'The Simpsons' Showrunner Al Jean Addresses Apu Controversy And Series Milestones [Interview]

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The Simpsons is about to his another landmark. This season will be the animated show's 30th. Last season saw The Simpsons pass Gunsmoke's record for the most number of episodes produced. But much of the focus on The Simpsons recently has been on something else.

Last year, a Simpsons controversy heated up. Hari Kondabolu's documentary The Problem with Apu aired in November 2017, criticizing the stereotypical nature of the Indian character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. The Simpsons responded in their episode "No Good Read Goes Unpunished." The response sparked more debate than the documentary originally did, and /Film has been covering it closely.

Al Jean, showrunner for The Simpsons, sat down with /Film at the Fox party for the Television Critics Association, and he was prepared for more Apu questions. He wouldn't budge from those earlier statements and opted to talk about the show's milestones and some history revealed in Mike Reiss's recent memoir Springfield Confidential.I ask these questions as someone who wants everybody to be able to enjoy the show. Hank Azaria went on Colbert and said he would be willing to step aside as the voice of Apu. Has he talked to you guys and discussed what he wants to do?

I only have two things to say about Apu. The first is, if you're a bully and you're using Simpsons quotes to bully people, you're not a Simpsons fan. We don't want you and I'll kick your ass. My second statement is I refer people to what Matt [Groening] said on the subject.

We have heard from you and Matt, but not James L. Brooks. What does he think about this matter?

I have no other comment.

How about if any actor doesn't want to do a voice anymore, are they allowed to decide that?

I have no other comments about Apu.

So I've been reading Springfield Confidential.

Very funny book.

What script did you and Mike Reiss write for Meat Loaf?

It was called Fat Men from Outer Space. It was based on a book by the same name and I think he describes that we had to go pick up our money, and when we went, the place had moved overnight so we couldn't collect. That's all true.

What was the story of the movie going to be?

Fat men were invading from outer space. They looked like fat humans but they were really aliens. It was about as good as it sounds.

Was writing Airplane II trying to capture the style of the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker jokes?

Oh yeah. Ken Finkleman who did Airplane II, wrote with us and directed the movie, is really, really funny. When I read the script that he did and asked us to come and punch it up, I was really thrilled. I love the first one. There's no better movie. What happened was I think the studio kept pushing it to be more and more exactly like the first one. So there's some stuff in it where I go gee, that's really too similar. It's the same joke. Stuff like Ken's joke about Shatner coming through the video screen, those things were hilarious.

Reiss also revealed you like rocking chairs. Do you still and what is that appeal?

Yes, I love them. I hope I don't get fired for that. When I grew up I had a rocking chair in my house and I think my mom was influenced [because] John F. Kennedy liked them. I always have.

Do you have one in your office and at home?

Yeah, in my home and my chair in my office can rock.

What's in store for season 30?

Well, we have a premiere where it's influenced by the book The Boy Who Saw Heaven. Bart does something bad and is knocked unconscious, so to get away with it he tells Marge he went to Heaven and saw her father. It turns into a musical because it's like everybody believes the lie. In that episode, we have Pete Holmes, Dave Attell, Emily Deschanel and Gal Gadot. We have a great episode coming up where Homer and Marge are a couple on a show like The Greatest Race. We have a Halloween show where we showed at Comic-Con, we have an Invasion of the Body Snatchers type episode where all of Springfield were just gazing at their iPhones all day and just become zombies. We have a show where Grandpa has a flashback. He realizes he was the model for little green army men and there's a story behind it. I wrote an episode where Lisa sees the movie To Kill a Mockingbird and starts to see a little of Gregory Peck in Homer and really admires him. We have a show where Comic Book Guy sues Homer which is really funny. We just read a show where Maggie has a romance and Homer is trying to swim with Cletus on behalf of Burns.

Is there anything that specifically commemorates the 30 years?

Right at the beginning. Right at the start of the first episode, and then we have other stuff that's in the works. The first opening commemorates it.

Dana Walden said it behooves Fox to keep The Simpsons on, whatever happens with the Disney acquisition, because it's been a part of the brand for 30 years. Is that good news for your show?

That was great. Picked up forever? I'll take that. They've always been great to the show, Dana and Gary [Newman]. We've always really loved that they care about the show and have done anything possible to make it thrive. I'm really glad to be on Sunday night with shows like Bob's Burgers and Family Guy. I can't tell you the particulars because the actors' contracts come up and the Disney deal is happening, but I don't know when it will end. Nobody's told me anything about ending.

Has anyone at Disney mentioned they want to have new Simpsons on their streaming service?

No. I can honestly say I don't know and nobody's said it. She said she wants to keep it on Fox. I heard, I just know what you know, that she might go to Disney to run the Disney Fox. If that's the case, we'll stay on Fox. Being on at eight o'clock Sunday, especially after NFL, has been the best thing in the world for us so I have no idea to leave that .

I imagine it behooves Disney, as the new owners, to keep it there too.

Probably, but it's up to them. If they own it, Bob Iger's the boss. I used to work for him briefly and that was a very pleasant experience. Whatever he does, he's the boss.

Was Edna Krabappel's soundbite "If you can teach one kid one thing" an old soundbite you had from Marcia Wallace?

Yeah, it was from the show Matt Sellman wrote called "Bart Gets a Z." I had that idea where Flanders becomes a teacher. I thought, we'll ask her son if we can use that clip, because I know Marcia would've wanted us to use it. She always loved appearing on the show. I just said, "We'll find something that's apt" and that's what we used. We surprised people by putting it in because everybody misses her.

Would you ever have a soundbite of Phil Hartman that could work like that?

No, I wouldn't put him in. We did do another one which was, sadly, Eartha Kitt passed away after we recorded her but before the show aired. So again, we contacted the estate and they said, "Oh yeah, of course. She wanted to be on." So we had a reference to how it was after she died. Sadly, in show business, it happens fairly frequently that somebody has work still to come out when they passed, especially if they're not that old. Like Carrie Fisher's in the next Star Wars.

Gunsmoke ultimately went to an hour in their run. Could the next Simpsons milestone be creating more hours of television than Gunsmoke?

That would be pretty hard. I don't know how many hours they did but my guess would be in the 500s. After this we'll have 335. I'm really glad there's a record that people believed was a real record and we broke. You talk about Japanese animation or whatever, I go, "We broke the record. That's it."

How about "more Emmys than Frasier?"

Well, the show with the most Emmys now is Saturday Night Live, so nobody's ever going to catch them because they're never going to end. I would love to get more Emmys than Frasier because that was a great show and we're not that far. We're only four behind, but we'll never be number one. We've been number one animated show for a long time so that's great.

Ralph's lines are always so memorable. Is it details like "the baby winked at me," which we love to quote, that make him more than just an idiot?

I think in Ralph, there's an inner wisdom to a lot of the stuff. Matt always says, and I agree with him, that Ralph should be a happy kid that is never sad. He's never unhappy being who he is. We did an episode like Being There where he winds up President basically. I think there are bigger things in store for Ralph than we might expect.

It took a while to get season 18 on DVD. Will we get more?

No word, I can't say anything about a season 19 DVD except that I'm still hoping. I know people want to fill that gap so fill the gap.

Are you still doing commentaries for FXNOW?

Yes, we did season 22 commentaries for 500 Keys and Treehouse XXI today.


The Simpsons season 30 premiers Sunday, September 30 at 8pm ET on FOX.