“Cartoons Have Writers?”

Steve Williams and Ian Jones on the history of The Simpsons

First published March 2005

Long-running American sitcoms that end up much-loved institutions have a habit of starting their life in the ropiest shape possible. Chances are the more successful they become, the tattier was their infancy. You can be the one of most devoted fans of M*A*S*H, Taxi or Seinfeld, yet still find sitting through an episode from their first series an acutely embarrassing business. Characters don’t behave the way they should. Some don’t sound right. Opportunities are missed. Punchlines are wasted.

The Simpsons is just the same. Its first series, premiered in the United States in 1989-90, is barely watchable today. Even those with just a superficial awareness of the show would probably find the sloppy animation, dodgy vocalization and snail’s-like pace utterly unfamiliar. Despite an undoubted cohesion to its humour and plotlines, the debut season of The Simpsons is, when viewed over 15 years later, quite possibly the worst advertisement for the show imaginable.

Yet while most successful sitcoms take at least a couple of series to find their feet, The Simpsons went on to hit its stride in a manner both remarkably swift and effortlessly painless. And the same group of people who were behind its defiantly mediocre birth were precisely the same who turned it into one of the greatest programmes on television.

“According to his attorneys, he couldn’t possibly do it alone”

It’s worth acknowledging that, of all those chiefly involved in launching The Simpsons, only one was actually a professional animator – and he was the one with the least amount of experience in television. From the outset, the show was always treated by its makers as a sitcom first, a cartoon second. Sure, Matt Groening was the one who dreamed up the characters, gave them names then drew the storyboards for their debut as a supporting feature on The Tracey Ullman Show. But it was the input and influence of his two fellow co-developers and executive producers, James L Brooks and Sam Simon, that turned Groening’s creations into a masterpiece of resonant, warm, human TV.

“We ought to make people forget they’re watching a cartoon,” was Brooks’ abiding concern. An imposing figure in sitcom history, he had a trio of legendary comic series to his name – The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and Taxi – and had, in The Tracey Ullman Show, given the fledgling Fox network its first ever hit. Sam Simon, a veteran TV writer, had worked with Brooks on Taxi besides overseeing dozens of episodes of Cheers. The pair could rightfully boast of a profound understanding of the structures and formulas of bankable American television comedy. Which was just as well, given the fact neither had worked in animation before and were now asking Fox for money to make 13 half hour episodes based on scratchy 15-second fillers featuring yellow four-fingered freaks.

Brooks was obsessed with treating the show as anything but something in the slapstick, larger-than-life mould of The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Scooby Doo or any other enduring US cartoon series. Somewhat perversely for a 100% hand-drawn creation, his touchstones were realism, the everyday, and strong emotional resonance. For people to forget they were watching a cartoon, he argued, its characters had to behave – think, laugh, cry – like you and me.

So Brooks and Simon deliberately appointed writers who had no track record of working in animation whatsoever. It was brave move. The pair couldn’t rely on fellow veterans like themselves with extensive experience of the TV industry. There wasn’t the money to employ them for starters, and the pitch – a primetime cartoon series on a then-obscure TV channel – wasn’t that attractive either. Instead a small band of young writers with precious little knowledge of working in the sitcom business ended up forming the nucleus of The Simpsons‘ staff. The fact these same people effectively ran the show for the first four years of its life, in the process nailing all its various teething troubles, stamping it with a unique identity and handing it incomparable worldwide success, is some achievement.

“You know who the real crooks are? Those sleazy Hollywood producers”

First to be appointed to the staff were Al Jean and Mike Reiss: room-mates at Harvard University, joint editors of the National Lampoon, contributors to It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and most recently writers for The Tonight Show. Responsible for scripting the slightly awkward “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” and “The Tell-Tale Head” in The Simpsons‘ debut series, a mark of how quickly they exploited the freedoms given to them by James Brooks and Sam Simon was the way they went on to establish the Halloween “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, boldly construct the show’s historical context in “The Way We Was” and take credit for the weirdest of all the early efforts, the Michael Jackson-fronted “Stark Raving Dad”, all in the ensuing 12 months.

