RIP

Simpsons executive producer and animal rights activist Sam Simon died Monday at the age of 59 after a two-year battle with cancer.

Simon grew up in Beverly Hills and attended Stanford University, where he drew cartoons for the college newspaper as well as the San Francisco Examiner. He was later hired at Filmation Studios, where he worked on cartoons like Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (recently, he alleged Bill Cosby “had two of the writers write his phd thesis.”). After submitting a Taxi spec script, he was promptly hired as a writer by executive producer James L. Brooks, and soon became showrunner. He later wrote and produced for Cheers, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and The Tracey Ullman Show.

Simon was hired by Brooks to help develop The Simpsons as it transitioned from a series of one-minute shorts to a half-hour series (Simon’s then-wife, Jennifer Tilly, had tried to talk him out of it.). As Brooks had his hands full with being a mega-producer and creator Matt Groening had limited television experience, it appears most of the day-to-day responsibilities fell upon Simon, who became the show’s first showrunner and head writer. In this role, Simon was a major architect of the show’s template and tone, even designing some of the secondary characters. He put together the legendary writing staff of the first few seasons; the show’s two most essential writers, George Meyer and John Swartzwelder, were allegedly plucked from Meyer’s underground comedy magazine Army Man, which was making the rounds in comedy circles (other Army Men contributors, including Ian Maxtone-Graham, Tom Gammill and Max Pross, would join the show in later years). In some respects, the hugely influential writer’s room Simon assembled became what Mad Magazine‘s “Usual Gang of Idiots” had been to an earlier generation.

During the show’s development, Simon and Groening had gotten along just fine; they had even collaborated on one of Groening’s Life in Hell comics. Tension soon mounted after the show premiered and became a smash hit out of the gate. Groening had become the public “face” of the show, and seen as the sole auteur by the media and general public. Simon felt he wasn’t being given enough credit (in a 1991 interview, writer Jon Vitti theorized it was “because there’s no book of Sam Simon cartoons you can read”) and wasn’t being paid enough, particularly when merchandising took off and made Groening an instant millionaire.

As early as February 1990, reports of a feud between Groening and Simon had become public. In a Los Angeles Times article about the show, Howard Rosenberg noted, “One senses from talking separately to Simon and Groening in their Fox offices that the two are as incompatible and out of tune with each other as the Simpsons.” Simon condescendingly characterized Groening’s role as the show’s “ambassador.” The friction between them grew incredibly petty, some of which was detailed in John Ortved’s 2009 oral history of the show, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History. Brian Roberts, a former editor on the show, recounted one instance:

When we’d do a screening, it was Matt, Sam, and I. And they were like two five-year olds not speaking. We’d be watching an episode and Sam would say, “Do this.” And Matt would say,
“Will you tell Sam Simon I think that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.” Sam would say, “Would you tell Matt Groening that he doesn’t know his ass from third grade.” We were all sitting shoulder to shoulder! It was extremely uncomfortable for me.

Allegedly, the Season 3 episode “Flaming Moe’s,” in which Moe takes all the credit for a flaming cocktail invented by Homer, was inspired by the acrimony between Groening and Simon.

One of their major disagreements was over the content and vision of the show. Generally, Simon wanted the show to be grounded and free from sitcom cliches. As Vitti said, “Thanks to Sam, Bart will never be hypnotized, there will never be a show with Bart lying in a hospital bed with cut-in clips from old shows, and nobody will ever get amnesia and have to be reminded of what happened by cutting different episodes together!” (Yes, these all happened later in some form or another.) Matt Groening, on the other hand, had some rather oddball ideas in the initial years. As Simon told Rosenberg:

“What really elevated ‘The Simpsons’ is that a lot of really talented people have come in from the Tracey show. Matt’s (creative) voice is certainly in ‘The Simpsons,’ but initially he was talking about a show where there’d be Martians and a lot of fantasy,” said Simon, grimacing. “I’m glad we rejected that.”

One of Groening’s ideas was that Marge Simpson was secretly a rabbit from Life in Hell, who was hiding her large rabbit ears in her hair. Simon firmly rejected the idea, but it appears Groening snuck the idea into The Simpsons Arcade Game without his awareness.

According to Ortved, Simon became increasingly difficult to work with, and his relationship with Brooks and his studio, Gracie Films, began to disintegrate. Eventually Simon reached a deal to leave The Simpsons, but keep his producer credit and all the money that came with it (an estimated $20-30 million a year). Since then, he made just a handful of contributions to the show: a self-portrait as an elderly recluse with really long fingernails in “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular,” and changing his “spooky name” in recent Halloween episodes to “Simonsam@twitTERROR,” replacing the usual “Sam ‘Sayonara’ Simon.”

Nevertheless, the bitterness between Groening and Simon lingered for years afterward. In a November 2001 article in the New York Times Magazine, Groening called Simon “brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I’ve ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced.” Simon was more charitable: “When I see Matt now, I shake hands and say hello. I can’t lie and say that Matt did what he didn’t do, but I do appreciate him creating that family. Thanks to Bart Simpson I have a pretty good life.”

