It is with much sorrow that we say goodbye to Sam Simon – writer, producer, director, philanthropist, and co-creator of The Simpsons. He was 59.
As journalists, specifically cartoon journalists, we at BubbleBlabber took the news especially hard. Personally, I owe a great deal of my life to The Simpsons and Mr. Simon. I was, and have been, positively obsessed with the show for as long as I can remember. Before I could even tell a joke, I was quoting Simpsons episodes. I did it so frequently that when I was talking to my parents about what Milhouse or Ralph or Moe said, they honestly thought these were the names of friends of mine. When people told me loving cartoons would accomplish nothing in my life, I professed that I wanted to one day become a cartoonist. Years later, when I realized I had very little artistic ability, and instead a knack for the written word, I said I wanted to be a writer. My love for The Simpsons got me my current gig, and the knowledge associated with my passion – comedy writing – comes from learning about joke structures and references and timing from the longest-running scripted show in the history of television. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have the sense of humor or my writing ability (which some folks tell me I apparently have) without Sam Simon and The Simpsons. Without exaggeration I simply wouldn’t be living the same life.
But this isn’t about my life, it’s about the life of one of the most talented creative minds of the last century.
Samuel Michael Simon was born June 6, 1955 in Los Angeles, California, growing up in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He attended Stanford University, and despite being told he wasn’t talented enough to enroll in drawing classes, he found a gig as a newspaper cartoonist. After graduation, Simon worked as a storyboard artist and writer for Filmation Studios, working on shows like The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse, Heckle & Jeckle, and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.
After submitting a spec script to Taxi, Simon was hired as a writer, and later a showrunner for the series. He also wrote and produced the first three seasons of Cheers, as well as Barney Miller, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and a number of other series before getting his big break. In 1989, collaborating with mastermind Matt Groening and producer James L. Brooks (whom Simon worked with on Cheers), The Simpsons as we know it was born.
Based on Groening’s short cartoons featured on The Tracey Ullman Show from 1987-1989, the trio developed the premise into a full-length show for FOX two years later. Simon is given much of the credit for the show, having assembled and led the first team of writers: John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, George Meyer, Jeff Martin, Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, and Wallace Wolodarsky.
He was called “the unsung hero” of the show by former Simpsons director Brad Bird, and “the real creative force behind The Simpsons” by writer Ken Levine, who also said, “The tone, the storytelling, the level of humor – that was all developed on Sam’s watch.” Furthermore, Levine said Simon “brought a level of honesty to the characters” because his “comedy is all about character, not just a string of gags … The stories come from the characters.”
Since leaving the show, Simon co-created and acted as a showrunner for The George Carlin Show, and directed episodes of numerous sitcoms in the ‘90s, including Men Behaving Badly, Friends, The Norm Show, The Michael Richards Show, and The Drew Carey Show. More recently, Simon served as a consultant and director on Anger Management in 2012. But nothing was as successful or profitable as The Simpsons. Simon once revealed that his royalties from the show earn him “tens of millions” of dollars every year. “When I was there I thought I was underpaid. I thought I wasn’t getting enough credit for it,” he said. “Now, I think it’s completely the opposite. I get too much credit for it. And the money is ridiculous.”
That credit includes nine Primetime Emmy Awards (and ten additional nominations), a Peabody Award, and a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America Animation Writers Caucus.
And with that “ridiculous” amount of money, Simon established himself as a passionate advocate and philanthropist. He was a defender of animal rights, self-funding the Sam Simon Foundation: a “five-star” shelter in Malibu responsible for rescuing dogs originally set to be euthanized, and retraining them as service animals for the disabled. He also established and funded the Sam Simon Foundation Feeding Families program, a vegan food bank helping both people and animals in need. He provided a vessel for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 2012, was a board member for Save the Children, hosted the largest annual fundraiser for PETA (the group’s Norfolk, Virginia HQ is named after him), and gave away most of the rest of his fortune to charity.
His hobbies included Texas hold ’em poker (for which he regularly participated in tournaments), and boxing (for which he was a manager). He was married to actress Jennifer Tilly from 1984 to 1991 and Playboy Playmate Jami Ferrell in 2000, was engaged to chef and caterer Jenna Stewart a few years ago, and is survived by his girlfriend, make-up artist Kate Porter. He lived in Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles, in an environmentally-friendly home constructed mostly of recycled materials and powered almost entirely by solar panels.
He was diagnosed with terminal colorectal cancer in late 2012, and saw the illness as another reason to donate his fortune to worthy causes, saying, “The truth is, I have more money than I’m interested in spending. Everyone in my family is taken care of. And I enjoy this.”
Thank you for all the years of enjoyment, Sam. We’ll miss you.