Al Jean: 25 Years of Simpsons and Counting
The Simpsons executive producer Al Jean shares why he sees no end in sight for the beloved series and also a bit about the career path which led him here.
Like his animated alter ego, Lisa Simpson, writer-producer Alfred Ernest Jean could be called a brainiac.
He attended math camp during summer vacations in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, and at 16 graduated from high school and was accepted into Harvard.
He wanted to be a doctor — until he decided he didn’t like being around sick people.
Instead, it was a cadre of very funny friends — many of whom joined Jean on the Harvard Lampoon and would later work with him in Hollywood — who persuaded him to try his hand at comedy writing.
Though Jean graduated with a degree in math, he quickly found work at the National Lampoon with his longtime writing partner, Mike Reiss.
From there, the pair began writing for various shows (Charles in Charge, Not Necessarily the News, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson) before landing at It’s Garry Shandling’s Show for two years.
Then came an offer to write for a new animated show called The Simpsons, based on a series of Matt Groening shorts that had aired on The Tracey Ullman Show.
“It was pretty low money, but I thought [Groening’s comic strip] Life in Hell was really funny,” Jean says. “I don’t know if we knew the show was going to be a hit, but I thought it was going to be very special and would get a lot of attention. I always thought it would be a high-quality show, thanks to the involvement of Matt Groening, James L. Brooks and Sam Simon.”
Now at 25 seasons and counting, The Simpsons has repeatedly made history: as the longest-running American sitcom, longest-running American animated program and longest-running American scripted primetime television series.
Jean, who has worked on the show in various capacities since its beginning and has won eight Primetime Emmys, sees no end in sight.
And while it’s been Homer Simpson and his bratty son Bart who’ve often hogged the spotlight, Jean says he shares a special affinity with the brainy Lisa — both are quiet and often found reading.
“When Lisa’s feelings are hurt, you really feel sorry for her,” he says. “You think, ‘This is a real person I’m watching.’ That is what attracted me more than anything to write for her.”
Jean, who is married and the father of two daughters, was interviewed in March 2013 for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television by Amy Harrington.
The following is an edited excerpt of that conversation.
Q: Was there humor in your household growing up?
A: My sister was the really funny one. I would say, of The Simpsons, my sister would be Bart and I was more like Lisa Simpson, just kind of quiet and reading. Meanwhile my sister, instead of grace, would be saying, “Rub-a-dub-dub, time for the grub.” My dad would get mad, but he wouldn’t strangle her ‘cause she’s a girl. But they got into some pretty heated arguments.
Q: What were your interests when you were younger?
A: I liked baseball, and in high school I got into science and math. I went to math camp for two summers, which I guess is an invaluable experience for a comedy person.
In my freshman year at Harvard I met Mike Reiss, who’s been my writing partner for 20 years. He wanted to get on the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine. He was always intent on being a comedy writer. So he joined, and the people that I met through him were the funniest people in the world — I thought it would be great to be with this group of people. So I joined, and I still work with many of them, including Mike.
Q: So you wanted to work in comedy?
A: In high school I’d read a lot of literature and I thought it’d be cool to be a writer, but I was pre-med — until I realized I wasn’t great around sick people. I was kind of floundering for something to do. Then, while in college, Mike and I wrote an article that got us a job at National Lampoon.
Q: How did you get your first job in TV?
A: Mike and I started writing spec scripts. We wrote a couple of spec scripts for Cheers, but the thing that got us work was a feature script, read by James Komack, who was executive producer on Welcome Back, Kotter. He was running the show 9 to 5 at the time, so we became story editors on that show briefly. That also got us work on Not Necessarily the News, which was a really funny show and a great place to work.
Q: You also worked on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
A: That was a great job, no question. I’m sure we wouldn’t have gotten on The Simpsons had we not worked at the Shandling show. [Producer] Sam Simon knew it was a great show and that we were there for two years.
When they were looking for writers for The Simpsons, we were originally hired for two days a week. Our agents weren’t sure we should do it because it was pretty low money, but I thought [Matt Groening’s] Life in Hell was really funny. I thought it would be great to work with Sam, whom I’d known but not worked with, and especially with Jim Brooks, who I thought did the best television of all.
