The David Silverman Interview
How does one minute become 15 years? Ask David Silverman. He didn't merely get in on the ground floor of The Simpsons--he helped build the floor. Now a producer on The Simpsons, Silverman worked on the oddly yellow characters in 1987, when they were a brief interstitial segment on Fox's Tracey Ullman Show, and he directed the program's first two half-hour episodes. (The first broadcast episode--December 17, 1989's "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire"--was not planned as the first episode; Silverman's explanation in this interview of the surrounding events suggests what it was like to work on a prime-time television show with a small budget and a staff to match.) When he began animating Matt Groening's two-dimensional family, Silverman didn't know that he was helping to light the fuse on a pop-culture explosion whose longevity is unprecedented among animated programs but is easily explained: It has maintained its bitingly sharp perspective on society. For a show that received its early buzz as a result of boundary-pushing irreverence, Silverman knows that The Simpsons' success is due to the characters, and he credits Groening and executive producer James L. Brooks with the primacy of the core characters and the heart they possess. A decade and a half later, The Simpsons is a cultural institution and a fixture in the Nielsen ratings. (In the interview, Silverman hints at the long-rumored theatrical movie; at this point it seems safe to assume that the only question is when it will happen, not if.) The show's success kicked aside the conventional wisdom that animation no longer could succeed in prime time, and in doing so it opened the door to fellow-travelers ranging from successes such as South Park and King of the Hill to the underappreciated Family Dog. At 47, the New York native has been involved with the characters for nearly a third of his life, but time has not diminished his passion for them (he says his favorite characters to draw are still Homer and Krusty the Clown). Nor has time dimmed his enthusiasm for animation's expanding technical horizons: After working on the big-budget but creatively disappointing The Road to El Dorado, Silverman began exploring digital animation and became involved with two of the form's biggest hits, Ice Age and Monsters Inc. Though he has explored other creative avenues, it's clear that he remains passionate about Springfield's favorite quintet. Good thing, since the show will be around for a while: Fox has renewed it through May 2005, which means that The Simpsons will replace The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as television's longest-running sitcom. (If that doesn't underscore the changes in our cultural tastes, nothing does.) So while the show's staff and budget are larger than they were in 1987, Silverman will continue to do what he has done since then: help produce what The Comic Book Guy might call the best . . . comedy . . . ever! --Tom Heintjes
Tom Heintjes: How do you explain the fact that both The Simpsons and Abba are both wildly popular in Australia?
David Silverman: I can't explain that. They're different types of cultural phenomena, but I've got to say--no offense to Abba--I suspect The Simpsons will be more enduring. I don't know of too many major universities that offer courses in the psychology of Abba [laughter].
Heintjes: In 1982, when you graduated from UCLA, the animation industry was not in great shape. What was your intention upon graduating?
Silverman: My intention was to kill myself [laughter].
Heintjes: Had you always been interested in animation?
Silverman: I decided at a really young age I wanted to be a cartoonist. I was always drawing. When I was four, I was drawing these things called "funnybooks." They were inspired by watching old Warner Bros. cartoons, which were my main source of animation. There were a few good shows to watch in the early '60s. It was the early days of Hanna-Barbera, which was hilarious, and there was Beany & Cecil, which was also very good. And there was The Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky. Kids aren't stupid, and even at that early stage I could tell which cartoons were better animated. Even at five years old, you're not duped by thinking, "Oh, it's all animation--it's all the same." And it was clear to us kids that the best quality animation was Warner Bros. We lived in Europe for a year when I was around nine years old, and I began making a lot of flipbooks. We didn't have a television set in our place in Copenhagen, and I think that was healthy. I turned to art and drawing and going to museums. My mom is an art historian, so going to museums was natural. Europe had a lot of museums and a lot of comic books. Heintjes: Since your mother was sophisticated about art, did she look down on cartooning as lowbrow? Silverman: Oh, no. I got nothing but encouragement from my folks. My early cartoons were amusing people, and they saw that as a good thing. My father understood comedy and he loved it. He has a great sense of humorÑthey both do. My parents introduced me to the Marx brothers and W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin. In fact, the earliest recollection I have of seeing a film is a double bill of The Gold Rush and Modern Times. That was my first sense of comedy filmmaking.
Heintjes: Did you study animation in school?
