It’s about time: For the first time in 33 seasons, the main storyline of a Simpsons episode is going to be all about Waylon Smithers falling in love. To pen the episode, the show brought in writer Johnny LaZebnik, who has a special connection to the material: Gay himself, he is also the son of longtime Simpsons writer/producer Rob LaZebnik, and served as a sort of unofficial consultant when his father penned the season 27 episode where Smithers officially came out of the closet. The A.V. Club spoke to Johnny LaZebnik about his unique connection to the material, what was important to him about getting the story right, and being among the few people on earth who has actually seen every single episode of The Simpsons.
The A.V. Club: Let’s start with the obvious. You’ve never known a world without The Simpsons. They’re just sort of part of your cultural DNA.
Johnny LaZebnik: It’s literally part of my DNA. I mean, my dad writes on the show. I hear a narrative a lot, of adults saying to me, “When I was growing up, my parents wouldn’t let me watch The Simpsons. It was one of those no-no shows that was too adult.” And I was like, “I really can’t relate.” I think because my dad was writing on it, he didn’t feel like he was allowed to say, “No, not in my house.” And I think he wanted to share his life and his work with us.
So some of my earliest memories are, like, all of us packing into our minivan, and this is really ritzy—we have one of those minivans with the little TV screen in it. There were four of us [kids] and because we’re all three years apart, [it was] a little hard to figure out something to watch that we would all enjoy. But from day one, The Simpsons was what was always put on and what we always enjoyed. Sure, sometimes there’d be Homer and Marge “snuggling,” and I wouldn’t know what that meant. But besides that, the jokes resonate with every age group, and so many of my earliest memories are watching that show.
And my dad often will actually ask me for my memory of The Simpsons because it just dates back so long. In that formative age, I just watched them over and over, So those jokes are really cemented into my mind. As far back as I can remember, it’s been a part of me, and I think getting to write an episode of it was so rewarding because of that. It feels like writing history and writing my own history in a way, which is cool.
AVC: You’ve written for other series, but this is your first Simpsons script. Do you feel like some of the skill set of writing for these characters was also something you’d already absorbed, given it was literally the family business in a sense?
JL: I would say so. I think being so deeply familiar with the show—I mean, when I’m cleaning around my house, it’s usually playing in the background. I just get on loop repeats and repeats and repeats. I know all the characters inside and out, and also growing up with those people around me, including my dad. But just that era of of comedy, it was so familiar to me and such a part of the way that I see the world, that I when I had to jump into it, I was like, “Oh yeah, this feels like coming home.”
AVC: There were a few stories from about a half decade ago, when in college you sort of served as an unofficial consultant for your dad for the episode where Smithers officially comes out. What was important to you in considering the evolution from what was done then to what you wanted to craft now?
JL: It’s really funny. I have to find it—in classic dad fashion, it was one of those e-mails where it’s just a subject line and no body—and that line was, “Do you swipe on Grindr?” From my dad. I was like, “Perfect. This is objectively funny, getting this email.” It was almost exactly five years ago now. And it was so groundbreaking for the show to address that finally out in the open and make its stance on it, and also to state something we already knew, which was that The Simpsons loved gay people.
I think Smithers does date in that episode and we get to see sort of the beginnings of him as a gay person in the world. But when we, my dad and I, talked about writing this episode, something that was important to me was to see his relationship grow and flourish and to get those intimate moments of two gay people on screen talking about being gay or dating. To have a gay romance be the A-story of a Simpsons episode, I don’t think has ever happened. And that’s what was so exciting to me.
AVC: How important was it to you to incorporate his history in the show? Because there are nods, not just to that previous episode in the show—we see his boyfriend from that time—but other little Easter eggs and references to his past. How much digging did you do on Smithers in putting it together?
JL: One of the joys of writing a show that’s been on for 30 years is that you can reference 30 years of material. And I think a personal favorite moment of mine—that’s really subtle and not something we even wrote, it’s possible it was added by the writers once I was less involved in the process—but in the background of Smithers’ apartment, you see a poster for Sold Separately: the musical, which I don’t know if you remember…
JL: Oh yeah! The Malibu Stacy musical!