I don’t know if we knew the show was going to be a hit, but I thought it was going to be very special. When I was a kid, there was no animation on [primetime] television. This Simpsons show was going to get a lot of attention, and it was by these great people, so why not try it?
Q: The Simpsons were originally cartoon shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show. How did the writers turn them into a series?
A: There were things that were undefined in the shorts. Bart and Lisa were both hell raisers, and there was little distinction between the characters. So one thing was to make Lisa different from Bart — that’s why we wanted to do that first Lisa episode where she’s an intellectual. There was an idea that she played the saxophone. We needed to flesh out these characters.
Q: Did you incorporate anything from your personal experiences?
A: Oh, yeah. Everybody does. I mentioned my sister when she said grace. And I wrote about a giant sub sandwich from a party that I put in the fridge and that I kept eating pieces of every day, tempting fate — we had Homer do that. You think of things that happen to you or your kids or your friends or their kids. In a show that’s done over 500 episodes, everything gets sucked in. At some point it’s like a black hole, a funny black hole.
Q: What tone were you and your fellow writers trying to set with the humor?
A: The essence was a joke Sam once wrote, in which Bart came home saying some bad kids wanted him to do something to be popular. Homer called him in and said, “You’re not going to kill anybody, are you?” And Bart said, “No.” Then Homer said, “Son, being popular is the most important thing in the world.”
That really is the essence: Homer is wrong, and the show relies on the intelligence of the viewer — and not a laugh track — to realize how funny it is for a father to say something like that.
Q: The main characters have some famous catchphrases. Are you consciously wondering if things you write will catch on?
A: Never. I dislike shows where it looks like they were planting catchphrases. Our stuff has always been by accident.
There was a bit we did in season thirteen where Grampa was asked for ID and he pulled out a newspaper clipping of himself where it said, “Old Man Yells at Cloud.” When Clint Eastwood was talking to his chair at the Republican National Convention, somebody re-edited it so it said, “Old Man Yells at Chair,” and they put Clint Eastwood’s picture on it instead of Grampa’s. I never in my life would have dreamt of that going viral and getting 2 million hits or whatever. You never know.
Q: Are there any characters that you had a hand in creating or developing?
A: Ralph Wiggum [a classmate of Lisa’s] — he first appeared in the episode “Mona Lisa,” and he was named Ralph because I thought it’d be funny to name a character after Jackie Gleason’s character, Ralph Kramden, who I think is the greatest character in TV history and no doubt the great-grandfather of Homer. Mike Reiss pitched the idea of making Ralph the son of the police chief later, in the “I Love Lisa” episode.
Q: Do you have specific boundaries for the four main characters?
A: Well, Homer is not a violent or a mean man. He is very emotional and goes up and down a lot, but he loves Marge. He’s not the most attentive husband or the most reliable guy, but he is a very good soul. Marge loves Homer — there’s no question about that. Bart is a kid who is somewhat abused, but who has potential and is street smart. Even though he doesn’t always get good grades, there’s definitely a soul to him. And Lisa is bright and very sweet, but in an environment that doesn’t quite fit.
People say, “It’s a dysfunctional family,” but I’ve never yet met someone from a functional family. The key to the success of the show is that everybody comes from a family — and everybody comes from a family that’s screwed up.
Q: You mentioned earlier that you connect to Lisa. Is she your favorite character to write for?
A: The majority of the scripts I’ve had my name on were Lisa-centered. There’s a constant debate — she’s eight years old, and I have an eight-year-old and she’s pretty smart — but Lisa is very precocious for that age. She often gives voice to the views of many of the writers.
But the other thing is that Yeardley [Smith, who voices Lisa] is great at getting emotional. When Lisa cries, when Lisa’s feelings are hurt, you really feel sorry for her. You think, ‘This is a real person I’m watching.’ That is what attracted me more than anything to write for that character.
Q: Are any of the characters that you created based on people you know in real life?