Silverman: In high school I began to study architecture because I began to think I couldn't make a living as a cartoonist. I thought it was a pipe dream. But I didn't give it up. I was the cartoonist for the paper. I illustrated the yearbook. I was the classic high-school cartoonist. I also began working in clay animation. One of the things that inspired me to continue was meeting Eric Goldberg. Kodak was sponsoring the Kodak Teenage Movie Awards, and Eric and I had both entered and won. Eric won the grand prize, and I won first prize in my age group. We met when they put us up at The Plaza, and they wisely roomed Eric and me together. We hit it off right away; we've been friends since 1974. Eric is a genius animator, and he was unbelievable for his age. He was a prodigy. And he inspired me to continue, and in my heart I was leaning toward doing that. So I attended the University of Maryland for two years, then I transferred to UCLA in 1977 to pursue animation--I went there just before the technological advancement that would make full animation easier to achieve. I had some intention of sticking with clay animation, but then I decided that since I could draw, it would be cool to animate my drawings. While at UCLA, I was a classmate of future animation historian Charles Solomon. He was working as a freelance reviewer for the Los Angeles Times. He knew Martin Bernheimer, the music critic for the Los Angeles Times. He was looking for a cartoonist who did jokes about music, and this was right up my alley, since right before I came out to UCLA I had just done a caricature of the National Symphony Orchestra. I submitted some samples, and they were published in the Times. That led to working for Alfred Publishing, a music publishing company. One of the guys there saw my drawings and hired me to do some publicity drawings. They were producing a line of piano books for children, and I ended up illustrating the whole line. That supplied a small income, and I think I worked for them from 1981 until 1986.
Heintjes: What was "The Strange Case of Mr. Donnybrook's Boredom"?
Silverman: That was the first film I did at UCLA. It was an adaptation of an Ogden Nash story. Alex Cox, the prominent non-Hollywood director--he did Sid and Nancy--was a student there at the same time I was, and he did the all the voices, the narration. He did a great job. This turned into a very long project. I hand-inked it because it was cheaper than photocopying onto cels. I didn't have a lot of dough. You had painting parties, where you'd invite fellow animators for food and drink--and painting cels--and so forth to help get the work done. I had to get this damn thing done. When I came to UCLA I was a junior, and two years later I hadn't finished this film, so I decided to get my master's degree [laughter]. The film came out rather well. It won the Focus Award Festival, and that's where I met Chuck Jones. He said he voted for it! After I left UCLA in 1983, I was still freelancing and doing a lot of odd jobs. I got some work at Ruby-Spears. I worked there with Duncan Marchbanks, who is a very talented animator. Later, he was lead animator on Sebastian, the crab in The Little Mermaid. Tom Mitten was there, and Tom Enriques, a great designer. Jim Woodring, now a very famous underground cartoonist, was also there. The unit was headed by John Doorman, who was crazy--in a good way! I think Ruby-Spears liked this unit, but before I came there they caused some sort of commotion--I think that's how they put it--and so they put us away in these bungalows on top of Barham Boulevard, just east of the main studio. So we were these strange "termite terrorists." This was my first animation job out of college. I was 27.
Heintjes: What were you working on?
Silverman: We were working on The Adventures of Mr. T. Duncan was doing character designs, and I was assisting him doing clean-ups and turnarounds. But what I found most astounding was the level of artistic skill being reduced to doing this crap. It was a lot of very gifted artists doing The Adventures of Mr. T!
Heintjes: Was that demoralizing for you?
Silverman: No. In the back of my mind I knew that something had to give. Something would change. It couldn't get too much worse. This was around the time that Disney's The Black Cauldron came out, and I knew it couldn't get much worse. When we saw that film, it was a pretty dark day.
Heintjes: How did you get involved with The Tracey Ullman Show?
Silverman: I met Wesley Archer, and he was doing some contract work for a very small company named Klasky-Csupo. At that time, the company was about five strong, and they were mainly doing motion graphics. That was a pre-computer approach to doing moving titles. They look vaguely computerized, but they're actually achieved with a lot of graphic art, using backlighting, many multiple exposures and other film effects--all on a motion-control animation camera. Very big back in the '80s. Klasky-Csupo occasionally did character animation for commercials, and Wesley had animated on a few of these jobs. And they got the contract for The Tracey Ullman Show in early 1987. At this time, I was turning 30 and I was ready to quit animation.
Silverman: I didn't feel like I was getting anywhere in my career. I was freelancing and living check to check. A friend of mine, Gary Baseman, encouraged me to take a year off and work on my portfolio and work on my own ideas. That plan got interrupted when Wesley and Bill Kopp got me involved in doing work on The Tracey Ullman Show, a job that I thought was going to last for two weeks. They were also doing work on M.K. Brown's animation, which was going to alternate every other week with Matt Groening's animation. But M.K. Brown's animation got dropped. It wasn't working for [executive producer] Jim Brooks. I came to Klasky-Csupo thinking I was going to assist Wes and Bill, but Gabor Csupo got a look at my work and said, "Oh we've got to make you an animator! This is great!" So there were three of us animating. Then Bill branched out on his own and left during the first season. Tim Bjorklund came in to help out. The following seasons it was just Wes and I.
