In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
If you’ve ever watched The Simpsons and found yourself pondering potential sequels to previous episodes or perhaps started musing on what more could be done with Bumblebee Man, then it’s surprisingly easy to wonder what it must be like to write for the series. For most, the end result of that contemplation would likely conjure up a scenario of pop culture occupational bliss, but while there are certainly moments that would fall into that category, the reality of the situation isn’t exactly a 24/7 romp through The Land Of Chocolate. To get the inside scoop on how much effort goes into putting together the script for your average Simpsons episode and to find out how awesome and exhausting the process can be, The A.V. Club spoke with Michael Price, one of the series’ co-executive producers, who’s been part of the show’s writing staff since 2001.
AV Club: How did you find your way onto the staff of The Simpsons?
Michael Price: I met [Simpsons producers] Al Jean and Mike Reiss on my very first sitcom job, which was on Homeboys In Outer Space, on the UPN network, in 1996. It was produced at Disney, and Al and Mike were in the middle of their development deal that they had there. They had started with The Simpsons, and then they did The Critic, and then they had a development deal with Disney that enabled them to create shows and do pilots and things like that. When you’re on those kind of deals, often the studio will assign you to be a consultant on one of their existing shows, and I believe they chose Homeboys In Outer Space because it was just silly and goofier and seemed like more fun. And it was my great luck that they worked on that show one day a week, because I got to know them there. Off and on over the next couple of years I kept working with them in various ways.
When their Disney deal ended, Mike decided not to work full-time anymore and just did what he does now, which is to consult on The Simpsons one day a week while doing other projects. Meanwhile, Al went back to The Simpsons, within a year or two he was back sort of running the show, and then about a year or so after that, a spot came open on the staff.
I was working on this other show in Chicago: What About Joan, the Joan Cusack sitcom. We were hovering on the brink on cancellation when I got a call out of the blue from Al, saying, “Do you think you might be available soon? Because there’d be a job here at The Simpsons.” And I said, “I think I might be soon.” [Laughs.] So that’s how I got on the show, and that was 13 years ago. My very first day on The Simpsons was, like, December 20, 2001, I think.
AVC: What a Christmas present.
MP: Yeah, I know! Beyond just the fact that I had a job in general, but to work on The Simpsons was such a huge thrill and an honor. And my wife, she was familiar with the show a little bit, but she didn’t understand the phenomenon of it. But then she, uh, slowly started to figure that out once I started worked on the show. [Laughs.] But it’s been an amazing run, and I’m so happy to be here.
AVC: So let’s go through the process of writing an episode of The Simpsons. How does it all get started? Is there a giant corkboard of ideas?
MP: We’re actually at the beginning of talking about next season right now—season 27, I guess?—but one season sort of blends into the next. We had our last table read for season 26 in mid-December, and then we all got together and had what’s called our story retreat, which sometimes is an actual retreat, where we go somewhere. Last year we went to a hotel in Santa Monica. This year, we went to one of the big corporate boardrooms in the Fox headquarters. But the whole staff gathers, along with Al, of course, and Matt Groening and Jim Brooks. We develop story ideas during the year, and we have more or less one big day—sometimes into a second day if we don’t get through—where everyone has their 15 minutes in the spotlight to take the story they want to do and pitch it as fully as possible.
The first time I saw one of these, I was quite intimidated, because I was used to being on shows where we just come up with a quick notional thing: a beginning, a middle, and an end, and then maybe this happens or maybe that happens. [Laughs.] But on The Simpsons, it’s quite a production, where you really work out every beat of the story as you want to tell it. You work in jokes, and if there’s something based on a real thing in the news, you bring visual aids. You pass pictures around or you show video of something. So it’s a big pitch in a big boardroom in front of the whole crew. And we’re all very supportive of each other, and we all laugh and everything, because the stories are all funny, anyway. At the end of your pitch, that’s the time for Al and Matt and Jim to offer their reactions: They talk about what they think could be improved or what they didn’t like about it. And then we all pitch in and throw in our ideas, to jump in and pitch various other jokes for it. Let’s say someone has a problem: “Well, this thing doesn’t work.” Then people will come up with alternate ideas or ways to make it work, and that’s another 15 minutes or so. By the end of that half-hour, everybody has a pretty good idea whether that story’s going to go or not.
