2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Q&A: ‘The Simpsons’ producer Al Jean talks Legos, Sideshow Bob and the ‘Futurama’ crossover

Published: March 6, 2014, 7:16 pm, by Terry Terrones

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I recently sat in on a Fox conference call with Al Jean, the executive producer of “The Simpsons.” Here’s a transcript of the conversation.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk about how there’s going to be an all-LEGO episode coming up later in the season. What can you share about how that came to be, and what fans should expect from that?

Al: It’s a terrific episode written by Brian Kelley, who, a long while ago, said, “What would happen if Homer basically, in his imagination, went into a world of LEGO?” And there’s a reason that he does, and a reason that he prefers it. We contacted the LEGO Company to see if they would authorize it, and its animation that looks like LEGO CGI for much of the show, and there’s some regular “Simpsons” animation, and it’s a really beautiful blend, and it’s going to be the 550th episode airing in May. It’s been in the works a long time; about a year and a half on our end.

Q: What do you think it is about Sideshow Bob that makes him such a great reoccurring character?

Al: Well, we just did our first DVD commentary with Kelsey, and that voice is just so amazing. We’re doing this commentary, and he’s in the back of the room and he just is, “Hello everybody” and your hair goes on end. It’s one of those incredibly live, brilliant voices that gives you so much. I think everything comes from that. It’s, to me, an updating of the road runner and the coyote where you have this incredibly brilliant guy who can’t seem to find a way to kill a 10-year-old boy and it’s a classic dynamic and it’s a great character to write for.

Q: How has this show has changed over its long history?  How much is it different from, say like the early days, and how is it different now?

Al: I would say that areas where there’s the most apparent change to me having been here for 25 years is in the way we do the animation, which was originally entirely hand-drawn and colored, and is now digitally colored and HD; the process. We actually edited on tape originally; we were that old. The way that we do the scripts and the stories isn’t that much different except in as much as we’ve done over 500 episodes so it’s harder to think of one we haven’t done before, and that’s probably the biggest difficulty that we have. We’re still just trying to do stories about “The Simpsons,” about a family with problems in the real world, and I don’t think that’ll ever change.

Q: Will this be the last year, or will we get more “Simpsons” next September?

Al: Well, we’re about to start reading Season 26 this week, which would air all the way through December 2015.  As you probably know, the cast contract expires with this season so we would be in a period, again, where we’d renegotiate. That being said, I’m optimistic. Everybody loves doing it. We still do very well for Fox. I think we have something like the fouth highest add revenue of any show on the air, which is the main number that really counts.

More importantly, we still like what we’re doing—our stories we really believe in, and that we really care about. It could possibly end after these ones are recorded, but my bet would be no; it’ll go on.

Q: How much have you had to change things because of the death of Marcia Wallace, and has that affected your plans for having one of the long-term characters die this season?

Al: Well, it had nothing to do with Marcia. There will be a character who dies in the season premier next year, but in terms of Marcia, it was just a great loss for people who loved Marcia. For the show, it’s kind of like steering an ocean liner; you have upcoming things that you adjust, and there isn’t that much material left that she actually recorded. We’ll air everything that she did. Obviously, Bart will get a new teacher, and there won’t be any Mrs. Krabappel after Marcia’s material’s gone.

Q: Can we assume that the character who’s going to die is not Princess Anne?

Al: It’s not Princess Penelope; the Anne Hathaway character. No.

Q: Do you ever, when you’re doing one of the Sideshow Bob episodes, think that’s it, we’re out of ideas?  That’s the last we’re going to see of him?

Al: I don’t think that, but I’m really, really careful. We have two new episodes starting at 7:30, and it’s because we had an idea that I thought was really funny. Writer Jeff Westbrook, that we wanted to do, and I don’t think it’ll be his last; he loves doing it. But we won’t do it unless we have another really great use for him.

Q: I’m not even sure how many it is, but are you surprised at how many times you’ve been able to go back to that?

Al: In his DVD commentary I asked him, “Did you think you’d be doing a dozen or more?”  He goes, “Oh I thought it was one and done.” He loves doing it, and he’s a huge part of “The Simpsons” ride at Universal Studios. He was asked about whether his character will die, and he said he’s a survivor. I believe we’ll see more of him.

Q: I’m just wondering about the Daniel Radcliffe episode and that character and why did you make him into what you did make him into, or how did it come about?

Al: What it was is, the writer of the episode, Dan Greaney, wanted to do an episode where Bart befriended kind of a Holden Caulfield-type boy where he was a little older, and seemed like a great kid and then the more that he found out about the kid, there was something tragic about him. Daniel had done the show one other time, and he’s a huge fan. He listens to the DVD commentaries with us. I had seen him on Broadway, too, in “How to Succeed in Business” where he was fantastic doing an American accent. So I thought for playing a 13-year-old boy, I couldn’t think of anybody better than him, and that’s why we asked him and he was really great; happy to do it.

Q: Do you have more stars coming that you can share with us; people we haven’t heard?

Al: We do. Zach Galifianakis is coming a couple weeks after this week. He plays a little kid who wants to become a competitive eater, and Lisa is trying to save him. He came to the read, he was great; really, really nice guy. We have an episode in the fall, which is “The Simpsons/Futurama” crossover, where we got everybody from the “Futurama” cast, which was a real thrill. I thought at that table read, you had the greatest assembly of voice-over actors. It was everybody; our cast, to Billy West, Maurice LaMarche.

We have John Oliver, who plays a neighbor who’s hosting a mystery game that “The Simpsons” go to, and we have a lot of surprises. This week, especially, this coming Sunday we have some big surprises in the hour.

Q: Recently “The Simpsons” have begun so many amazing merchandising things, especially lately with the LEGO house, and also even with things like the new app, or the newish app, “Tapped Out.” What kinds of things have you gotten to do with the show that you never would have anticipated 20 years ago?

Al: Well, something like “Tapped Out” is amazing. I learned about this kind of game after “The Simpsons” was involved with it, and the fact that it’s so popular long after its release is really very, very rare. I think it’s just that we’ve built up after 25 years, this universe that so many people just love to be in the middle of, and that’s why we get approached by people who are—like LEGO, one of the most amazing companies on earth. I’m surprised by everything so it’s all amazing.

Q: With “Tapped Out,” do you work closely with the people to integrate show storylines with the app, or is it separate at this point?

Al: I don’t personally, but there are writers that do. Yes, it’s been a complete collaboration between EA and the writers of the show.

Q: How do you keep the show fresh and funny after 25 seasons?

Al: I tell you, we just work on it all the time. I never take more than a weekend off, and other writers, as well, just believe in it. We know this is the best job in the world and we want to keep it going. It’s just work and not settling, and it’s also just an incredibly rich universe of characters; starting with what Matt created. It certainly helps in the fact that it’s animated so that Bart now isn’t like a 35-year-old dropout, which would be pretty depressing. I think mostly—the animation staff, as well, just puts in incredible hours. People really care.