2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner

Q&A: “The Simpsons” executive producers Al Jean and Matt Selman

Published: May 2, 2014, 1:10 pm, by Terry Terrones

I was recently able to sit in on a Fox conference call with “The Simpsons” executive producers Al Jean and Matt Selman (Yes, I know, I do a lot of these. Next week I’ll post a Q&A with Kiefer Sutherland). The duo talked about Sunday’s LEGO Simpsons episode and give clues as to which character will be killed off next season. Here’s a transcript of the conversation:

Q: I was hoping that you could speak a little bit about the making up the LEGO episode that’s airing on Sunday, the challenges that took place, and how long it took in comparison to a regular episode to put this together, like how any bricks appear in the episode, those sorts of things.
M. Selman: Not as many as in the LEGO Movie, but I think we used up our full budget of bricks.

A. Jean: And I’ll just say I think it was a beautiful product and it was I think about as labor intensive as any episode Simpsons has ever done.

M. Selman: Well, yes, because to do that much we were lucky enough to be able to do like if the episode is 21 minutes I would say about 17 of the minutes are in CGI LEGO animation, and so that’s more expensive so you really have to plan everything ahead of time and make sure you’re not going to change your mind.  LEGO was really helpful to us in holding our hands through the animating process and teaching us how to use CGI brick animation and make the show look as beautiful as it did.  We just had terrific support from them.

A. Jean: And I just learned there’s a LEGO Movie, so I hope it’s as good as this episode.

M. Selman: Well, the movie, it’s funny.  I was nervous about the movie, like oh it’s going to be too similar or redundant, because some of the themes are similar and they both involve sort of traveling back and forth between real world and toy world.  But watching both of them I feel that it’s a complementary story to the LEGO Movie and they kind of go hand-in-hand rather than being contradictory.

A. Jean: They interlock, as it were.

M. Selman: They interlock.  Yes, they interlock.  I think they interlock beautifully.  Well, that’s the great thing with the LEGO system all the pieces fit together, like a DUPLO or a brick from 1962 fits together with a modern brick; it all fits together.

Q: Did you guys think that you would make it to the like 550 episodes?
A. Jean: I had always predicted we’d get to 549, so I’m just honored to have gotten this far.  Honestly, everything is an amazement to me:  the number of episodes, the broad base of the people that enjoy the show.  It’s the greatest place in the world to work, and every day you go, “Wow,” you pinch yourself. It’s a great template that Matt and Jim and Sam created.  It’s just everybody has a family, so you can just reflect whatever goes on.

M. Selman: Right.  The world changes but our family doesn’t change.

A. Jean: No, except they get iPhones.

M. Selman: They get iPhones, yes, and now it’s actually quite logical for any character to hold up an amusing video at any time, which as writers is very helpful.  We don’t need an excuse to cut to an amusing parody or a funny thing, like no, everyone has a comedy delivery device in real life in their hands all the time.

Q: I was wondering, obviously both LEGOS and The Simpsons have been around for many years, what about now made you guys think that this was a good time to do a crossover episode?
A. Jean: Well, I should just point out it was actually two years in the making, and, contrary to the joke I just made, the episode was in production long before any of us had seen the movie or knew anything that was in it.

M. Selman: Right.  I mean it sort of speaks from the fact that we’ve all loved LEGO for our whole lives, too.  I mean we’ve been working on the episode for at least two years, but—I’m not being articulate—you know we have a lifetime love affair with the LEGO toy system of LEGO bricks and we’ve done little LEGO jokes along the way, and we used to have a fake version of LEGO on the show called Blocko, but I think it just seemed like an amazing opportunity that LEGO would actually partner with us to make a sort of legitimate cooperative bringing together of funny little people with round yellow heads.

A. Jean: And I don’t think the show’s ever done as seamless a transition between CGI and hand drawn animation as this.

M. Selman: It’s also like our animators, led by like Tom Klein in “Film Roman” and the Director of “Mathnastics,” who’s so talented, had to learn all these new skills and work with a whole—instead of working in Korea for the execution of the animation they worked with a company in India, and it was a real learning curve for them and they really pulled it off beautifully on the technical and the creative side.

A. Jean: It’s so complex, just going from the two intermixed and back and forth.  And yes, I totally agree with what Matt just said.

M. Selman: We put in so many funny little LEGO reference background jokes like at every opportunity we could find, from like the photos in the back to like stuff in the church to the love tester at Mo’s.  We tried to do 100% LEGOification to really reward the viewer who will go back and see how obsessively we mushed these things together.

Brian Kelley, the writer, and I both have young children now, who are obviously huge LEGO fans, and for us to rediscover LEGO through them I think was also kind of an impetus for the episode, going back to that earlier question.  So sometimes playing with your kids if you’re a dad can be very boring, but actually building something with them is actually stimulating and fun, and so like to rediscover LEGO through them is probably what pushed us also to want to do an episode.  Thematically, if you’ve seen it, you can see what we’re talking about.

