Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to The Simpsons showrunner Al Jean about what watching old episodes on Disney+ says about the evolution of the series and our culture.
There was a time when Bart Simpson would not be welcome on Disney+. Older millennials will recall that when The Simpsons became popular on FOX in the early ’90s, most kids weren’t allowed to watch it because Bart swore (“Ay Caramba!”) and carried a slingshot.
Fast forward to thirty years later, and the only way to watch every episode of The Simpsons is by subscribing to Disney’s content network. This says a lot about how far The Simpsons has come in 30 years; where it once was provocative, it’s now worthy of being neighbors with Donald and Daisy (as opposed to George Bush).
Al Jean has been a part of The Simpsons from the beginning and serves as the series’ current showrunner. Once again, the show earned a 2020 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Animated Program, and I had the pleasure of speaking with Jean about why he doesn’t like to watch other animated shows, whether Homer would be a Trump supporter, and his idea for a series finale (relax, it ain’t happening anytime soon).
Awards Daily: You’ve been at this for 30-some years. How has working on the show evolved and changed in three decades?
Al Jean: Well, we’re still writing stories about a family. We’re still trying to find emotion at the same time as humor. The biggest changes have been technological; we predated Google and digitization of animation. Those things alone have been time-savers. We went to HD in our 20th season. Mostly because everybody else was doing it, and with HD, everybody had to. We changed with the times.
AD: That’s probably the biggest triumph of the show that it has changed with the times. But do you ever worry you’ll run out of ideas? What’s your creative process like? What do you look for in story ideas?
AJ: I don’t think we’ll run out of ideas because families aren’t running out of problems. There’s so much to draw from, as long as we’re trying to observe life and comment on it, I think we’ll be okay. We’ve recorded 700 episodes now and a lot of them have two plot lines, so that’s over 1,400 plots that we’ve done. I try not to watch the other animated shows too much, because I get too depressed. There are too many stories that have been done. (Laughs)
AD: Family Guy always says, “We’ve taken so much from The Simpsons.” That’s their ongoing joke. What has it been like working through the pandemic? I talked to Nancy Cartwright and she said it’s a show you can do from home. Have you been working on next season?
AJ: Yeah, it’s a show we can do remotely. The actors can record at home, the writers can work through Zoom, mixes can be done remotely. We haven’t missed a day. We feel super-blessed, especially with so many things having trouble staying in production.
AD: Wow. That’s so amazing. That’s great. I was thinking about with the move of The Simpsons to Disney+. When I was a kid and this show came out, it was edgy, even though my parents let me watch it because they loved it. So much of my humor comes from the show. I think it’s funny that now it’s on Disney+, when kids weren’t allowed to watch it. What do you think this says about the show and its effect on popular culture?
AJ: I think it says more about the way culture has moved in our direction. As you remember, at the beginning, people said Bart was an outrageous horrible example for children. My older daughter went to private school and they said no one can wear T-shirts (e.g. Bart Simpson), and then cut to 15 years later, and they’re asking me for stuff for the school auction and we’re on Disney+, and I think it’s trending No. 1 on Disney+. I think we haven’t changed as much as society has moved and people who were 10 when we started are 40 now, so it’s a totally different landscape. If you look at animation now, certainly things have gotten much more outrageous than we were. And that’s great. That’s the way life works.
AD: I love the thing you did last week after Jenna Ellis compared Kamala Harris to Marge Simpson, the rebuttal from Marge on Twitter. How did you put that together?
AJ: Extremely quickly. I think it set a record. Jim Brooks [executive producer], we were reading a show, and he said we’re going to get Julie [Kavner] (voice of Marge) to record after the show. And then Jim, Matt Groening, (writer) Matt Selman, and I worked on what she would say. We worked with Julie and we recorded a bunch of takes. This was all the day after the story broke. We were able to repurpose some animation from another show that (animator) David Silverman redirected to use that clip of the house at the end. Literally this is the fastest we’ve responded to anything. We got it out a day after it happened. I’m pleased that it got so much response. I guess nobody’s going to be messing with Marge anymore. (Laughs)
AD: I loved it. It made me think, too, about which TV characters would be Trump supporters. Do you think this is making a statement and saying the Simpsons wouldn’t be? Would they be Democrats?
AJ: Well, a kid can’t vote, because if they could, Lisa would vote not for Trump, I’m pretty positive. I think Marge made her position pretty clear. I think Homer would forget to vote. (Laughs) As important as the election is, he would forget. We are going to have an election spot at the front of the Treehouse of Horror this year. You’ll see what Homer does this year.
AD: (Laughs) I constantly think about how the show has predicted so many that have happened, including the Trump presidency, with the female president successor cleaning up his mess—maybe representing Kamala. What do you think of this show making such accurate predictions? It is creepy? Does it affect your writing?
AJ: We did have this discussion where one of the writers was like, “Let’s put this in—then it’ll come true!” And the rest of us, were like, “No, it doesn’t work that way! It’s all an accident.” With the Trump thing, the original name in that spot was Johnny Depp, and we changed it to Trump, because in the year 2000, it wasn’t so crazy to say he might be president. He was talking about running as a reform party candidate. One in a thousand shot, but it came true. Most of our predictions that have come true have been in a similar vein. We predicted that Brazil would lose the World Cup to Germany. Lady Gaga, we predicted her halftime act. We predicted by parodying her stage act. A lot of them are like that. I will say the Trump one, that’s pretty eerie.
AD: It’s hard to watch that episode. (Laughs)
AJ: But it does have a happy ending.
AD: (Laughs) It does! Do you have a final episode in mind for the entire series?
AJ: Well, we’ve done a lot that could have been a good last episode. Like “Behind the Laughter” or “Holidays of Future Passed.” I always thought that if we did an end, it would be good if it ended with the family going to the Christmas pageant that opened the first show, and the whole series is a loop. It’s not a beginning or an end but a continuous strip entity. I thought that would be a cool ending.
AD: My idea was always that Lisa starts third grade, Bart starts fifth grade, and something sticks. They actually move on to the next thing. Homer gets a new job and keeps it. You can tell that I’ve obsessed over this for years, too. (Laughs)
AJ: Those are good ideas, too. You’re in the right direction. But let’s just say, I hope it doesn’t happen anytime soon.
AD: I hope it doesn’t either. However, I did hear that there’s a film sequel in talks. Do you have any updates on that?
AJ: The only update I have is that the whole film business is finding its feet right now. To do an animated feature where we’d want it to be released theatrically, we’re not that far along, but whether we were or not, it would still be a while because a studio like Disney/Pixar, they have all of these animated features that they’re already working on trying to find release dates, so it would have to be after that. It wouldn’t be soon. The whole movie industry, I hope it comes back really soon, but it’s really just thinking about when it can start. We’re so lucky we can do television, because what we do, we haven’t missed a moment. In features, they’re stymied. It’s a really weird time. But that’s the least of people’s problems, I know.
2020 Outstanding Animated Program Emmy nominee The Simpsons airs on Sundays at 8 p.m. ET.