Because we’re at the beginning of a new season, we want to get a lot of scripts going, so Al will probably tap a few of us to say, “Okay, get started on your story. Start writing it up.” That’s what I’m in the middle of right now: I pitched a story the other day, and Al asked me to start working on it. Sometimes we go to an outline, sometimes we go right to script. Right now, I’ve just started writing a script… I can’t really say what it’s about, except that it involves Apu. When you get a script assignment, you have two weeks, and you’re basically just sent off to go wherever you want. You can work from your house, some people go on little trips, or some just go to coffee shops or whatever, but at the end of those two weeks, you hand in your first draft of the script, and that’s your first, best shot at your vision of the script, of the idea.
After that, it belongs to everybody. Al will make his notes on it, and either he’ll execute the rewrite himself or we’ll often have two rooms going simultaneously. One room’s run by Al, which is usually for polishes and first rewrites of the script. That’s the upstairs room, or “Al’s room.” Then there’s what’s usually called the downstairs room, which gets the first crack at the rewrite of the script, working off of notes from Al. That room is mostly run by [executive producer] Matt Selman, so it’s often just called the Selman room. [Laughs.] So Matt—or whoever’s working that day—will be the room runner and will work off of the notes on the script and do the first pass of the rewrite, which can be very involved. Sometimes when a script has just been pitched out like that, the first draft of it will come in, and that’s when you might find out that there are some big problems or story holes or whatever, so sometimes the story is completely reworked. Or sometimes it’s just a matter of punching up lines or whatever. It all depends on the individual script. But a good amount of time will be taken. I’d say, in terms of work days, probably around eight or nine days—maybe more—will be spent just working on that script alone, doing a full rewrite of it just based on the notes. Then once that’s done, that’s when it gets passed up to Al and his room, and his room will do the next draft of it, either polishing it or rewriting it some more. And it might get put aside again for a little while, depending on when it’s going to be put in production or when it’s going to be read, but it’s basically the property of Al and Al’s room from then on.
It’ll be worked on quite a few more times to get it ready for the table, but then eventually we’ll have our table draft and our table read with our cast, where the cast comes and people are invited to hear the script being read, and we get an idea of how it might play and where the laughs are and where they’re not. Then we do a rewrite based on that, we’ve got about two days for that, and then it gets put into production. The record is two or three days after the read-through, and once we have the recording of the voices, it gets put into animation and production. And then it’s rewritten another couple of times once it’s in animation! The first time is when the animatic—a very rough sort of pencil version of the whole show—comes back, about two months or so after the read-through and the record. The whole staff will watch it with Al and Matt, and we’ll have a chance to see what works and what doesn’t work and make major story adjustments or fix big parts of the story or big jokes there before it gets put into full animation.
Then they re-record the voices, and it gets put into full animation. About four months or so after that, the show will come back fully animated and we’ll have one more viewing party of what’s called “the color.” After we watch the color, we’re able to make a certain amount of changes, perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the show. It could just be a line here or there. It could be that entire scenes don’t work. We’ve had an entire half of an act not work, so we write new things. It all depends on the budget that we have for retakes, but we try and find creative ways to work around any kind of budgetary restraints or animation restraints. But that’s our chance to do our final version of the rewrite, and that’ll be done about a month or a month and a half before the show airs. They’ll do more retakes based on the new stuff, and then it finally gets put into editing and post-production. If we want to add anything somewhat topical or anything else, it’s often with the chalkboard that Bart writes on. We’ll write those at the very end, or possibly we might do some other add-on things, like a couch gag or something. Otherwise, though, it’s pretty much done.
AVC: Can you help provide a mental picture of the writers’ rooms?
MP: So like I said, we have the two writers’ rooms. The Downstairs Room, or the Selman room, is in The Bungalow, an old building on the Fox lot that according to legend had once housed Tom Mix’s or Will Rogers’ dressing room. But we later found out that it was built at the advent of “talkies” for John McCormack, an Irish tenor who was a superstar at the time. Anyway, it’s a big room with a big long wooden table, and over the years it’s served several functions, going all the way back to the mid-’80s, when it was the office of [producer] Richard Sakai. In fact, it was in this office where Matt Groening first presented his sketches of the Simpsons to Richard and Jim Brooks as they were preparing The Tracy Ullman Show. But it’s been the Downstairs writers’ room as long as I’ve been there.
Over the years it’s also accumulated the banners we’ve made for the champions of our Summer Box Office fantasy draft thing [in which all the Simpsons writers estimate how well summer movie releases will do at the box office —ed.], although since the untimely passing of our friend, colleague, and past champ Don Payne, it’s now called “The Simpsons Don Payne Movie Classic.” I have a banner on that wall, alongside Don, Kevin Curran, Joel Cohen, Brian Kelley, and Tim Long.