JL: One of my favorite bits ever is when Smithers just leaves town to go star in the Malibu Stacy musical that he wrote, called Sold Separately. And they just show a really quick cut of the song in it. [Laughs.] And I love that that’s in his apartment, because that feels honest to the character. Obviously, if you wrote and starred in your own musical, you would have a poster of it in your house. But additionally, it’s doubly special because that was the first episode of the show my dad ever wrote: “Homer Vs. Dignity.” So it feels like we have these markers in time of both Smithers’ and our family’s relationships. And being able to reference them feels like a really beautiful synthesis of all that.
AVC: Reflecting on the show’s history, how much progress do you think has been made at this point and how much maybe still needs to be done in terms of handling sexuality more forthrightly on The Simpsons? The show doesn’t have the best track record, especially in the first half of its existence, when Smithers’ sexuality was often played for cheap laughs.
JL: I mean, I want to be forthright in saying that I love a lot of those jokes. When I talk to my gay friends about The Simpsons, like [Adopts computer voice.] “Smithers, you’re so good at turning me on.” Jokes like that are like some of my favorite content in the show. I’m working on an embroidery right now of Smithers screaming as the women strip in front of him. I love those moments so much.
And as far as development goes, I think the show is doing such a good job at delving into these individual, more minor characters’ stories. Christine Nangle is one of the brilliant writers on the show, and just wrote an episode called “Uncut Femmes,” which is like an Ocean’s 8 parody with Marge, but it’s all about Sarah Wiggum, a side character that we’ve really never heard anything about before. And I love that episode because it was like, yeah she deserves it. When you’ve been on the air for 30 years, you can take a character who literally just “Blank’s wife” and build an episode around them. The show is doing such a good job at fleshing out all those characters, and Smithers is one of them who deserves his time.
And I think in many ways, he was really an impressive gay character to have early on, because he’s not sort of the stereotypical, flamboyant gay that you see in so many of these late ’90s cartoons. He’s probably the most competent character on the show. He’s fully his own person and has a life that’s not just being gay, which is so impressive and so much more than a lot of shows depicted in that era. To just keep being able to add to that legacy, and to that story, is awesome. And I think we did a really good job in this episode of keeping true to his character while simultaneously fleshing out his existence as a real person.
AVC: It’s interesting that you mentioned specifically how you very much enjoy some of that early comedy, even when it’s sort of trafficking in these stereotypes. Maybe the most symbolic iteration of that is the episode with John Waters—it’s a sort of watershed moment of gay visibility on the show, and yet at the same time so much of the narrative is driven by this gay-panic humor. So it’s sort of doing these two things at once—good and not-so-good.
JL: Yeah, I love that episode. I watch it over and over, and I think John Waters is so great. And I think the show really came out confidently, saying gay people are nothing to be scared of, in a time where that was not often the narrative on television. And I also just love a good gay joke, and if you’ve watched this episode, you’ll see that it’s a lot of gay jokes. Written by me—me and my dad, I should say—I was really thrilled writing this, because there were times where I’d be like, “Well, what should we do here?” And my dad would pitch some raucous gay jokes and I was like, “Dad!” My little dad from Missouri. Just being disgusting. Very proud of him.
But that [John Waters] episode in particular, I think there’s such a deep fondness for the gay community later on in that episode. I think there’s so many moments like that in Simpsons history that are beloved by the gay community, though I don’t want to speak as an ambassador for them. But for me and my friends, those are the moments that we cherish and we love. Like, I see the photo of Bart, Milhouse, and Nelson sitting in the wigs all the time on the sidewalk. I love it. It’s special.
AVC: It’s fascinating to see the evolution of thinking on the show as it’s going along, and since you were sort of coming of age watching it during the shift in the 2000s, when it was sort of struggling to move beyond those initial ’90s attitudes, were you aware of it evolving? There’s the Queer Eye parody episode from 2004, and that’s also around the time that Patty comes out and gets married. Were those formative ones for you?
