One of the biggest and most enduring creative forces behind The Simpsons, Al Jean has been involved with the series ever since it moved from shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show to a full-fledged animated sitcom in 1989. Also the creator of the animated series The Critic, Jean has spent nearly half his life writing for animation. Now, in an exclusive interview with CraveOnline, Jean looks back at his career as the 13th season of The Simpsons prepares to hit DVD (in stores August 23rd).
CraveOnline: You’ve been a part of the show for so long. What’s the central emotion in going back for these DVD releases?
Al Jean: It’s kind of like going to a high school reunion. When you’re working on the episodes you see them again and again and then, often, you don’t see them at all until you do the commentary. It kind of takes you back to a different time in your life. Sometimes you see a writer’s name that you haven’t seen in years. I haven’t worked with Jon Vitti lately, so it was a pleasure to see him again for these commentaries. It’s a pretty warm feeling. Every now and then you watch and go, "What the Hell were we doing there?"
CraveOnline: What’s the biggest difference between working on the show now and working on the 13th season?
Al Jean: Between the 13th season and now, I would say that the biggest change is technological. The 13th season was the last one that was hand painted in the sense that there were actual cells. Subsequently, we switched to digital coloring. Back then I would watch half inch tapes of episodes and give notes. Now, obviously, I get everything through e-mail. And as a writer, I can’t begin to say how useful Google is. There used to be things we wouldn’t even bother trying to find out. Now you can find out in just a minute. I would say those are the biggest changes. At it’s core, it’s still all about trying to depict the truth of an American family.
CraveOnline: The 13th season was big for you because you became the head showrunner.
Al Jean: Yeah, I had run it with Mike Reiss and had done a couple of episodes, but yeah, it was all starting with season 13 and continuing through to now.
CraveOnline: Do you have a personal favorite episode from the 13th season?
Al Jean: I have a couple and a lot of favorite moments in other things. But I really have a soft spot for "I Am Furious Yellow", which was based on a number of writers’, including myself, foray into internet animation, which you could just see was an up and down rags to riches to rags story. Even better, Stan Lee does a voice. He was my hero growing up. There was nobody cooler for the show we could have got and then he came back and did the commentary for the episode. Then, secondly, the episode "Weekend at Burnsie’s", which I think is hilarious and has a lot of my favorite jokes. There’s a bit in there where Homer is smoking medicinal marijuana and he’s shaving. He cuts himself and rainbows just come out. It’s really funny.
CraveOnline: You have one episode in the season, "Half-Decent Proposal", which brought back Jon Lovitz who you worked with quite a bit on The Critic.
Al Jean: He’s hilarious. He’d be so funny doing the recording that you’d laugh and the director would forgot to say cut. James L. Brooks actually pitched that. He said, "wouldn’t it be great if Artie Ziff offered Homer a million dollars for a weekend with Marge just to see if she could have had a better life if she had married him." And the director for that, Lauren MacMullan, was one of the best directors we’ve ever had. That was really just a terrific episode.
CraveOnline: DId you do commentaries for every episode in the season?
Al Jean: I did commentaries for every episode in which I was showrunner. There are couple where Mike Scully [does them]. We have holdovers where the last guy does a few and the new one takes over. I really take them seriously and it’s very consuming.
CraveOnline: The Simpsons has always been one of the shows on DVD which is consistently full of great special features.
Al Jean: Oh, that’s really nice to hear… I personally intend to do commentaries, if people can take my voice, for every show on which I’m a showrunner, which is like another 200 episodes.
CraveOnline: Do you find yourself spotting jokes and thinking that you should have a callback in the episodes you’re currently doing?
Al Jean: The embarrassing thing that happens is that you see a joke and realize that you did it on two different shows. It happened at least twice. One’s in the show "Camp Krusty" and one’s in the show "Special Edna". Home and Marge are making out and watching fireworks and Homer says, "Now let’s make some fireworks of our own!" and starts making a literal firework with powder. So sometimes that happens. But normally they’re kind of fresh to me because I haven’t seen them for a number of years. In 13 in particular, I was just impressed with how beautiful the animation was. In "Half Decent Proposal" there are number of really great effects that were done without the benefit of computers.
CraveOnline: I remember there was a joke on the very first Simpsons DVD where Matt Groening said that the releases would come out just fast enough for the format to become obsolete. Now we’re getting the first release on Blu-ray, which almost seems a payoff to that.
Al Jean: We had a season 20 Blu-ray release, but they kind of rushed it and we didn’t do commentaries. But this is the first of the sort of full-commentary with all the extras season that’s on Blu-ray.
CraveOnline: You mention that the internet is a great tool but I would image that it’s hard — and the show makes fun of this quite a bit — dealing with the internet age of fandom sometimes.
