Exclusive Interview: ‘Simpsons’ Showrunner Al Jean on Harry Shearer’s Characters and 16 x 9 Cropping
Posted on Monday, September 28th, 2015 by Fred Topel
Al Jean may be the only other person alive who’s seen as many Simpsons episodes as I have. As showrunner for most of the series’ 27 plus year run, he only missed two years while he ran the short lived series The Critic, but still kept up with The Simpsons. I have literally never missed an episode which seems daunting now, but as it was running I just thought, “Well, there’s a new Simpsons this week. I’ll tape it so I can still see it if I’m not home.” That was 26 years ago. When I once told Jean I’d never missed one, he said, “Me too.”
So I’ve met Jean a few times. At the twice yearly Television Critics Association press tours, he’s usually the one representing The Simpsons, and I always have more questions for him. Season 27 premieres Sunday, September 27 on Fox, and this year almost brought massive changes. Harry Shearer had decided no to renew his contract but ultimately changed his mind. The season premiere promises Homer and Marge break up, but spoiler alert, Jean told us how that was going to turn out, as well as discussing HD cropping of earlier episodes, the FXX marathon and specific characters like Comic Book Guy.
The Simpsons Al Jean Interview
Was it as close a call with Harry Shearer as reports made it out to be?
Al Jean: Yeah, I’ll quote him, it wasn’t a publicity stunt. What happened was we had an offer out to the six of them. The other five took it and he didn’t initially. So we had to do the show and I’m glad we did, but we had everybody under contract and they picked everybody up and all our animators. So one way or another we would’ve done it but our goal was always to get him back. We never even read anybody or went out for replacements. We were always hoping we could get him.
Were you starting to think about how you could write off characters like Mr. Burns and Smithers?
Al: We wouldn’t have written out the characters but there’s no point in talking hypothetically because we wanted to get him back and I’m glad we did.
I’m surprised you would have tried to keep using the characters.
Al: It’s certainly a great credit to him. Burns, Smithers and Flanders are some of the best characters on the show so we couldn’t just get rid of them. But, again, we always had an offer out to him that was a great offer in my opinion. I’m glad it worked out. I don’t want to say anything bad. I’m really glad he’s back.
Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Wire had some controversy transferring to HD. Did you have that going 16 x 9 for The Simpsons on FXX?
Al: We did and we were aware of it before it even happened. If you go on FXX Now, you can have your choice of 16 x 9 or 4:3 for all the episodes. We were very, very conscious of it and wanted to give people the choice.
On the air, it’s 16 x 9 though, right?
Al: On the air, it’s 16 x 9. If it’s one of those marathon nights that they do, it’s the original cut. If it’s not, it’s a syndication cut but you have your choice on the app of 4:3.
Is 16 x 9 the only way cable providers can take it now?
Al: I think so because everybody’s HD. I’m not the most familiar, but believe me, we tried to make sure everybody had a choice.
That Every Simpsons Ever marathon worked out really well. Did you ever imagine it would be such a phenomenon?
Al: I thought it would be really cool and I had a suspicion that it might build so that the last couple years would get the highest ratings, but I was blown away. What was so great is that people who worked on the show from all eras came back on Twitter. Personally, I had an emotional response. It was like seeing my life go before my eyes. I’d love it if they would do another. It’s not going to happen this year, but who knows? I wish everyone in their lives could have something that would make them as happy as that made me.
Is it also great that it got a lot of people to look at some of the later season episodes?
Al: Yeah, and I’m the last guy to be objective but I would tune in at various points and go, “Oh, this three episode stretch from season 17 is really funny.” I can’t really compare but I’m proud of all the work that I did, early and late.
Have you been gratified to learn that we all refer to the movie Speed as The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down now?
Al: [Laughs] Well, I’m gratified that everything we’ve done has reached the people that it has. I was reading a thing online where they said Lisa Simpson’s version of “Jazz Man” is more well known than Carole King’s. I’m the biggest Carole King fan in the world. That’s insane.
You ruined Goldfinger for me because now every time I watch it I want to see him flip a coin into the laser.
Al: [Laughs] My apologies.
Comic Book Guy started as just the guy in the comic book shop. Has it been strange to see that that character came true, like a lot of people online are Comic Book Guy now.
Al: One of the most bizarre things, he debuted in an episode “Three Men and a Comic Book” written by Jeff Martin, and I was so happy we had a character who sold comic books. I’d never seen that character on television. Hank was so funny, he’s come back again and again. Of all the characters on the show, his is closest to my voice.
Is it easier doing episodes with just the core cast than when you have guest stars?
Al: I’m aware that people make fun of us for having so many guest stars. There’s a really funny parody of us where they just listed all these crazy guest stars we had for each episode. I don’t want to have a guest star if it’s not either somebody nobody else could get, like Thomas Pynchon, or somebody really funny like Kate McKinnon. We’re fine doing episodes without guest stars. Our cast is great. Three of them were nominated for Emmys this year. But obviously if there’s somebody that is really terrific that we can get that we’re a fan of, we love that too.
When you did the first Halloween special, did you ever expect it to become an annual tradition?
Al: No, and in fact I’m on record as saying, “This’ll never last.” It was the third one, I was like, “We can’t keep doing these.” Of course we did many, many, many more and I look forward to them so much every year. One of the many times I’m glad to admit I was wrong.
Did you worry you’d run out of horror spoofs to do?
Al: Yes, I worried but then the writing and the animation is so inventive that the last two times we’ve been nominated for an Emmy, both were Halloween shows. Yeah, we’ll do them every year.
I always loved how the first act of the show had nothing to do with the rest of the show. Is that harder to do now with four act breaks instead of three?
Al: There is another commercial break but what I always felt was in the long run, everything gets put into one piece. So there aren’t going to be acts. It’s just going to be one continuous body. To me, I thought, “Well, the network requested the four acts, but it’s going to be put together in the end.” We just tell the stories we want to tell.
So what’s coming up this season?
Al: In the premiere, Homer and Marge separate but I’m not giving anything away to say it will be resolved in a good way. We have two Halloween shows in October, Treehouse and also a canonical Halloween show that “really happens.” We have an episode where Maggie befriends the animals on the roof in a Disney style animated episode.
Did that take longer?
Al: It’s really well done. Director Rob Oliver is one of our best directors and it’s really, really good. In December we’re airing “Barthood” which is based on Boyhood. It’s our look at Bart through various ages. I love that movie. I’m really glad we can do that.
You’ve always done flashbacks no matter how long the show’s run.
Al: This is the first one that’s a flash back and a flash forward. Our philosophy with flashbacks from now on is we’re not going to say they’re set in a certain year. Brad Bird warned us, “This may define us.”
When you heard that The Muppets had Kermit and Miss Piggy break up, did you feel they beat you to it?
Al: No, I just found this out about a week ago. Let’s just say, I’m not giving away any secrets to say Marge and Homer will not break up permanently.
It’s not a season long arc.
Al: No, we never do a season long arc. Anybody who knows us knows we never do anything permanent.
What are the Halloween spoofs this year and next, since you’re probably already starting it?
Al: It’s Sideshow Bob kills Bart, a Godzilla parody and a parody of Chronicle. Then there’s Hunger Games crossed with the California draught. There’s a thing where we get all the supervillains of SImpsons history together.Cool Posts From Around the Web: