“They’ll never stop The Simpsons! Have no fears, we’ve got stories for years.” Depending on how you feel about Matt Groening’s animated sitcom these days, those words, from season 13’s “Gump Roast” episode, were either a promise or a threat. But they’ve turned out to be just as prophetic about The Simpsons as the show has been about the real world. Now in its 31st season, The Simpsons shows no signs of stopping, not even in the time of COVID-19. The long-running Fox series will be one of the few TV shows to offer a proper season finale this spring. The show’s writers have even found time to produce a new animated short, “Playdate With Destiny,” which was initially released ahead of Pixar’s Onward before finding its way to Disney+.
“Playdate With Destiny” pairs nicely with the Simpsons’ return to TV on April 19, exactly 33 years after the first animated short, “Good Night,” aired as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. It’s been a long, increasingly bumpy road for the show, but if you tell veteran showrunner Al Jean that The Simpsons’ best years are behind it, he’ll just say he’s heard that before—as far back as season two, in fact. Jean seeks out criticism of The Simpsons, both positive and negative, but it hasn’t taken any of the luster off the show, which he returned to in 1998 (after leaving for The Critic) and has stewarded ever since. The A.V. Club spoke with Jean about his long history with the show, the return to shorts, and the best—and worst—Simpsons episodes ever.
The A.V. Club: The timing really couldn’t be better for a new short. Not only will the show be back on the air next Sunday, but April 19 is also the day that the first Simpsons short appeared on The Tracey Ullman Show back in 1987. I grew up watching those shorts. They were my first exposure to the show.
Al Jean: That’s a great anniversary, thank you for noticing. We certainly treasure people who have that much experience with us, so thank you.
AVC: What was the goal for “Playdate With Destiny”? I know that it played as part of the previews for Pixar’s Onward, but was it intended as another one-off or as part of a larger story?
AJ: This short is the third in a series of shorts that have been part of our theatrical releases—the second one, “The Longest Daycare,” was nominated for an Oscar—and they’re all very exciting for us. It’s funny, because we had actually been in production on this short. It was part of an episode, which we held back. We’ve been working on it for a couple of years, and we were really thrilled to get it on the front of Onward, because the movie is great and the shorts before Pixar movies, like “Bao,” are the best. Our next new episode, which is on April 19, is the sequel to the short. The baby Hudson returns, and we meet his mother.
AVC: Who wrote “Playdate With Destiny”?
PJ: Tom Gammill and Max Pross, and David Silverman directed it. So the idea for the short was actually conceived by Tom and Max. Then at the table read, Jim Brooks said, “We should take this out. We should make it into a short.” And what’s funny is, it was perfect for Disney, but we weren’t actually owned by Disney at that point. So people have said, “Oh, you designed it to be a Disney-friendly short,” and honestly, we didn’t. We put a Disney reference at the beginning, at the end, that are obviously jokes. But no, the whole plot and theme of the short were the same before we even were owned by Disney. Jim sent it to Bob Iger and the folks at Disney, and they loved it. And we just said, “Can we please, please go in front of a Pixar movie?” And despite the fact that it was only out for a couple weeks—which I really feel bad about, because I think Onward is a great film—both are now on Disney+. I was really thrilled that we were in the theater and you could see a Pixar movie following us.
AVC: Was that the last movie you saw before the shelter-in-place order?
AJ: I think it was for a lot of people, but for me, it was Emma, which I thought was great. My wife and daughter and I really loved it. And now, it’s like, “Oh, if I could just go to a theater and see that movie again.” [Laughs.] I know it’s online, but just the idea of being in a theater watching—people who can just walk around and have no big troubles except who is going to marry who. I joke that it’ll not only be best picture of the year, it’ll be the only nominee.
AVC: It does seem possible that the field is going to be that narrow.
AJ: Or that they might double up. Like, there may be two years at once—I don’t know. I mean, it’s the least of the concerns. Obviously, the most important thing is to get through this and for people to be safe. So I hope theaters will be open soon, but I obviously only want it if everybody is safe in going.
AVC: A lot has changed in terms of scheduling and premieres. But in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, you said there’s not going to be any big interruption in the production schedule this year. Does that mean that, unlike a lot of productions that have to postpone or scramble to have an unofficial finale, you’ll have a proper season closer later this spring?
AJ: Yep, knock wood. We have a finale that’s a backstory into the life of Santa’s Little Helper, the Simpsons’ dog, written by Carolyn Omine. Jim Brooks, before California’s stay-at-home order in early March, said, “I think we should start working from home.” So we went right to Zoom. We’ve been on Zoom now four weeks plus. And, knock wood, no, we’re not missing anything. We’re proceeding with our read virtually, the same schedule that we had. And we’re going to air five more episodes in season 31. And if the network wants us to premiere in September as usual, we’ll be ready.
