'The Simpsons' Showrunner Al Jean Addresses Disney Merger, Composer Shake-Up And Returning Characters [Interview]

Somehow, in 29 years of The Simpsons, I still have not run out of things to ask showrunner Al Jean. And this year, there have been some pretty monumental changes to address. Longtime composer Alf Clausen ended his run with season 28. The Disney acquisition of 20th Century Fox makesThe Simpsons now a Disney-produced show, even as their network, Fox, remains separate.

I caught up with Jean at the Fox party for the Television Critics Association. In addition to the big news, we also went over some specific risque lines and cameos from fan favorites Leon Kompowski and the Pin Pals. The Simpsons airs Sunday nights on Fox.

Why did you decide to hire a new music composer after all these years?

Well, a company called Bleeding Figures has a lot of great people, Hans Zimmer, Russell Emanuel. It's a studio and they, I think, have done a terrific job. They scored every episode this season except for basically one. I'm really, really happy with what they've done.

Was it Alf Clausen's choice not to continue?

Out of respect for Alf, I don't want to discuss what the reasons were. I would just say he's done a great job for many years. The people that are doing it now are really, really good.

You still credit him as Composer Emeritus. Will that remain his credit?

Yes.

It's been at least 10 years since there was an album of songs from The Simpsons. Will you release another one?

Well, the problem is that there aren't any albums period released. We might, but it was hard enough to get a Season 18 DVD released. My biggest intent is to concentrate on getting a Season 19 DVD out.

I bought every compilation. Were the albums even iffier sellers than the DVDs?

Yeah, years and years ago "The Simpsons Sing the Blues" went platinum. "Songs in the Key of Springfield" I think was a pretty good seller. Like a lot of things in the world, people used to buy tons of music and now they get a lot less. Now it's like if you want to see a song that you like, you just go on YouTube and see it.

You can't play that in your car though.

No. Well, if you're asking for it, I'd love it. It'd be good for me. I'd be happy.

I am asking for it. Even if it's digital, I can download it on my phone.

Believe me, I will tell Fox. Right after the Season 19 DVD, I'll ask for that to be the next thing.

Disney owning Fox was another Simpsons prediction, wasn't it?

It was. It's one of those predictions which the Trump prediction falls into, and we had Germany winning a World Cup. It is kind of an educated guess. People go, "Wow, how did you know these things?" Well, we do a lot of shows and a lot of things come true. We have plausible things that might happen and that was one of them. Disney has done an amazing job with Star Wars and The Avengers. I knew just the way network television was going in general there'd be a change and Disney's a really great company.

Do you expect Disney will be as good a sport as Fox was about getting roasted by The Simpsons?

You know, it's funny. The person that I know just a small bit that I worked for at Disney...I worked for Bob Iger when we did The Critic at ABC. He was great. He was really, really terrific. Without seeing any animation, he bought 13 episodes. It wasn't a right fit for ABC but he was really nice about it. I definitely don't think he bought The Simpsons and the rest of Fox to change what works. In terms of what we'll do, we've made a lot of jokes about Fox and a lot of jokes about Disney already.

Since Fox network remains separate, will that change renewal negotiations if it's Disney owned Fox Productions negotiating with Fox network?

I have to see. Quite honestly, your guess is as good as mine. I don't know. The studio is no longer synonymous with the network. We've obviously had a great home on the network. I love being on Sunday nights. I love being after the NFL. By the way, when the merger goes through which is 12 to 18 months, it'll be up to whoever owns us then to decide where it's best for us to go. I think they'll do it in conjunction with Jim [L. Brooks] and Matt [Groening]. I don't know.

Disney has also shepherded shared universes like Marvel and Star Wars. Do you think The Simpsons could expand?

Well, there's a difference in that Marvel comics always had crossovers with all those characters. I think we are what we are and we are kind of our own universe. Again, I can't guess because it's not up to me, but there are so many ways that The Simpsons could fit into the Disney world. Obviously, they bought it to use it. They didn't buy it to bury it so I'm sure they'll use it.

A few showrunners said they got calls from Bob Iger. Did you?

Jim Brooks did.

Do you know what they talked about?

Well, we did a little thing where Bart said, "Welcome to the family." Homer was choking Mickey Mouse. Bob thought it was funny. I wasn't on the call but Jim said it was a great call.

