the movie in order. As if that weren’t enough to embiggen your excitement, early next year there will be the release of the Simpsons World app, allowing users to access any episode of the show’s 25-year run and vote on favorites.

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Q: Congratulations on 25 years. I hope there are 25 more. But I wanted to ask you—I know that the movie is going to be fit in around 400, and—

Al Jean: Where it originally premiered.

Q: When it originally appears, it will be fit in with the rest of the TV shows, but I was going to ask you, and I’m sure you get this question a lot, are there any preparations for a sequel?

AJ: No, we happen to be—it’s just sort of swamped right now between this, all good things, this marathon, doing three shows at the Hollywood Bowl in September and just doing the new season of the show.  So, to be quite honest, there are no—there is no movie in the works at the moment, but we would definitely be interested in doing one if we could come up with something we really believed in and not just—we wouldn’t just do a sequel for the sake of doing a sequel if there’s no need.

Q: How does it feel to you personally having been involved with this for so many years to see this as a 12-day marathon?  How do you feel about that?

AJ: Everything that happens with the show at this point is sort of beyond my comprehension.  Driving along, I see the marathon advertisements on the sides of buses, the fact that it’s longer than a week of all the same show has been fantastic to me, and the interest that there seems to be well it’s not just in the marathon but in the little details of the show and the upcoming app is fantastic.

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Q: I have two questions.  One—can you talk a little bit about at TCA (Television Critics Association) you were talking about the database of their new website and there would be a ranking of episodes based on fan favorites. How that ranking is determined? And also, as far as The Simpsons, the regular Simpsons show, do you have any plans to do a Robin Williams tribute this year?

AJ: What was the second question?

Q: Do you have plans to do a Robin Williams tribute on the Simpsons this year?

AJ: We don’t, and I’ll tell you why. He, by all accounts from everyone I know who worked with him, is a wonderful guy and what a horrible thing to hear. He never did the show, and I think I wouldn’t want to look like we were just going oh, let’s sort of do something and that we were capitalizing on this tragic thing. I think it’s really sad, and I give him the recognition he totally deserves, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for us as a show to comment, and although personally, again, everybody I knew that knew him really loved him. And then, the first question, I forget now. What was it?

Q: It was about Simpsons World and can you tell me a little bit about how their ranking will determine where people can see were a fan favorite, where everyone’s favorite episodes fell?

AJ: Right. It’s to be determined. It’s up to the fans. We went and listened to what it seemed that people wanted out of the show, and when the app is fully up and running, which probably won’t be until early next year, you can get clips, you can send clips to your friends, you can do an assortment of clips almost like re-edit like people did with the [indiscernible] stuff, and the voting will be up the users too. It will be whatever everybody who logs in votes for and shows they like or dislike. Shows that people dislike the most may actually get some interest viewing, and it’s not for us to say. That’s the great thing about this app.

Q: I wanted to ask—I was thinking about this—I’m not sure it’s physically possible for any human being to stay up and watch the entire marathon.

 AJ: Don’t tell anybody. Actually, medically, I think I would strongly urge you get some sleep.

Q: But I’m sure there are going to be people who try to stay up for at least the first two or three days and watch the early season from the very beginning on. What advice would you give for people who make such an attempt?

AJ: Well, I binge watch stuff too. Like say if I’m behind on a series like 24, I watch a bunch in a row.  I would say medical doctors have said you can’t go more than two days without sleeping. We, at The Simpsons, do not want anyone killing themselves over watching the show. I think you should definitely record them and watch for later, but I do think you might see a lot of different things and be surprised by what you see if you watch at different points, and we’re going to be live tweeting, not continuously, but every time there’s an episode I wrote or a show ran, I’ll try to get in on them. We’re asking guest stars who did the show if they’d like to tweet with the writers. So, we hope to have a discussion going on for the whole way and throw in interesting things people may not have heard.

Q: Do you personally have I guess a period of the show that you’re really looking forward to revisit or maybe any episodes that you’re not looking forward to revisit more so?