AVC: You’ve been working on The Simpsons for much of its 30-year run. The entertainment landscape looks very different now, even if your show did predict at least part of the merger mania. What do you see as the biggest change from when you first joined the writers room to where you are today?
AJ: [Laughs.] The fact that we’re in individual cubicles on a video screen.
AJ: Yeah, I would have to say that’s a pretty big thing. But we predate Google, and almost predate word processing. So those were definitely huge increases in productivity, digital editing, digital coloring. It’s sort of amazing what’s happened in the 30 years. But yeah, the way we work and how we start to think of stories and how hard we work is the same. Although, we used to have people who would do research and go to the research library—now, you just have to Google. Just the tools [have changed] I would say, mostly. You could even edit at home now. Obviously, what we’re doing to produce the show, we couldn’t have done 20 years ago. You wouldn’t have been able. You’d have to come in in a group setting with the editor and so forth to do things which you can’t do. But now, music spotting and scoring can be done virtually. Amazingly, it’s all something you can do on your phone.
AVC: One thing that all this technology has done that’s not quite so great is messing with the aspect ratio. But Disney+ recently announced that the original 4:3 aspect ratio will be restored, correct?
AJ: Yes, they have guaranteed it will be fixed by the end of May. You know, we really do listen to the fans. Another thing that we listen to them about was, we had DVDs through season 17, plus 20. And people were, like me, aggravated that you couldn’t buy seasons 18 and 19 to fill the gap. Well, we did those. We’re still doing commentary for every episode. We’re very cognizant, and we do respond to what people want.
AVC: Something you must hear about from fans just as often is their picks for the best episode ever. Which one comes up the most? I think I remember a Twitter poll from a while back that declared it was “Marge Vs. The Monorail.”
AJ: It’s great, because people have many different favorites. People love the first episode, the Christmas one. They love the Hank Scorpio episode. They love “Last Exit To Springfield.” People will have 10 best lists that have completely different items on them.
AVC: In addition to those opinions, you also have steady feedback from reviews. As a critic, I’m always curious about a creator’s or artist’s relationship with the way that their work is received. Do you look at reviews immediately after an episode goes up? How do you take in the criticism?
AJ: I do. I think it’s impossible for us to compete with our fourth-season selves. I also think if you took an episode from the fourth season and aired it now, it wouldn’t get the same reviews. Back then, when the fourth season was airing, I was there and people were sort of dismissive of it. I remember people going, “Oh, The Simpsons has gotten too silly. It’s lost its way. What’s this ‘Monorail’ show?” A lot of people didn’t like the “Monorail” show at first. And now you say, as I’ve heard, that people voted it the best ever. So I think you can judge relatively what episodes are better or worse based on what people react to now. But in terms of an all-time standard, it’s hard for me to be objective about that. We did just win the Outstanding Animated Series Emmy for “Mad About The Toy,” [in 2019] which I guess proves that if the standards of The Simpsons have fallen, so have the standards of the Emmys.
AVC: When you’re held to such a high standard, one that your show kind of set, does that make it that much more satisfying when you get a rave?
AJ: Well, our joke is “We got The A.V. Club’s highest possible grade: B-.” [Laughs.] Back in season seven, I think there was a guy online named Ondre Lombard who would do things like rate “Homer’s Enemy” a zero. I don’t want to underweigh criticism, and I don’t want to overweigh criticism. Because honestly, I’ve been hearing the show has been going downhill since season two. On the other hand, I would be remiss if I didn’t take valid points to heart. People have said lately that they think Lisa is being a little too mean to Bart. I think that’s a good point, and we’ve been trying to pull back on that. We’re always trying to make Homer less of a jerk. I’m very conscious of that criticism. There’s the Flanders-ization, where people talk about him being too religious. That’s actually been pulled back quite a bit in the last five seasons. So you try to get what’s good out of criticism, because it’s definitely a valid thing, without feeling like you have to change everything based on something somebody said. There’s another website that reviews the show called Den Of Geek, where their reviews are often about the opposite of A.V. Club. So I kind of look at the two of them and take the average.
AVC: When you have this kind of volume—you’re now closing in on 700 episodes—it leaves room for favorites from later seasons, or to hold up a few early seasons as being perfect even if they take issue with more recent ones.
AJ: Well, I’ll say two things. One is, with an adult watching a current episode, it’s very hard to compete with something they saw when they were 10 years old. I remember when I was 10, reading Spider-Man comics with Steve Ditko, the artist. And it’s hard for anything to compare to those, because you’re a kid and you’re discovering it. And I don’t want to overplay this card, but we did win the Emmy last year ahead of BoJack Horseman and Big Mouth and South Park and Bob’s Burgers—all excellent, excellent shows. And that’s not a gimme. We don’t get to vote on who wins the Emmy. That’s an independent group saying what they think. So I believe that the truth lies somewhere between people going, “It’s not funny at all,” and “Oh, it’s, you know, not quite as good as the best it’s ever been.” It’s obviously in the middle of that.
