'The Simpsons' Al Jean interview, new season begins September 28

The Simpsons is an American institution that has fans around the world.  It is also one of the longest-running sitcoms ever created.

The brainchild of creator Matt Groening is a satirical take on middle-class American life.   Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie live in the "every town" of Springfield, and pokes a big stick at our shared culture and politics.

Since its debut on December 17, 1989, the show has broadcast 420 episodes.

The 20th season will begin Sunday, September 28, 2008.

The show has claimed numerous honors; a staggering 24 Emmy Awards, 26 Annie Awards and a Peabody Award.  The show even earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

"I just wanted to say that weíre going into our 20th season, which premieres September 28th, and this is a record-setting season, it ties us with Gunsmoke as the longest running entertainment show in the history of television.  Additionally, we just won the Emmy Award for outstanding animated program," said Al Jean, executive producer and head writer of The Simpsons.

Monsters and Critics was on a conference call with Al Jean of The Simpsons today.

I just watched the new Godfather trilogy, the extras where Joe Mantegna talks extensively about his role on The Simpsons, Fat Tony, and the history of it.

Al: Yes, heís been doing it since the beginning, and every time Ė he said, ďIf Fat Tony burps, I want to do it,Ē so heís been doing it for 20 years, and even the film.

Yes, he said it was his longest running role, he loved it.  I wanted to know, for you, who are some of your favorite long-running side characters, maybe some anecdotes, and why.

Al: In terms of guest stars like Joe, who is one of them, Iíd say Kelsey Grammer is always just hilarious and can sing really well.  Itís so funny to have someone who is trying to kill Bart who is so erudite and smooth, and at the same time violent. 
Another favorite of all of us was Phil Hartman, once he passed away; we retired his characters because no one could ever do them. 

Jon Lovitz is always somebody Iíve felt is really Ė he just makes me laugh and he would ad lib so much that youíd try hard not to laugh while you were sitting in the room while they were recording; it was almost impossible. 

Then of course, characters that are done by our regulars, I love Comic Book Guy, I canít believe Ö on the show, Moe, Krusty, there are so many that you can do a particular show about you almost think you can never run through them.

Speaking to some editors and friends in London - they said, of any American show, it was The Simpsons they liked the most and felt more connected to America, Americans, and our culture just by watching that show and enjoying it so much.  I was wondering how you felt about the foreign reception of The Simpsons?

Al: Well, there are a couple things I think.  One thing I think is that overseas, people look at The Simpsons and say thatís a typical American family, so I think thatís one reason we connect with it.

The movie, which did very well here, $180 million, did even better overseas, another $340 million.  I think the biggest reason thatís so is that there are families everywhere you go and there are families like The Simpsons.  Iíve been in places like Italy and they say, oh yeah, thereís a guy in the kitchen; heís just like Homer.

Itís funny because we work out of this small office, we donít have tapings with an audience, so you forget that the show is seen worldwide all the time.  I do think in places like the U.K., itís amazingly popular, whenever I go there; the people are just so nice and appreciate it so much; itís wonderful.

Regarding the shows political aspect, has it gotten more contemporary and overt in specifically addressing the things in the current administration.  Is that a fair feeling?

Al:  Well, the one thing about politics in our show is we have to do the show about a year in advance, so we canít do jokes like The Tonight Show or The Daily Show.  Whatís ironic is I was running the show after 9/11 and at that time, people said to me, you can never make fun of the President again, and I thought, really, he might do something funny in the next three to seven years, certainly, he has.

What I think what has been beneficial to us about the way we produce the show is that we have done things, that I think if you watch the show from four years ago, it still holds up.  We donít take inconsistent positions that you might do if you have to give an opinion every day on what you think.

Has the writerís room been a more politicized writerís room?

Al: Well, I think the countryís more politicized, or at least the politics are more us versus them than they were 20 years ago when the show started.  There was a broader middle, and I think right now, I donít need to tell you, itís very divided.  I think we try to reflect life so I think thatís what happens.

How do you think the world of animation has changed, either TV or film, have you seen a lot of changes in those 20-odd years?

Al: I love animation, I think it has been a golden age in both film and TV.  The biggest technological change has been the influence of computers.  When we started, it was hand-drawn animation in films only, and now, hand-drawn animation, we were one of the last movies ever.

The other thing that has happened is television Ė even though there were shows in primetime in the past, like the Flintstones, I donít really think they were aimed at adults, I think they were aimed mostly at children.  Iím not saying we tried to have risquť content, per se, although that is partly the case, but we have aimed our show at the adult audience and done things that we think are smarter.  The kids wonít necessarily get it, but theyíll watch because of the forum.

Is there any guest star you just have never been able to get for whatever reason, either in the past or currently?

Al: Yes, one group, itís U.S. Presidents.  Weíve tried to get them going back to Ė I think Richard Nixon was actually the first when he was still alive.  Theyíve all said no.  Ronald Regan, or his assistant, wrote us a very polite no, but that was the closest we got.

