10 Simpsons Secrets Al Jean Told Us

Al Jean is the reason for everything we love about The Simpsons. He has been executive producer and show-runner of the series for 27 years and counting, only taking two years off to run The Critic, Jon Lovitz’s animated show about a film critic. There’s so much involved with running a TV show, even more for an animated one, that it’s hard to know where to begin explaining what he does. So when Al Jean gave a conference call to discuss the landmark Simpsons episode Simprovised,” which ended with Homer Simpson speaking live to the viewing audience, it was also a great opportunity to find out more about how Al Jean keeps The Simpsons running. Jean shared secrets of his job and some other tidbits about The Simpsons over the years. 

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What Al Jean Does

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In regards to the many duties of a show runner, Jean actually simplified it for us. It all starts with the writing. “To be honest, my main job is a writer,” Jean said. “I’m the head writer. Most of my days are spent writing. Honestly, the rewarding part of my day is writing. When I’m doing budgets or editing or dealing with notes or whatever that’s also part of the job but how I got here is as a writer and even though it doesn’t say written by me on that many [episodes].”

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Sharing With the Writers

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While Al Jean is the head writer, he has only taken credit for a handful of episodes compared to the nearly 600 that have aired as of the 27th season. He does this to benefit his writers. “I’ve written 20 scripts, but honestly, I have contributions to over 500 of them that have aired,” Jean said. “TV is a really collaborative medium. The ‘written by’ credit on a script is a very specific thing. It means the money for the person. It’s usually who thought of the idea of the show but not always, but everybody here collaborates. It’s a real group effort.”

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Inside The Writers Room

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Creating 22 episodes a year is hard work for any show. Doing it for nearly three decades makes it even more complicated, so The Simpsons have a system down. “We have two rooms,” Jean said. “Once a year we pitch all our ideas to [producer] Jim [Brooks] and [Simpsons creator] Matt [Groening] and me. The ideas that go over well are written up into outlines and then stories. Then the rooms just go over the scripts again, again and again until we get to a table read with the cast. Then it’s rewritten again and recorded and rewritten several times before it finally airs.”

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Fox Leaves The Simpsons Alone

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The Simpsons has always gotten away with making fun of their network, Fox. This is part of the deal that has kept The Simpsons independently satirical all these years. Jean revealed that his partner, James L. Brooks, made sure of this in the beginning. “We’ve always had, since Jim Brooks made the deal with Fox, independence and the ability to do what we wanted,” Jean said. “The network has been extremely encouraging and things like Homer Live, they love, things where it’s something new. It draws attention to the show, draws attention to the night and they couldn’t have been more supportive.”

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We’ll Never See The Prince Script

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When recording artist Prince passed away suddenly in April of 2016, it resurrected the stories of a script The Simpsons wrote for him to provide his voice. Not only did The Simpsons write a script, including a draft by Conan O’Brien, but Prince replied with a script he had commissioned himself. Alas, it seems we will never see those scripts in their entirety, out of respect for Prince’s decision not to do the show. 

“Conan rewrote [it],” Jean said. “The two other writers did the first draft. That’s one of the things I wanted to clarify. I have the script that we sent to him, which he didn’t want to do because we pitched that Prince play, the same character Michael Jackson had and Prince just didn’t want to. The script that was written, I believe, by someone who worked for Prince by that time David Mirkin was running the show and he got that script. I don’t know if he still has it but I don’t. With regard to our draft, I released three pages online and I felt that that’s enough and I should respect that Prince didn’t want to do it and then we’ll leave it there. Personally, I had seen him in concert several times and nobody was better. He was just phenomenal. It was a real loss.

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Pushing the Animation

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New episodes of The Simpsons have pushed the animation further than ever, including an epic vista of the Grand Canyon, and some elegant images of Paris. Jean touted the breakthroughs achieved by these recent episodes. “I’d single out the Grand Canyon episode was done by Mike Polcino, and Tim Bailey did the Paris one,” Jean said. “HD provides us with an opportunity to make these incredibly beautiful shows and these guys really rise to the challenge. We want to keep doing it. The fact that they do it on a 22-show a year basis is amazing to me how well they do it.” 

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DVDs Are Suspended For Now

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I own every Simpsons season released on DVD through season 17, and the one-off Blu-ray of season 20 they released out of order to capitalize on the HD transition. But now, the FXNOW app has every season of The Simpsons, right up until the newest episode that airs every Sunday. For now, FXNOW replaces any subsequent DVD releases.

“I continue to hope that [DVDs] would come back because I understand not everybody gets FXNOW,” Jean said. “I understand there’s a lot of unhappiness that we discontinued after Season 17. I could only say I personally continue to say please make more DVDs but it’s not up to me.”

The good news is that there are still bonus features on FXNOW. “We’ve done the commentaries for Seasons 18 and 19,” Jean added.

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The Simpsons Animation Schedule

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The Simpsons family - Lisa, Marge, Maggie, Homer and Bart. TCFFC

Animation takes time. Just imagine all the frames drawn for a single 22-minute episode. They’ve actually gotten the process down fairly well. Jean outlined the schedule for a normal Simpsons episode.

“For a regular show, not the live one, it’s about six months,” Jean said. “We recorded about a month ago a show that will air in December, maybe that’s a little more like nine months. First, they [story]board it. Now the storyboards are on an iPad so it’s actually more like looking at an animatic which is great. You could really see a lot more. Then we have the animatic, which we screen with the staff, and then it goes to the final color animation and that’s a bit improved in that we can change colors so much easier because it’s visual coloring. The basic time has been the same since the show started. There’s a joke I always tell which is we’ve joked about the Soviet Union and by the time the show came back the Soviet Union had broken up. We had to change the joke but fortunately it’s getting back together. It’ll work out.”

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The Critic Could Come Back

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While The Simpsons looks like it will easily hit the three decade mark, The Critic only got two seasons. It came back briefly on the internet, but now that old shows like Full House and The X-Files are getting revived, there’s a chance for The Critic too. The only caveat is that Jean and his crew are busy on The Simpsons.

“I would love it,” Jean said. “One problem is I can’t work on it. I don’t work for Sony, which owns the show. I work for Fox and of course I have a steady job that I like right now and so does Jim Brooks, who was also the guy who launched The Critic. I always loved those characters and I always think Lovitz is hilarious. The recent thing about him being married or engaged to a woman who was 25 was hilarious the way that video looked. I wish him well and I hope we’ll work [together] again.”

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Don’t Expect VR Simpsons Any Time Soon

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The latest technology in entertainment is virtual reality, Oculus Rift and other technologies that can put the viewer inside the show they are watching. Jean said it would be a while before The Simpsons tackle VR.

“We’ve actually met with several different people regarding VR and I’ve tried it,” Jean said. “I think it’s got enormous potential. I think that we will do something for it at some point and maybe in the near future. I think about Google Glass and we did a show about it and it was something that was supposed to be the wave of the future and it really didn’t take off. You have to be careful judging what the medium is going to be of choice in the future but there’s no question the different media that arise will be part of them.  What I thought when I put it on was a couple of things: you wanted more. You wanted to be able to go more places in the world which I think requires a lot more memory which isn’t to say that can’t be done soon. I think people really look stupid when they’re doing it. Like somebody else wearing it, it really isn’t pretty.”

That said, perhaps the VR experience inspired Jean for an upcoming Simpsons episode making fun of it. “We actually do an episode about VR this fall where Burns wants a family so he hires everybody in the Simpson family except Homer to be the voices of his family and lives in this artificial world. We’re certainly interested in the issue.”