Heintjes: What were working conditions like in the early days of animating the Simpsons shorts? What kind of model sheets did you work from?
Silverman: Model sheets? [laughter] We didn't have any. Matt had done one initial drawing of the characters, and he had done fairly tight layouts, and we really followed those to the letter. We made efforts to give more dimension to the drawings so they could develop performance personas.
Heintjes: So Matt was writing the stories for the shorts.
Silverman: Yes, and he was doing the storyboards. For the first two episodes, he did them fairly tightly. But we started noticing that they weren't entirely consistent from time to time.
Heintjes: Was it tough to turn them in space?
Silverman: That's the thing. We were trying to figure out ways to turn them in space and things like that. But we didn't have enough time to do model sheets. We had too much work to do! We had to animate a minute and a half a week between the three of us. The animation department consisted of the three of us. There was no designer; we were designing things as we went along.
Heintjes: I'm guessing this was not an eight-hour workday.
Silverman: We were working an average of 60 to 80 hours a week. Bill Hedge was the cameraman and Georgie Peluse was the colorist. She was amazing! She was a one-woman show, painting all the cels. I don't know how she did it. She was the one who made the characters yellow.
Heintjes: Do you know why the decision to make the characters yellow was made?
Silverman: She had a weird, wonderful sense of color design. A really interesting sense of color. I think she did that because Bart, Lisa and Maggie had no hairlines, and if you made them flesh-colored it would look very strange. It wouldn't work. To Matt's credit, he looked at it and said, "Marge is yellow with blue hair? That's hilarious--let's do it!"
Heintjes: When were these shorts broadcast?
Silverman: The first one was on in April 1987, and we worked all the way up until September 1987. Then we didn't know if the show was going to come back or not. In the third season it was Wes Archer and me, and we got an assistant, which was nice. We made more work for ourselves. "We've got an assistant? Let's do more work!" We kept fleshing things out. We were never satisfied. The shows were getting more complex, and we took it upon ourselves to make the animation more complex. Around this time, something else changed. The Simpsons segments had been broken up throughout The Tracey Ullman Show, but by the third season it was running as one continuous short. It was nice because we could do more interesting stories and we could do more interesting things with the camera. It allowed the jokes to play better, because it was continuous. We didn't know it then, but we were learning how to direct. We would take Matt's boards, add in camera angles and animate it. We were just doing it all at the same time. By the time we were doing full-length shows, we just said, "OK, let's just think of doing ten shorts in a row." That allowed us to get our heads wrapped around it. I didn't realize until later that Matt and James L. Brooks had been thinking of it as a series fairly early on. I always mistakenly thought that the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? gave the network the impetus to make it a series. But Matt and Jim already had the idea for a Simpsons series, and the success of Roger Rabbit strengthened the argument. Roger Rabbit was a turning point in animation. That began a second renaissance. But Jim held firm in getting Fox to commit to 13 episodes. Barry Diller [then head of Fox] wanted to do a series of four specials, but Jim held firm for 13 episodes.
Heintjes: What was the feeling among the animators when the announcement of the first season was made? Was it euphoria or a feeling of, What have we gotten into?
Silverman: Well, maybe not euphoria, but it was very exciting but also very challenging. We had been directing shorts, and now we're going to be directing 22 minutes of animation. I'd never done that before, and neither had Wes. We sort of knew what to do, and we'd soon find out. We were untested. I have to give them credit: They took a chance. They took a big chance on us. During the time we were animating shorts for The Tracey Ullman Show, I met Jim Brooks at a party and introduced myself. I thanked him for allowing us to put quality animation on the air. He told me years later that that made a big impact on him. He could tell I had enthusiasm and passion for it, and he had not met anyone on the animation side.
Heintjes: When Fox made that commitment to you, everything must have gotten ramped up quite a lot.
Silverman: Everything changed. Sam Simon, who was an executive producer on The Tracey Ullman Show, became a show runner on The Simpsons.
Heintjes: Explain what a show runner does for us lay people.
Silverman: A show runner is the head writer. Matt guided the show's style and point of view, but he had never run a writing team. So Sam was basically in charge of making all the final scripts, working with Jim Brooks picking voice talent and final sound mixes. That's why you have Matt, Jim and Sam credited as developing the show and Matt creating it. Show runners are also given Executive Producer credit. Gracie Films [Jim Brooks' production company] built up a writing staff at the Fox lot and Klasky-Csupo built an animation staff. Gracie had an overall deal with Fox at that time. A few years later, they have an overall deal with Sony. So Gracie still has an office on the Fox lot because of The Simpsons. If not for The Simpsons, Gracie would have no connection with Fox.
