As “The Simpsons” prepares to unleash “Treehouse of Horror XXII” — the latest in the series’ annual Halloween installment — Emmy-winning producer Al Jean talked to TheWrap about the gruesome tricks and treats that await viewers this year, as well as his all-time favorite “Treehouse” episodes.
Sunday’s episode will mark only the second time since 1999 that the “Treehouse of Horror” show has aired before Halloween. Were you happy it worked out?
Yes, and the perfect thing is, Halloween is actually a bad day to air it, because nobody watches TV that night. Especially if they have kids. So October 30th, it is our Halloween. People can watch it and then still go out the next night.
And what can we expect this year? Aron Ralston, the subject of “127 Hours” is making a cameo?
Yes, in the beginning segment, we have a little cameo by Aron Ralston. He even came up with his own Halloween name for the credits, which is Aron “I gave my right arm to be on ‘The Simpsons’” Ralston.
He’s in the segment that’s a satire of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” where Homer is paralyzed and can only communicate through passing gas. The people who’ve seen it, they really laughed, maybe more than they should, at this.
A spoof of the “Dexter” opening was released online this summer … where does it fit in?
We have an episode where Ned Flanders is told to start killing everybody evil in Springfield, and he’s the killer in our “Dexter” spoof.
And there has to be an appearance by Kang and Kodos, so where do they come in?
In the last segment (“In the Na’Vi”), Bart and Milhouse visit the planet of Kang and Kodos, which is not too dissimilar from the planet on “Avatar.”
The “Treehouse” episodes are so anticipated each year, but they’re also a lot more work than regular episodes. Ever regret committing to doing them?
You know, I’m the one person who, after four of them, said, “There’s no way we can keep doing these, it’s just too hard.” And of course, that was one of the stupidest things anybody ever said.
They’re, you know, now, just so looked forward to, both by the viewer and the writers, because you really get to go anywhere. I mean, we have a lot of liberties in our normal episodes, but here, you can just really go crazy, the sky is the limit. And the animators always do an incredible job putting it together.
Why are these episodes, aside from having to come up with three separate stories, more difficult than regular episodes of the show?
We have to do many, many designs … new characters, new backgrounds. And we usually read them one year before they air. We actually just read the Halloween show for next year a couple of weeks ago. It’s real labor intensive, so we just like to give the directors as much time as possible to work on it.
Can you give me any hints about next year’s “Treehouse”?
Yeah, this’ll be the first advance notice on next year. We do a “Back to the Future”-type thing where we go back to the episode where Homer met Marge, and Bart completely screws it up.
And Springfield gets, and this is a real, you know, theoretical construct … a mini‑black hole appears in Springfield and it starts sucking everything in. Also, we deal with the fact that the world is supposed to end in 2012.
Fans have been talking about another “Simpsons” movie since the first one did so well. Has there ever been talk of doing a “Treehouse of Horror” movie?
You know, David Cohen, one of the writers, who now writes for “Futurama,” proposed that years ago. He said, “If we ever do a ‘Simpsons’ movie, it should be a ‘Treehouse’.” The only thing I would think about that is that I think anthology movies are hard to sustain.
You know, like (with) the “Twilight Zone” movie. What always happens, whenever you do three of something, people always go, “Two were good, but one wasn’t.” It’s like it doesn’t matter, they could be the three best things of all time, but …
Is it something you might still consider doing, then, at some point?
I think if we did another movie, it wouldn’t be a “Treehouse.” My preference would be to do something that made use of 3D, which the first movie didn’t. You know, to do a movie that again had a really compelling story. I know with (“The Simpsons Movie” co-writer and producer) Jim Brooks that was the thing with the movie we did … after you get to hear the jokes, you want to have people really caring about what happens, so that when you get to the emotional climax 60 minutes in or 70 minutes in, it means something.
Can you choose one of the “Treehouse” episodes as your favorite? Or one of the segments?
You know, if I had to pick a very best one, I might say “Citizen Kang,” written by David Cohen, who I just mentioned.
But one of my favorite things we ever did was when we had an opener where Homer tried to vote for Obama (in “Treehouse of Horror XIX”). And that thing, I think it’s up to 26 million views or something on YouTube. It’s crazy. So, you know, every year there’s one thing that I go, “Oh, my God,” like this year with “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” I just go, “This one is just great.”
Are there things you’ve wanted to do with the “Treehouse” episodes that you couldn’t?
You know, the one … there was one time we (wrote) a segment that was an homage to Studio Ghibli, the Miyazaki movie, like “Spirited Away.” And it’s hard to make them funny, so we actually tabled it, but I loved that animation so much, and we’ve done it in other little forms on the show. I’d like to come back to that.
Is it an extra challenge with the “Treehouse” episodes to avoid things that lock you into a certain time, or does that matter?
Well, everything we do, you know, like the Obama thing, we think about that kind of stuff. We figured that one out a year ahead of time. We go, “Oh, gonna be an election.” I think when we wrote it, it was still unsure whether it was going to be Obama or Clinton. I think we had two versions.
Has it ever been frustrating to come up with all these great storylines and then have to limit them to a seven or eight-minute segment?
Yes! The one thing that is tough is they’re always too long, so you’re always cutting them down, and, you know, certain things … We did a parody of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” and Yeardley (Smith, voice of Lisa Simpson) did this great speech where she was yelling at Milhouse the way Sally Brown yelled at Linus. And we had to cut it for time, but we’ll put it on the DVD.
“It’s the Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse,” from “Treehouse XIX,” is one of my favorites. You even had the Vince Guaraldi music.
Yeah, we actually waited, waited to do that spoof, because we couldn’t clear the music, you know, ever. And then, that year we tried and they said yes. The music is such a huge part of the appeal of the those cartoons. They’re great all around, but so when we got it, it was like, “Oh, man, we’ve got to do this. This is great.”