While this call only lasted 20 minutes, Al managed to answer more questions than usually get answered at most of the 60 minute calls I’ve been on! He was very candid in his answers and didn’t shy away from any questions.
Jump with me to read some of the highlights…
On what we can we expect in this 500th episode
Al Jean: There are a lot of little touches marking the milestone the way we like to sort of at the same time celebrate and mock something. And then there’s a really nice emotional story about the family finding out how their neighbors really feel about them and it’s not good and they have to deal with that.
On Julian Assange’s appearance in the episode
Al Jean: He is in the episode. Obviously he’s a controversial figure and that was discussed before we agreed to let him do it. It’s a funny cameo and it makes no judgments about the larger case about him. So yes, he’s in it and we had to record him over the phone. It was a very kind of cloak and dagger thing, but we’ve been specializing in finding people who can’t be found so we thought it’d be especially unique for the 500th episode. I don’t think he was on the 500th episode of Gun Smoke. I had heard through Matt Groening, and I don’t know who told him, that Mr. Assange was interested in being on the show. So we had our casting director, Bonnie Pietila, who also tracked down Banksy and Thomas Pynchon, try to locate him and she did. If there’s a missing person you want to find, she’s the person to contact.
It was a very brief phone call where mostly I was talking to the engineer who was talking to him. So I just briefly said, “Thanks for doing the show,” and he asked when it would be on. There was really very little interaction. He was in a different country. I have no idea where he was. I know more about him than Banksy, but very little more than that.
On the impact that The Simpsons has had on society and popular culture
Al Jean: It’s hard to exactly tell, but I think it’s just one of the most recognized—for lack of a better word—literary accomplishments in history. Really you go around the world and someone like Julian Assange says, “I’d like to be on The Simpsons,” which is just something I never would’ve conceived of 20 years ago, and the people that we’ve gotten to meet and work with in that time are just unbelievable. It’s really like the kind of people you meet in a dream are the ones that we’ve gotten to work with.
On how close the talent come to leaving last October
Al Jean: I think it was less of a close call than people thought reading the coverage. What happens is the cast has two, three, four-year contracts and when they expire then they’re renegotiated. It’s not a holdout. It’s not a walkout. It’s the way business works.
This was actually a very early signing. The network had said that the cost of the show that we were doing was prohibitive, and as you can see shows like House did come to an end because of cost. They said if you can get it down to a certain number we’d love to keep going as long as you can, and we did. Going through the whole budget, including the cast, and everybody just loves it so much that they said, “To keep it going we’ll work with what we see as a genuine concern.”
We had an episode which we just aired last Christmas called “Holidays of Future Past.” Had we ended the series that would’ve been the last episode. We were prepared to do that, but in my opinion, having been privy to it, I don’t think it ever really got close to that point.
I personally wouldn’t want to do the show without the people that we have. I mean they’re obviously integral to it and we’ve done so many episodes I can’t conceive of it without them. Had they not signed, we would’ve stopped the show.
On his favorite guest stars
Al Jean: I can tell you one. I didn’t meet him. He recorded it and I heard it over the phone. But we had a table read where Ted Nugent was calling in from, as I understand it, a hunting expedition where he did his part in between going up in a helicopter to shoot things.
We had a line at the beginning where it said, “Man’s voice,” which is him. In other words, we didn’t see him yet and it just said, “Man’s voice,” and he didn’t read it. We said, “No, it’s you. You should read that line.” He said, “Sorry guys, you f****d up.” So that got a huge laugh. Someday I hope to meet him. Preferably not when he’s shooting from a helicopter.
[As for most surprising guest stars,] the Banksy thing I thought was amazing and I never even met him or talked to him. It was all via e-mail so he could be a woman for all I know. We had Tony Blair on the show. That still boggles my mind.
[As to dream guest stars,] Sandy Koufax would be a great one.
