Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Al Jean, Yeardley Smith, Matt Selman, and Harry Shearer all on one stage!
The Tribeca Film Festival has gained a reputation for bringing out some of the most elusive of celebrities and talents. Each year they tend to outdo themselves. This year, with The Simpsons celebrating their 30th season, the festival managed to put together a panel of The Simpsons’ superstars to discuss the shows long-running success.
The lineup of panelists is a who’s who of The Simpsons’ talent. The show’s creator and mastermind, Matt Groening, and legendary show producer, James L. Brooks, is just the beginning. They are joined by the longest showrunner in primetime television history, Al Jean, and multiple award-winning writer, Matt Selman. Rounding out the impressive showing was Harry Shearer, who voices all of your favourite side characters including Principal Skinner, Otto, Mr. Burns, Dr. Hibbert, and Ned Flanders, just to name a few. To make this panel even more unique, Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson was enlisted as the moderator for this one-of-a-kind discussion.
Before the talks could get too deep, the Yeardley Smith was quick to point out the recent acquisition of Fox and how The Simpsons have been announced as a top-line addition to the new Disney+ streaming service. Aside from some practical changes at the studio, the creators have noticed no difference in their approach to making the show. In fact, they acknowledge that some fans may be worried that the show may go for more of a PG approach under the House of Mouse, but confirm that it’s business as usual for our favourite yellow family.
James L. Brooks, who is no stranger to the comings and goings of the television industry, points out that much of the show’s success is being able to conduct their own business without supervision from above. It was thanks to the executive producer that this stipulation was written in The Simpsons’ contract over 30 years ago.
Reminiscing about the show’s creation and development played a significant role in this panel. James L. Brooks and Matt Groening shared the story of how the show was picked up for The Tracy Ullman Show as Brooks was a fan of the comic Life in Hell. It is the stuff of legend now, but it is always exciting to hear the story of Groening scribbling out his sketch of The Simpsons family in the waiting room before his meeting with the big wig producer. The only other panelist around during these original days was Yeardley Smith, who Groening admits was a shoo-in for Lisa, despite trying out for Bart. She even offers her interpretation of the spiky-haired boy, which is absolutely terrible and worth watching the whole video for.
Speaking on voices, there is a full minute during where Harry Shearer delivers snippets of his most popular characters. Anyone who has seen a voiceover actor perform live knows the surreal experience of hearing your favourite characters out of context. But, Shearer is a master at what he does and drops around five unique voices consecutively. When asked who of his roles he would love to see a spin-off for he pondered the idea of a Reverend Lovejoy show before settling on the premise of Otto Mann in rehab.
What is probably the most interesting part of the panel is Al Jean’s extensive knowledge of The Simpsons history. The record-breaking showrunner was able to recall The Simpsons episodes and titles from memory on more than one occasion. Most of them were episodes that Jean was not even a part of. The rest of the creators were quick to acknowledge that this simply what Al Jean does. No matter how big of a fan of The Simpsons you think you are, there is no bigger fan than Jean himself. The series is and has been for many years, in the best of hands. The showrunner even admits that his biggest fear is letting this show end.
Before the panel could wrap up, Smith through a twist of a question at her peers. Considering the long list of amazing guest stars the series has featured, Smith was curious as to who the creators would still love to appear. Groening, Selman, and Smith were quick to answer with some talented actors with Robert DeNiro, John Cleese, and The Rock respectively. Al Jean went with what must be a childhood hero, Sandy Koufax. While Harry Shearer said that he would love to have the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau himself, who happened to have a characterization appear in last Sunday’s episode “D’oh Canada”. But, James L. Brooks probably had the best choice with Donald Trump, though he did mention that the president would have to read the script however it was presented.
After 30 seasons these creators have all become legends in their respected fields. What is even more special when seeing them together like this is the passion that they still share for the town of Springfield. Their love is evident with the way they speak upon their fan experiences, and Yeardley Smith was almost brought to tears when asked about Lisa Simpson. With three decades under their belt, there have been lots of questions regarding the creative team’s fatigue. This hour-long panel was enough to make any fan feel confident that there is as much energy going into these episodes as there was in the beginning.