Heintjes: How did you find animators capable of delivering what you were looking for? The style of The Simpsons was so unlike anything else being done.
Silverman: The first season was very difficult. We had a lot of problems. Back in 1987, there wasn't a lot of creator-driven animation. Animators were used to drawing in the Warner style or the Disney style or the H-B style, etc. The same was true for the overseas studios: They were used to drawing He-Man and She-Ra and My Little Pony. This was different; it had a very complex construction. It reminds me of what Eric Goldberg told me while he was directing Ziggy's Gift. Ziggy was very difficult to draw. He was actually a very complex character of great subtlety and hidden construction lines. It's like drawing Charlie Brown; he's very difficult to draw on model. We hired a lot of people during the first season of The Simpsons. A large number of them didn't make it into the second season.
Heintjes: Since you weren't working in the dominant animation styles, how were you evolving your own approach to the work? Early on, the studio was working with Korean animators.
Silverman: During this time we were trying to develop our own shorthand for the animators overseas. We developed shorthand like "OVS" for "overshoot" and "ST" for "settle," when they should overshoot a pose and then settle back. I had animated Bart and labeled the drawings so they could see what "overshoot" and "settle" meant. I wanted them to sense what we were doing. These techniques turned out to be setting a standard, because as animators would leave The Simpsons, they would take these approaches with them. You'd started seeing it in more places.
Heintjes: Redoing the episodes must have wreaked havoc with the deadlines.
Silverman: It was crushing. I meant to keep a journal of what was happening during this period, but I didn't have time [laughter]. All I have is my fading memory. I really don't know how we got through that period. You're directing one show, you're going over storyboards of another show and there are retakes of another show. Everything was happening at the same time. The overlap now is not as bad. There's more time to do an episode.
Heintjes: How many episodes did you direct of the first season's 13 episodes?
Silverman: I directed five episodes that first season. The first episode I did was "Bart the Genius." That episode still holds up really well. I created the style of the whole dream sequence. I asked if we could do that sequence in mostly black and white, and they gave me a great deal of freedom. I remember when we were doing the second show, "Bart the General," and Matt and Sam asked me to come up with a bunch of visual gags for it, so I was looking at The Longest Day and Full Metal Jacket for jokes. My first episode that aired--but it was actually the third one I worked on--was the Christmas special. It was the eighth show, so Santa's Little Helper is missing during the first half of the season that followed.
Heintjes: You devised the opening credits, where each character is introduced. That's basically gone unchanged.
Silverman: I tried to come up with gags for each character, but I wanted a flowing style. Matt introduced the idea of the couch gag changing each episode. He got that the inspiration for that idea from The Dick Van Dyke Show--was he going to trip over the ottoman or not? I recall the beginning of the fourth season; we didn't have any couch gags from the writers yet, so I came up with a bunch of them and they used a lot of them. The one I liked the best was the Escher gag. Another one I liked was based on the Rocky and Bullwinkle gags where they fall into the earth and pop up as flowers. One of the directors, Matt Nastuk, mentioned that and I said, "Oh, we've got to use that as a couch gag!" I remember I actually measured the rate of the old Bullwinkle clip's camera move off my TV set. It was great fun to create an homage to The Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky, which everyone from writers to animators reveres.
Heintjes: Is it ever difficult to achieve some of the more specialized looks you want? You did one couch gag in which the characters looked like 1920s silent cartoon versions of themselves, and it's not as if Korean animators are familiar with 1920s American animation.
Silverman: We do most of the animating in town, and the overseas animators do a lot of the inbetweening and cleaning up. Like the 1920s sequence, that was pretty fully animated, and what we send to Korea is drawings with breakdown charts. Certain scenes are different. In one early episode when Homer was saying, "You're living in a world of make-believe," I wrote instructions, "please do not put on model." I didn't want them to change the expression, because I was taking some liberties with Homer's face. Sometimes they'll put certain scenes on model, and it loses its punch because you're deliberately doing something off-model for a reason. But just as we've learned a lot since 1989, so have our friends in Korea. Their animation has improved. Certainly, Rough Draft Studios helped there, because it's Greg Vanza's studio, and you have a Cal Arts-trained animator, and a damn good one, and he's running a studio in Korea, where he lives. He was able to say, "No, do it like this, please" right there, with little trouble with the language.
Heintjes: In one episode, you depicted the workings of a Korean animation factory. It looked like a prison camp, with armed guards making sure everyone was working hard.
Silverman: Yeah, they didn't like that too much.
Heintjes: I wondered how they felt about that portrayal.
Silverman: Very negatively. In fact, they didn't want to do that, but they went ahead and did it anyway.