JL: I remember coming of age and being impressed that The Simpsons has always done a really impressive job at maintaining the core of what makes the show the show, while still aging with the times. And I think it’s really difficult to do that, especially when you have these conventions that were set in place in the show’s conception in 1989, but you’re still making episodes of television in 2021. I know Matt Selman, one of those phenomenal writers on the show, talks about the timeline constantly having to get changed. Because when Homer was a kid, 30 years ago, is now actually 30 years ago. And it’s something that’s really interesting and special, and something not a lot of shows have to reckon with. But I think it’s so cool to watch the show transform and change as it gets older and evolve and grow, and I’m just really happy to be a part of it, honestly.
AVC: Is there is there an era that’s nearest and dearest to your heart?
JL: Oh, I have to say seasons six through 13, I think, is what I tend to rewatch the most. I’ve actually seen every episode of The Simpsons, which is not something I think a lot of people can claim. But I’ve logged my hours. I watch the show and I think, you know, that era is really special. Because I also get to see my dad enter the scene. His first segment was “Gh-gh-gh-Ghost Dad” in a Treehouse Of Horror—the one where Homer chokes on a piece of broccoli and dies. And then “Homer Vs. Dignity” and then his other episodes start getting sprinkled in, and that’s really fun for me to watch him enter the show.
Moving forward, I think they’ve also done some really awesome stuff lately. “Uncut Femmes” is one of my favorites of late, and there’s a Treehouse Of Horror segment that my family talks about all the time, where Homer finds out that he’s delicious and starts eating himself—
AVC: Donut Homer? Where he turns into a donut?
JL: No, it’s like a cannibalism Treehouse Of Horror, where he accidentally cuts off a finger, I think is how it starts, and then accidentally eats it. And he realizes he’s delicious. And it is wildly disturbing. [Laughs.] It’s difficult to watch, and it’s so insanely entertaining. And Dan Castellaneta is just a god among men. The whole cast is so good, but he in that episode is just absolutely brilliant.
AVC: And now it’s at the point where you can write a loving gay relationship for Smithers, and it doesn’t play as anything but an appropriately true-life twist for him to realize his new boyfriend is a shitty person. Did you know from the start that that’s where you wanted to take it?
JL: You know, it’s an interesting question when you’re writing a romance in a show that’s a sitcom that has to respawn at zero every single episode, right? Obviously, the show has broken that occasionally—and I’m proud to say that Smithers now has a dog because of this episode, that’s canon, now, a character that I created—but the sad truth of the matter is a lot of gay relationships end in heartbreak, and often when you are intoxicated by the love of an older gentleman who is very wealthy, that is not very long lasting. That was something I was definitely interested in exploring, watching the heartbreak of realizing someone you’re in love with is not the person you thought they were.
And also, just on a personal level, I think it’s really funny to watch him with an older daddy type, I feel like that’s what Smithers would be drawn to. He’s very steadfast and meticulous—and obviously has a thing for Burns, so it makes sense that he would his type would be a different wealthy daddy.
AVC: How much feedback and additions from the other writers did you get while crafting this? Te process there often involves the script going through a lot of hands to add or pitch jokes, scenes, and so on.
JL: It’s a hugely collaborative room. I’m really proud that there’s a lot I can point to in the script and say, that is mine. That is my work. But this script could not have happened at all without the writers’ room. There are so many jokes and moments and bits that were pitched and created by other people, and I’m really grateful for it. A particular favorite is the whole through line of Luigi’s mom being a lesbian—we actually cut back on it, there was even more of it—Matt Selman was just pitching that when we were talking through the episode in the room, and my dad and I just lost our minds. At first I was like, “Oh, that’s a really funny bit. I wish we could do that.” And we were like, well, you know, might as well try it. And then it just kept getting approved, and now it’s in there. I sort of can’t believe it’s in there. I love it.
AVC: Now at the dinner table, when your dad says, “Hey, the other writers were saying about your episode…,” you can just stop him and say, “I’m sorry, this really needs to go through my people.”
AVC: “You need to talk to my manager.” My dad tried to hug me the other day, and I was like, “You’re really going to have to ask my manager about that first. We’re trying to ration out my hugs for the press.” Working with my dad was amazing. It was awesome. I really don’t have anything bad to say about it.