AVC: It’s easily one of the most re-watchable shows. A couple years ago, we ranked all of the vacation episodes and if you just watched those, you’d be set for the day.
AJ: I know. You could have 11 hours of Halloween shows, and you could have a day’s worth of Christmas episodes. It’s pretty bizarre. Or just go with Sideshow Bob. I always think Kelsey [Grammer]’s work picks everything up when he’s in the show.
Let me just say in general I’m thrilled that people analyze these shows. I’m thrilled that people care so much, that they’re still talking about work that we did 25 years ago. I can’t believe it, you know? It’s just great that people love The Simpsons so much and care about it so much. Even if it comes out as criticism, I’m glad they care.
AVC: It means they’re still engaging with it.
AJ: The one form of criticism that I can’t take anything from is when people go, “Oh, that show sucks. I haven’t watched it in years,” because then I go, “Well, if you haven’t seen it, how do you...”? But yeah, it’s great. The internet also just makes it easier to be critical. You didn’t have in 1988 people voting on, oh, what’s the best episode of ALF this year. The idea of listing things and ranking things and having an avatar where your list of your favorites is in your avatar—it’s all commonplace to people now, but wasn’t in the world back in 1988.
Also, as I said, we are in a much tougher environment competitively for animated shows, and I’m glad for it. When we started, there really wasn’t an animated show besides The Simpsons that was written by a staff of writers. And there was fine stuff, but it wasn’t the same. And now, there’s a tremendous amount of terrific animation, both in features and in television. It’s funny, in features, the boom started the same year with The Little Mermaid in 1989. And I love animation, so I’m really, really glad about that.
AVC: The Simpsons was also basically the first animated family sitcom. Do you still view the show as being centered on the family?
AJ: It always goes back to the family. And now you have all of these shows, but in the ’80s, you had these really wholesome family sitcoms like The Cosby Show. It would never have a father strangling his son. We had more in common with Roseanne and Married With Children—they were more realistic versions of a family. The Simpsons and the Bundys and the Conners were more like the families we grew up a part of. But there was a sophistication, too—adult references, references to works of art, to Citizen Kane, to stuff that kids would have no idea about. And again, we didn’t originate that. Bullwinkle, a cartoon I loved as a kid, did the same thing. But we definitely reintroduced it, and now it’s a very common thing. So it was really not like anything else on the air in 1990 when it debuted as a series. There was really nothing like it.
AVC: The families on The Simpsons and Roseanne felt way more like my family than anything like The Brady Bunch or The Cosby Show.
AJ: Me too. My dad owned a hardware store, and I worked in it. So Roseanne was way more like the way I grew up. It was in the Midwest, too.
AVC: I reread the 11 Questions interview you did in 2015 with then TV editor, now managing editor Erik Adams at ATX.
AJ: I remember.
AVC: He asked you for a 12th question, and your question was: What will be the major difference in 2016 compared to 2015? And it’s just mind-boggling to think the response to that was from Jack Antonoff, and he’s like, “I think everybody is just going to need to chill out.”
AJ: Now my question for the next interviewee would be, how do we get out of this mess? [Laughs.] That seems like a lifetime ago, honestly. We were at SXSW last year and ComicCon. I did a couple things with my wife, Stephanie Gillis, who is also a Simpsons writer. And we were just saying, “Oh, my god, we’re so lucky. We did those last year. We got an opportunity to go out and do these things.” And again, this is the lesser of the problems going on. I just hope we get through the curve as safely as possible, and that as few people are hurt as possible.
AVC: Over the course of your nearly 30 years with the show, you’ve had a chance to leave and come back, to develop your own show and to keep stewarding this one. Is there something you feel you have yet to do that you are really looking forward to doing on the show?
AJ: Not to keep getting back to the short, but I’ll tell you, I loved Buster Keaton movies and Charlie Chaplin movies when I was in college. And Buster Keaton used to do these short movies, like “Cops,” which were brilliant. I’d love doing a five-minute sort of silent film where Maggie is Buster Keaton. So that kind of thing that The Simpsons affords you the opportunity to do is just fantastic. I hope people like it, because it’s one of those clichés, but we really enjoyed making it.
AVC: On April 19, it’ll be like you’re coming full circle—a short for a show that began with a short.
PJ: It’s amazing. There are so many anniversaries. I’m very thankful to Jim Brooks and Matt Groening and Sam Simon. I was 29 when I started working on this. I’m 59 now. I mean, it was the luckiest career anybody could have ever had.