Heintjes: How did you learn of their unhappiness?
Silverman: We have a supervising animator in Korea, and he said that they're refusing to animate this [laughter].
Heintjes: What was it like for the staff when The Simpsons became a phenomenon?
Silverman: It was a combination of being so busy that you can't really connect with it and being astonished. I went back to spend the holidays with my folks around the time the first Christmas special aired. That was the first full Simpsons episode that aired, in December 1989. I was wearing a Simpsons crew jacket, with the drawing of the family with Bart holding the slingshot. There wasn't any Simpsons merchandising at that point. As I walked through the shopping mall, people were asking me where to get the jacket. I don't mean two or three people; I mean about 15 people! I remember standing at one of those maps in the mall when I was trying to find a store, and someone said, "Hey, did you see that Simpsons Christmas show? That was really funny, man!"
Heintjes: Why was the Christmas episode ("Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire") the first to air?
Silverman: The Simpsons was originally going to premiere in November. But some of the first season's episodes came back a mess. Everything was changed and there was a bit of a breather. They delayed the schedule until January 1990. The directors had a little more time on their shows, except for the Christmas show. That still had to come out, so I was kind of stuck.
Heintjes: That episode demonstrated the show's attitude immediately.
Silverman: When Bart said to Santa, "I'm Bart Simpson--who the hell are you?Ó in that episode, that was a big deal. There had been some irreverence toward Santa Claus, but no one said, "Who the hell are you?"
Heintjes: You recall the students getting into trouble at school for wearing the Bart Simpson "underachiever and proud of it" T-shirts.
Silverman: That was so funny, because that was a merchandising thing that we had never even said on the show, and we were getting shit about it.
Heintjes: How much did it help The Simpsons that it was broadcast on a hungry fourth-place network? Did it affect what you were able to get away with creatively?
Silverman: Oh, it helped it a great deal. I remember talking to writer/producer George Meyer, and he said that if we had been on, say, NBC, we could have never gotten away with a huge amount of stuff. Even when ABC was broadcasting The Critic, they didn't allow Jay to show his naked butt. So even in 1994, after The Simpsons had been very popular and successful, the other networks were saying, Well, we can't do that, we're not Fox. Fox let us get away with a lot, and Jim Brooks helped that. Jim had it in the contract that Fox could not interfere with the writing of the show. They could not have notes telling us to add this and that. We had complete autonomy, although we still had to bend to the network's Standards and Practices, which every network has.
Heintjes: Fox was interested in being perceived as edgier.
Silverman: Yes. I remember we had Homer refer to the "family jewels" in an early episode, which was not a commonplace reference on television. Then we had this joke in "Bart the General" where Grampa was writing an angry letter to a television network, and he was listing the words he never wanted to hear again in prime time. "Number three: family jewels" [laughter].
Heintjes: Once an edgy show becomes popular, there's an inevitable tendency to become complacent and to stop doing the things that made the show popular in the first place. Yet The Simpsons has avoided that. How has the show maintained its edge after all these years?
Silverman: It starts from the top. Jim Brooks is not a complacent guy. He doesn't hire complacent guys. And Matt's style of comedy, his skewed look at our pop culture-driven society, is always good fodder for comedy. Also, the show has a high burnout rate. I don't think the show could have the same show runner for more than a couple of years. When you get a new show runner in, he's going to want to put his own stamp on it. "I'm running this highly successful show now, and I don't want to be the guy who f---s it up." Writers feel the same way; they come to the show and they love it. The show's been on so long, many writers--and animators--grew up loving the show. And they don't want to do a bad job on it! On the animation side, it's a lock. Animators always want to do good work. And directors have their name on it, the very last credit. They knock themselves out to do the best job possible. And then there are a lot of veterans. On the animation side, Mark Kirkland has directed more episodes than anyone. I think he's getting close to 50 episodes now, and every episode excites him. Jim Reardon has been with the show as director since the first season and is now supervising director. Nancy Kruse, Mike Anderson, Bob Anderson, Matt Nastuk--they're all directors and all have been with the show a long time, ranging from the first season to the third. George Meyer has been with the show from the first season, as have John Vitti, Mike Reiss and current executive producer Al Jean. And the voice talent is always inspiring, always creative. And they are the same since . . . well, since The Tracey Ullman Show. At least the voices of the family. The show is not only popular with people who watch it but with people who work on the show. People who work on the show love the show, they're not bored with it, and they're always asking themselves what they can do. It's challenging as hell. Not only do we have the family, but we have probably 30-something secondary characters. How many sitcoms have 30-something secondary characters, like Burns and Smithers and Chief Wiggums and the Comic Book Guy and Sideshow Mel? Everyone one of them has his own individual quirks, and they allow you to mine more material.