After his departure from The Simpsons, Simon worked on The Drew Carey Show and created a short-lived sitcom starring George Carlin. It appears Simon hadn’t become any easier to work with: “Lesson learned: always check mental health of creative partner beforehand,” wrote Carlin on his website. “We all knew Sam was crazy,” cast member Phil LaMarr confessed to the A.V. Club. “I would say that any show I’ve ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy. I hate myself,” Simon explained in a 2007 60 Minutes profile.

Simon had a number of interesting hobbies. He participated in a number of poker tournaments, and for a time had a poker show on Playboy TV called “Sam’s Game.” He also coached champion boxer Lamon Brewster, and was named World Boxing Organization’s Manager of the Year in 2004.

Using the fortune he was earning from The Simpsons, Simon became a philanthropist. In 2002, he founded the Sam Simon Foundation, which rescues dogs and trains them to assist veterans and the disabled, provides spay and neuter services in the Los Angeles area, and provides vegan food for the poor. In 2012, he donated a $2 million ship to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, for their efforts against Japanese whalers. It was christened the SSS Sam Simon. He also donated to PETA (one of their headquarters buildings bears his name) and Save the Children. According to Inside Philanthropy, Simon wasn’t sure how much he had given away to charity.

In March 2013, Simon announced he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had been given only months to live. For the next two years, Simon provided his Twitter followers with a candid look at his chemotherapy and treatment with good humor, posting pictures of his nurses, the seemingly endless medical procedures he undertook, and the marijuana and paraphernalia friends had given him.

On January 22, he tweeted: “Btw, even if I die tomorrow, Which i wont, i have beaten cancer. The past two years have been the happiest of my life.”

GENERAL SWARTZ-WATCH

Pistol Pete

Pistol Pete, a 1996 pilot for a Western spoof written and produced by legendary Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, has surfaced for the first time thanks to a mysterious benefactor on YouTube:

The show centers around Pistol Pete, a fake cowboy starring in a New York City Wild West stage show who becomes the real sheriff of a Western town, played by the impeccable Stephen Kearney. It’s kinda like the Adam West Batman series set in the West with absurd Swartzweldian gags.

Like its mysterious creator, Pistol Pete gained some notoriety because pretty much nobody outside the people who produced it had ever seen it. Will Harris of Antenna Free TV wrote a comprehensive account – or at least as comprehensive as you can be about something you’ve never seen – about it last year, scoring interviews with Kearney and co-star Mark Derwin. Apparently, Swartzwelder was in such high demand that the studio pretty much gave him whatever he wanted. Unfortunately, the Fox network declined to pick it up as a series, possibly because Rupert Murdoch was feeling sleepy when the executives screened it.

Upon discovery (…?) of the video, Swartzwelder e-mailed it to Harris, who then tweeted it to the world. Now, perhaps the only big Simpsons writer “holy grail” that remains is George Meyer’s script for an unproduced movie that was to star David Letterman.

[YouTube via Twitter]

COMING ATTRACTIONS

Yes, the Simpsons are going off the air… so they can star in an exclusive 3-night concert at the Hollywood Bowl this weekend! Half the cast will be there! Conan O’Brien will do the monorail song! Beverly D’Angelo, Jon Lovitz, and Weird Al will make appearances! Who knows, maybe writer John Swartzwelder will perform one of his legendary death-defying motorcycle stunts!

The Simpsons Take The Bowl

It seems “The Simpsons Take The Bowl” has been in the works for a while – a very long time if the copyright date on this picture drawn by longtime Simpsons director David Silverman is any indication – and some new details are finally oozing out, thanks to the Los Angeles Times and Twitter. Unfortunately, most of the stuff demanded by the fans didn’t make it in, but it’s still going to make The Simpsons On Ice look like a bootleg puppet show.
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WRITER WATCH

wagon train

Former union kingpin Patric Verrone, who wrote for Futurama and The Simpsons, and has a thriving historical figurines business, is running for California State Senate. If elected, he would be the second Simpsons writer to hold public office, following John Swartzwelder’s disastrous coup in Guyana.

As president of the Writers Guild of America, West, Verrone led the 2007-2008 writers strike that lead to higher wages and longer beards. Now he’s hitting up people for money by namedropping the shows he worked on:

“At ‘Futurama,’ I wrote a lot about the future,” he said. “For California, the future is still being written. In the script we write together, there’s a happy ending. Please join me in in this cause. We’re still in this together.”

Get it? He wrote Futurama, so now he’s going to write the future, with everyone, banging away on the typewriters of Democracy. Wait a minute… he wants to write a happy ending? He wants to end California?!? This mad man must be stopped at all costs.