At the front of the room is a big whiteboard that we use to plot out stories, and near that is the desk where our writers’ assistant sits at his computer. There are two big TV monitors in the room, allowing us to see the page of the script we’re currently working on. There’s also a tall “Body By Jake” standing pull-up kind of contraption that has been there for at least 15 years and has been used for the purpose of exercise once or twice. [Laughs.] Oh, and there’s a large poster on one wall with all of the show’s characters on it which we sometimes refer to if we’re trying to come up with someone to populate a crowd scene.
The Upstairs Room, a.k.a. Al’s Room, is actually across the street from the other room, in what was called the New Writers Building when it was built sometime in the 1930s. It was actually rendered on the show a few seasons back—Homer drove past it on a car trip with the kids. Anyway, the room is on the second floor of the building, and it’s about half the size of the other room. If you’ve ever seen photos of the original staff sitting around on couches eating pizza or whatever, they’re in that room. It’s another long table in there now, but the setup is virtually the same as the other room: writers’ assistant at computer, TV monitors showing the script pages, and so forth. It’s just a little cozier in size. The decor consists of a bulletin board pinned with old clippings about the show and some photos and drawings of fan art. There was a giant cut-out of “Be Sharps Barney” that used to lean against one wall—created for the 2000 Fan Fest on the Fox lot—but now there’s a cutout of Marge leaning against the wall instead. Also, the original “Erotic Cakes” neon sign from “Treehouse of Horror VI” is sitting the windowsill. Unplugged. [Laughs.]
AVC: In regard to your work on the show, your first episode to air—chronologically, anyway—was “My Mother The Carjacker.” Was that the first one you actually pitched?
MP: Sometimes we write story pitches up as a one- or two-page treatment and hand them in to Al. And I tried to get a couple of different stories through, but I just couldn’t get anything going. But Al’s pretty great—more or less everyone gets at least one script assignment a season—so at the very, very end of season 14’s production cycle, I think it was Al’s idea to have Homer’s mother return, and he basically said, “Maybe you want to write this one up?” And we worked out the story together in the room. We had what’s called a pitch-out, where we have a day to work the story beats out and talk it over. So that story originated from Al Jean, and it was written for season 14, but the episode actually aired in season 15. It’s a little complicated, but the last six or seven episodes of a production cycle for one season will actually be the first six or seven episodes that air in the following season. Those are called holdovers. So “My Mother The Carjacker” was something like show number 18 of season 14’s production cycle, but it was [one of the first shows] of season 15.
AVC: And it ended up being nominated for a Writers Guild Award in animation, which isn’t a bad way to start your stint on a show.
MP: No, it’s not! That was very exciting! Although, like I said, every script that gets on the air is the result of a gigantic collaboration from everyone. We often joke that, because we work on scripts over and over and over and over and over again, if maybe one or two things from your original draft actually make it on the air, that’s a pretty good deal. And for that show, I believe that the only thing from my original script that made it through to air was the bit where they’re down by the underpass, and Homer has a flashlight, and he sees one scary thing and screams, he sees another scary thing and screams, and then he sees the faces of whatever our version of the Pep Boys are—Manny, Moe, and Jack—and he screams three times. [Laughs.] That was the only joke that I pitched in my original script that made it on the air for that show. I do a little bit better now… but not much! Because it literally is all just a huge, massive collaboration among everyone, and in every show that’s on the air, we all have jokes and we all have contributions that are part of those collaborations.
AVC: When it comes to pitching episodes, what’s the process of featuring returning characters? Does everyone have a dream list of characters from past episodes that they’d like to see come back? Is there a hard and fast rule about how often a character can return? For instance, how long will it be until we see Homer’s brother again?
MP: Herb Powell! [Laughs.] Well, a lot of times it’s just a case of someone coming up with a great story for the character. If someone thought of a great story for Herb to return, I’m sure we could pitch it and see if we might decide to do it. Then again, Al, Matt, or Jim might decide, “Well, maybe not now.” But I know that the last time Herb appeared in the show, I pitched that. It was when Homer needed money, and we just thought it would be funny to have him call Herb Powell and you’d hear his answering machine say, “I’m poor again.” That was added toward the end of that particular show. It was the one where they were looking for someone to be the kids’ guardian in case Homer and Marge died (“Changing Of The Guardian”), so I just pitched that as a funny little callback, and luckily they said it was okay to do it, and Danny DeVito was really happy to come and do it.
But, yeah, sometimes we’ll think of a story involving a recurring or returning character, but there’s no sort of schedule or anything like that. I think ultimately it’s really down to if someone gets really excited about an idea and can pitch it really well at the retreat, and then hopefully it’ll get through. Otherwise, though, there’s no real rhyme or reason.
