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Greg Suarez talks Simpsons
with Al Jean
|Whether you know
his name or not, it's very likely that Al Jean has tickled your funny bone on
more than one occasion. You see, after a writing stint on the popular sitcom
Alf, and serving as a producer for
Showtime's acclaimed series It's Garry Shandling's
Show (among many of his other projects in the 1980s) Al made a move
that would change his life through the 1990s and beyond - Al moved to
Winner of four Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award for his work on The
Simpsons, Al is responsible for such fan favorite episodes as Lisa's
Pony (Homer has to take a second job at Apu's Kwik-E-Mart to support
Lisa's pony), Guess Who's Coming to Criticize Dinner
(Homer becomes Springfield's hated food critic) and Lisa's
Sax (where we learn the origin of Lisa's sax and Bart's bad
attitude), among the myriad of other episodes he's written and produced.
In light of the recently released The Simpsons: The
Complete First Season 3-disc set from Fox, I recently had an
opportunity to sit down and chat with one of The
Simpsons' cleverest and most enduring writer/producers, Al Jean. Join
us as we discuss future Simpsons DVD
releases, what has made the show so enduring, and even a few "D'oh's"
Greg Suarez: Thank you for taking time out
of your schedule to talk with us. A lot of our readers and the staff of The
Bits are big fans, so this is a real pleasure for us.
Al Jean: Well, thank you.
Greg Suarez: Why don't we start by letting
the readers know a little background about yourself, and tell us how you became
part of The Simpsons family?
Al Jean: I've been in TV for about 20
years. I was working on shows like The Tonight Show
and Alf, and It's
Garry Shandling's Show. They were hiring a small staff to help turn
The Simpsons into a half-hour show; you
know they only had the Tracy Ullman Show
shorts at that point. My partner and I were offered the job, but some of our
friends weren't so interested because it was a cartoon, and they didn't think it
would last very long.
Greg Suarez: Is your partner Mike Reiss?
Al Jean: Yeah, he's been my partner,
although he now works only part-time - he still works on The
Simpsons, but technically now I'm alone (laughs), but he's very
amicable. So, we were the first staff writers that were hired. Jim Brooks, Sam
Simon, and Matt Groening [the creators] were developing the shorts Matt had done
into a series. We [Jean and Reiss] were there working as writers for the first
thirteen episodes, both scripts we had credit for writing, and also scripts we
helped rework. I ran the show in seasons three and four, and I'm currently
running it. I have had some breaks where I just wanted to get away from the
characters a little bit, but I've had something to do with the show every year
that it's been on the air.
Greg Suarez: When you say, "running
it," do you mean Executive Producing?
Al Jean: There are a lot of Executive
Producers, I'm actually the Show Runner, which means I have the ultimate
responsibility for how the scripts are read at the table, what they look like,
the guest voices, the music - I have to supervise all that.
Greg Suarez: Let's talk about the DVD set.
Other than participating in the commentary tracks, were you involved with the
creation of the Season One box set? Did you work at all with Matt Groening in
pulling all the material together?
Al Jean: No, I just worked on the first 13
shows. The commentaries were kind of like a reunion, you know, we'd come in
every time they'd screen an episode, and just talk over it, and remember how it
came to be.
Suarez: How did you find the experience of recording commentary
Al Jean: It was a lot of fun, and
nostalgic - I saw some people I hadn't seen in a while - and it was also
daunting. I'm running the show currently, and thinking "Oh, man! These
stories are so clean and so pure." The hardest thing at this point is just
thinking of fresh ideas. People are so on top of things that we've done before,
so the challenge now is to think of an idea that's good, but hasn't been seen.
Greg Suarez: What do you hope the fans get
out of the commentary tracks?
Al Jean: From what I've heard from people
who have heard the tracks, and didn't know what went happened back then, it's
interesting for them to see what went on during the making of a show that they
grew up with.
Greg Suarez: I remember being amused by
the story I heard during the commentary for the supplemental early footage of
the first show that was animated. It was mentioned that Brooks was so disgusted
by what he saw at the time that he walked out of the screening.
Al Jean: Yeah, some of that early footage
is on the DVD, and I think it's very fascinating. Basically, the director had
gone in a different direction, and it had to be redone. When the second episode
came back - David Silverman directed it - it was great, and the series was off
to the races. But it really was a very serious concern at that point, whether we
could air the show.