Jay Kogen and Wally Wolodarksy, another partnership, came from The Tracey Ullman Show. They made Krusty the Klown Jewish, named Homer’s dad, and penned the most iconic of the early episodes, “Bart the Daredevil”. Jon Vitti, another Harvard graduate, had served a self-professed miserable stint on Saturday Night Live, but on The Simpsons went from writing the rather predictable, one-dimensional run-around “Homer’s Night Out” in season one to the wonderful “Burns Verkaufen Das Kraftwerk” (“After all, we are from the land of chocolate …”) in the space of two years.

Yet another Harvard alumnus, George Meyer – once rather preposterously billed in a US magazine as “America’s funniest man” – also came from Saturday Night Live, as did John Swartzwelder who would go on to write more episodes than anybody else (59 and counting). Again, while Swartzwelder’s work on that first series was decent enough – such as “Jacques to be Wild” and “Bart the General” – he only really hit his stride when handed the chance to flesh out the character of Mr Burns via the stories “Two Cars in Every Garage, Three Eyes on Every Fish”, where Burns tried to run for Governor, and “Bart Gets Hit by a Car”, in doing so turning the grizzled power plant owner into, ironically, one of the show’s most likeable stars.

Between them this tiny group of writers, watched over by Brooks, Simon and Matt Groening (who’d insisted on complete editorial freedom from network executives), made The Simpsons into a phenomenon. They did it almost single-handedly. Although individual names were studiously credited as “writer” for each episode, every script was a joint effort. Occasionally one-off episodes were given to freelancers to develop into a first draft (Nell Scovell supplying “One Fish, Two Fish, Three Fish, Blowfish” where Homer has 24 hours to live; Mimi Pond penning “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” which, thanks to the vagaries of scheduling, was the very first episode to air), only for their work to be stripped apart and re-worked over and over again by the staff. Even the efforts of vastly accomplished old-hands like Cheers producers Ken Levine and David Isaacs (“Dancin’ Homer”) were picked apart and stitched back together with the requisite in-jokes, running gags, stylistic quirks and satirical barbs added.

Out of such situations ultra-tight bonds were formed. During these early years the writing staff reportedly behaved like a big gang, always sticking together and often going out en mass to the cinema, baseball games and cafés as if a group of classmates. All the while Sam Simon was schooling his protégés in the art of the sublime sitcom, and James Brooks deploying his clout to keep nosey network bosses away. It seemed the perfect set-up. But it took a while for such a tightly controlled, meticulously scrutinised enterprise not only to find its peak, but also to stay there.

“When he goes to sleep he makes chewing noises”

The very early series of The Simpsons were unashamedly obsessed with exploring situations of a mainly domestic nature, with plentiful homespun moralising, everyday incidents, obvious characterisations and misfortune on the part of the Simpsons themselves. This, together with the crudely-realised animation and clunking dialogue, gave the show a somewhat lumpen quality that wasn’t helped by a tendency to stray too far into cloying sentimentality. Battles with the Fox network censors meant Bart saying things like “buttkisser”, “groin” and even “what the hell are you talking about?” led to distracting legal wrangles. Precious time was wasted fighting over issues such as whether it was right to show Homer stealing a tree from some woods.

Then, in the second season (1990-91), things started to change. A collective decision on behalf of the writers to recognise a growing audience interest not in Bart but in Homer shifted the tone of the show. But as Homer became more obviously stupid, boorish or unlikeable, or Lisa preppy, stories were created around them so as to properly explore their existing personalities (“Lisa’s Pony”, “Homer Defined”, “Three Men and a Comic Book”) rather than conveniently reveal them to have hidden talents or delusions of grandeur. Homer seemed to care about losing his job, and actually going to work; Marge dreamt of opening her first savings account; and Lisa’s love for studying was respected (“Lisa’s Substitute”) rather than made to look the pastime of a loon (“The PTA Disbands”).

