Interview: 'The Simpsons' Showrunner Al Jean On Amy Schumer, The Hourlong Episode, And More To Come In Season 28

The Simpsons is entering its 28th year, yet I still have new questions every time I see showrunner Al Jean at the Fox Television Critics Association party. Jean has been the show runner for 26 of the 28 years. He took two years to do the short-lived animated series The Critic, and may be the only other person besides myself who has watched every single episode of The Simpsons.

This year, Fox made some announcements during their TCA executive session. Amy Schumer is doing a voice role on all of their Sunday night animated shows, and The Simpsons will do their first ever one-hour episode. Read our interview with Al Jean below.

Had an hourlong episode been pitched over the years, and how different did it end up being to do a whole hour versus a two-parter?

It's been pitched a few times when we've had really good reads. This time it was a great script by Dan Greaney based on the structure of The Great Gatsby. The show was if we can do it, maybe now is the time.

Other one hours had made it to table reads but been nixed?

No, no, other ones had been really good half hour reads. Like when we read "Kamp Krusty," Jim Brooks said we should make a movie out of it. Way, way back in the first season when we had "Call of the Simpsons" there was talk about making it one hour. But usually we felt an hour is a lot but I think this will sustain it.

Amy Schumer does a voice on all the Fox animated shows, so what did you cast her as?

Yeah, we have an episode where she has a cameo as Burns's mother in a flashback, so it makes sense that that's her voice. She was very funny.

Is there any aspect of The Simpsons you wish would be covered more?

Well, what I think is interesting is that we have a new generation of fans. I run into so many people, including my own 11-year-old, who just get addicted to The Simpsons. It's so bizarre to me that a show that's been on 28 years, arguably has an average viewer age that's younger than the show itself. There are people who say, "Oh, I watched it in the '90s and I don't watch it anymore" but there are a lot of people who started watching in the last five years.

With that longevity, you've lost writers to big things like Conan O'Brien and Brad Bird. How do you staff the new writers room with people who are smart enough and funny enough to match your sensibilities?

We're just really, really selective in who we hire. It speaks to how selective we are that the people who have left the show have done so well. One of them is the creator of The Flash and Supergirl on CW. Another one is the head writer for Jimmy Fallon. So there aren't that many people that leave and the ones that do, do very well.

You do have a lot of female writers, directors and producers. Have you paid attention to having diversity behind the scenes?

It's really important, yeah. You want to make sure you hire people who have different points of view and we're just looking for funny, that's all.

Once you learned you could make fun of Fox, did that open the floodgates?

We've been doing it right from the beginning. There were two things. Jim Brooks had a deal with Barry Diller who started the Fox network that whatever he did, he could do. Whatever he wanted to do, he wouldn't have any interference. We make fun of Fox but we make fun of everything. Fox has actually been a really good sport about it. Then Rupert Murdoch has appeared as himself on the show more than once.

Why was Arby's the butt of so many jokes back in the day?

Arby's because it isn't the number one fast food chain so it was kind of a funny punchline. I honestly think we were doing Arby's jokes before Jon Stewart. I think they like being the butt of jokes too. It's the Fox network of food.

The Simpsons Season 28

If people pay attention to the episode titles, do you ever worry that some of them are spoilers? Whenever there's been a surprise death, the title has been "Alone Again Natura-Diddly" or "Clown in the Dumps" which are pretty big clues as to who dies.

Well, here's the truth about "Clown in the Dumps." I had no plan to make it a shocking ending. I thought it would be a good idea if Krusty lost his father and the last thing his father said before he died is, "I think you're eh." I was asked about the upcoming episodes and rather than say, "Krusty's father dies." I just said, "Oh, somebody dies and the actor who plays the part won an Emmy for his portrayal of the character. And then suddenly it was a big deal, so of course we're not going to turn that down, but the episode was already titled. What was funny to me is actually, if we're being clever about it, "Clown in the Dumps" would've been a good title because a lot of people for some reason thought we were going to kill Krusty. Although I don't think if you're dead, you're down in the dumps. I think if you're dead, you're dead. So it was like a little puzzle and the only thing I did was I really tried to play fair. We didn't give out any clues that were misleading. If people figured it out, they figured it out.

