‘The Simpsons’ Boss Al Jean: Michael Jackson Used the Show to ‘Groom Boys’
The ‘Simpsons’ showrunner opens up to Marlow Stern about why they removed their Michael Jackson episode, the Fox-Disney merger, satirizing Trump, and much more.
With all due respect to series creators Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon, themselves titans of comedy, the fate of The Simpsons forever shifted in 1991, when duo Al Jean and Mike Reiss took the reins.
The Harvard pals, who’d served in the show’s writers’ room since its inception, assumed the role of showrunner in Season 3, and, with classic episodes like “Flaming Moe’s” and “Homer at the Bat,” it’s since been recognized by Springfield historians as the start of the animated sitcom’s so-called “Golden Age.” Jean and Reiss would remain showrunners through Season 4, and then, following a brief stint helming The Critic, Jean returned to The Simpsons in Season 10, and then resumed running the show in Season 13—and has continued ever since.
Of course, the premiere episode of Season 3, “Stark Raving Dad,” recently made headlines when the show’s chief creative team—including Jean, who co-wrote and produced the episode with Reiss—decided to pull it after seeing the documentary Leaving Neverland, wherein James Safechuck and Wade Robson recounted, in graphic detail, the child sexual abuse they allegedly suffered at the hands of music legend Michael Jackson. Jackson provided guest vocals in the episode, playing the character of Leon Kompowsky, a burly, institutionalized man claiming he’s the pop star. The episode was penned specifically for Jackson, a fan of the show, with the icon demanding that a scene be included wherein he and Bart Simpson create a song together. In light of the documentary, the lyrics of that song seem troubling, to say the least.
Jean and his wife, fellow Simpsons writer Stephanie Gillis, dropped down to Austin, Texas, to speak on a panel about their collaborative process at SXSW. “We were on at the same time as AOC, so we were happy to have a full room!” Jean tells me.
The two were also celebrating a recent milestone: last year, The Simpsons passed Gunsmoke to become the longest-running scripted series in TV history. And the show, now in its 30th season—and renewed for two more—isn’t showing any signs of stopping.
In a wide-ranging talk with The Daily Beast, Jean addressed the Michael Jackson controversy and so much more.
I’ve been watching The Simpsons since I was a small child. And the show hit a big milestone last year, becoming the longest-running scripted series in TV history. What did that achievement mean to you?
It was something where I was just really proud of everything all the people who’ve worked on the show have done. I thought that never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d ever be on a show that ran ten years, much less thirty. And people really, really care about this show. They work as hard on this show now as they did on the first season, and take it as seriously as possible. It was a tribute to all of them.
I’m curious how long it takes—from script to TV—to make a Simpsons episode in 2019, and whether that process has gotten faster over the years?
You know, it’s an interesting question because it’s still the same amount of time. It takes about nine months between a script being read and then the animated show airing, and a true story from the early years is we had a joke about the Soviet Union, and by the time the show came back the Soviet Union had broken up, so we had to change the joke!
How long do you see it going? We’ve got 30 seasons so far. Is there a magical number you’re trying to hit as far as an endpoint or are you still just riding the wave?
In terms of milestones, I thought if it ended it would be 30, but it didn’t—we’re doing 32—so now, I think the biggest variable is we’re obviously going to be a Disney property, and what Disney wants to do with the show. I like doing it as we do it for Fox but I don’t know what’s going to happen. I think they want it to continue, and think it’s one of the reasons they paid so much for Fox.
How do you see the merger potentially affecting the show, and have there been any preliminary feeler-type discussions that have given you a sense of what might transpire?
There couldn’t have been yet because, which I found out, prior to the merger the acquiring company can’t even give a suggestion or make a note—they need to remain at arm’s length. So the decision was to pick it up for two years just because if we had waited for the merger, we would have had too much downtime for our animation crew. So what Disney will do we’ll know after the two years.
Do you have any fears or anxieties about how the merger will affect The Simpsons?
No anxieties. I think they bought things like us and FX because of what they are. They did a tremendous job with the Marvel Universe, and as a studio, almost every big release I’m looking forward to is coming from Disney. So there’s no fear—and it’s not just because of the merger, but because the whole business is changing. Everything is going to be video-on-demand. And I’m sure whether we’re going to be a part of Disney’s [streaming service] is a big question, but I’m not sure yet.
At 34 years old, I’ve watched The Simpsons for almost my entire life. What do you think has allowed it to not only endure but appeal to several generations?
Well, I have a few reasons. Everybody works really hard. The animation is really evergreen, because it doesn’t look very much different from when you started watching it. And it’s about a family, and the way the universe of The Simpsons was created by Matt [Groening], Jim Brooks and Sam Simon, it’s very elastic and can expand to the reality of 2019 very easily. You know, I think there’s also a bit of a nostalgia factor where people have watched every episode and want to keep watching, plus there’s so many things out there now that I think people appreciate a thing that’s still the same thing they liked when they were young. Were we not on, people would be talking about a reboot.