Crucially, although the second season almost doubled in length (22 episodes), only two writers were added to the staff: David Stern, who’d worked on The Wonder Years, and Jeff Martin, contributor to Late Night With David Letterman. Nobody else was brought on board, in fact, until season four. The Simpsons remained under the complete control of the select band that was in from the beginning. It meant development could happen organically, and with consistency. Any steps in handing characters’ new traits or quirks were taken gradually. And despite the inherently absurd and comical nature of Springfield itself, everything within it made some kind of sense.

By now all the horrible foibles of the opening episodes had been abolished. The Fox schedulers had moved The Simpsons up against The Cosby Show on NBC, a decision that led to an inevitable decline in ratings. But with the programme already a cultural talking point and a merchandising monster, its staff was emboldened to start pushing it in new directions. The third season (1991-92) saw Al Jean and Mike Reiss take over the day-to-day running. Many of their trademarks – TV parodies, flashbacks, fantasy sequences, Homer talking to his own brain – became The Simpsons‘ greatest calling cards and took the series to a whole new level.

Two episodes proved particularly portentous: “Flaming Moe’s” and “Black Widower”. The former marked the proper arrival of shameless guest star fraternization (Aerosmith) as opposed to celebrities appearing playing other characters (Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson). The second acknowledged the potential in having returning characters (Sideshow Bob), but at the same time hinted at what would come to be a real problem for the show: the need to always return things to how they were at the start to allow subsequent episodes to make sense. For the time being this was used as a means of wry self-referential humour (Mr Burns’ repeated failure to recognise Homer). Later it would become one of its biggest millstones.

Season four of The Simpsons (1992-93) is regularly hailed as the greatest of them all, and there’s no reason to dispute such a claim. Every episode was a tour de force of stunning animation, fully rounded plots and memorable one-liners. Making the series almost killed its executive producers, Al Jean citing 20-hour days and Mike Reiss emerging from the experience to be officially diagnosed, in his own words, “morbidly obese.” Yet here were George Meyer’s “Homer the Heretic”, perhaps the cleverest Simpsons episode ever; John Swartzwelder’s superb “Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie”; Jay Kogen and Wally Wolodorsky’s epic “Last Exit to Springfield”; Jeff Martin’s spectacular all-singing “A Streetcar Named Marge”; Jon Vitti’s timeless “Mr Plow”; plus a further step towards the ultimate in arch self-referentiality, “The Front”, wherein the entire Simpsons staff appeared as themselves.

By this stage the show had long passed the point where it needed to justify its existence to anyone – its network, the US syndicators, critics, audiences, the lot. It had also completely changed from its first incarnation. No more kitchen sink moralising (“It’s an ending…”) and affirmations of hearthside family ethics, at least not in recognisable, black-and-white, good vs bad shades. There wasn’t time – literally (the title sequence was shorn to make more room for the episode). The show also gained its first new staff writer in almost three years: Saturday Night Live contributor Conan O’Brien.

Although he only stayed with The Simpsons for just over 12 months, and was actually the third choice for the job, his impact was to prove enormous. O’Brien was responsible for pitching and developing one of the programme’s biggest turning points: “Marge Versus the Monorail”. This was the first substantial depiction of the extraordinary being just as accepted within Springfield as the ordinary, if not more so. Basic foundations and conceits were torn down. The entire town performed their first song and dance number. Homer embarked on the first of many new vocations (an engine driver) that, ordinarily, would’ve meant he could never return to working at the nuclear power plant. And just where had the giant magnifying glass and escalator to nowhere been up to now? Did it matter? Above all you had a pace and punch to the script and animation that had hitherto been untested and maintained. “Once you’d been so far,” Mike Reiss later recalled, “you could never go back.”

“He lied to us through song – I hate when people do that”

The reason why Conan O’Brien was able to have such an influence on The Simpsons was in part due to timing. By 1993 founding members of the staff had begun to drift off into other projects, tempted away with lucrative development deals from rival companies. Others felt burned out. Some just needed a rest. Hence the field was open for particularly vocal, articulate, headstrong new writers to make the running and argue the case for pushing the series into unexpected, uncharted directions. After all, they could claim, they were merely doing to the programme what their predecessors had discovered they needed to do to keep the show fresh and exciting.