[Variety]

GENERAL SWARTZ-WATCH, SMARTLINE

meh“Meh,” that ever-popular expression of indifference or existential apathy, entered into our collective vernacular thanks to a boost from The Simpsons. But whence did meh come from originally? Language talkin’ guy Ben Zimmer has been looking into its etymology for years and seems to have traced it back to Alexander Harkavy’s Yiddish-English-Hebrew Dictionary from 1928. In trying to find out where the Simpsons writers got it, Zimmer managed to get a response from reclusive shaman John Swartzwelder:

…Swartzwelder did have a memory of where he first came across meh, though it wasn’t in Mad. “I had originally heard the word from an advertising writer named Howie Krakow back in 1970 or 1971 who insisted it was the funniest word in the world,” he told me. So let’s thank Mr. Krakow for his unwitting role in the spread of the meh meme.

Case closed, maybe?

[Language Log via Slate]

GROEN DRAIN, SPRINGFIELD SHOPPER

matt groening dollSimpson creator Matt Groening went to Egypt to check out the pyramid and he foolishly ignored all the hieroglyphic warnings and trespassed into the forbidden zone when all of a sudden The Mummy appeared and cast a big curse on him. As karmic retribution for all his brazen merchandising and capitalist crimes, Mr. Groening was turned into a piece of merchandise himself, how ironic. Now he is no longer human, he is just a doll and can’t do human things anymore, rip.

OK but seriously now, for just fifty American dollars you can buy a toy version of the guy whose signature appears on all your other Simpsons toys. Here’s what the solicitation says:

Created by legendary “Life is Hell” cartoonist Matt Groening, THE SIMPSONS is celebrating its 500th episode in February 2012, and Kidrobot is honoring the father of primetime animation in the only way we know how – making him into a 6-inch vinyl toy! Complete with goatee and glasses, director’s jacket, and pad and pencil accessories, it is the first EVER Simpsons Matt Groening toy.

Essentially, if you cut out the middlemen, you can pay a guy money and he will give you a doll version of himself. This is so weird and messed up that I needed to lie down to fully contemplate the many levels of Meta this object encapsulates.

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EXCLUSIVE

After finding out former Simpsons writer David M. Stern (Bart Gets an F, Kamp Krusty) developed Ugly Americans (watch it!! it’s cool), I got curious and decided to find out what some other ex-Simpsons people are up to. DISCLAIMERS/CAVEATS: 1. I basically only looked at wikipedia and imdb, so this could be rife with inaccuracies, etc. 2. With some exceptions, I don’t care about anyone who joined the show after it got bad or only wrote like one episode 3. This is essentially limited to movies/tv, since the internet assumes people fell off the face of the earth if they’re not doing something for mass audiences

Richard Appel (writer): Showrunner for The Cleveland Show

Wes Archer (director): Was working on The Goode Family until it got cancelled; unclear what he’s currently doing

Brad Bird (director): Doing a live-action movie for Pixar (zuh????)

Daniel Chun (writer): Now writing for The Office

David S/X. Cohen (writer): His beloved baby Futurama returns in June on Comedy Central

Jonathan Collier (writer): MIA

Jennifer Crittenden (writer): Producing mysterious project called What’s Your Number?

Greg Daniels (writer): Co-creations The Office and Parks and Recreation still going strong

Brent Forrester (writer): Writer for The Office

Ken Keeler (writer): Nerding it up at Futurama

Jay Kogan (writer): Executive producer for some supernatural live-action Nickelodeon show called The Troop; writing an adaptation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Lauren MacMullan (director): MIA

Jeff Martin (writer/clown): MIA

George Meyer (writer): Occasionally contributes to The New Yorker

Bill Oakley (showrunner, seasons 7 – 8): Writing stuff from Portland

Conan O’Brien (writer): Legally prohibited from being funny on television

Jim Reardon (director): Presumably still Pixarin’ it up

Mike Reiss (showrunner, seasons 3-4): While technically still a producer for The Simpsons (I think??), he’s been doing a bunch of other projects like writing children’s books, computer-animated movies, and the critically-unacclaimed My Life in Ruins

David M. Stern (writer): Developed Ugly Americans, which recently debuted on Comedy Central

Mike Scully (showrunner, seasons 9-12): Writer on Parks & Recreation

John Swartzwelder (writer): Still cranking out funny books from his secret underground lair

Sam Simon (executive producer/showrunner, seasons 1-2): Doing some poker thing

Jon Vitti (writer): Co-wrote an upcoming movie starring Steve Carell; currently working on something called “Boo U.”

Josh Weinstein (showrunner, seasons 7-8): MIA??? Wikipedia says he’s a producer on Futurama (again), but I’m not sure if I believe that

Frank Welker (voice actor, Santa’s Little Helper): Most recent voice credit is “Additional Nuts Voice”

Lona Williams (beauty pageant winner/writing assistant): MIA

Wallace Wolodarsky (writer): Voiced an opossum in Fantastic Mr. Fox; adapting a Philip K. Dick story into a Disney cartoon