Heintjes: To it credit, Fox has realized that its irreverence is one of the show's keys. In fact, some episodes take jabs at Fox, such as in one opening sequence when Bart sees the Fox logo, begins stomping on it and the family joins in.
Silverman: That was when networks started using those little IDs. They still use them, and they drive us crazy. I was watching one episode, and this insane animated promo for Joe Millionaire came up on the screen, and I was like, What the f--- is this? I said to David Mirkin and Jim Brooks, "We've got to do something about this." So we made one where Homer grabbed it and ate it and said, "Mmmmm...promos." Because The Simpsons satirizes television life, there's plenty of stupidity out there, and it just gets stupider. When life gets stupider, it makes The Simpsons even stronger [laughter].
Heintjes: Do you agree with the perception that The Simpsons hit its stride in season 3?
Silverman: Yes, I think that's when it really fell together. Mind you, I love season 2. In many ways, season 2 is still my favorite season. Every episode had a foundation, a tentpole, where we were really establishing stuff.
Heintjes: What happened in season 3?
Silverman: Speaking mainly from the animation side, the animation started to click at the beginning of season 2, it was beginning to look more standardized. There were flashes of really good animation here and there. There were some in the first season, especially with Brad Bird's episode, "Krusty Gets Busted." That was amazing. Because Brad's amazing! That really helped set a standard, I think. In the second season, I was the de facto supervising director. I was helping new directors Jim Reardon and Mark Kirkland along a little bit, as much as I could. I had five and a third shows in the second season, because I did a third of the Halloween show. I looked over their shoulders as much as I could, but by the end of the second season, they got it. Fortune smiled on us again--they are extremely talented! Come the third season, everyone's chops were getting better and everyone was bringing ideas. We had other artists joining the staff, and different layout artists would bring different ideas. When we were working on the "Flaming Moe" episode, Rich Moore really got to develop Moe as a character, coming up with little traits like scratching his ear. In the second season, the directors had fewer episodes, so they could really focus more on each episode. We were all beginning to clarify how these characters should move and act. Shows like "Lisa's Pony" had real heart.
Heintjes: When I first heard that The Simpsons was being spun off into its own show, I had doubts about it, but I had no idea that the characters would be imbued with such heart.
Silverman: That's Jim Brooks. You can be as irreverently off the wall and satirically cutting as you want, but he believed that if you ain't got heart, you ain't got a show. If people don't feel a warmth and a connection with these characters, it's not going to work.
Heintjes: When did you become a producer?
Silverman: When they made me supervising director, they gave me a producer credit. That was in the third season, and I was only going to direct one or two episodes a season. In the third season, I directed one episode: "Black Widower." In the fourth season, I did "Homer's Triple Bypass" and "Krusty Gets Kancelled."
Heintjes: I noticed you made an homage to Pinocchio with Gabbo's twirling dancing style.
Silverman: I'm glad you picked that up. I remember when I saw the script, and they hadn't really written much of "The Gabbo Show," which was replacing Krusty the Clown's show. They just wrote that it was supposed to be a really fantastic show. Al Jean and Mike Reiss, the show runners at that time, said that I had made it a really fantastic show.
Heintjes: That episode also had an all-star voice cast.
Silverman: The celebrity voice cast really started in the third season. I don't think it was a plan to have actual celebrities. The first time we had one playing himself--as opposed to doing a character voice--was in the second season. This was when Tony Bennett showed up and sang "The Capital City Song," which was in the style of "New York, New York."
Heintjes: What began the tradition of casting celebrities?
Silverman: In the first season, people that Jim Brooks knew, like Penny Marshall and Albert Brooks, were doing voices. Then, in season two, Dustin Hoffman wanted to do a voice. Michael Jackson wanted to do a voice. He approached us.
Heintjes: How did he come to be credited as "John Jay Smith"?
Silverman: We didn't want him to be uncredited. We wanted him to be Michael Jackson! That was the point of the whole joke of the episode! So we began saying that if you're going to be a guest on the show, you've got to own up to it. I think Dustin Hoffman didn't want credit; he took the pseudonym Sam Etic. Michael Jackson didn't want credit, and that kind of stung us. We wanted to use them for publicity [laughter]. So, in the third season we made a rule: You want to be on the show? You gotta own up to it! An interesting side note: We had Joe Mantegna on as Fat Tony in "Bart the Murderer," and Joe said, "Wherever I am, whatever I'm doing, you've got to get me on to do Fat Tony." So when-ever we do Fat Tony, we get Joe Mantegna.
Heintjes: Are there qualities in a voice that make it especially suited to animating?
