For 11 seasons and 250+ episodes, The Simpsons has been synonymous with television's sharpest and funniest satire, a body of work with some of the best moments in the history of the medium. In recent years, the show has grown increasingly unpredictable, periodically lapsing into outright absurdity rather than running the risk of recycling old storylines, but it remains a treasure thanks to some of the best writers and voice actors in the business. Appearing in Aspen for the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival--where he appeared with Matt Groening as a host of "The Simpsons Live," the first-ever public readings of the show by virtually the entire cast--executive producer Mike Scully spoke to The Onion about the show and its place in his career.
The Onion: How did you get involved with The Simpsons? You've been with the show since 1993, right?
Mike Scully: Right. I joined after Season 4. David Mirkin was running the show at the time, and he was kind enough to hire me. At the time, I thought I was just getting in under the wire, because I figured the show would last five, six years—you know, "At least I'll get a couple years in before it's over." Now, here we are, getting ready for Season 12.
O: Did you ever think it would last this long?
MS: Nobody did. Five years is a good run for a sitcom; seven is good, but usually it's a couple years of staying past your welcome. So, no, we never anticipated this. Right now, there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. There does for me, but not for the show.
O: There do seem to be a lot of people coming and going. How have you stayed on board as long as you have? It seems like a great jumping-off point.
MS: I did a lot of really crappy sitcoms before I got to The Simpsons. I had some pretty long stretches of unemployment, a lot of highs and lows, so when I got there, I really appreciated it. Still, to this day, I savor every moment: to be on a show that I'd watch anyway, and to actually be proud of a show instead of lying to your friends when they ask you what show you work on. There were times when I'd rather say I was unemployed than say what show I was on. It's a writer's paradise. You have no interference from the studio or the network, so you really get to do what you want. I know that once I leave the show, it's not going to be that way. So I'm very happy kind of milking it to the end. As far as turnover in the staff goes, there are several key people who have remained with the show: There's [executive producer] George Meyer. There's John Swartzwelder, who's written almost 50 episodes now. [Executive producer] Al Jean came back, which has been a huge help. David Mirkin consults on the show, so that gives it continuity. And people like [executive producer] Ian Maxtone-Graham and [story editor] Ron Hauge have been there a number of years. They make a huge contribution, and that keeps the continuity going and allows us to make other changes when people leave.
O: It's weird: The Simpsons is on a major network, yet it still has this unspoiled quality about it. How have you been able to maintain the integrity of the show?
MS: Spoiled in what way?
O: Where the network comes in and says you need to bring in...
MS: Oh, bring in a puppy from outer space. [Laughs.] Yeah. Well, it goes right back to the beginning of the series. When Jim Brooks set it up at Fox, those were his terms: They couldn't come in and make suggestions. And that's not to say that their suggestions would have all been bad, but he wanted to do the show the way he wanted to do it. If he was going to go to the trouble of launching a prime-time animated show—at the time, Jim was very busy with movies—he really wanted to make it worth his while. And it paid off. To this day, every time we start doing a story that I know is really crazy, like if Bart and Homer think they have leprosy, and you know the network would say no, it really opens up a lot of areas for you. It's great to have that complete freedom.
O: You mentioned getting a little bit more outlandish, with leprosy and so on. The show definitely has gotten a little bit more...
MS: Insane. Yeah. Part of that comes out of the fact that we've been doing the show for so long—we've done so many stories—that, now, when we sit down and try to think of new stories, we're constantly thinking of things we've already done. It's so hard to come up with something a fraction different. Then you stumble upon an area like leprosy, which everyone knows is comedy gold. I remember when it was pitched in the room—as a joke, not as a real pitch—and we all laughed. Then, about an hour later, after pitching other possibilities for the third act, I remember sitting there going, "Leprosy, eh?" So we decided to give it a shot.
O: You mentioned working on crappy sitcoms. I remember probably four years ago, we interviewed [producer] Josh Weinstein, and he was talking about the shows he'd worked on, like Sunday Best.
MS: I can top those. I did a show called What A Country, with Yakov Smirnoff and Don Knotts. I used to write jokes for Yakov's stand-up act. I did a show called Out Of This World, which actually ran for four years. We did almost 100 episodes about a girl whose father lived on another planet, and she was half-alien. From there I went to a show called Top Of The Heap with Joe Bologna and Matt LeBlanc. Six episodes, but it felt like 100. The Royal Family. It was the show Redd Foxx was doing when he passed away. I came in right after he died.
O: You were involved in the post-Redd Foxx episodes?
MS: Yeah, so I didn't even have a good story. I mean, you do a lot of those kinds of shows. I did hidden-camera shows. I've been around the block a few times. Like I said, I really savor The Simpsons, and any time somebody young comes into the show, if I sense that they're kind of antsy, that they think this is just a stepping stone and they want to move on, I usually try and tell 'em, "Hey, it's awful cold out there. You should really appreciate this, because you'll never have it as good as this again. Never. You might make more money, but you'll never have this kind of creative freedom again."
O: It's amazing that, because people work on these bad shows, you don't always know who's got talent and who doesn't.
MS: Well, you've got to pay the bills and you want to get your foot in. The great shows usually aren't going to look for somebody completely untested, so you have to kind of get your feet wet doing other shows. And you can learn a ton of things on a lousy show: You can learn how not to do things, and you still gain a lot of experience in terms of how to structure a story, work with actors, and edit a show. You can still learn all that stuff; you just hope that... The worst thing you can do is get sucked in, where you take the job thinking, "Oh, this thing is a piece of crap, but it's gonna pay the bills." But then, at some point, you kind of get sucked in and go, "Hey, this is pretty good." You lose your perspective. You have to always be aware when you're writing crap. I think as long as you have that, there's no shame in doing it. At any given time, you might have five or six really decent sitcoms on the air, and maybe there are 10 writers per show. That's maybe 60 or 70 jobs, and you've got 5,000 people trying to get them.