A. Jean: You know what else, too, I should mention, when Matt first thought of this it was before there was a Simpson/LEGO tie in.  People are probably looking at it going, “All this all fits and it’s a plan.”  It’s like actually, no, it was just the love of LEGO and it wasn’t any cross promotional.  It was just a creative idea.

Q: Having watched the episode I think the most interesting, the funniest aspect of it for me was how some of the classic Simpsons characters get transformed into LEGO form.  I think Comic Book Guy looked a heck of a lot better; he looks like he’s been on a diet.  Like Marge really looks like she’s put on a little weight.  I’m wondering if, just in terms of this transition, was there anything visually about this project that surprised you when you actually saw how it was going to turn out, either in terms of characters or structures or background, anything visually that surprised you?
A. Jean: Before Matt answers, parenthetically I’m considering turning myself into LEGO.

M. Selman: And that’s funny, yes, it’s like the fat people in town got slimmer–we drew little bellies on; their bellies are just drawn on–and the thinner people got wider.  But that was honestly like we got so much great guidance from the official LEGO people and how to make everything look legitimately like the real thing, like we really wanted it to look exactly right and they just gave us so much help with that.

What other surprises?  We wanted to make sure we could put as many recognizable classic figures in the episode as well.  Right.  I mean I was saying to someone else like the two people I regret that aren’t in the show are Itchy and Scratchy; I wish we could have done a LEGO Itchy and Scratchy.  That would have been really funny and fun.  Maybe, I don’t know, Al, you think they’ll let us do another one?  If we can think of a good—

A. Jean: We are always trying to bend the parameters of what we can do with animation, and, as Matt said, the directors, like Matt Nastuk, and Supervisor, Mike Anderson, they’re always, every time you give them something where you go it’s not just what we normally do they love it and they’re great at it.

M. Selman: I mean I would also add that one of the things that we’ve been doing in the show that Al has really spearheaded has been in finding our beloved animators from around the globe and in America like who we’re now giving the opportunity to put their stamp on the show in these extended couch gags, and they’re just so beautiful.

A. Jean: Yes, we call it noble outsourcing.

M. Selman: I mean, Al, I don’t remember the name of the guy who just did the one that is on YouTube now, but it’s amazing.

A. Jean: Michal Socha, no E in Michal.  It’s M-I-C-H-A—

M. Selman: And the French one?  I don’t know any of the names.

A. Jean: Sylvain Chomet of Triplets of Belleville.  Yes, and these guys are heroes.  Like Chomet, I couldn’t believe he said yes.  I just thought for him drawing animation there isn’t a better guy.

M. Selman: Yes.  I mean I felt like did that take him like four years to make it there are so many drawings in it.

A. Jean: Yes, it’s amazing.  It was a while.  But, yes, it’s like Matt Groening, it’s like we’re creating our little museum of couch gags, and it’s a wonderful thing.  I mean there’s more to come, by the way.

Q: Did you ever consider a character other than Homer to be the POV character for the LEGO episode?
M. Selman: That’s a good question.  I think no; I think it was pretty much always Homer from the beginning.  I mean we really locked in early, like I remember me and Brian pitching the story to Al and Jim Brooks and we said, “It can’t just be, there has to be like,” and like this is coming from them, like the direction that they’re always giving us, and it’s like, “there has to be strong, relatable, real family emotion at the heart of it, or it’s just going to be a bunch of craziness.”  Right.  And the area of like parents and how the interact with their children and children aging and playing with children is so part of our daily lives we really thought we’re like we’re the Homers of our own life now with our kids.  We’re 42, you know, so it’s like we really kind of wrote it from the perspective of the dad watching his kids grow up.

A. Jean: Yes.  I’d say between Matt and I we have four daughters, so I think we all relate to that dynamic.

M. Selman: Yes, and then sometimes they think you’re cool and then sometimes they don’t.

A. Jean:  It’s called getting older.

M. Selman: Because I know we’re not getting less cool, so it must be the daughters who are changing; that’s the only explanation.

Q: Can you tell me more information about the person who’s going to die next year since everybody who has been on the show has won an Emmy that is a lead voice?
A. Jean: Well, here’s the problem; if I give away too many clues then that’s it.  But here’s a clue:  the performer won an Emmy, has appeared more than once, and at the time the news came out the performer didn’t know that we were killing that character, and it is the premier this fall.  And I cannot give out any more clues without making it too easy.

Q: What else can you tell us about the upcoming season?
A. Jean: We have a show that was originally pitched by Judd Apatow 25 years ago that we just recorded that will air, and the premise is that Homer’s so stressed at work he goes to a hypnotist and believes he’s 10-years old, and suddenly he’s Bart’s best friend, and it actually is a very sweet story and we’re really thrilled to have that.  And we have one show where there is a new teacher for Bart.  I’m not saying this teacher will last, but it’s quite the opposite of Mrs. Krabappel.