Do you keep tabs on other long-running TV shows?

Al: You know, I hate to admit it; we actually do count episodes.  I think weíre about 12 ahead of Law & Order.  They started a little later and they do slightly fewer per year.  In number of episodes, weíre ahead of them, but weíre still behind Lassie and Gunsmoke, and Gunsmoke did 600, they used to do 40 a year, so thatís a tough one, we are up to 445 in terms of records.

How do you stay interested? 

Al:  What keeps me interested is when you see something that is a good idea, youíre able to take the writing staff and translate it into something that is funny and a pleasure to watch.  Itís the greatest way to vent what you feel about life, itís just a wonderful place to be, and Iím really happy to be there.

You mentioned it takes about a year to flip one of these over.

Al:  It does, between the original concept and the final airing.  In the early years, there was a show where we did a joke about the Soviet Union and before the show was completed, the Soviet Union broke up.

Is it frustrating for you that you probably canít do something about Sarah Palin right now?

Al:  You know, itís not because, again, I donít know what people are going to think about her in six months.  She may not even be in office as Vice President.  Iíve already seen since that Tina Fey sketch, which was I thought was very funny, a big flip in the last week in terms of what people think.  We prefer to do things that you can watch five years later and still appreciate them and not think, what was that in reference to.

We hear you have Anne Hathaway, Jodie Foster, and Seth Rogen already down for this season.

Al: Thatís true and this week, we also recorded Alan Page.
Jodie Foster Ė sometimes we do these trilogy episodes, and this one has powerful women through history and we do a parody of The Fountainhead, the Ayn Rand book, where Maggie Simpson is in a preschool where sheís trying to build these beautiful block buildings and the preschool teacher keeps knocking them down because itís too creative.  At the end, she goes on trial, like the end of The Fountainhead, and Jodie Foster does Maggieís voice.

Then with Anne Hathaway, we do a show where Bart meets a girl who is really sweet and thinks heís really a nice kid and not a brat, so he tries to hide his true identity from her and then she finds out what heís really like and they break up.  She was very funny; sheís really hilarious to work with.

Seth Rogen actually co-wrote with Evan Goldberg the episode.  The episode that heís in, Comic Book Guy creates a superhero called Everyman, and his power is that any comic book that he touches, he gets the powers of the hero of that comic.  They make a move starring Homer and Homer is overweight and doesnít look like a superhero, so Seth Rogen plays a personal trainer who is going to get him in shape.

We do a show where Moe meets a woman on the Internet, sheís really beautiful, and she actually thinks Moe looks okay.  Heís really nervous, they meet face to face and it turns out, sheís three feet tall.  He loves her, heís nervous about what his friends will say, and it actually became a very sweet, wonderful episode.

We also have one where The Simpsons go to Ireland and Homer and Grandpa go to this bar that Grandpa went to 40 years ago and it was the happiest night of his life.  They get drunk, they buy the bar, and then they find, as it turns out, in Ireland, pubs arenít so popular anymore because you canít smoke in them, so theyíre really up a creek. 

We just had Kenneth Branagh to record; heís the pub owner that sells them the pub, and Kenneth Branagh is actually Irish, so he was really nice and really great, of course

After 19 years of doing ďTreehouse of TerrorĒ - are you guys going to have a tough time coming up with that big episode every year, and what can we expect this year?

Al: No, in fact this year is a really fun one, it air November 2nd.  The opening we do a little thing about the election where Homer tries to vote for Obama, but the machine keeps changing it to McCain and then finally kills him.

We do a satire of the fact that they can take dead celebrities, put them in commercials, and do whatever they want, so Homer starts killing living celebrities so they can use them in commercials.

Again, we have a parody for the first time of Itís the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, where our character, The Grand Pumpkin, totally different legally, comes to life and heís so mad at the way humans treat pumpkins that he tries to kill them all.

Do you guys ever think that there should be an end date for the show or will you keep doing it as long as there is still this kind of popularity for it?

Al: Iíll tell you, we signed the cast for four years, including this one, just recently and the Emmy was wonderful, and I really feel, creatively, weíre still doing terrific work and I donít see an end for a while.  The movie and the ride were both huge successes, so I think people still really want The Simpsons in their lives.

Backtrack to the The Treehouse of Terror episode.  Homer is an Obama supporter?

Al: Well, he says itís time for a change, so he actually is going to vote for Obama, then it says one vote for McCain.  He tries to hit it again and it says thatís two votes for McCain. 

He says, ďNo, no, noĒ and he hits it again three times and he says, ďI only meant one of those votes for McCain.Ē  Then the machine starts trying to kill him and he says, ďMust warn President McCain.Ē  Itís mostly a comment on what many people to believe to be the irregularities in our voting system.

You said you signed the cast for four more years.  Is that beyond this season?

