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‘The Simpsons’ showrunner Al Jean talks 700th episode

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¡Ay, caramba! “The Simpsons” has just been renewed through its 34th season, which will keep TV’s longest-lasting scripted series on the air through at least 2023. Fox’s announcement of the double-season renewal coincides with the airing of the show’s 700th episode, “Manger Things,” scheduled for March 21, at 8:00 p.m.

“One more season and the show will be old enough to run for president,” quipped longtime Simpsons executive producer and showrunner, Al Jean, during an interview with The Maine Edge.

One of the original writers for “The Simpsons,” Jean has spent the bulk of his professional life working on the show, with the exception of a few seasons from the 90s when he left to create shows for ABC, including “The Critic.”

During the following interview, Jean reveals the trickiest aspect of his job; he cites some of his favorite celebrity cameos, and he also reveals the identity of the show’s white whale – the star that has perpetually rejected every invitation to become “Simpsonized.”

The Maine Edge: The 700th episode is titled “Manger Things,” so I’m guessing maybe it’s a parody of “Stranger Things?”

Al Jean: Even though it’s airing in March, it’s actually a Christmas episode because I think people need two Christmases this year. It’s a story involving Homer and Ned Flanders and a secret connection they have. It includes the reveal of a secret room in The Simpson house that has been in plain view for the entire run of the show. A lot of secrets will be revealed, and I think it’s a really sweet story.

The Maine Edge: When the show began in 1989, you said you wanted to work on The Simpsons for the rest of your professional life and your wish came true. Congratulations on reaching another milestone.

Al Jean: At the beginning, I never thought we would get to 700 shows, but I was sure we would get to 699 (laughs). Honestly, it’s such a blessing to have a job that you enjoy so much, and wherever I go around the world, people are happy to talk about it. Thanks to (producer) Jim Brooks and (creator) Matt Groening, it’s still a great place to work. Nobody would stay here for 33 years if it was a hellhole.

The Maine Edge: When did you realize that The Simpsons wasn’t just another TV show, that it had become a pop-culture phenomenon?

Al Jean: Sometimes people say that it took a while for The Simpsons to find its place, but it didn’t. That first year, you could walk down the street and hear people talking about the show. It was a phenomenon right from the beginning.

Before it first aired, I thought it was going to be a good show when I was working on it because of the pedigree of the people involved. That first episode was a Christmas show and I happened to be at Disney World in Florida just after it aired, and just happened to be wearing a show jacket. People kept coming up to me saying “I loved it” and “Can I buy that jacket from you?” In that first episode, I put in that song for Bart to sing: “Jingle bells, Batman smells” and I heard a kid singing it and thought “Great, we brought that back.”

The Maine Edge: It’s so strange how The Simpsons has predicted so many events in jest that came true years later. What is your favorite example of that?

Al Jean: The most uncanny example of that is probably the prediction of the Trump presidency (in the season 17 episode “Bart to the Future,” the show refers to Donald Trump having been president). I think it was cool that we predicted the U.S. would win a gold medal in curling and that Sweden would only win a silver medal (laughs).

One of the writers did point out that if you’ve been on the air for 30 years and make zero successful predictions, you must be pretty bad (laughs).

The Maine Edge: It must be tricky for the writers to create new scenarios for these characters that haven’t already been explored after 700 shows.

Al Jean: The hardest part of working on the show is trying not to repeat ourselves. Some ideas come back, like the family goes to a theme park again or they have money troubles, because people do have money troubles. The unfortunate thing is, as the world presents problems for families, we have new stories, so I don’t think we’re running out of stories, but I wish we would. I wish things were going better but there’s hope.

The Maine Edge: Is there an episode that is especially close to your heart?

Al Jean: There’s an emotional attachment I have to the first show (“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”). It started everything and I worked on it a lot.

“Homer at the Bat” (season 3, ep. 17) was such a cool experience for a couple of reasons. It started out as a terrible table read but 25 years later, the episode was entered into the Baseball Hall of Fame (laughs). Rarely has something ever gone from so low to so high.

I have a soft spot for the last episode I wrote (“Daddicus Finch,” season 30, ep. 9) where Homer and Lisa watch “To Kill a Mockingbird” together and Lisa started seeing her father a little more like Gregory Peck. I think that one was really sweet and came out well.

The Maine Edge: Celebrity cameos became a benchmark for the show fairly early on. Any personal favorites that stand out for you?

Al Jean: I’ll just mention a few starting with Phil Hartman (Troy McClure). He was a wonderful guy. Kelsey Grammer (Sideshow Bob) has done the show multiple times and he’s always brilliant. Anne Hathaway has done the show several times and won an Emmy Award (for the 2010 episode “Once Upon a Time in Springfield”). She’s just terrific, and very, very nice.

The Maine Edge: Virtually every legendary artist in music has done the show at different times. Is there a huge name in music that hasn’t yet appeared on “The Simpsons”?

Al Jean: There’s one and he’s our white whale. My predecessor, Mike Scully, tried so hard to get Bruce Springsteen. He’s never done it, and apparently he never will. We had Bruce’s sax man, Clarence Clemons, we had his drummer, Max Weinberg, but we’ve never had Bruce. I think he just has a certain set of rules for things he’ll do and not do. We’ve also never had any of the presidents, but we stopped asking a long time ago (laughs). We did get a nice letter from Ronald Reagan that (writer and producer, now retired) John Swartzwelder kept.

The Maine Edge: You were in your late 20s when you started with the show. You’re 60 now. Can you see yourself working on “The Simpsons” at age 70?

Al Jean: I think “The Simpsons” will definitely be on 10 years from now, and God willing, I’ll still be working for it.

Last modified on Wednesday, 17 March 2021 09:21

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