O: If all you've done is crap, how do they know you're good?
MS: You hope they don't look at your résumé, first of all, and that they just look at your material. Because I couldn't use any scripts from the shows I'd worked on, I always had samples of other shows; I had a Seinfeld and a Larry Sanders. The hardest part is to get them to open it, to ignore your résumé and open the script anyway and take a look. There are a lot of good writers who get stuck on bad shows, and there are a lot of bad writers who end up having good careers because their first job was on a really good show. Even if they get fired, it's on the résumé. You were on Seinfeld and you just ride that to the next one.
O: One of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons, and this would have been during your tenure, was the "Poochie" episode. [In it, Homer gets a job as the voice of "Poochie The Rockin' Dog," a new character on the cartoon Itchy & Scratchy. —ed.] There's that incredible scene where the comic-book guy refers to the "worst episode ever," and Bart says, "They've given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free; what could they possibly owe you?" Watching that, it was like 100 voices behind The Simpsons shouting the line in unison.
MS: We do that once in awhile. Usually, it's just a shot at the Internet group, who I've never understood. There are some really passionate fans, and you always appreciate that because that's what keeps the show going, but I don't understand the ones who keep watching year after year, only to say every episode stinks and that the show should be canceled and that I should be fired. It's like, "Why are you still watching? You've hated it for five years. I'd give up if I were you, if it's that much of a chore." So, yeah, we do it. We nudge them once in a while. All done with love, though.
O: It seems like the comic-book guy is there to serve as a little voodoo doll representing those people.
MS: We actually just used him a week ago, in the episode where Homer and Bart got the racehorse. When we were breaking the story, we realized we were in dangerous territory, getting close to the episode with Lisa's pony from years ago, and we wanted to acknowledge that. So, when it looked like the Simpsons were going to take the horse home, we had the comic-book guy stand up and point out how it had happened once before, and Homer just says, "Does anybody care what this guy says?" Everybody says no, and then we're off and running with the episode. We used it later in the same episode: At the racetrack, Marge has a fistful of tickets that she's bet and Lisa says, "I'm worried that you're getting a gambling problem." And the comic-book guy pops in again with, "I'm watching you." [Laughs.]
O: How many episodes have you done now?
MS: About 250. Number 250 hasn't aired yet, but we've done 252, I think.
O: Is there ever a point where you see an end to it?
MS: I used to predict, and I was wrong so many times that I just stop now. I never anticipated seasons 11 or 12. There's talk about going on past 12, depending on the ratings and if we can keep the quality up.
O: And salaries.
MS: Well, that's another issue. Yeah, so I don't know. My thing is, I always hope we know when to get out before America is screaming at us to get out. Once they turn on you, they turn hard. I saw them do it with Seinfeld. That last season, there was so much Seinfeld-bashing going on: "He's lost his touch, get off the air, pull the plug." And then Jerry finally says, "We're gonna take the show off. This'll be it." And all of a sudden, everyone's like, "No!" [Laughs.] What do you want?
O: Every once in a while, shows do sweeps-month gimmick episodes. You just did a someone-will-die episode.
MS: Oh, yeah, it was probably the worst-kept secret in show biz. Too many people had access to it. The intention was never to keep it a big secret. Actually, Al Jean had suggested a promotional campaign saying, "Next Sunday night, someone will die on The Simpsons. Will it be Homer? Bart? Or Maude Flanders?" [Laughs.] "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" was a lot easier to keep a secret, because it was revealed in the very last scene of the show. With this one, she dies in the first act, so the whole show revolved around it.
O: When did Dr. Marvin Monroe die?
MS: I remember that very well. I was in the room, and we just needed a name for a hospital. Somebody pitched "Marvin Monroe Memorial Hospital," and we laughed and put it in the show. Then, later, somebody said, "Well, this means he'll have to be dead from now on." We just kind of shrugged and said, "Okay." We didn't see a lot in his future anyway. But it kind of happened in reverse. We had the joke of the hospital first, then decided he would have to die because of that.
O: I figured it was Harry Shearer [who played Marvin Monroe] throwing his weight around and saying, "I don't want to do this one anymore." I remember reading that it was hard on his voice.
MS: No, no. They never do that. They never complain. And we throw a lot of stuff at them, not knowing if they can do it or not. Last year, we did our Super Bowl show, and we needed somebody to do a Vincent Price impression. We didn't know if anyone could do it, but we just wrote it in and put Dan [Castellaneta]'s name next to it and said, "Okay, Dan will do it." Not only did he do it, but it was an amazing impression. It was so funny, we actually wrote more lines after we heard him do it.
O: You guys do the read-through and then tweak the scripts?
MS: Yeah. They're rewritten throughout—after the read-through and then, once we get the first animation in, we rewrite again. Later, once it comes back in color, we rewrite some more.
O: You do rewrites after it comes back in color?
MS: Yeah. It's much more limited at that time, for financial and time reasons, but we also change some jokes. If we can match the mouth movement that's already there, we can get rid of one joke and put a new one in. That's how we sometimes get lucky and can stick in a topical joke. People are always wondering how you get topical when you're done nine months in advance. We just get lucky.