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.”