AJ: Well, anytime I see any episode, I always look at it and go oh we screwed that up, that could be better. I never look at them as perfectly finished. My daughter actually watches The Simpsons today, not because I make her but because she wants to, so I’ve been seeing a lot of them from different eras, and I have a particular love for when we started with digital coloring, starting around season 14, 15, 16; I think those shows were really great and like we did one with George Plimpton (editor’s note: the transcription said George Clinton, but I vividly recall Jean saying Plimpton and George Clinton never appeared on the show). I just saw and that was really cool. He was a great guy, and those ones which may not be as well-known as the earlier ones that people might want to look at.

Q: How do you think the show has evolved over the past 25 years from the first couple of seasons until now?

AJ: Well, it’s honestly in my opinion, they’ve all—animation wise, a great deal between Season 1and 2, and of course the storytelling got more complicated too, and then, when I was running it around Season 4, we added a certain number of rewrites, the animatic process. So, it got denser I think although it was always a really funny show, and then, I don’t think it’s really changed though that much in its basic process from Season 2 or even the beginning. We’re always just trying to write a show about family. We’re trying to make it reflect the times that we live in and we have this great cast that fortunately has not changed, and so, we don’t approach it any differently. I can’t say how it looks to somebody on the outside, but I’m really sitting and doing the same thing just trying to come up with a different result than I did 20 years ago.

Q: I was wondering if the way that you wrote or anything that you had to do with the show changed since your youngest daughter was born?

AJ: No.  I have two daughters, one’s 23 and one’s 9, and although I’ll tell you the world has changed. My first daughter, they said sleep on her back, and now they say sleep on the stomach. So, you reflect that sort of thing in your writing, and to be honest, we not only predate cell phones, we predate the internet, so the world is a different place, but people go, ‘Why don’t you fix the Simpsons in 1990 technology?’ I go, ‘That would look very odd and retro.’ I think they have to look like they’re living the way people do now because that’s the way the show has always been except that they’re always out of date.

Q: How long do you think the series has in it? Do you think you can do another 25 years or—

AJ: Well, it seems like saying another 25 is a little bit humorous, but to be realistic, our ratings are really good. If I was looking at it from a network point of view, I would say gee, let’s get a deal for two years with an option for two more. Just look at the demos which are very young, you’d go this show looks like it has a lot of room to run.

Q: How important do you think The Simpsons is in historical view with television as a whole?

AJ: It’s the most important thing that ever happened.  In television, there are a lot of things that we influence. I look at shows which I thought were great like 30 Rock, I think that their pasting and intercutting was influenced by us, the way that we were influenced in that by Monty Python, so I think we’re part of a great tradition, maybe one of the principle actors in it, but this year—there are a lot of things that made us what we are and I think there are a lot of things that we helped influence.

Q: So, a big episode that I’m really looking forward to is The Simpsons/Futurama crossover you guys have coming up in November. I’d love to hear about the undertakings of that and how you guys managed to get two huge casts as in Simpsons has probably one of the biggest casts in television and then Futurama has a rather impressive cast as well and all these talented voice actors sitting around the table. How did you guys manage to get everybody into an episode and make sure you kind of, I almost want to say due diligence, but make sure everyone kind of gets accounted for when producing the episode?

AJ: We talked about different crossovers at different points and actually did one with the show The Critic years ago, but I always felt Futurama would be great because of the animation style. It really works well and I’ve seen the color come back with it, The Simpsons/Futurama, and it does, it looks perfect.  It looks like it’s really managed.  We even make a joke about how Bender is just Homer with the hair erased and an antenna drawn on.

What we did, I obviously went to Matt Groening first and asked him what he thought and he said great.  We consulted with David Cohen of Futurama through the process and he was really helpful, and the cast, that was the highlight for me. At the read, plus our star cast, we had Billy West, Maurice LaMarche, John DiMaggio, this is like the greatest voiceover read I could imagine, just really funny, brilliant people, and that to me might have been the very best part of it, getting them all in one room. And then, I’ve loved—I’ve worked with Maurice for 20 years, he’s a wonderful guy.  He’s really great.  They’re all great.