That O’Brien found it additionally easy to have such an impact was that the ultra-strict rules once imposed upon The Simpsons by Sam Simon and James Brooks were now being increasingly loosely applied. Brooks was busy developing an entirely new show, The Critic, itself the idea of Al Jean and Mike Reiss. Simon, moreover, was ready to turn his back on the show completely. He quit in 1993, going to on the work on somewhat less illustrious sitcoms like The Drew Carey Show and Norm. With two of the three founding fathers of The Simpsons otherwise engaged, the floor was virtually anybody’s.

By the time of the fifth season (1993-1994), out of that original tight-knit, us-against-the-world gang of writers only John Schwartzwelder remained. Two contributors to the previous year, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, were hastily promoted to the rank of producer, while – breaking with precedent – a completely new person was brought in from outside to run the show. This was David Mirkin, a stalwart from the legendary US sitcom Newhart and most recently The Larry Sanders Show. His appointment was more out of expediency than anything else; there was simply nobody suitable to promote from inside. O’Brien was only around for a few months before being headhunted to replace David Letterman on Late Night, and all the other producers had left.

In such a potentially chaotic situation, Mirkin did well to hold everything together. You could tell that both he and his staff were second generation Simpsons writers, however, by the way the show now shifted in tone and humour. An emphasis on playing with continuity and expectation was placed above characterisation for the first time. Out went all lingering traces of the moralistic early years. In came full-on surrealism, in-jokes and extreme plotlines. It could’ve all gone horribly wrong; major changes of direction in a long-running show need to be self-evidently fruitful straightaway or else audiences switch off. The fact it worked, and worked wonders, was because Mirkin and co weren’t doing it purely for the sake of it. There’s was a constructive, worthwhile, intelligent evolution, which was also damn funny.

Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, plus Schwartzwelder, wrote roughly half of the whole fifth season by themselves. It showed. Here’s where most of the all-time ambitious Simpsons episodes date from: “Bart Gets Famous” (“It’s the ‘I didn’t do it’ boy!”), “Bart Gets an Elephant”, “Lisa vs Malibu Stacy”, “Lady Bouvier’s Lover” and “Rosebud”. O’Brien was replaced with Greg Daniels, Seinfeld scriptwriter and future creator of King of the Hill, who contributed equally eye-catching episodes which could only have occurred at this point in the history of The Simpsons: “Homer and Apu”, “Secrets of a Successful Marriage” and “Lisa’s Wedding”.

The transition to a new guard of personnel seemed to have passed off smoothly. Imaginative plotting, highly striking visual ambition and incredible self-confidence were still much in evidence, never mind a relentless gag-rate. David Mirkin ran both series five and six, marshalling his award-garlanded team of writers to sustained levels of greatness. But he was under pressure to deliver. Fox had ordered the amount of episodes per season to increase to 25, meaning The Simpsons would now air virtually half the year round. Mirkin’s response was to endorse a dramatic ballooning in numbers: a total of ten new writers were enthusiastically added to the roll call for series six (1994-95), the biggest increase so far. And most had precious little experience of writing, even for TV.

“I can see why this is so popular”

In retrospect it’s arguable whether, at this point in its history, The Simpsons could feasibly have risen any higher. Perhaps the only way was down or, at best, a levelling out. It was hard to see how it would ever surpass the standards of such episodes as, say, “Sideshow Bob Roberts” “Homer: Bad Man” or “Bart’s Comet”. Indeed, neither the increased episode count nor the injection of new writers translated into a self-evident perpetuation of the show’s brilliance. The sixth season entertained the programme’s first real clunkers: obviously poor episodes with weak structures, listless plotting and the beginnings of a laziness regarding characterisation – all criteria that would soon come to haunt The Simpsons on a substantial scale. Was this to be expected … or inevitable?