AVC: When it comes to celebrity guest stars, which comes first: securing the guest star and then writing a script around them, or writing the script and hoping you can get them?
MP: It depends. Sometimes we’ll hear something like, “Oh, this person would love to be on the show,” and maybe we’ll figure out a way to fit them in. But 90 percent of the time, it’s a service of what the story is about. Because there are two kinds of celebrity guest stars: the kind where they’re playing themselves in a cameo, and the kind where they’re playing another character or guest character. If the show has a big guest character that’s interesting, then that’s when we’ll think about maybe going out and getting someone to voice the part as a way to sort of help keep it separate from our regular voice cast and, as great as they are, so that it’s not another Hank [Azaria] or another Dan [Castellaneta] voice or whatever. So we’ll try to find someone really funny, and I think we’re all excited about the people who are out there in comedy today, so in the last few years we’ve used Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig and a lot of other great performers who are exciting and who we’re excited to have a chance to work with. In terms of a cameo, those are often thrown in at the last minute, and then we’ll ask, “Is this person available, and do they want to do it?” And if they do, then we’ll put it in. But I’d say that it’s hardly ever a case where we just want to do it for the sake of doing it. It’ll usually have to be in service of a good joke or in service of the story.
AVC: How do you deal with a quarter-century’s worth of episodes? Do you still try to maintain at least some semblance of continuity, or has it reached a point where you just kind of go, “Eh, we’re just gonna do what we want to do”?
MP: [Laughs.] Well, it’s a little of both. Really, there’s no continuity, in that everything really happens at the same time, more or less, so everyone’s always making jokes about that. I’m constantly trying to pitch jokes where they reference that they just got Santa’s Little Helper at the racetrack last week, because in a way it all takes place on this Möbius strip of time where Bart is 10 years old, Lisa is 8, Homer is a certain age, and so forth. Or someone will make a joke—although it never makes it into the script—referencing something that happened in a previous episode, and someone else will say, “Oh, that hasn’t happened yet.” But we tend to think of it in that way.
In terms of continuity and doing things that have happened before, we’ll be aware of it, but we’re not slaves to it. But we don’t want to repeat ourselves or negate something that’s happened, either. So we’ll make reference to things that have happened in previous episodes or in the movie. There was an episode I wrote where Mr. Burns briefly became nice because he lost his mind, and then when he got mean again, he decided he was going to put a dome over the city, and someone said, “It’s been done.” So things like that. But usually I think we’re just trying to do the best, funniest show we can do without totally negating, stepping on, or trashing something that’s happened before.
AVC: Episodes like “The Principal And The Pauper” can be divisive and inspire extreme responses from fans. Are there certain episodes from the back catalog that cause the writing staff to say, “Perhaps it’s best we don’t go down that road again”?
MP: Um… I can’t think of a particular episode. I will say, as far as “The Principal And The Pauper” is concerned, that I know there’s been a lot of discussion—and internally, too—about it, and about how people feel about it, but I remember seeing it at the time it aired as a fan and thinking it was great. [Laughs.] What I really enjoyed about it is what one of my favorite things about The Simpsons has always been: that feeling of everything going back to square one at the end of the episodes. I remember really getting a kick, on a pure enjoyment level, out of that thing at the end, where the judge makes everyone swear that they’ll never talk about it ever again. I wasn’t a super avid fan of the show at the time. I watched it whenever I could, but I wasn’t invested in it that way, so my feelings about Skinner being Tanzarian or not when it aired in ’96 or ’97… It didn’t upset me or anger me. I just thought it was funny!
But I understand that some people were upset and felt that it ruined the character. So when we reference that Skinner was in Vietnam or something like that… [Hesitates.] You know, I think we’ve all just sort of forgotten about it and just moved on as if it hadn’t happened. But I think it’s just easier to do it that way than having to sort of keep in mind that he’s really Tamzarian or whatever. For our purposes, it’s fine and okay just to carry on like he’s always been Skinner. But I do think that’s a brilliantly written episode, and I really, really enjoyed it at the time. But as far as looking at particular episodes and whether we should go down that road again or not, we never want to repeat ourselves. But, I don’t think there are any episodes that are taboo to reference or bring up again.
AVC: Given the number of viewers who’ve been watching the show from the very beginning, you must get busted all the time by people saying, “What are they doing? They already did an episode like this back in such-and-such season!”
