Al Jean and Stephanie Gillis Talk About “The Simpsons” Writer’s Room at SXSW 2019

This year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, Texas, featured some fantastic guests from all across entertainment.  For an exciting panel, screenwriters Al Jean and Stephanie Gillis came together to discuss what it’s like for creative minds to work together across media like writing, music, and visual arts.

Al Jean and Stephanie Gillis are two names that should be recognizable to any fan of The Simpsons.  Stephanie Gillis has been a writer for the series since 2005 receiving her multiple award nominations.  Her best-known work was the premiere episode of season 30 “Bart’s Not Dead” which won her a Writers Guild of America Award for Outstanding Writing in Animation.  Al Jean is well known as the show-runner of The Simpsons’ golden years, season 3 and 4, as well as taking the mantle back for season 13 and has been in the position since.  Jean has captured a slew of awards for his work including eight Emmy awards and a Peabody award.

Both of these creators are experts in collaborating ideas with other artists.  Not only have they spent multiple seasons in The Simpsons writer’s room, but they have also been happily married since 2002.  Jean also developed his career in partnership with writer Mike Reiss, who he created the animated show The Critic with in 1994.  So, if there are any writers to discuss the highs and lows of creative cohabitation, it would be these two.

The SXSW one-hour panel was recorded and recently shared on the festival’s website.  Feel free to listen to the complete recording by following this link, here.  For the sake of Bubbleblabber followers who are fans of The Simpsons or interested in a peek behind the doors of how animated programs like these come to be, we have cherry-picked some of the highlights of the panel just for you.

One of the things that we have heard from Al Jean before is that a writer is a small part of a massive collaboration.  An original script goes through many hands from cast to producers who each add elements and jokes to help maximize the final product.  Jean mentions that a Simpsons script may go through five rewrites before there is even a script reading.  Add that to cast improvisation, and he estimates that only 30% of an original script will actually end up on television.

Jean also expresses that while a script is in development, he can be cutthroat in an effort to keep the length of the show at a minimum.  He later adds humorous moments that writers and cast are unaware of to fill the time.  Jean adds a story about the famous actor Kelsey Grammer being shocked when his regularly appearing character Sideshow Bob injures himself not once, but nine times when stepping on a rake.  This method of filling time by adding animated gags is pretty standard practice, just take a look at almost any episode of Family Guy.

The writers spend some time expressing their admiration for the original creators of The Simpsons, and the many brilliant ideas that opened the doors for them to have this opportunity.  Between the clever design choices and timeless simplicity, Jean expresses that this is a show that he never wants to see go off the air.  Which should put a stop to some online theories that the series writers are working toward an end.  Gillis is proud of the shows openness to female equality, stating she has never had an issue as part of the creative team.  In fact, out of the 22 episodes in season 30 a record 9 of them are written by women, including one written by the voice of “Bart”, Nancy Cartwright.

Much of the panel is an interesting look at just how fun The Simpsons’ bullpen must be.  Jean has high praise for all of the creative minds that come through the doors and attributes much of the show’s humour to the collaborative effort of everyone involved.  He even addresses the many predictions the show has made that have come to fruition like Lady Gaga performing at the Super Bowl, or Trump becoming president, and says that it is nothing more than something they thought would be funny at the time.

For those that enjoy a few spoilers, Gillis let slip something we can look forward to for next season of The Simpsons.  When discussing the creative improvisation of the many talented voice actors, Gillis mentioned that she was impressed with the humour of John Mulaney.  Mulaney, star of Netflix hit Big Mouth has yet to appear on The Simpsons, and Jean confirmed that Gillis had broken that news exclusively at SXSW that he would make an appearance in season 31.

Considering Al Jean, who is a mastermind of The Simpson’s success does not make that many public appearances, this was an exciting look at how the creator approaches his work.  Besides the many fun tidbits about the show we love, it is great to hear that the writer’s room is just as lively as it was when Jean started 20-some-odd years ago.  With his enthusiasm and work ethic, it is no surprise that the long-running record-breaking The Simpsons has no end in sight.

Jesse Bereta

Jesse (Green Onion) Bereta is a chef of words. Classically trained in the kitchen, Jesse changed careers in ‘015 to pursue his passion of writing (and being a full time pop culture nerd). Aside from his work as a freelance writer, Jesse also operates his own website, podcasts, and is a father of two budding sprouts. The Green Onion headquarters is located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

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