GENERAL SWARTZ-WATCH

An image of a statue of John Swartzwelder in The Simpsons.

John Swartzwelder has given his first-ever interview with The New Yorker, where the legendary Simpsons writer talks at length about his past and reflects upon his work.

This is a huge surprise, because Swartzwelder has a reputation as a mysterious, eccentric guy. As John Ortved wrote in his book, “Swartzwelder is an enigma. No one I interviewed knows much about the man, and unlike [George] Meyer, he has never given an interview or spoken publicly about himself or his work.” Fellow Simpsons writer Matt Selman blogged, “John Swartzwelder is immensely private. He would not want to be blogged about.” The only time his voice has been heard publicly is when showrunner Mike Scully called him during a DVD commentary (in an interview with the podcast Talking Simpsons, Scully says he had to give him an animation cel to get him to sign a release form). Amazingly, he still holds the record for most episodes written, even though he left the show nearly two decades ago.

In the interview, which writer Mike Sacks says was “in the works for over a year,” Swartzwelder reflects on his time in advertising and Saturday Night Live, offers some great writing advice, clarifies some misperceptions about the diner booth he installed in his home, shares his thoughts on the deification of the Simpsons writers’ room (“I know some people think of us as gods, and maybe we are. I’m not saying we’re not gods.”) and the word “Swartzweldian” (“about the most awkward-sounding word in the English language”), reveals his favorite season, and confirms the mostly-promotional Twitter account @JJSwartzwelder is him. He also mentions a cartoon he drew for George Meyer’s cult zine Army Man featuring “some nicely drawn chickens” with perfect beaks (you be the judge).

The whole thing is oozing with great jokes and is very much worth your time.

[The New Yorker]

READING DIGEST

did u ever know that ur my hero

Back in 1994, there were plans for a spinoff of The Simpsons centered around Krusty the Clown moving to Los Angeles and becoming a talk show host. The twist is that the show would’ve been live-action, with Dan Castellaneta, the voice of Krusty, starring as the character. Creator Matt Groening, who co-wrote a pilot script with The King of Queens creator Michael Weithorn, was quoted in a 1999 Entertainment Weekly article reflecting on the challenges of working in live-action:

We had this running joke in the script that Krusty was living in a house on stilts and there were beavers gnawing their way through the stilts. But somebody at the network pointed out how expensive it was to hire trained beavers — and an equally prohibitive cost would be to get mechanical beavers — so I said, “If we animated this, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

And that was absolutely everything we ever knew about the project… until now!

Simpsons expert @ThatGuy3002, known for his deep dives into scripts on Twitter, found out a lot more about the ill-fated spinoff, and shared his findings in a tweet thread:

Click through to read the whole thread, which reveals plot details about the surprisingly death-heavy pilot episode, how another Fox show about an alcoholic clown may have poisoned the well for clown-related entertainment, and what really killed the spinoff (spoiler: money). I have my doubts about the quality levels of what sounds like a Larry Sanders rip-off mixed with the 1992 Boris and Natasha movie, but I’m nevertheless fascinated by this odd footnote in Simpsons history. It doesn’t sound like production ever went any further than the script, but if any photographic evidence of Dan Castellaneta in full-blown Krusty makeup exists, please please please share it with the world.

VOICE BOX

Negotiations with Harry Shearer appear to have hit a wee bit of a snag, as the longtime Simpsons cast member has apparently announced he’s leaving the show.

Shearer made the announcement on Twitter late last night, quoting an imaginary press release from James L. Brooks’s Lawyer, for some reason. Take a look:

Then he seized the opportunity to plug his new comedy song about cops. Hey, why not?

burning bridge

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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.”

WRITER WATCH

Simpsons writer/producer Marc Wilmore announced his departure from the show in a strange series of tweets.

Previously a writer/performer on In Loving Color and The PJs, Wilmore joined The Simpsons in 2000. He was the sole black writer to have been part of the show’s writing staff (Michael Carrington, who co-wrote “Homer’s Triple Bypass” and voiced Sideshow Raheem, wasn’t technically part of the staff).

On Thursday and Friday, he tweeted self-deprecating jokes about his newfound unemployment and suggestions the parting was less than amicable. It’s most certainly all part of a comedy bit, but… what if it wasn’t…?!?

