‘A very dangerous way to run a show’: reclusive Simpsons writer speaks out

John Swartzwelder on the show’s heyday and why Homer is a big talking dog

John Swartzwelder on The Simpsons: ‘I’ve always thought season three was our best individual season.’  File photograph: Rex Features

John Swartzwelder on The Simpsons: ‘I’ve always thought season three was our best individual season.’ File photograph: Rex Features

 

The reclusive Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder, who is credited with creating some of the most popular episodes in the show’s 31-year history, has given his first interview since leaving the hit series 18 years ago.

The screenwriter, who wrote 59 episodes between 1990 and 2003 – including the James Bond parody You Only Move Twice and Homer the Great, which memorably featured the Stonecutters sect – spoke to the New Yorker’s Mike Sacks via email. Introducing his subject, Sacks described Swartzwelder as a cult figure for his offbeat work on the show, “conjuring dark characters from a strange, old America: banjo-playing hobos, cigarette-smoking ventriloquist dummies ... pantsless, singing old-timers”.

It worked out all right in the end. It rained money on the Fox lot for 30 years. There’s a lesson in there somewhere

Swartzwelder outlined his move from advertising into TV – writing for Saturday Night Live – and on to the magazine Army Man before The Simpsons, where executives left him and his fellow writers to their own devices. “All we had to do was please ourselves,” said Swartzwelder. “This is a very dangerous way to run a television show, leaving the artists in charge of the art, but it worked out all right in the end. It rained money on the Fox lot for 30 years. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.”

Asked if the writers’ room felt special at the time, the 72-year-old said the show’s writers “never got a big head about [their success] because we knew we could be replaced ... in about two seconds, at any time, probably for less money”. Intriguingly, the writer also said he had imagined Homer Simpson as “a big talking dog. One moment he’s the saddest man in the world because he’s just lost his job, dropped his sandwich or accidentally killed his family. Then the next moment, he’s the happiest man in the world because he’s just found a penny – maybe under one of his dead family members. He’s not actually a dog, of course – he’s smarter than that – but if you write him as a dog, you’ll never go wrong.”

Swartzwelder added that “a Mr Burns episode was always fun for me. And Homer, of course. Patty and Selma, less so. But all the characters in Springfield can be funny. It’s just a matter of giving them something funny to say.”

Talking about the show’s unusually grown-up humour, for example, the violence between Itchy & Scratchy, Swartzwelder described how framing scenes through the Simpson family’s own TV gave the writers further freedom. “We could show horrific things to the children at home, as long as we portrayed them being shown to the Simpsons’ children first,” he said. “Somehow, this extra step baffled our critics and foiled the mobs with torches. We agreed with them that this was wrong to show to children: ‘Didn’t we just show it being wrong? And, look, here’s more wrong stuff!’ ”

Season three was a fun year to be in the Simpsons writers’ room, and I think it shows in the work

Swartzwelder was also asked about the show’s “golden age”: “I’ve always thought season three was our best individual season. [By then] we had learned how to grind out first-class Simpsons episodes with surprising regularity, we had developed a big cast of characters to work with, we hadn’t even come close to running out of storylines and the staff hadn’t been worn down by overwork yet. Season three was a fun year to be in the Simpsons writers’ room, and I think it shows in the work.”

Although praise for the series has levelled off in recent years, it continues to draw large audiences and in March was renewed for a 33rd and 34th run. Last month, the show made headlines when Morrissey hit out at the show’s creators after an episode centred on a fictional band called the Snuffs, whose frontman, Quilloughby, parodied the singer.

Swartzwelder, who now specialises in self-published absurdist detective novels, said that The Simpsons had “helped create a generation of wise guys, who live in a world where everybody is up to something. If that’s all we’ve achieved, aside from the billions of dollars we’ve made, I’m satisfied.” – Guardian

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