Well, it’s certainly striking how many of the debut episodes of all those new writers were of alarmingly mediocre, and even poor vintage. Mike Scully (“Lisa’s Rival”), Jennifer Crittenden (“And Maggie Makes Three”), John Collier (“Bart’s Girlfriend”) and especially Ken Keeler (“A Star is Burns”) each debuted with at best pedestrian, at worse, pretty unbearable, offerings. In theory these could have been offset with the stronger contributions from, say, Oakley and Weinstein (though they weren’t above the odd blunder); but because they were below par, and obviously so, their arrival on screen was more of a shock.

When viewing the seasons sequentially, the sixth series is definitely the first to suffer seriously from the curse of inconsistency. It was also the first, since the debut season, to air in the United States on Sunday nights: a less competitive but greatly more exposed slot, and one where the show’s relative health was all the more open for inspection. There were still more hits than misses, however, including Homer’s encounter with The Stonecutters in “Homer he Great” and his financial entanglement with his sisters-in-law in “Homer vs Patty and Selma”. There was also the definitive climax, “Who Shot Mr Burns?” It was penned by Oakley and Weinstein who, when David Mirkin left after serving the now-standard two years as executive producer, were appointed to run the show. This seemed a logical and inspired move. It would make for continuity of tone, purpose and humour, but also hopefully a crucial lid to contain the actions of the now seemingly endless flow of new writers who were tempted to make merry with The Simpsons‘ heritage. Perhaps things weren’t destined for decline just yet.

Initially the omens looked good. Season seven (1995-96) began strongly, including a suitably grand farewell effort from Greg Daniels (“Bart Sells His Soul”) and an effective twist to the family’s history in “Mother Simpson” from new writer Richard Appel. Al Jean and Mike Reiss were back on board as consulting producers, and George Meyer also returned as co-executive producer. Even Jon Vitti contributed a story (“Home Sweet Home-Diddily-Dum-Doodily”). But rough edges were there. Viewers saw an unlikeable side to Marge that didn’t prove anything (“Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield”). There was “Two Bad Neighbours”, the George Bush satire you could only love or hate, and “Homerpalooza”, a weird clash of alternative cultures that somehow didn’t quite hang together.

Then there was the show’s most shameless excursion into repetition to date. “Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming” was the first time the titular tonsorially-enhanced schemer’s escapades felt like a rehash of earlier, superior antics. “Team Homer” substituted the softball of “Homer at the Bat” for bowling. Marge’s sisters becoming entangled with someone inappropriate had already been tried twice (with Principal Skinner and Sideshow Bob); now it was rolled out a third time with Troy McClure in “A Fish Called Selma”. Finally you had one of the flimsiest plotlines imaginable, “Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish’”, wherein a self-consciously outrageous story was bolted onto characters rather than flowing naturally from them.

The 25-episode per season rule seemed to be taking its toll. The turnover in writers went on increasing. Greg Daniels coaxed away a number of personnel to work on King of the Hill, while Al Jean and Mike Reiss severed all ties with the show by signing a development deal with Disney. Mike Scully, a man who’d only penned his first script two years earlier, found himself elevated to co-executive producer, while another new recruit from Saturday Night Live, Ian Maxtone-Graham, was going about bragging of how he’d never seen a Simpsons episode in his life. Even Matt Groening wasn’t around much anymore, busy working on his own idea for a new series.

If it felt like the end of an era, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein’s departure at the close of the eighth series (1996-97) confirmed it so. They signed off with a distinctly ragged, if entertaining, effort, “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase”. It capped a distinctly uneasy season that had been padded out with stories that had been on the shelf for a while (“The Springfield Files”) or had been first mooted five years ago (Homer’s encounter with a hallucinogenic chilli in “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Homer”). Though the eighth season was in no way as clumsy or peculiar as the first, what its episodes did lack was the one thing that even the most ragged of early efforts could boast: originality.

The number of people responsible for exploiting that originality to make the greatest cartoon in the history of TV could at one time have been squeezed into the back of a taxi. Now the Fox writing room needed to be fitted out with extra tables and chairs. Whatever misdemeanours were about to be committed by its teeming occupants, at least those folk who had nurtured the show through its formative years could rest easy, safe their achievements weren’t likely to be eclipsed in the short term. Although frankly, they didn’t deserve to be eclipsed at all.