Greg Suarez: There's been some speculation
about when Fox might come out with subsequent seasons of The
Simpsons on DVD. Do you have any idea when that might happen?
Al Jean: Season two is imminent - it's
been recorded. Judging by the sales of season one, it won't be long. I know
everything got postponed a little because of recent events, but judging by how
well season one has been doing, I assume they'll do them all. I don't know why
they'd leave that money lying around (laughs). There might be some sort of
pattern that they develop; you know, an appropriate gap between releases.
Greg Suarez: So, have you already recorded
commentaries for all of the episodes?
Al Jean: Yes, of season two.
Greg Suarez: Is that something that The
Simpsons staff is planning on doing for every single season?
Al Jean: I assume that for every season,
the people involved will record a commentary on every episode. So far that's
been the pattern.
Greg Suarez: So what are the chances of
getting John Swartzwelder [my favorite Simpsons
writer] to come out and do a commentary?
Al Jean: I know him well. He's actually a
very charming, friendly fellow. He's just disinclined to come in and talk. I
always feel a little weird speaking for him. But he does exist; he's not a
pseudonym for the staff, which has been alleged by some (laughs).
Greg Suarez: He's responsible for a lot of
the good episodes.
Al Jean: Oh, yeah! He's a great writer,
and he's unique. He's not like any other writer I've met; he has a real original
voice. What's great about The Simpsons is
that so many different voices all have a place in the product. You have people
who like writing for Lisa, or for Homer. You have people who like writing silly,
broad stuff, and others who like writing different kinds of comedy. It's all in
Suarez: I've always felt that one of the show's strengths, and what
makes it enduring, is its variety of humor. At one moment the show can be
incredibly smart, with the most intelligent comedy on television, and then turn
around the next moment and be completely slapstick.
Al Jean: Yes, and from week-to-week you
don't know what you're getting. I think the viewing audience is so jaded now
that you have to keep throwing them curveballs.
Greg Suarez: Now let's talk about The
Simpsons in general. How do you personally approach writing your
scripts for the show? And adding to that, what's your, and the other writers'
secret for keeping the show fresh?
Al Jean: The freshness, I think, comes
from a lot of work - we don't want to just settle on something we've done
before. The fact that the characters stay the same age, and change very little
you know when Happy Days had Fonzie become
a principle, that made it look old. And the fact that there are so many
characters - we were just thinking that we haven't had a Flanders [Ned Flanders,
the Simpsons' next door neighbor] show in a while, I mean we recently had one,
but we don't have one produced for the following year, so maybe the following
year we'll do one. Or, maybe a Mrs. Krabappel show, and I think those put
together keep it fresh. As for writing it, it starts with one idea. Like once, I
thought, "What if Homer bowled a 300 game?" Then I thought it would be
interesting because we usually have him fail, but what if he really did it? So,
it's really exciting, it's one of the biggest things in his life. Then I thought
it would be interesting if he sees that's all there is, and suddenly he gets
jaded. And then we thought, well wouldn't it be a good idea that because he's
jaded, he becomes closer to Maggie, because that's what really is important. We
hadn't done a lot of Maggie things lately, so that fit in. And then you pitch it
around with the staff for a couple of days, and everybody contributes ideas.
That script, which I wrote, I went off and did for a couple of weeks, you know,
turning out a first draft. It's a very segmented show, you go, "Okay,
here's some bowling jokes, some Homer's famous jokes," you just put a bunch
of stuff in, get it in order, and that's your first draft. Then it's completely
rewritten - no matter who it's by - for several weeks. The cast reads it; you
see what doesn't work, and you fix that. You just keep going back and forth
until it airs. The principle writer for the show has, at most, written 40% of
the script. It's a real team effort. The first show, the Christmas show [Simpsons
Roasting on an Open Fire, aired 12/17/89] was primarily written by
Matt Groening, Sam Simon, Mike Reiss, and myself, although none of us have
writing credits on it. It's a very misleading thing. What happens is - it's an
open secret in TV - there are some shows where maybe one person writes almost
everything. I know David Kelly, I think, writes most of the shows he's
responsible for, but on a show like The Simpsons,
the writing credit is used to pay royalties. So, if you think of the idea, and
you did the first draft, you get all of the royalties. But in terms of whose
lines are which, I would say in no episode does any one person have more than
40% of the lines.