Q: So, upcoming season, do you have any—can you announce any really awesome couch gags? Last season I thought you guys really set the bar really high. A personal favorite for me [indiscernible] I can watch probably an entire 30 minutes of just filled [indiscernible] couch gags, but do you have anyone you’re allowed to tease in the upcoming season?

AJ: Well, the first episode of the season, this is the one where we reveal the character which passes away, I would just give you a hint, watch the opening because it’s going to blow you away, the opening of that episode.

Sean Mulvihill: I had a question concerning crossovers.  You mentioned earlier with your Critic crossover. Now, Matt Groening took his name off the credits for that one, and with the Family Guy and Futurama crossovers, is there still that kind of resistance?

AJ: No. He was on board for both. The Family Guy crossover was—the host was by [indiscernible] at Family Guy. Jim, Matt and I all were consulted all the way through. The one thing we didn’t want to do is tell them what to do.  We had very light notes and I thought it came out great. How can you do a Futurama/Simpsons crossover without Matt Groening? So, yes, he was very involved.

SM: And then my other question—I come across in political blogs and writings just endless Simpsons references. Do you ever get astounded at the level of cultural impact?

AJ: I’ll tell you the time that I did maybe more than any other. When Clint Eastwood spoke to the Republican Convention, somebody took that whole thing from Season 13, which I didn’t even think that was that well known, they did it on The Daily Show which showed Grandpa with the headline, “Old Man Yells at Cloud,” and shared for cloud, and then they made like 6,000 articles on Google Simpson search, and that kind of thing just astounds me. I didn’t know that many people knew this, and it was fan generated and it was terrific.

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Q:  On the marathon and then on the FXX shows, are they—what versions are they? Are they the syndicated version, the shorter ones, or are they the earlier ones, the originals?

AJ: Well, the versions as I understand it are the original versions, but they’re expanded to HD except on the app, you can get the original 4:3 because people would want to see the 4:3 so that will be available, but the ones that they’re broadcasting, as I understand it, are the originals with the HD expansion for the ones that weren’t in HD.

Q: But there are things when I watch syndicated ones, there are little funny moments that are sometimes cut out.

AJ: Yes, we’re trying to put them back in, and if something isn’t on the marathon, it should be on the website.

Q: Whenever I watch like King-Size Homer, there’s some stuff with him that just jumps out at me. Are there any things when they’re in syndication that aren’t there? Do any come to mind that really jump out of you, geez that was really funny, I wish that were in there?

AJ: I’ve never had time to sit down and watch. The syndicated cuts aren’t made by us, the writing staff, and so, so I don’t watch it, seeing what’s on and what’s not. I’d always assumed which the staff is going to do that in the long run that the original air version was what people were going to be able to download, that eventually when television is gone and there’s just downloading or some way of bringing it up to your television, they’d still put back everything because why not; it was only for length that it was cut in the first place. That’s the ultimate goal.

Q: One of the things that dawned on me is that if I were a high school kid, now I’m a middle-aged person, does that reflect anything with The Simpsons or do you guys kind of pause and think that you’ve been around that long? You’ve taken people from high school all the way to the middle of their careers?

AJ: I don’t know if I’m getting older, but we’re doing 21 Grandpa episodes next season. No, the great thing is it’s about a family, so wherever you are in a family, you have something to relate to, and sadly it seems there may be 12, the school experience, the growing-up experience, in a lot of ways doesn’t change with time. It’s still eternal what happens to kids and what they go through. So, you might come at things with a little bit more wisdom or a little bit more experience, but I think that in general, everyone comes from a family. The writers come from families. The families come from [indiscernible].

