Interview: The Simpsons’ James L. Brooks And Al Jean Tell It Like It Is

by | January 30, 2009 at 5:56 PM | Animation Celebration, General, TV News

You know it by the first haunting note of its Danny Elfman-penned theme song: “The Simmmppsonnns.” No longer in the springtime of it’s youth, but certainly not ready for an old age home yet, TV’s longest running series, The Simpsons, has cause to celebrate this year: it turns 20. So what do 20 seasons worth of “doh’s,” and “aye caramba’s” mean to writers James L. Brooks and Al Jean? They mean quite a lot. Below, the duo reflects on their favorite moments, episodes, and controversies over these many years, and they shed some light on its future.

Do you have a list somewhere of your five favorite episodes?

James L Brooks: Yeah, I don’t know that I have five that I’d come up with in a hurry. You know, a lot of the early shows stand up to me because those were the formative years. Also, somewhere the experience of the movie is up there for me. We were just talking about this; we’re coming up to our 20th anniversary, and we’re dating it from the Bart The Genius show. That was the train ride…

Al Jean: The one where, when that came in, it was so well directed that it really saved the series.

James L. Brooks: That was a kind of seminal moment for us.

After 20 seasons there have been some outrageous and ground-breaking moments for you guys. What stands out the most?

James L. Brooks: There were some that I think were good for the soul of the show. When Dustin Hoffman was on the show, we all went to New York to record it. We cared that much about the acting that we wanted to all be in the studio. He worked all night. And almost all of the flashbacks to Marge and Homer’s early years I tend to like enormously. And Who Shot Burns was amazing for us.

Al Jean: Something that was pretty seminal, although not an episode, was that in the handbook of my daughter’s school, kids couldn’t wear t-shirts that were offensive, and it said “i.e. Bart Simpson.” Then, on the other hand, they wrote me a letter asking about a fundraiser, saying “please can we have some Simpsons stuff?” And I just thought well that’s the beginning and the end of the whole thing! [Laughing]

Well you’re definitely no strangers to controversy or hypocrisy! Last year with there was a lot of trouble in South America…

Al Jean: Well yeah. Some of the biggest controversies, or, for example, one was in Brazil. We did a show where Homer was addicted to medicinal marijuana. The network was really worried, but we got zero letters about it. The next week they went to Brazil and were chased by monkeys, and we got a huge amount of complaints. The country was threatening to sue us. Honestly!

James L. Brooks: We’ve recently had some stuff, like Homer boating, we loved when that went on the internet, and what that represented. That was great for us. And we have a St. Patrick’s Day episode coming up, where it’s going to be the first one where we actually, I think, not day and date, but…

Al Jean: It’s airing in Dublin on March 17th, and then it’ll air here like four days later.

Any juicy stuff in that episode?

Al Jean: Well Homer and grandpa get drunk and buy a pub. They find that it doesn’t work anymore, though, because the Irish don’t like to drink so much.

James L. Brooks: That’s based on a true story, by the way. That’s based on something going on in Ireland today; everybody working so hard and being so yuppied out, they don’t go to the pubs anymore.

It’s always been a topical show, but is there any specific source you try to pull from more than any other? Newspapers, conversations, television?

James L. Brooks: Everything you just said!

Al Jean: We just put it in the meat grinder and see what comes out. Any conversation or random thought, or stray dream you might have.

Are you planning any special guest stars this season?

Al Jean: We are. Anne Hathaway actually appears twice this year. She’s playing a girlfriend of Barts, who thinks he’s a really good sweet kid, but it turns out differently. And then there’s an episode where she plays a Disney-like princess character on the Krusty show. She does the voice and the singing, and she’s terrific. So then it turns out Krusty’s going to fire her because he’s so jealous, but she’s in love with him and wants to marry him. We also did an episode that’s written by and starring Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill.

So did Seth just approach you guys and express an interest in writing an episode? And are you usually gung-ho when a celebrity like him wants to write?

James L. Brooks: Sure. What they want is the experience of interacting with the show. They don’t want to just go home and do it. And we enjoy having them.

Are there any writers or actors you’d like to go after to get involved in an episode?

James L. Brooks: We have a great percentage of getting people who are great for the part. But, like Al always says, we’ve never gotten a president. That’s the one thing that’s escaped us.

Obama seems like the kind of guy who’d do it.

James L. Brooks: That could be our breakthrough.

Head back to Fancast’s Animation Celebration.