A: The people I know have gone into Homer and Bart, and a lot of stories I’ve written about dealing with Homer’s relationship with Lisa are like my relationship with my two daughters. When you’re doing episodes about Homer and Marge, you draw from everybody’s marriage. Most of the writers are married.
Q: Do you approach the writing differently than you would on a live-action show?
A: The biggest difference is that you have time to continually change everything. On this show, you can change anything at any time, as long as you don’t spend too much money.
In season three, Mike Reiss and I added more steps to the writing process — from the beginning to the end, there are constant drafts and changes. Now, with HD, there’s even more. We used to get by with just having a line here or a drawing there — now, if we have a scene in a bookstore, we have to write titles for every book that’s in the background. You can’t just get by with an animator’s squiggle.
Q: You and Mike became showrunners in season three. What did you learn from other producers that you’ve made a point to implement in your own writers’ rooms?
A: We’re very team-oriented. I don’t want anybody thinking that they’re fighting to knock somebody else’s joke out. We had some writers through the years who would do that — they don’t stick with the show. I always want to make sure people get credit for work they do. But the main thing is that the show is as good as possible and the team itself is the most important thing. You can always make something better. As a showrunner, you’re always thinking about the show — every day, every minute. The pressure never goes off.
Q: What is it like to work with Simpsons creator Matt Groening?
A: I was a fan of his before I ever met him. I remember there was a cartoon he did about the difference between the ‘60s and the ‘80s: in the ‘60s it was VD, in the ‘80s it was AIDS — that really made me laugh. I always thought he was really funny and had a real edge.
I’ve worked with him for 25 years now. He’s a graphic genius in terms of visual design, and he and Jim [Brooks] and Sam [Simon] are three brilliant guys who are also great at taking an idea and realizing it and making it into a product. It’s amazing that the three of them were together at the beginning of the show.
Q: During the fifth season you and Mike Reiss left the show to work on The Critic for ABC.
A: We left because Jim Brooks, as part of his ABC deal, wanted us to do a show. He said he had just seen A League of Their Own with Jon Lovitz — we said, “We love Lovitz.” So we created a show for Jon Lovitz without having him sign a contract. We brought him in and he said, “I have to read a script before I’ll do it.”
It was a reasonable statement. He was very busy working on a lot of movies, so we said, “The only real way we can do this with him is to make it animated.” Jim was thrilled by that thought, ‘cause he could do movie parodies and make the Lovitz character a TV-movie critic. So Jim wanted us to do this show instead of running The Simpsons. We still did one day a week at The Simpsons.
The Critic wasn’t successful, I think because it started on ABC, which wasn’t the right network for it. Then it went to Fox, but it was one of those things where the person who bought it for Fox was fired. Then a new person came in and said, “I don’t want anything that my predecessor bought.”
Our ratings were good, but the show wasn’t picked up. We went to Disney for a couple of years, and we still did individual Simpsons episodes. But when I was working at Disney every day I’d say to Mike, “I wish I was back at The Simpsons.” So when our deal ended in 1998, I came back here full time and I’ve been here since.
Q: Why has the show lasted so long?
A: Because it’s about a family and everybody comes from a family. It’s animated and it was revolutionary, but it sort of became the culture. Certainly it’s also helped that there are a lot of revenue streams for the show. Not that we’re about money exactly, but because it’s a hit overseas and it’s a hit in merchandise, that enables the show to keep going and there are different ways that it is of value to the whole company.
Q: The Simpsons relies so much on pop-culture references. How has the show impacted pop culture?
A: People say it’s almost a museum of pop culture. If you were studying the years 1990 through 2010, you could just watch The Simpsons and get a pretty good sample. The TV that the family originally watched had rabbit ears, which is a conscious anachronism, but in terms of our effect, you can certainly see an enormous effect on television animation. I think if you look at the show from the ‘80s, when we debuted, the episodes were slower-paced, with a lesser joke density per second.
Q: Can you see yourself staying with the show as long as it’s on?
A: As long as they’ll have me. I love doing it. There’s no better job, and working for Jim Brooks is the greatest thing that any writer could want.
Originally published in Emmy magazine issue no. 06-14.