Al Jean on The Simpsons
The Simpsons showrunner Al Jean on keeping the show fresh, the use of cultural references, and what he looks for in a writer.
Bart Simpson might still be a 10-year-old kid, but along with the rest of the Springfield community, he has been on our screens for a remarkable 28 years.
The Simpsons is not only longest-running animated show, but the longest-running primetime show ever. And for 26 of those years, Al Jean has literally run the show as showrunner and executive producer.
Funnily enough, Jean didn’t always want to be a TV writer.
He was pre-med at Harvard, with a roommate who was writing for the Harvard Lampoon. “The people he hung out with were the funniest people I’ve ever met,” recalled Jean. Soon Jean found himself writing for the prestigious collegial magazine, eventually becoming vice president of the publication.
After graduation, Jean was hired by the National Lampoon magazine, and turned next to TV writing. Acquiring an agent, his spec scripts landed him writing jobs for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, A.L.F., and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
In 1989 he was offered a job writing for The Simpsons. According to Jean, he and his writing partner Mike Reiss weren’t the first choice, but were hired eventually. “By far, the luckiest career move I’ve ever,” Jean said.
Since then he’s moved on from writer to producer to showrunner, navigating the groundbreaking show to an unprecedented 600 episodes this past season.
With the series entering its 29th season, Creative Screenwriting chatted with Jean about keeping the show fresh, the type of writers he looks for, and how the show predicted Trump’s presidency.
After 28 seasons and 600+ episodes, how do you keep the show fresh?
It focuses on a family, within a universe of many diverse characters. Everyone comes from a family, and the problems that families face always change. There’s so much material from life. You can go forward and back in time. There’s really so much that you can do.
Six hundred is a pretty daunting number. Though I can’t say we haven’t repeated ourselves, having done that many!
The show eerily predicted a few things that have come to life, including, back in 2000, Trump’s presidency. How did that happen?
I think if you throw a number of darts at the dartboard you’re going to hit something. The Trump thing was back in 2000 and now he is President, so since that’s true, then the next president is going to be Lisa Simpson. So there’s a silver lining to it all!
We just take educated guesses. There was a show we were doing featuring the World Cup, and we came up with a joke with the Brazilians singing, “Ole! Ole!” really sadly. And we thought of who might end up winning instead, which was Germany, and then they did win.
So it looked like we were ahead of it, but it was just fortuitous. Or the other theory is we’re all practitioners of black magic [Laughs].
Obviously the show has many cultural references. How do you decide which to include in a script? Do they have to fit within the scope of the story?
The great thing is you can just throw something in. Like for a recent episode, we just threw in a joke about Wonder Woman. They come and go fluidly.
We’ve always assumed the kids would watch the show because it’s an animated show. We never plan things that are super obscure, but I think our rule is that it has to be funny to someone.
As showrunner, what does a typical day look like for you?
Well, I just did a screening of an episode. Then I’ll be rewriting. After this I’ll be working on a show that we’ll be reading with the cast.
Throughout this, I’m always editing something.
You’re always working on three or four different things during the day.
How does your writers’ room work?
There are two rooms, and we divide the work in half. There’s about six or seven writers in each room. We try to make each story better. We go line by line, scene by scene, and whoever’s ideas are better go in.
I read that you have a writer’s retreat at the beginning of each season. Is that where you break stories?
Yes. People come in with ideas that they’ve been working on for a couple of months. They need to be one-line ideas. Some people get overly ambitious and bring in visual aids, and make a pitch out of it.
They’re pitched to me and James Brooks, and for the ones that go over well, the writer will make an outline and write the script.
The basic process is four weeks for a first draft, then we read it with the cast, and then it gets story boarded.
Then we rewrite it, and write it again once the color is added. We once had a Soviet Union joke in a script and by the time we went into production, there wasn’t a Soviet Union anymore so that step is important.
What type of writer are you looking for in your writer’s room?
We just want a writer with two qualities: they’re good with character and funny. When I read a spec, that’s what I’m looking for.
It’s always good if you’re clever with story, but the basis is to have respect and emotion for the characters. And because it’s a comedy, it needs to be funny.
In terms of story, that can be taught a little bit.
I’ve been in rooms with people who are just striking down other’s ideas and just not working well together. So we try to avoid that. We like a harmonious room.
The show exists in a malleable universe. But what has to remain constant, besides Bart remaining 10 years old?
People want a basic dynamic that remains familiar. They don’t want us to do anything to Bart or Homer, etc.
The key to Homer’s behavior is that Marge really believes in him and she inspires him, and they love each other.
Even between Bart and Homer, and despite the antagonism they have, Homer loves Bart and wants him to do well.
We did an episode once where we played with time, and they were characters of the ‘90s and not the ‘80s. But people didn’t like that. So now they live in a timeless world where they’re part of current events, but they aren’t physically of a certain date.
We do this because we know the show will be around for a long time. The only thing that does change is technology. They have iPhones now. It would be crazy if they still used rotary phones and didn’t use a computer.
The show is animated, but it is about a family. So does that mean you draw on personal experiences for the stories?
Yes. My own experience, my family’s experience, the experiences of people I barely know. We can turn it into something. That’s what happens. Anything that you have that comes from reality is emotionally perfect.
What were some of the highlights of this past season for you?
Well, probably the biggest highlight was that we hit 600 episodes. And it just worked out that it was a Halloween episode, which made it even better.
I really liked the episode we did where we satirized social justice fighters at Yale. And I liked the one we did when we brought back Spider Pig. I thought the animation was great.
Finally, can you give us any insight about next season?
We open with an episode where Bart and Lisa collaborate on a graphic novel and it becomes a show.
We have a Halloween show where we do a satire on The Exorcist, and I think it’s probably the most disturbing segment we’ve ever done on a Halloween show, but it’s really fun.
We also have the return of Sideshow Bob with Kelsey Grammer, which is always great.
And I wrote an episode, which I don’t do too often. I do a lot of editing, but not a lot of writing. It’s a look at Lisa’s character, where she came from and where she will be in the future, which I was very happy to do.
Featured image: Al Jean. Credit: Frank Micelotta/ FOX. © 2016 FOX Broadcasting Co.