In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.
In 1989, Al Jean was hired by The Simpsons, joining the show’s original writing staff. Alongside writing partner Mike Reiss, Jean had already contributed to The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, Sledge Hammer!, and National Lampoon, but his work on The Simpsons has come to define his career. The longest-serving showrunner on American television’s longest-running scripted primetime series, Jean has guided The Simpsons for more than half of its record-setting life. Before participating in an ATX Television Festival panel about the show’s history and evolution, Jean answered The A.V. Club’s 11 Questions, touching on the future of Simpsons commentary tracks, the highs and lows of campus employment, and emulating Stan Lee on social media.
Al Jean: In college I worked as a janitor, and someone had left a jar of what I thought was apple juice in the bathroom, and when I opened it—I didn’t drink it, but I realized it was not apple juice and that was horrible.
I also worked as a security guard in college, where they had us students going through basements with no gun but with a little Detex Clock, at like 2 a.m. And I heard someone in the basement, so I’m like “What do I do?” And then the police came and found the guy and it was just like someone who was homeless who was like 3 foot tall, so they’re like, “Really? This scared you?” You don’t know when you hear.
AVC: It’s dark, dorms are scary. These are the things horror movies are made of.
AJ: I mean, really. It was a dumb job. I don’t know why they needed to secure the basements at 2 a.m., using students as cannon fodder.
AJ: When I was working for National Lampoon out of college, I know my mother was always, “Ugh, it’s so vulgar. Can’t you get a job? Can’t you go to business school?” And when I got hired to write on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, suddenly people were all, “This is the boy that writes for Johnny Carson!” [Laughs.] That was a step up. Obviously The Simpsons was, you know, the luckiest thing that ever happened to anybody, anywhere.
AJ: I don’t know if I should say it, but if I was a supervillain, the easiest thing to do in L.A. would be to just set a brushfire up every canyon with one match. A book of matches, you could destroy the city—you don’t need huge lasers.
The other thing I would say I’m afraid of is Comic Con. I go, “They really should beef up security there, because you have all these people dressed like guys carrying big weapons, so…” Both of these things are words to the wise. Please listen to my warnings.
AJ: I was nerdy. I skipped a couple grades when I was young, so I was younger than the other kids in my class, so it was a little awkward, socially. I couldn’t drive in high school until I was a senior. I’ve always been kind of introverted, and so doing an interview like this, everything is a little bit of a push on myself to try to talk and be funny or whatever. So I think a lot of writers, though, are in that place, where they’re more observers, they feel, than participants.
AVC: Do you feel like your sense of humor evolved because of that introversion?
AJ: It was partly that, partly a lot of reading I did, and then a huge boost: My roommate in college was Mike Reiss, who was my writing partner for years, and he got on the [Harvard] Lampoon. That’s why he wanted to go to Harvard. And once I met those guys, I thought “These are the funniest people in the world.” That was the best comedy education anybody could get.
AVC: Did you feel like you had found your clan?
AJ: It was the best. I was kind of lonely—everybody is a little bit in college—and when I found these guys it was, “Oh my God, they’re so fun.” I still work with half of them.
AJ: It was Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island, because I thought “Everybody wants Ginger, so Mary Ann is going to be nice, because she’s not getting any attention, and you might have a shot at going out with her.” I did meet [Dawn Wells, the actress who plays Mary Ann], too. We of course didn’t date, but she was very nice.
And the other thing is, Mary Ann is gorgeous. They’re always acting like “Oh, her.” I’m like, “What? You guys are nuts!”
AJ: “Do It Again” by The Kinks, because we’re just always doing another episode. That’s my mantra.
AVC: Are The Kinks one of your favorite bands? Do you have a long relationship with their music?
AJ: I love The Kinks. I think Ray Davies is a genius. I think he’s a guy where song after song is brilliant stuff, like “Waterloo Sunset” and “Come Dancing.” I think he deserves every accolade he gets.
AVC: And it’s so impressive that he’s able to work such full stories into the space of a pop song.
AJ: Incredible. So many great songwriters in the British Invasion, and he’s as good as any.
AJ: Interviews. [Laughs.] And I went to Quizno’s, because I like Quizno’s and they’re gone in California, at least where I live, so I was like, “A Quizno’s!” Party like it’s 2005.
AJ: Every once in a while, people have said I look like Norm MacDonald and—not that I’d be mistaken for him, but—Buster Keaton. I met Norm, it wasn’t like we were like, “Hey, it’s me!” but I liked him, he’s a nice guy.
AVC: There’s a little bit of a vocal similarity there.
AJ: Well, he’s Canadian and I’m from Michigan, so that’s similar.
AVC: Have you found that people know your voice from the commentaries now?
AJ: Yes, in a very spooky fashion. I was at an airport restaurant in Arizona, and I hadn’t given my credit card, and the guy goes, “Oh, you’re Al Jean from The Simpsons!” That is a bizarre feeling.
AVC: How many hours of commentary do you think you’ve recorded at this point?
AJ: We’re up to episode 350, and I wasn’t on maybe 80 of those, so 270 times 20 minutes would be like 90 hours?
AVC: So when the DVDs discontinue, will that free up a lot of time?
AJ: No, we’re still doing them.
AVC: That’s right: The commentaries will be hosted online?
AJ: Yeah. I was very sorry; it wasn’t my decision that the DVDs were discontinued. So what we’re doing is we’re recording commentaries for every episode—every one we produce. And initially the outlet is FX Now. But my hope, since these will exist, is that someday you could download these anywhere in the world.
AJ: I would try to get a job at Apple or a computer company, because it’s nearly the direction I went. When I was in college, just to be safe I took a computer course where they said you could get a programming job afterwards, and I remember the section leader in 1981 said, “I’m going to go work for this place called Microsoft.” [Laughs.] Later, I was like, “Wait a minute, how rich is this guy now?” And then I met Steve Ballmer, and it turns out he’s from my hometown, and went to the same schools I did, like he’s a little older but his biography and mine are really similar to a point where they become incredibly [Laughs.] divided—by $28 billion dollars. So I guess I’m a failure is what I’m trying to say. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was the deciding factor? Where did that path diverge? Was it because of the Lampoon?
AJ: It was pre-med, and it was the Lampoon. There’s a few things: I didn’t like the stress of pre-med; people said don’t be a doctor unless you really want to. And the Lampoon was so—I mean you’re just laughing all day, doing your work. It wasn’t work then, but it is now. And you’re going, like, “It’s so great. Such a wonderful thing to be hanging around with people like these.”
AJ: Comic books, when I was a kid. I had a lot of Marvel comics, and one of the many amazing things about The Simpsons is I got to meet and have lunch with Stan Lee, who was such a hero to me as a kid. When I go on Twitter, I want to be like Stan Lee. Any fan that needs him, he’s really just what you want him to be: Nice, and answers your questions. We did a commentary with him where I asked him things like, “The Watcher said he was never going to interfere, but all he ever did was interfere…” And he was like, “I don’t know! We did the best we could!” He was really funny.
AJ: Cyanide? [Laughs.] So I’d have control over my own death.
12. Bonus question from Carla Gugino: If you were to get hit by a bus tomorrow, what would you want to spend today doing?
AJ: Oh, I’d see my family.
So now I have to come up with a question?
AJ: All right, this is 2015: What will be the major difference in 2016 from this year?