Silverman: In the early days of animation, they would primarily hire radio actors, because radio actors had personalities that transcended the radio. They had a visual voice. Even today, people with a visual voice are your best voice artists. Not every great actor has a great radio voice. The voice actors we have, like Dan Castellaneta, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Tress MacNeille, Pam Hayden--take any one--they push their voices. It's like radio, and you have to.
Heintjes: "The Itchy & Scratchy Show" is a show-within-a-show-within-a-show, as a segment of the Krusty the Clown show. Was that perceived as a commentary on cartoony violence?
Silverman: "Itchy & Scratchy" first appeared when The Simpsons were on The Tracey Ullman Show. People say it's like an insane Tom and Jerry, but it's really more of an insane Herman and Katnip. Herman and Katnip is hilarious because it's just bad. It's painfully bad. The key to comedy is quick recovery, and "Itchy & Scratchy" has no quick recovery. There's not the quick recovery that you normally associate with cartoon violence. That's the big joke behind the segments. It's an ironic commentary on cartoon mayhem in the sense that it's taken to a more realistic level. The kids on The Simpsons are laughing at it, and we're laughing too, but part of what you're laughing at is the over-the-top excessiveness of the violence. Sometimes people ask if we'll do a long version of "Itchy & Scratchy," but it doesn't really work as a long cartoon.
Heintjes: In 1997, "The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show" episode was broadcast.
Silverman: At the end of that episode, they should have added a note that this is a true story.
Heintjes: I wondered if there was an analogy there.
Silverman: Fox requested to Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who were the show runners, that they add another character to The Simpsons. Bill and Josh said, "Well, we introduce new characters all the time." And Fox said, "No--to the family." The reason shows like Married . . . With Children add the bratty cousin is because the other kids are turning into adults. You don't have that problem in animation. "No, no, it'll freshen up the act." They weren't going to force it. They were just gently suggesting it, I guess. That episode was about dealing with expectations--the public's expectations and the network's expectations. I thought it was a great way of dealing with that phenomenon, and it was really funny. I was also happy to be in that episode.
Heintjes: How was that?
Silverman: The head animator is basically a caricature of me. There's a tuba in the background, and I play the tuba. In doing that episode, we were basically saying that we realize that The Simpsons raised the bar. Then, naturally, show cross that bar. South Park, for example, took outrageousness to a new level. In many ways, it's more outrageous than The Simpsons. But that's their own thing. If we start emulating that, then we're not The Simpsons anymore. Part of The Simpsons' longevity is that it has an integrity that it has adhered to.
Heintjes: How has technology changed the way The Simpsons is animated?
Silverman: Technology has been a great boon to animation quality. One of the great battles of animation is time. When you're doing frame-by-frame animation, anything that saves you time gains you art. The ability to shoot pencil tests really quickly on a computer system allows you the ability to do more animation. On The Simpsons, we shoot an animatic and we comment on the animatic. We used to shoot it on reverse film so it was white lines and black, and it was sometimes hard to see. Then we began shooting it on positive film, and that was easier. Then came the Adobe Premiere program system on computer, and we could shoot it much faster. Before, you had to finish sooner because you had to get to camera sooner. Now we can get to camera later because the shooting is much faster, probably down by more than 50 percent. I had Adobe put into my laptop, and on the last Halloween episode I did, I was doing tests by myself in my own office. I could figure out timing right there. Finally, with the Halloween episode last season, we changed from hand painting to digital painting. That also saves time, because you don't have cel problems, cel flares or mismatched cel levels. I won't say the technology has affected the overseas time, but it allows us to ship things to them later without affecting the delivery schedule.
Heintjes: Speaking of evolving animation technology, you were also involved with Ice Age and Monsters Inc. How did you get involved with those?
Silverman: A former Simpsons writer, Rich Appel, is the brother-in-law of Steve Jobs. He's married to Mona Simpson. In fact, I directed an episode of his, "Mother Simpson," in which he named Homer's mom Mona Simpson. Steve got in touch with me through Rich, we had an interview and he asked me if I wanted to join Pixar. During this time, I had left The Simpsons for the opportunity to co-direct a feature at Dreamworks. I thought it would be a good idea to expand my repertoire. It was The Road to El Dorado, and I wasn't particularly happy with it, so I took the opportunity to go to Pixar. It's a great, great company and I had a wonderful time. I probably would have stayed there if I hadn't been wooed back by The Simpsons. I was visiting Los Angeles, and I went to a party that Matt was having at his house. I realized how much I missed working on The Simpsons. After Monsters Inc., I did about three weeks' worth of work on Blue Sky Studio's Ice Age, working on storyboards and coming up with ideas. They were having some story trouble, and I came in as sort of a script doctor. I also got Jon Vitti and Mike Reiss from The Simpsons involved in that as well. Jon and Mike wrote some very funny lines in that. In fact, Mike wrote one of the best lines in it. Originally, Diego was not intended to come back at the end of Ice Age, and I thought that was a bad choice, and the film's producers eventually came to the realization that there was already so much death in the movie [laughter]. Anyway, they had Diego come back, and Mike Reiss came up with the line, "Nine lives, baby," which I thought was very clever.