Al: That includes this coming season and itís an option FOX has on them, so technically the show isnít picked up yet because they donít pick it up four years at a time.  The biggest hurdle to any pick up would be signing the cast and thatís done, so Iím optimistic that weíll go through that four-year contract.

Your hope then is that the show would run at least 24 years.

Al: That would take you through season 23 but there would technically be spillover into the 24th, yes.

It has been a while since the last complete season DVD.  What are the plans for more Simpsons DVDs?

Al: There is one coming out by the end of the year, I believe November, for season 11.  Two reasons they slowed down, we were working on some of the other things, so our time was taken up, and also, we had a movie DVD come out and we had the ride at Universal, so we didnít want to overdo how many things there were that had The Simpsons name on them.  We really do think itís important to keep the quality up and not saturate the market.

Are you still doing commentaries on every episode?  Are there any new types of extras that will be on season 11?

Al: Thereís really cool news on it and I wonít say what it is, but itís really impressive.  There are, as we always do, commentaries on every episode and many extras.  I think itís a terrific package, I think the people that do the DVDs really take a lot of time and give you more than almost any other show DVD gets.

Could we ever see Spider Pig again, or maybe a whole episode devoted to Spider Pig?

Al:  We might.  The biggest thing with the movie was we wanted to make it as a stand-alone, we really hoped that if people had never seen the show, they could enjoy the movie and we also didnít want it to be one of those things where the movie required you to watch the show. 

We wanted the movie to come to a complete end, but everyone liked Plopper, so weíll try to bring him back.  Weíve had cameos and if we have an episode; weíll do it.
I think he was the breath-through character of the movie.

Are there going to be any other crazy science fiction moments that weíre going to see in this season?

Al: Well, we have an episode that will air in March where Homer has to get some poison to kill some rats in his kitchen, itís a bit like Ratatouille, they make him a meal but itís okay, itís not great, so he wants to kill the rats. 

He leaves Maggie on the doorstep of a convent where they take her and then it turns into a Da Vinci Code satire where they have some use for Maggie at this convent that may involve world peace and theyíre trying to get Maggie back.  It has National Treasure elements in it and thereís this really cool complicated story line.  Itís one of the kinds of shows that are like the one that just won the Emmy, a little different, a little more visually stylistic.  Iím really looking forward to that one.

Certain characters seem to get bigger roles.  Like Ned Flanders, both in the movie and on the showÖ

Al: Ned is somebody you love to write him for a couple reasons.  One is heís very nice, which is an unusual character on television and then the way he talks, that diddily-doodley kind of thing, itís really just fun to pitch in the room.  I have to give credit to Harry Shearer; itís just a great character. 

I think that heís funny but you also really like Flanders and thatís one of the best things about the show, we may satirize religion, but I actually think youíd rather have Ned for a neighbor than Homer. 

Thereís actually a show weíre doing this coming year where the Simpsons home gets foreclosed and Ned buys it, rents it back to them, and Homer keeps taking advantage of him to do all these repairs because now Ned is their landlord.  Ned gets fed up and evicts them, but then he feels badly and lets them back in.  It turned out really, really sweet.

Everybody loves Ned Flanders.  That was actually because the show was short so we filled it in with an extra 30-second bit and if weíre short again, itís something we would definitely do.  We did a Cletus on, too, where Cletus was stuck with a vehicle.

Will there be a second Simpsons movie.  Is that something we can expect down the line?

Al: We definitely would love to do it if we had a script we believed in as much as the first one, but that script took four years to do and that was after it took a while to make a deal with the cast. 

My preference would be, because it was so much work to do both the show and the movie simultaneously, to wait until whatever that day is when the show is done, and to do another movie.  I think it will probably happen, but weíre just now working on it now.  To me, nothing is more important than making the show as good as it can be.

Unlike American Dad or Family Guy, The Simpsons has always been a smart show; it has always been a fresh, clever show.  Why is that important and how have you been able to do that for this long?

Al: I appreciate the way of looking at it.  From the beginning, I remember saying the same thing; we are going to write a show for adults, weíre not going to cut a joke because kids wouldnít understand it even though itís animated.  We always try to be smart and connect with human emotions and Iím not saying those other shows donít. 

Itís a golden age for TV animation and feature animation, which is really exciting to me because I love the forum.  We have done things, maybe in the beginning that were more outrageous in terms of content or language, but the thing that has been true from the beginning is that we have just tried to do something that intelligently depicts the challenges facing a family.  That has always been sort of the star that we follow.

Will the kids ever grow up? 

Al:  Weíve done episodes Ė a couple of years we did one where we saw the kids as teenagers and Homer and Marge were separated and it was set in the future.  We have the ability to show you what they are like as adults or younger.  In terms of the basic template for the show, my goal is always to return it to the where it started. 

Even if you donít like a particular episode, in the next week, youíre back in the same basic pattern and it could be a great episode with that same group of characters and situations that you love.  Bugs Bunny never turned 80.


Sunday September 28 at 8:00 is the season premiere of The Simpsons, season 20.


Further Reading on M&C