It’s fascinating to watch The Simpsons as a “millennial” because when I grew up, viewers saw the family as closer to poor than middle class. But now, as a thirtysomething consuming it, raising a family, owning a house, and having one parent who doesn’t work as they do seems decidedly middle class—and a lot more unattainable.
That’s a good point. Homer owns his home, has a good job, Marge doesn’t have to work, and they have three kids. What that represents has changed in the last 30 years but what we’ll obviously do is keep the family the same and react to the world.
A lot of people, myself included, credit your and Mike Reiss’ stewardship in Season 3 with really elevating the overall quality of the show and transforming it into something transcendent. What changes did you make when you took the reins that allowed it to kick into high gear?
The biggest feeling we had at the time was incredible trepidation because the show was so popular, and I had worked on Alf which lasted four seasons—after being Top 10 in year two. I wanted The Simpsons to stay popular and good and beloved, and I worked for that—and have worked for that—half my life now. We introduced extra rewrites—we did a rewrite at the animatic stage; we went over scripts again and again; and we added another rewrite stage with storyboards now. If there’s one thing that changed, it wasn’t that they didn’t work hard in the beginning but we pushed them into an extra gear that was really exhausting.
The very first episode of Season 3, “Stark Raving Dad,” featuring the voice of Michael Jackson made some news recently when it was revealed that you decided to remove the episode after watching the Jackson documentary Leaving Neverland. That must have been a difficult decision for you, seeing as you wrote it and it was your first episode at the reins.
Yes. It wasn’t something that makes me happy. It’s something I agree with completely. What saddens me is, if you watch that documentary—which I did, and several of us here did—and you watch that episode, honestly, it looks like the episode was used by Michael Jackson for something other than what we’d intended it. It wasn’t just a comedy to him, it was something that was used as a tool. And I strongly believe that. That, to me, is my belief, and it’s why I think removing it is appropriate. I lose a little bit of money financially, it’s not something that’s great personally to lose one of the most successful things I ever did, but I totally think it’s the right move. I don’t believe in going through and making judgments on every guest star and saying “this one was bad, that one was bad,” but the episode itself has a false purpose, and that’s what I object to about it now.
And the false purpose was what?
I think it was part of what he used to groom boys. I really don’t know, and I should be very careful because this is not something I know personally, but as far as what I think, that’s what I think. And that makes me very, very sad.
Did Michael Jackson write the song that he and Bart sing to Lisa to cheer her up, and that includes Michael’s character singing, “And your first kiss from a boy…”
He did. But I’d really not talk about it anymore because I don’t want to belabor it. It’s from the heart, on our part, and I think Jim [Brooks] put it really well. It’s not for any other reason that for what I just said, where if you watch the documentary and then you watch that episode, something’s amiss.
Have you had similar dilemmas in the past? For example, did you ever consider removing Dr. Hibbert, who’s of course a spin on Bill Cosby?
Well, there’s a different for that, which is he was a satire—he was never voiced by Cosby. He wasn’t entirely a Cosby parody either, which is why I don’t think anybody looks at the character now and says “Oh, that’s Bill Cosby.” It’s a different thing. Nobody’s perfect, and other guest stars have been far from perfect, but this is the only episode where there was a point to the episode that was other than just having the guest star do a comic performance on the guest star’s part, which I didn’t realize at the time.
Speaking of a “perfect” Simpsons cameo, the late Luke Perry was just fantastic as Krusty’s half-brother. When I saw that, it made me appreciate him more, how he was so game to take the piss out of himself. And that was in Season 4, where you were running the show with Mike. What was it like working with Perry?
That episode was our attempt to do a sequel to “Homer at the Bat,” which we also did, and we thought, “Wow, it was so successful to get all those baseball players, let’s do it with entertainers,” and the funny thing is, it was so much easier to get baseball players than entertainers. I can’t even remember how many groups turned us down before we got the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The Rolling Stones said no. Johnny Carson said no initially, although I understand why he did, because he was originally written as a moocher and he wanted to be written as something more in the vein of his public persona. And he was really fun. And with Luke Perry, we thought it would be so funny to have Krusty have this hunky half-brother who you would never in a million years think was related to Krusty. I didn’t meet him myself, but Mike met him and said he was really, really nice, and Mike also complimented him on doing well on Celebrity Jeopardy the week before. He was really happy to be recognized as his brains as well as his looks.
Do you have favorite celebrity cameos? There have been so many, but I’m curious if there are any that really stand out for you.
