ATX Television Fest: The Simpsons' Al Jean
Writer/producer reflects on 27 years of the beloved sitcom
By Rod Machen,
5:30PM, Sun. Jun. 7, 2015
Al Jean might not be a household name to most people, but fans of The Simpsons will have seen his name countless times as the credits roll. He’s been there from the beginning, being one of the original staff writers and later an executive producer and show runner, a title he has held since 2001.
As the show enters its 27th season, the ATX Television Festival hosted a panel of Simpsons luminaries, and the Chronicle talked to Jean beforehand.
Austin Chronicle: What exciting things can we expect from The Simpsons panel?
Al Jean: The people that are there on this panel: Jim Brooks was there from the very first day. He’s the one who bought The Simpsons from Matt [Groening]. David Silverman was also there from the beginning, as a director who was instrumental in the [Tracey Ullman Show] shorts, and there’s even a story about how he was the guy who really said, 'You've got to do it as a series,' to Jim. The episodes he directed really put the show on the map. I was one of the first staff writers hired when it was transitioning to a half-hour show. Sadly, one of the people who was instrumental, Sam Simon, this would have been his 60th birthday. He certainly was huge in all of it.
AC: As long as The Simpsons has been airing, it's had a multitude of people working on it, but there are also several longtimers. How do both of these groups help make the show what it is?
AJ: Well, we just hired two new writers, for example. I’m always interested in the point of view of someone who isn’t that familiar with the show, who comes into it fresh. There’s a place for people like me where I remember what we’ve done. Well, usually, although there have been a couple of jokes we've repeated, I’m embarrassed to say. If you look at any well-run company, I think it’s a blend of experience and youth, and you have to find the correct one. For a television show, we’ve kind of evolved into something else. It’s been on so long, we can think about things in two-year segments. We can make bigger plans. Have guest artists do couch gags. All that is freedom you just don’t get elsewhere.
AC: At another panel, I heard someone say for the commitment from the network, you almost have to buy a second season before the first one airs because of how far out things are.
AJ: Yeah, that was the big commitment. Fox was very new and didn’t have a lot of money. They had to take a $10-15 million hit to get the first 13 episodes. There was a really, really scary moment when the first episode that was supposed to air was not directed well – and I’m not telling any tales; this is known – it was so bad that the whole thing nearly went up in smoke, the whole franchise. But the second episode that David directed – “Bart the Genius” – was great, so there was a decision to, instead of premiere in the fall, to move to Christmas. The episode that was bad was redone by David and re-aired as the last one of the first season.
AC: The Simpsons has a timeless quality, especially compared to some of its contemporaries. For instance, Murphy Brown.
AJ: At the end of a show called “Selma’s Choice,” [season 4, episode 13] where she got an iguana, she was singing “You make me feel like a natural woman” to the iguana. It was a parody of what was then a huge thing of Murphy Brown singing that song to her baby. It never occurred to me that would almost be forgotten, whereas our thing, now people see it and say, “Well, that’s surreal. What the heck is that?”
AC: Watching Murphy Brown now feels like you’re in 1989.
AJ: You really have to be a historian to remember what the jokes mean. Because we have a 10-month lead, we really don’t do jokes that you’re not going to get in 10 months, much less 10 years, so I think it has really helped us. We had a joke back then about the Soviet Union, and before the show came back [from being animated], the Soviet Union had broken up, so we had to change it. Thankfully, Putin has put it back together.