Greg Suarez: So, in the episode you
mentioned where Homer bowls a 300, the whole bit about "Not Lenny!"
Al Jean: That actually was me (laughs).
But I'll give you an example: when they were on The
Hollywood Squares, Homer asks Ron Howard, "How come you stopped
acting?" Then Disco Stu [who's a contestant] said, "Because he's not
cute anymore." The host said, "Circle gets the square." That was
Mike Scully! It was one of my favorite jokes in that episode, but that's how it
works - I get the money!
Greg Suarez: Aside from the main Simpson
clan, who's your favorite character to write dialog for?
Al Jean: I think it's probably Moe [Moe
Szyslak, the bartender], because they almost always get laughs. He's so insane;
there's this not so subtle hint of incredible criminality (laughs). Hank Azaria
[provides the voice of Moe] deserves a tremendous amount of credit for how funny
that character is. I would say Moe is probably my favorite.
Greg Suarez: Hank Azaria, over the last
four or five years, has become quite a movie star, and I cannot watch him in any
movie without thinking of Moe, or Chief Wiggum, or somebody else he voices in
Al Jean: Well, I think that what's good is
that these characters are definitely from him, but they don't sound like he
normally does. So I think in movies, if people don't know, then they don't
necessarily put the two together. Hank Azaria is a very funny man, so I'm happy
for any breakouts he's had. He has a TV series coming out this fall.
Greg Suarez: The beauty of Homer's
signature emotional phrases, "D'oh!" and "Mmmm
here]" is that they're not overused. As a scriptwriter, how do you
recognize the most opportune moments for Homer to use these character-defining
phrases without going into overkill?
Al Jean: Well, we're just in a script
rewrite going line-by-line, and if someone pitches it, you'll either go, "That's
funny," or "You know, we've done that a lot." (laughs) Sometimes
there's a danger of overusing it, but with something like the "D'oh!"
we quickly said we're not Laugh-In; we're
not just going to say it time and again, we need a reason every time.
Greg Suarez: What's your favorite Simpsons
Al Jean: One that I enjoyed working on was
the one where Mr. Burns had the softball team [Homer
at the Bat, aired 2/20/92]. Sam Simon proposed it, and we go hire a
lot of real baseball players to do voices, and I thought we'd never get them,
but we did (laughs). That was a real blast! Of the ones that I've written,
(laughs) the one that might be closest to me is the Mary Poppins parody [Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(annoyed
grunt)cious, aired 2/7/97].
Greg Suarez: I remember hearing on one of
the commentary tracks that the writers spend a vast amount of their time trying
to think of funny names for Simpsons and
Itchy & Scratchy episodes.
Al Jean: Titles and signs take up so much
more of a percentage of time in the rewrite room than anything else (laughs).
It's really funny! We write all of the titles, but there are occasional physical
bits that the animation director will put in, but we write a majority of them.
Greg Suarez: As a die-hard Simpsons
fan there's a burning question I've been grasping with for a few years now, and
I'm going to take this opportunity to ask an authority on the subject. How many
more seasons does the staff have in them?
Al Jean: You know, if you'd asked me 10
years ago (laughs), I would have said, "I don't know, maybe a couple of
years." But then we've gone 10 years longer. The cast is signed for three
years - counting the season starting this fall - and the ratings have been going
up. We just won an Emmy, so I don't know. I honestly don't. Gunsmoke
went 20 years; maybe we should just shoot for that!
Greg Suarez: What I consider a reason for
the show's longevity is that it's always current; there are numerous episodes
dealing with current events, be it the O.J. Simpson trial, the Internet boom,
and there are plenty of commentaries and lampoons on current films, musical
trends, or whatever. Do you think that's part of it?
Al Jean: It's part of it, but I think the
biggest thing is that if you watch a show from 1994 or 2000, you probably can't
tell them apart. The show is evergreen, in my opinion.
Greg Suarez: Thank you so much for your
time. We really appreciate the opportunity we've had to discuss what's arguably
the best show on television. Here's to many more seasons!
Al Jean: Thank you!
The staff of The Digital Bits would like
to thank Al Jean for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat with us.
Thanks also to 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Russell Vare. And be sure
to read Todd Doogan's review of
Simpsons: The Complete First Season on DVD.