Judge for yourself…

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WEB-WATCH

stoned simpsons

Twitter user @Homer_Marijuana‘s gripping Simpsons weedpunk saga that took cyberspace by storm has come to an end, and is a must-read for anyone who’s a fan of The Simpsons, irony, millennial angst, and/or illicit activity.

First, a little backstory: after allegedly losing some sort of bet with internet mogul vrunt, the Twitter user formerly known as collatingbones was forced to reconfigure his brand around the concept of “what if homer simpson smokes weed.” For the first couple of weeks, @Homer_Marijuana posted musings about the concept of beloved cartoon icon Homer Simpson smoking the marijuana drug and unrelated tweets.

Then on June 29th it shifted gears and settled into a narrative, told almost solely in short bursts of dialogue one tweet at a time, about the Simpsons and their unliked son Ken smoking weed on a gazebo known as the “Herb Fortress.” The stakes grew higher the next day: after America is attacked on 9/11, Bart (age 19) is deployed to Iraq and becomes a remorseless killer. As Homer tries to stop the war, the Simpson men become mixed up with Al Qaeda and international drug lord Circus Bob. The family becomes torn apart, and Lisa temporarily moves in with the twin aunts Thelma and Selma. Sonic the Hedgehog grapples with the death of his father and rival dealer Bender moving into his territory. Nelson searches for a surrogate father. Apu is discovered to be very valuable. Flanders tries to learn how to be like Homer, but ends up draining the Simpsons’s gravity bong by mistake. Maggie is briefly disowned for accidentally feeding thirty years of kief to the dog.

Later, Bart returns home and has trouble re-assimilating back into society. Maggie becomes obsessed with megabats. Moe’s efforts to get a family has tragic consequences. Global drug magnate Mr. Burns plans something shady, and his former ally Officer Wiggum becomes determined to crack down on the drugs that have turned Simpson City into a den of iniquity. Throughout the story, characters lament their fate, Lenny, Carl, and Moe (later, Bumblebee Man) comment on story developments like a Greek chorus, and it becomes a musical towards the end.

Sound intriguing??? The whole story has been collected and reformatted into screenplay format on Scribd for your perusal.

JEAN MACHINE

al jean

Simpsons showruner Al Jean recently joined the social dating app “Twitter,” and has already committed many a faux pas. It’s always funny to see new users struggle with the learning curve, doubly so if it’s someone semi-famous.

Here’s a DEVASTATING TAKEDOWN of his initial tweets from friend-of-the-site hammster, with links added:

his first tweet he refers to joining twitter as “entering twitter”. entering.
his second tweet tells me to watch a couch gag on youtube without linking to it
his third tweet he misspells excited as “exicted”
the only tweet he has favourited is a manual retweet of a tweet from the official simpsons account RATHER THAN THE ACTUAL TWEET

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BROOKS BLOTTER

Spanglish director and Simpsons head honcho James “Jimbo” Brooks recently teased an upcoming guest star on Twitter, claiming it’s on par with Michael Jackson’s appearance in 1991:

It’s gotta be Obama, right? Dude’s willing to do a Funny or Die sketch, but not the venerable American institution known as The Simpsons? They’ve already gotten three Beatles, a sitting prime minister, a reclusive author, AND telephone voice Joan Kenley; who else is even notable enough to get these old grizzled comedy writers all jazzed up?

Other guesses I’m throwing out there:

  • Bob Dylan – Turned them down before, maybe he relented?
  • The Game of Thrones guy – All the writers are horrible nerds, so…
  • Pope Francis – Hey, it could happen.
  • Ella Fitzgerald – Maybe Brooks discovered a way to revive the dead during his time at My Mother The Car?

Speculate away in the non-existent comment section below.

ANNOYED GRUNTS

Crossover! Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul? Family Guy has listened to your 1999-era fan fiction and is going full steam-ahead on a crossover episode where the Griffins meet the Simpsons, and wackiness is sure to ensue. Just think of the possibilities: maybe Homer and Peter will argue over which cartoon beer is better?? Maybe Stewie and Maggie will try to kill someone?? Maybe the talking dog will sniff the other dog’s butt?? Unfortunately you’ll have to wait more than a year to see all your amazing Animation Domination crossover fantasies brought to life on the silver screen.

Anyway, Brad Bird, who’s now a big-time director about to start production on a sci-fi movie called Tomorrowland and needn’t concern himself with piddley new developments in the field of long-running run-into-the-ground TV cartoons, weighed in on Twitter by saying he agrees with his former boss, 1995 Matt Groening.

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