Was Ralph's line "I'm growing a mustache under my long nose" hard to get through standards and practices?

No, they didn't say a word. There's stuff that we do that people don't know unless they really think about it or understand it. There's stuff that's blatantly offensive to kids. That one I think is more the former. I think you have to be about 18 to understand what that joke is.

Did having Lisa eat bacon prior to second grade avoid violating your deal with Paul McCartney that she would stay a vegetarian the rest of the series?

Yes, that was before. She was in first grade. I was trying to be consistent with the canon and with other future episodes. Bart has artistic talent and he's doing graffiti in Harvard Yard. Homer we said becomes sober so I show how that happened past the current Homer. People go, "Do these things happen?" None of these things really happened but I think it's consistent.

The Simpsons Supporting Characters

You haven't done another full sequel like "Kamp Krustier" but the Pin Pals have come back, the monorail has come back and even Leon Kompowski showed up again.

We'll keep doing that in little ways. I don't think we'll do a sequel episode [again] but it's part of the universe. We'll make use of the universe. I think people are glad to see little things that know that we're part of this history of the show.

Is that a little different than recurring characters like Disco Stu or the Cat Lady?

For example, we have a show where, because people hate clowns now after It, Krusty gets a job as a dramatic actor. Mike Price was the writer, had Llewellyn Sinclair return, the director which is Jon Lovitz. It's like hey, Jon Lovitz can guest star on our show. Why not bring back the character? I wouldn't say it's a sequel to "A Streetcar Named Marge" but it's the same character and it's not a character we use a ton.

Since Michael Jackson never did the singing voice, did you bring back his original singing voice from "Stark Raving Dad?"

Kipp Lennon, yes. The guy who sang in the episode that just aired is the same guy who sang in the original episode.

Do you ever consider bringing back Senor Spielbergo?

The one that directed the Burns movie, his non-union equivalent? Sure, why not? That was in "A Star is Burns," another Jon Lovitz episode.

When Quimby says, "No one respects you ladies more than I," is that a reference to Trump saying "No one respects women more than me?"

That episode was actually read before the election. We, like everybody, even though we predicted Trump, we thought Hilary would probably win. So it's not a direct reference but it's a reference to sexist politicians and I think that includes Trump.

Is there a sense of community among people who have the same Simpsons references? I can say "The bus that couldn't slow down" and people my age remember that. There are 20-year-olds now who don't know what Speed was. Or if you mention Hank Scorpio or Stonecutters, there's a community of people who know what you're talking about.

It's amazing because there are things where, at the end of "Selma's Choice," we have her singing a song. Mike Reiss pointed out that was a parody of a Murphy Brown episode which I forget and I think people will forget some of these original things and remember our parody. "D'oh" is something you hear on the time. Many of the things on the show, people don't remember that they're on the show. I actually got the Valentine when I was a kid that said, "I choo choo choose you." I read it's a best selling Valentine. I thought wow, it's probably the most popular Valentine that ever was.

Has anyone ever given you "Ga'Hoole be my Valentine?"

No, no. My wife though did put "I choo choo choose you" on my wedding band, very nice of her.

What are some significant episodes and guest stars we should look forward to?

Jon Lovitz, like I mentioned. There's a great season finale. It's a satire of "The Amazing Race." Marge and Homer are a couple that goes on and immediately loses. We have the episode that breaks Gunsmoke's record, the 636th, which is written by our longtime director David Silverman and Brian Kelley.

So you decided which episode will be 636?

Yeah, the Simpsons go to New Orleans for the first time. There's a bunch of stuff going on.

Any callbacks to the fallout over the New Orleans song from the early episode?

No, we thought about it but that was one where I go, "I bet people don't remember." It was a huge deal. I remember I saw the chalkboard, "I will not defame New Orleans" and I was like oh yeah, that was that. I think New Orleans likes us.

Do you know next seasons's premiere?

Not yet. We have a lot of good candidates but we don't know yet.

Next season's Halloween?

Next season's Halloween, there is a really good Jurassic Park parody where it's Geriatric Park. They inject all the senior citizens with dinosaur DNA.

Are you still writing the other two?

We know, but I'll keep those for now.

Would you ever do an It parody with Krusty as Pennywise?

It's been discussed. The only thing that stops me is we did that thing with the evil doll that was Krusty. Not that that's the same thing as It but it was a little bit like it.