Well, Tony Blair was an amazing thing to do. We were in London and they said, “Well, if you come over in ten minutes, you can record it at 10 Downing Street.” And we did, and they said, “You’ve got to keep it a secret,” but as soon as we got out they had press waiting for us. But that was a trip. Totally surreal. As far as a terrific star who was terrific to work with, Anne Hathaway was great. She came to the table, she sang incredibly, and she won an Emmy for her role in the episode. As far as latter-day guest stars, none was better than her. She was just fantastic.
One question I’ve always been curious about is: Who is the inspiration for Montgomery Burns?
It’s various things. People would say Barry Diller [chairman of IAC, which is parent company of The Daily Beast]. People would also say it’s a little like the banker in It’s a Wonderful Life. The name “Montgomery” was actually Sam Simon’s father’s name, although I don’t think Sam’s father was Montgomery Burns! The look is a little bit of a Barrymore look from It’s a Wonderful Life, so it’s a composite of things. But it’s mainly everyone’s conception of a very, very bad boss with this second in command who’s a total yes man, which you see in a lot of situations.
A remarkable thing about The Simpsons is how well it’s managed to predict the future. One of the craziest examples, of course, being President Donald Trump. How did you guys react when something you’d envisioned so many years ago became a reality?
I’ll be honest: we picked three Super Bowls right and I bet against our picks, but when Trump announced I thought there was no way he’d ever win. I should just never bet against The Simpsons. That’s the motto. Even if we say something that’s incredibly unbelievable, it’ll come true. And I don’t know why it is. It’s an incredibly wonderful—and scary—power to have!
What has your approach been on the show to political satire, and how did that approach change with the current president, who’s basically a cartoon character come to life?
We’re definitely a show that’s going to air almost a year after the episode is read, so we’re not doing daily jokes or jokes that you won’t get in a year. We try to make fun of trends and philosophies, and we try to be even-handed. The problem is, Trump in my view has gone so far in one direction that even previously conservative people like George Will are vehemently opposed, so Trump has just tipped the balance. And I understand why people go, “Geez, stop making jokes about Trump,” and we pick our spots—we’re not doing them each show. But it’s sad, because what used to be a country where there was some sort of consensus, there doesn’t seem to be one now. Elijah Cummings said it best: “I hope we get back to normal.” And I hope we get there soon.
Comedy writers have expressed how difficult it is to lampoon Trump, since he’s such a caricature, and Saturday Night Live now is basically just repeating what he says verbatim. Have you found it difficult to parody him?
That is a danger, where what he does is so insane and everything changes so quickly that you don’t want to be less funny than the real stuff. But there is an important point to satire, which is after 9/11, press people said, “Oh, you’ll never make fun of George W. Bush again,” and for a time, there was this incredible pressure not to make any political jokes. We made a couple about Fox News and the Iraq War and there was a huge fight with the censors. I definitely don’t want to go back to that, because that was a very frightening period.
Under Fox, the show has never really shied away from criticizing Fox—or Fox News. You guys have taken a lot of shots.
And we’ve certainly taken a bunch at Disney! [Laughs]
A lot at Disney. But with the Fox and Fox News shots, I’ve always loved it because it really is you guys asserting your independence.
Well, we’re still under Fox!
But have you ever gotten any notes from Rupert Murdoch or anyone else at Fox complaining about the shots you took at the network—or Fox News?
There was a really mild one where he had a helicopter that read, “Not Racist But #1 With Racists,” and then we took a shot at them again, and then again in a third week, and then the network said, “You know, maybe it’s not so funny every week.” And as a comedian, I thought they had a point—not to lay off Fox News, but when you start to just expect it then it’s kind of not so funny. That was it.
As far as the Apu controversy goes, cultural revisionism is a very difficult question, and I’m wondering if you could shed some light on your decision-making as far as keeping Apu on the show.
I apologize for anyone who was bullied because of Apu. I hate bullies. I was bullied, and if you’re a bully I’ll kick your ass, so certainly that was wrong. But as a writer, I always wanted to make Apu an original character—more noble, more hardworking, and more intelligent than the average Simpsons character. When we were doing Episode 4, there was a big joke that Reverend Lovejoy didn’t even know what religion he was, and Apu was just being this wonderful volunteer fireman, and there was an article in the Guardian recently by a South Asian writer who said that moment made him feel really proud. So I think there are a lot of things about Apu that have made South Asians very proud, and it’s a very complicated issue. But no one should be bullied because of him, and I’m very sorry about that.
Did you guys modify the character of Apu at all in the wake of the documentary?
It’s a work in progress. That’s all I can say.
Lastly, I’m curious what’s been the most gratifying part for you of being a part of such a cultural touchstone.
Without a doubt, the most gratifying part is you can go anywhere in the world and you meet people who say things like the following: “When my parents were about to split up, I watched The Simpsons and it made me feel better; it cheered me up.” To be on the receiving end of a remark like that is the most wonderful thing you can have.