‘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 we’re 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, he’s been doing it since the beginning, and every time – he said, “If Fat Tony burps, I want to do it,” so he’s 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, I’d say Kelsey Grammer is always just hilarious and can sing really well.  It’s 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 I’ve felt is really – he just makes me laugh and he would ad lib so much that you’d 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 can’t believe … 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 that’s a typical American family, so I think that’s 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 that’s so is that there are families everywhere you go and there are families like The Simpsons.  I’ve been in places like Italy and they say, oh yeah, there’s a guy in the kitchen; he’s just like Homer.

It’s funny because we work out of this small office, we don’t 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., it’s amazingly popular, whenever I go there; the people are just so nice and appreciate it so much; it’s 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 can’t do jokes like The Tonight Show or The Daily Show.  What’s 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 don’t take inconsistent positions that you might do if you have to give an opinion every day on what you think.

Has the writer’s room been a more politicized writer’s room?

Al: Well, I think the country’s 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 don’t need to tell you, it’s very divided.  I think we try to reflect life so I think that’s 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 – even though there were shows in primetime in the past, like the Flintstones, I don’t really think they were aimed at adults, I think they were aimed mostly at children.  I’m not saying we tried to have risqué 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 won’t necessarily get it, but they’ll 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, it’s U.S. Presidents.  We’ve tried to get them going back to – I think Richard Nixon was actually the first when he was still alive.  They’ve 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 we’re about 12 ahead of Law & Order.  They started a little later and they do slightly fewer per year.  In number of episodes, we’re ahead of them, but we’re still behind Lassie and Gunsmoke, and Gunsmoke did 600, they used to do 40 a year, so that’s 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, you’re able to take the writing staff and translate it into something that is funny and a pleasure to watch.  It’s the greatest way to vent what you feel about life, it’s just a wonderful place to be, and I’m 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 can’t do something about Sarah Palin right now?

Al:  You know, it’s not because, again, I don’t know what people are going to think about her in six months.  She may not even be in office as Vice President.  I’ve 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: That’s true and this week, we also recorded Alan Page.
Jodie Foster – 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 she’s trying to build these beautiful block buildings and the preschool teacher keeps knocking them down because it’s too creative.  At the end, she goes on trial, like the end of The Fountainhead, and Jodie Foster does Maggie’s voice.

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

Seth Rogen actually co-wrote with Evan Goldberg the episode.  The episode that he’s 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 doesn’t 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, she’s really beautiful, and she actually thinks Moe looks okay.  He’s really nervous, they meet face to face and it turns out, she’s three feet tall.  He loves her, he’s 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 aren’t so popular anymore because you can’t smoke in them, so they’re really up a creek. 

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