Al Jean: Well there are people who say they want to murder me and that’s not so great. Mostly it’s extremely positive. The internet is like anything else. It’s here and it’s never going away. You just have to use it to help you overall. Standing in line getting e-mail on my phone, it’s just unbelievable the time saving that its caused. I did a technology panel with a couple of other writers. A guy from The Daily Show and Peter Tolan from Rescue Me. I found that, without knowing it, we all had an identical experience where Peter Toland had actually gotten in an argument on the internet with something someone didn’t like in Rescue Me. The same thing had happened with the guy from The Daily Show which I think is absolutely one of the funniest shows ever. You realize that that’s the function of the intenet. People are excited about something when it beings and then they very very quickly grow obsessive and some of them critical. But that’s life.
CraveOnline: Is there a certain craziest fan message you’ve ever received?
Al Jean: Probably people who psychoanalyze me. (laughs) It’s like, how in the world would you know? Sometimes I suspect my mother is one of the people who’s posting. Just kidding on the last one.
CraveOnline: When you see something very prevalent in pop culture, do you immediately think that you want to find, say Inception jokes for The Simpsons?
Al Jean: Maybe. If there was something that you could build upon it. I don’t like doing the obvious parody. I wouldn’t want to, for instance, parody the end of The Sopranos. I think that’s just an obvious thing. But we did parody the episode where Tony pretty much killed Christopher and Homer is almost killing Grandpa in the same way. You want to go for the "oh, I wouldn’t expect that!" You want to surprise people. I would never do a Star Wars joke now because I think so many have been done and some of them great, but I think that people have definitely made enough fun of Star Wars.
CraveOnline: Do you have a dream guest star that you’ve never had on the show?
Al Jean: What I would love is Sandy Koufax. I think we asked him once and he passed. You always turn to these people that nobody ever had. We got Gary Larson of The Far Side as well as Thomas Pynchon. You just can’t believe that you’re able to get these people on your show. It’s insane.
CraveOnline: The show has been part of your life for so long, but you still break and do completely separate projects. How do you balance all that?
Al Jean: Well nowadays I don’t do too many. There’s The Simpsons Movie, which I think is obviously not a completely separate thing. I did a thing for Funny or Die which was a meeting of Saturday Night Live ex Presidents, which was really fun to participate in. Mostly, I just want to do The Simpsons as well as I can and spend the rest of the time with my family.
CraveOnline: I mentioned before, one of my favorite shows ever was The Critic which, working as an entertainment reporter, that hits pretty close to home.
Al Jean: I really appreciate that. I was just thinking the other day that, if we could ever do some more of them, his life would be so different. The idea of the omnipotent film critic is so changed now. You go to Rotten Tomatoes and it’s a group of a hundred people voting. And some of them are pretty good but two thumbs up from Siskel and Ebert was really something that meant enormous power. It really meant something. But now, it’s diffused among 100 people.
CraveOnline: I was on a plane with some other reporters just last week and the intercom buzzed looking for a Jay Sherman and we all laughed about that.
Al Jean: That’s really funny! Well, the series made it to DVD and the great thing about animation is that it always has a future. You can never say it’s over because it can always has a chance to come back.
CraveOnline: Well it did briefly, right? There was a webseries of The Critic.
Al Jean: Yeah and that "I Am Furious Yellow" is kind of making fun of that. There was all this money for a year for internet animation and everyone was asking, "How are you going to make money off this? You just click on it for free." People would say, "Oh, you don’t
understand. It’s complicated. There’s a business model." But I was right. It didn’t work. The funniest thing was that, the more popular
it got, the more expensive it was to produce. So your success killed you. But that was back in the year 2000. It’s a whole new planet from what was going on then.
CraveOnline: Tell me about working on The Simpsons Movie and coming back to the show. I remember in the first episode after, you had an opening credit gag of all of Springfield’s destruction.
Al Jean: Doing the show and the movie and then going back to doing just the show is like running marathon without a hundred pound bag of cement on your head. That movie was just so much pressure for anyone who worked on it. And I worked on it as much as anybody. We just didn’t want to let people down. We knew it could be the one and only Simpsons movie. There had been so many expectations about this. I really that, by and large, it succeeded and people who went to see it when it opened told me they had a really special experience. I would only want to do a sequel if there was a compelling reason to do it. I thought that maybe because 3D has changed things so much, that might be a reason to do it. I really wouldn’t do it unless we could make it something that felt it was important to get done.
CraveOnline: When it comes time each year to do the Halloween episode, is that a freeing experience from a writing perspective?
Al Jean: Everybody really steps up and this year is no exception. We’ve got one coming up where we have a sort of Jumanji syle plot where all the old boardgames in the Simpson attic come to life. Our director Bobby Anderson just did an amazing job of animating the whole town being overrun by the likes of Hungry, Hungry Hippos and the game pieces from Sorry! and the Monopoly pieces and things like that. It’s fun. It’s the only place where you can actually kill Flanders and get away with it. It really is very freeing.
The Simpsons: The Complete 13th Season is available on DVD and Blu-ray August 23rd.