And with Maude Flanders, wasn't that supposed to be a surprise?

No, not really. I mean, it's funny, there are shows, like Game of Thrones cultivated the fact that Jon Snow was going to come back. Serialized shows will kill characters off and it'll be a big deal and nobody will know, but we're not really like that. And I really don't think we would ever kill off a major character because I think people like to look at The Simpsons as this kind of infinite loop of a show where nobody really changes and nothing really happens. Sadly, Phil Hartman and Marcia Wallace passed away, but in terms of our regular characters, we're not going to kill Homer and Krusty.

The Simpsons season 28 - The Town

I have to say, "The running time is now" is the funniest thing I've heard all year.

Oh, good, good.

Who pitched that line?

I don't remember, I'm sorry. The episode was by Joel [H.] Cohen.

When you introduced the Cat Lady and Disco Stu, did you know they'd become regulars?

No, no. Disco Stu was the guy who's shirt originally said "Disco Stud" but it lost a D. Cat Lady was just in an episode where there was a kid's news station. Both of them were just really funny. Hey, if they're funny, they get to come back.

The first Simpsons you ever did came back wrong. It's on the first season DVD.

"Some Enchanted Evening," yeah.

Once you corrected it, did the Korean animators get it?

Well, it wasn't the Korean animators' fault. It was a director who I won't name who had given them instructions to make it scatological and off model. When they were given the correct instructions by David Silverman or Rich Moore, they did great. So it wasn't an issue with Korea. It was an issue with this one person who ironically was given the first episode and it could've wrecked everything, but fortunately it didn't.

I relate to that because I feel like every business gets it wrong the first time, then they figure it out.

Well, it's weird because Silverman had done the shorts. Had they just used him, the director of the shorts, to do the first episode, it would've been a lot smoother. Fortunately, it didn't really have any impact in the end.

The Simpsons season 28 - The Town

Whenever you go into the future, do you have the older Bart, Maggie and Lisa ready to go?

The actors do their older versions, Nancy [Cartwright] and Yeardley [Smith].

Animation-wise?

Yeah, we have animation models for them at various ages. People have said, "Oh, you can time shift the show." I don't mind time shifting it for one episode but it's an odd thing to time shift it permanently. Whenever the show might end, I don't know when that is, I think it would just end in the same continuity it's always been.

What are the three Halloween episodes this season?

Well, this year the Halloween show is actually coincidentally and will be celebrated as the 600 episode. So in the beginning we have just a little union of The Simpsons' greatest enemies in the cold open trying to kill them. Then we have a long dystopian future parody where there's no water except that Burns has a bunch that he controls.

Is that based on the California crisis?

Yes. They're fighting to the death to get the water. Then there's an episode where Lisa has an imaginary friend who's voiced by Sarah Silverman who's jealous of her real friends and starts killing them. Then we have a parody, it's a little bit James Bond and a little bit Kingsman where Bart joins a secret society of secret agents to follow in his father's footsteps because Homer was a great agent who was killed.

Any other big episodes coming up we should look for?

Yeah, the premiere, as we mentioned Amy Schumer does a cameo, and it's a secret from Burns's past. We also have an episode where Burns gets an Oculus and hires the Simpson family and Homer to be his Oculus family. We have a show that's a partial flashback where we learn how Homer learned how to eat his feelings. It turns into a little bit of the movie Fitzcarraldo where a bunch of fat guys are trying to push a hot dog truck over a hill. It's maybe similar to recent events, Burns starts a for-profit college, Burns University. Instead of getting real teachers, he just makes the power plant workers teach at the school. Those are some of the good ones and we'll probably do another election thing. We just did one with Homer and Marge deciding who to vote for that's gotten about eight million views.

Would you try anything like Homer Live again?

We might although I really thought we did what we could with the technology. I thought that it was fun and we did what we wanted to. That animation is kind of limited. I hard Jon Stewart's trying to do a daily animated show so I'll be interested in seeing how that works.

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The Simpsons returns tonight, September 25, at 8 PM on Fox.