Q: How do you think The Simpsons would do when they say that you were free of social media? Do you think that you guys could have survived as long if you had to do deal with the social media environment that’s today, or do you think the show would have thrived because of social media even earlier?

AJ: Well, I think the key thing when we debuted besides that we worked really hard on it was we really—there was nothing like us back then. There was no animated prime-time show. Animation was considered just for kids. When I was working on the first episode with Jim (James L. Brooks) and Matt (Groening) and (Sam) Simon, I thought I don’t know whether this will be a hit, but I know it’s going to be different from everything that’s on the air.  So, that I thought was our key component at the beginning. The internet was like looking at us and commenting on us earlier.  I remember getting things late Season 2. So, we paralleled the growth of social media.  So, I don’t think that it’s been a hindrance at all.

Let me just say too, we reward people who watch repeatedly.  We encourage analysis.  So, I think we sort of go hand in glove with the internet.

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Q: I joined the call a little bit late, so I apologize if what I’m about to ask has already been covered.

AJ: What state is Springfield in?

Q: No, that wasn’t it. I actually had a question about the couch gags, and they have become increasingly elaborate over the years and people [indiscernible] for guest artists and stuff. I’m wondering where did that idea sort of take hold. Did somebody approach you and say I’d really love to do a couch gag and that was kind of the jumping point?

AJ: Well, the first guest star actually occurred because my wife and I had gone to see Exit Through the Gift Shop, and I thought it would be great if Banksy graffiti’d The Simpsons couch gag, that we pretended that he had come in and sprayed paint all over our couch gag and did his own thing, and so, with our casting director, Bonnie Pietila, we located him through the producers of that movie and said we want to keep this secret, but could you do a couch gag, and that was the first and that really caught people by surprise.

Once that happened, we would hear from people like Guillermo del Toro that we admired ay ‘Oh I’d love to do a couch gag,’ and we take it really seriously. I think that it’s an honor for us absolutely but also an honor for the people we ask and we really want to have our animation heroes be doing these couch gags, and I for example couldn’t believe it when we asked Sylvain Chomet and he said yes.  Asked earlier was the question are there more, and the answer to that is yes, and yes, it was us that started it, but once we started it, people thought hey this is great, maybe they’ll let me do two minutes, and we couldn’t be happier.

Q: Well, since you brought it up, I figured I would ask—what state is Springfield in? Here we are in Portland, Oregon, which is where Matt Groening is from. For a minute there, it seems like he was saying that Springfield was in Oregon. So, what do you have to say about it?

AJ: Well, I won’t say that The Simpsons are in Oregon, but I can definitively say The Simpsons mural will be in Oregon. They are dedicating it, as I’m sure you know, later this month and Yeardley Smith who plays Lisa will be there, and the mockup is going to be beautiful. So, the answer to the question is there is no answer, but there’s no question that Oregon has had a huge influence, not bad, but elements of the show are named after places in Oregon.

Q: Other than watching The Simpsons, of course, is there anything else that you like to watch that you think is particularly good on TV right now?

AJ: Well, I try to watch The Daily Show, Colbert, and I’ve been watching the John Oliver show, all of which are great, really great, my criterion of being short, and I have from episode one been just an enormous fan of Mad Men. I’m going to be really sad when it’s done.

Q: I just wanted to follow up because you had mentioned that you’re going to be live tweeting during the marathon.

AJ: At points. Not every minute. That would be the end of me.

Q: I’m sure, but I was going to ask you do you know if any of the either the cast members or any of the writers or producers are planning to do so as well.

AJ: The other writers are, and we’ve invited former writers and we’ve invited many of the guest stars.  We’ll see what happens, I’m hoping. I’m hoping that Patton Oswalt or Sarah Silverman would like to come on and say something.

Q: That would be great.

AJ: Yes, we’re totally encouraging it. It’s @EverySimpsons is the Twitter site reserved for the marathon.  So, yes, it starts at 7 a.m. August 21st Pacific Time/10 a.m. Eastern and I’ll be tweeting then.

Anytime Costumes

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