On why The Simpsons are so popular worldwide
Al Jean: Part of it is I think the world hates America so we’ve really cashed in on that. And I think that, more seriously or somewhat seriously, that it’s about a family, and no matter where you go people have a family and it’s usually a family that doesn’t work perfectly. So it relates very well to anyone who looks at it.
And of course because it’s animated we’re able to use local talent. In countries that don’t speak English the people who do the voices of the characters become big stars. I was talking to the syndicator from Germany. He sad sadly the woman who voiced Marge passed away and when they aired the new voice 16,000 people wrote in saying, “Why did you get rid of the old Marge?” They had to take out an ad explaining what had happened. The local Simpsons are extremely popular.
On how many more stories are left to tell
Al Jean: We’re definitely going to do a total of 559. That’s what the new deal is for, but I honestly think—because again, it’s a show with a really rich universe, many characters. It centers on a family, which is extremely universal. I don’t know where the end is. I’ve jokingly said, “Why not 1,000? Why not 2,000?” But that’s sounds a preposterous to me now as 500 did then so I really don’t know.
On how The Simpsons are different today, as a family, than The Simpsons of 1989
Al Jean: I think the world maybe has gotten a little bit more post apocalyptic in its thinking. You see a lot of sort of dire prognostications, bleak visions of the future. So I think that the show reflects that a little bit, but we were never that optimistic about big institutions and governments. We were always more interested in the relationship of the family.
On why The Simpsons has been able to last for 500 episodes
Al Jean: I think there are several reasons. I think that they way that the show was conceived by Matt and Jim. It is just such a rich universe and such a story that people like to see repeated. I think the fact that the characters don’t age is key. I think if Bart was really 40 and living on his parent’s couch it would be too sad. And we just work really hard; everybody on the show just really takes it seriously and acts like it’s the first season and we’re fighting for our lives.
On whether there is a formula for good comedic TV
Al Jean: There’s never a formula. You’re always surprised when you go to the table and that joke you think is really funny doesn’t work. I mean that’s the sort of tightrope walking aspect of the job. And if you think there’s a formula then that’s probably when you should stop because it’s just too—then you’re not taking it seriously. I’m always really thrilled when one of the writers suggests a great new story because that’s the hardest thing for us to come up with at this point.
On any plans to kill off any characters this season
Al Jean: No. We did it a little bit with Maude Flanders and Bleeding Gums Murphy. I think that people don’t want to see us kill off grandpa. They want him to be around. They want this universe to sort of stay roughly the same just the way that Bugs Bunny never killed Elmer Fudd. It’s really kind of similar.
On looking at the early episodes of The Simpsons, the things that make him proud or cringe
Al Jean: I knew a writer who had done The Honeymooners, Leonard Stern and I said to him, “Those are just the best episodes ever.” He said he would watch them and cringe because of all of the live action screw-ups, all the blown lines, and for me, watching the old shows is similar. I first of all will look at the animation and think about how we would, with our technological advantage now, do it differently even though it was terrific for the time, and always looking at things going, “That joke could’ve been better,” or, “It didn’t quite achieve what we wanted to in the writing.” I think that, again, is one reason that the show’s lasted because nobody just looks at everything and says, “I’m completely satisfied,” and, “Aren’t I proud of myself.”
On the ever-changing opening sequence
Al Jean: At the beginning, Matt and Sam Simon wanted to change the credits every episode because as you recall when we debuted there were much longer credits on the shows, and they wanted to do something that would keep it interesting and you would never feel that any episode was the same as the others. Over the years, we’ve often cut back to where it’s just the couch guy being new.
I’ll be honest, the toughest part is to do chalkboard—I don’t even how many he is to write with chalk on blackboard because it’s just kind of like an archaic form and we try to avoid that one. But the cough guys are a real inspiration and some of our best couch guys I think we’ve done in the last 100 episodes.
We have several surprises coming. We really loved doing both of those [guest artists] and we love doing the evolution parity that we did. So for us when the show is short we see it as an opportunity not a failing.
See the milestone episode of The Simpsons tonight on FOX at 8/7c.