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Interview: Al Jean on The Simpsons
Producer and Writer Jean talks the show's success.
By Kurt Anthony Krug
March 04, 2009
If it feels like The Simpsons has been on TV almost forever, you’re not too far off.
Not only is the The Simpsons in its 20th season, it’s just been renewed for another two seasons, which will have racked up 493 episodes at the end of its 22nd season. The renewal means that it’ll surpassing Gunsmoke as the longest-running prime-time series in television history. However, Gunsmoke, which ran from 1955-75, had 635 episodes under its belt, giving Homer and company a little better than 130 to catch up.
However, 2007’s The Simpsons Movie, grossed more than $527 million and is one of the proudest bodies of work of Al Jean, who has been a writer/producer of The Simpsons since its 1989 debut. Since 2001, he has been an executive producer. Top that, Gunsmoke!
“We contributed great deal to the film and I’m proud of it,” said Jean. “I’ve always wanted to work on a successful movie and I have.”
Created by Matt Groening and appearing as animated shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, the satirical animated sitcom centers on the title characters: patriarchal Homer, a lovable buffoon; Marge, his poor put-upon wife who holds the family together; Bart, the hellion underachiever best known for saying, “Eat my shorts!”; Lisa, the kind antithesis of Bart and highly-intelligent overachiever; and Maggie, the baby who’s remained a baby for 20 years, yet can hold her own with a gun (just ask Mr. Burns).
“I think at the beginning it was a terrific show. It’s the best thing I ever worked on,” said Jean. “Average people like these shows because they reflect what they are. They see themselves. It’s bizarre. It’s a job to me and it’s something I never experienced as phenomenon form the outside. I think it’s incredibly gratifying when you do something people love it and can’t wait talk to you about it.”
According to Jean, The Simpsons revolutionized the depiction of the typical middle-class American family.
“It’s so relatable,” said Jean. “Everybody brings to the show things from their childhood.”
Even if you don’t follow The Simpsons, people know who Homer and Bart are. They’re household names. Further, they’re part of the American collective consciousness. Jean confessed he never expected The Simpsons to become an American cultural icon that’s been on the air for 20 years.
“I could never say I expected that,” he said. “When I started, I wanted the show to last 20 weeks. I’m thrilled by all the years it’s lasted. It’s all been unbelievable.”
Jean stated that a number of factors contribute to its staying power. The fact that it’s animated and the characters don’t age helps a great deal. There’s also the number of celebrity voices, including Ringo Starr of The Beatles, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Oscar winner Meryl Streep, the list goes on. Upcoming guest stars include Seth Rogen, Emmy winner Kenneth Branagh, and Oscar winner Jodie Foster.
“We try to stay fresh and have shows that stay current 10 years later,” explained Jean. “One of the key things about the show is that it’s a family. The way you survive is through the love of your family. Homer would never cheat on Marge as I see it. Homer even loves Bart. I have a soft spot for Lisa. Many of my scripts feature Lisa because you can get intelligence and emotion… The secret is to never take it for granted and treat each show like it’s the first one you’ve ever done.”