MP: Yeah, and that will happen. Something like that might happen as we’re working on a script, so then we’ll try to find a way to sort of make it… not like that. [Laughs.] Or maybe we just won’t end up doing the episode. There’s no list or anything of things to avoid. But I don’t think we’d do ever do another one where someone fell down a well, because that’s been done so well. We don’t want to go over the same territory any more than we have to. At the same time, we’ve done upwards of 500 episodes, so certain aspects—Homer and Marge’s marriage, how Bart feels about Lisa—might be covered again. But we always try to find a new way to look at it or a different angle to explore.
AVC: When it comes to people who’ve written for the show over the years, is John Swartzwelder viewed as the MVP, given how many episodes he’s written?
MP: Oh, yeah, absolutely! [Laughs.] He’s certainly revered by all of us. I had the very brief pleasure of working with him when I was starting my first season, which was one of the final seasons he came in to write scripts. He would come in on his day, come up into our room, and pitch the story that he wanted to do, and then he’d spend the next day or two or whatever pitching it out. That was a huge treat, just to be in the room with him, because I was certainly aware of his body of work and how funny he was, and he didn’t disappoint. He was great… I was only in the room with him for a short period of time, and then he was around when they were doing early drafts of The Simpsons Movie, but he was nothing but nice. Just a nice man. So any of these stories they say about him or whatever they ascribe to him about his supposed Howard Hughes-ishness, it certainly wasn’t in evidence whenever he was around here. He was just a very nice, congenial guy who pitched amazingly hilarious jokes.
AVC: How interactive is the cast when it comes to the scripts? Do they actually contribute specific plot ideas, or do their contributions tend to come in the form of off-the-cuff material that they throw in during the table reads?
MP: Well, sometimes they won’t actually pitch the lines, but they’ll ad-lib them once in awhile. For instance, Dan sometimes will write a piece of dialogue into the table-read script where it’ll say “etcetera,” which basically means, “Just do some funny stuff.” [Laughs.] And he’ll often do some really, really funny stuff. Or if someone ad-libs something, we’ll write it down and certainly consider putting it in the show. Sometimes Julie Kavner will have an idea about, like, “Uh, I don’t think Marge would say it like that.” That kind of thing.
As far as actually writing for the show, though, Dan and his wife, Deb Lacusta, have written a couple of episodes, and they’re all really funny. They wrote the one where Homer ends up going to India, “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore”… actually, this may be the same episode, but I know they also wrote the one where Richard Dean Anderson was held hostage by Patty and Selma in their house. [It was the same episode. —ed.]
And then for a season or two, Dan decided that he wanted to join the writing staff as a consultant, so he would be, like, a one-day-a-week consultant in the room. That was really amazingly fun. He’s a great guy, just super funny. You know, we’ll often pitch the lines in a very bad imitation of the character’s voice, because it’s fun to put it in their voice as a way to sort of sell the joke or to make it sound right. So if it’s a Krusty line, a lot of us will do our very bad Krusty imitation, or whatever. But when Dan was in the room and he pitched a Krusty line, his was usually the one that got in, because who’s better at doing Krusty than Dan? [Laughs.] So he certainly had a leg up in the pitching department when it came to pitching lines for his character. But he was really a fantastic addition to the room. He stopped doing it, I think because he was super busy with other aspects of his career, but we were really, really happy to have him in the room on those days when he came in. He was great.
AVC: How do you deal with the constant barrage of people saying, “Oh, man, it’s just not as funny as it used to be”?
MP: We ignore it! [Laughs.] No, you know, I think we just keep trying to make the best show that we can. We’re aware of the legacy of the show, we’re all huge fans of the show, and we just do our job, which involves spending every day trying to make this the best show that we possibly can and keep up the legacy of how great it’s been in the past with the great characters and the great performers and the great animators we have. That’s all I can say: We just try our hardest to be as funny as we can.
AVC: As far as the future of the show goes, do you feel like there are still plenty of ideas left to be explored, or do you think that it needs to start winding down at some point?
MP: No, I don’t think so. I think we’re just gonna keep charging ahead. There’s always new stuff to be found. I feel like the stories we just heard the other day… I’d say we heard about a dozen of them, and to me they were all fresh, all different, all new aspects of the characters, or a reaction to something that’s going on in the world right now, either technology or the way social things work today. I think that’s what’s so great about the show: We have so many amazing characters to draw on and so many ways to explore modern life or contemporary life through these characters. I mean, it’s always hard. Like I said, we don’t want to do something that we’ve done before. But if what I heard the other day is any indication, I think we’re in really good shape in terms of finding new and interesting ways to kind of use the vehicle of the show to have fun or satirize life as we live it right now. And I think—I hope—that we’ll just continue to do that.