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Simpsons writer and show runner Al Jean
Exclusive interview by Daniel Robert Epstein, contributing editor

It's usually Matt Groening who is credited with The Simpsons. But without a hysterically funny show runner and writer like Al Jean, I don't believe the show would be what it is today. Jean started out on wildly funny cult shows like Sledge Hammer! and Not Necessarily the News. Later, he became The Simpsons' show runner in the years when it became legendarily funny. Jean later went off to create the cult cartoon The Critic but after that show, he came back to The Simpsons and made it even stronger than it ever was. I once got so mad at my girlfriend at the time for not getting back to her apartment in time to let me in to watch the show. She really hurt my feelings, and she's lucky she made up for it later.

UGO: What's your favorite episode out of the third season?

Al Jean: There's one I wrote with Mike Reiss where the guy who thinks he's Michael Jackson comes to live with the Simpsons. There's "Flaming Moe's", which was our first guest star extravaganza. There's "Homer at the Bat," where Mr. Burns gets all these real baseball players as ringers for the nuclear plant's softball team. It was a really good year.

UGO: What was it like working with Michael Jackson?

AJ: He's a really good guy as far as I saw. A little shy. I thought the song "Lisa, it's your birthday" was great.

UGO: Did he tell you why he didn't want to be credited?

AJ: The story I heard was that it was a joke he was playing on his brothers. I don't really know.

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UGO: By the third season, The Simpsons had stopped focusing on Bart and his adventures. What made you guys want to do that?

AJ: There was no conscious decision. People have often asked that kind of question. I think that when the series started, Bart was such a great character that it caught people's fancy and maybe we had a little problem as writers pitching too many stories for Bart, because he's cool, and we weren't cool. I tended to relate more to Lisa's stories and a lot of people related to Homer. But there was never a conscious decision to do that. We wanted the series to be rich and to deliver the unexpected.

UGO: Who do you think is the sexiest Simpsons character?

AJ: [laughs] The sexiest? I'd say Duff-Man is probably in the best shape.

UGO: Who's your favorite Simpsons family member?

AJ: I think they're all hilarious. Lisa is the one I feel closest to from my own life. I have a daughter and I grew up a little like her.

UGO: What about your favorite non-Simpsons family character?

AJ: I can single out two. I think Ned Flanders is a really rich, funny character, and I've heard there is an actual religious cult in Britain modeled after him. Also, Hank Azaria just won an Emmy for probably Moe [the Bartender] Szyslak, who is also a very multileveled character.

UGO: Do you think The Simpsons was hitting its stride by the third season? A lot of people consider seasons 3 - 5 the high points of the series.

AJ: I will tell you that I ran the show with Mike Reiss for seasons 3 and 4. The only thoughts running through my head every minute of the day was, "Don't blow it and screw up this thing everyone loves." Maybe because the show was established we were able to do deeper things. I have heard people say that seasons 3 - 5 were great, but I think that it couldn't have been more popular than it was in season 1. So it's a show that from day one was always highly regarded.

UGO: Is it a blast working on the show, or a lot of hard work, or both?

AJ: Its both. It's a great job with a lot of responsibility. But the fact that people love it so much is great.

UGO: What do people outside the industry think when you tell them what you do?

AJ: In the beginning, there was mixed reaction, where people would say it's controversial or they don't let their kids watch it. But now its pretty much, "Oh, that's great."

UGO: I know there was some controversy when The Critic appeared on that episode of The Simpsons. That was a show you created. Did you and Matt Groening make up?

AJ: We get along and we even got along then. He just didn't want to do a full-fledged crossover and [executive producer] Jim Brooks did. It was one of those things where everyone had their opinion, but it didn't have any lasting repercussions. I'll say that Matt is consistent, because we never did a full-fledged Futurama crossover either.

UGO: The Critic also has a major cult following.

AJ: It's astounding to me. It's still on Comedy Central at 1 AM on Sundays. But it's ten years later and it's still on. What really killed it was when it was on FOX and the guy who ran the network then, John Matoian, just didn't like the show. He preferred a show that no one remembers called House of Buggin with John Leguizamo.

UGO: I remember that. It was awful.

AJ: Yeah. He liked that show and didn't like ours. Even though our ratings were better, he cancelled us. It was very infuriating.

UGO: Now you're the exclusive runner for The Simpsons.

AJ: Yes, this will be my third year at it. People ask how it feels to work alone, but I work in a room with eight other writers. There's no loneliness. There's a little more pressure, because Mike Reiss is really funny, but he just didn't want to be full time in show business any more. It's similar, though, to when I did it. The ratings have gone up.

UGO: There's been a lot of criticism thrown at The Simpsons that the show isn't as funny or sharp as it used to be.

AJ: There is a small group in the internet that will say it's not as good as it was. The people who say that also say that it's improved in the last two years. I would say, in addition to the ratings being up, it's in its 14th year. We got nominated for a Golden Globe last year for the first time. I would argue that we're doing as well as we've ever done.

UGO: What was it like watching the third season again for the commentary?

AJ: It was interesting. Usually, when people do a DVD commentary, it's right after the movie came out. These were almost little reunions. I was proud of what we had done, and I wish we could still do simple stories. We can't do an episode where Lisa has a bad birthday, because we've done that.

UGO: So the episodes have to be more complex?

AJ: Yeah, we don't want to repeat ourselves but still do stories about a family. That's a challenge.

UGO: Have you ever heard people quote lines you've written?

AJ: The first show that aired I put in a song I remembered from my youth "Jingle Bells, Batman smells". I heard a little kid sing it at one point and I was glad that I kept that alive.

UGO: You've got some cool things coming up.

AJ: Yeah, guest voices coming up are Ian McKellan, Jerry Lewis as Professor Frink's father, Thomas Pynchon the reclusive author and Tony Blair. You won't see those guys on According to Jim.

UGO: Do you like the shows that have come about because of The Simpsons?

AJ: King of the Hill is a good show. There is a reality to their portrait of Texas.

UGO: How about Family Guy?

AJ: I wasn't a big fan of Family Guy. To be honest, I thought it was a little to derivative of The Simpsons to the point where I would see jokes we did on The Simpsons or The Critic on Family Guy. They should be more original.

UGO: I hear that a lot of The Simpsons writers are a little nerdy.

AJ: A little is understating it, highly nerdy. A couple of guys are triathletes but, in general, they weren't the most popular group in high school.

UGO: A lot of the writers must be people who grew up on the show.

AJ: We say that Bart was born in 1980. We have a writer now who was born in 1980, so we say he is as old as Bart. Mostly the writers range from 30 to over 50.

UGO: Here's a big geek question. If Bart is only ten and Marge got pregnant in high school then Homer should be only 28. But it's been said he 36 or older.

AJ: It doesn't make sense. We actually had debates about that when we first did the flashback to Marge and Homer meeting. We can't reconcile it. We actually do a joke in an upcoming episode where we show Marge and Homer as ten year olds and we say, "It was back in the '60s…or was it '70s…maybe it was the '50s."

UGO: What superpower would you want to have?

AJ: I'd like to be able to travel through time. First I'd go to a comic book store and buy Amazing Spider-Man number 1. Then I'd save Lincoln.

UGO: What movie franchise is your favorite out of Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or The Matrix?

AJ: I would say Lord of the Rings were both great, so they're two for two. I thought the last Star Wars was terrible, so Lord of the Rings has a better batting average. I'm not a big fan of The Matrix.

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