Heintjes: How different was this from the traditional animation methods that you'd learned?
Silverman: When it comes to the hardest part, which is coming up with the story, they're identical. There's not one thing different. You're doing storyboards and shooting story reels.
Heintjes: How about going from 2-D to 3-D?
Silverman: As far as dealing with animators, it's sort of the same. The technique is different, but in terms of communicating with them, in some ways, you can get a change faster.
Heintjes: So you didn't really feel, technologically speaking, that you were on a steep learning curve.
Silverman: No, my job was directing. The technical stuff was other guys' jobs. One of the things you learn about directing is delegating to people who can do the best job. If you have a great art director, let him do it. Give him some ideas, but let him do his job.
Heintjes: You contributed a voice to Monsters Inc.
Silverman: [Laughter] I contributed various small voices. The main voice I did . . . you remember the monster running straight toward the camera? That was me going, "[ululating voice]." That sequence had been boarded many times, and I had taken it upon myself to wrangle it into a more cohesive structure. I looked at all the characters that had been created, and I said that we should have a character running around going "Loodle-oodle-oodle." I pitched it to Pete [Docter, Monsters Inc. director], and he said, "Not only do I like it, I want you to do the voice for it."
Heintjes: What did you bring back to The Simpsons from these theatrical experiences?
Silverman: I developed a way of directing where I was more comfortable delegating. I didn't feel like I had to do everything. Part of that attitude was a hangover from the first season, where all the directors had to do so much themselves, because there was such a steep learning curve. Now, things have stabilized so much. The Simpsons has such a good design department and great layout artists. Everyone there is such a good artist. Before I left The Simpsons, we kept having our best artists stolen by other shows, so we were always having to train less experienced artists. Not a show went by that you weren't retraining somebody. When I came back to The Simpsons, I didn't have that problem. And I found that it was much better to empower your artists than to try to do everything for them. I had much more fun describing what I wanted to see and being surprised. And I had more time to work on very specific pieces of animation.
Heintjes: Did you find television production or movie production more creatively satisfying?
Silverman: One thing that's very satisfying about television production is the timelines are much shorter. But I've got to say, I don't think I'll ever have as satisfying an experience as The Simpsons. That was really the first thing I worked on, my first job directing. It's such a great show and a great success. It would be hard to duplicate that kind of experience.
Heintjes: You mentioned that Brad Bird was a Simpsons director. Did you know then that he was capable of directing something as great as The Iron Giant?
Silverman: Oh gosh, yes. He was great before The Simpsons. He got a job on The Simpsons as consultant mainly on the strength of Family Dog. Family Dog is amazing. He had other missed opportunities to direct, which never quite worked out. So when The Iron Giant worked out, I was very happy for him. Now he's got The Incredibles coming out, and I think it will be just that. I think he had a great time on The Simpsons, and I know the show benefited enormously from his participation.
Heintjes: Do you think The Simpsons opened the door for other animated shows like The Family Guy, South Park and Kid Notorious?
Silverman: Gee, Family Guy . . . you think? [laughter] Oh, absolutely--The Simpsons made it possible for other shows to exist. Because of The Simpsons' timing, I don't know if it will be possible for any another show to achieve that kind of impact.
Heintjes: You can look at The Family Guy and clearly see that The Simpsons is the antecedent of that show. What would you saw is the antecedent of The Simpsons?
Silverman: I think The Simpsons had historical timing. It was a combination of where Fox was at the time, and The Tracey Ullman Show having Jim Brooks involved. Part of it was Roger Rabbit giving more energy to animation. I can't think of a show that directly led to The Simpsons.
Heintjes: Will a Simpsons movie happen?
Silverman: Yes. I couldn't say when. I strongly believe that. It's in the works. Beyond that, I won't comment!
Heintjes: Given the show's sustained success, why has a movie taken this long?
Silverman: You've got to remember that early on, the thing that prevented it was who would write it and animate it. Back in '92, that wasn't an easy question to answer. Now I think it's just a question of when, not who. And you wonder if a movie would kill the TV show. I don't think it would. South Park survived. Beavis and Butt-Head didn't but that was because Mike Judge wanted out. He was having much more success creatively and financially with King of the Hill.
Heintjes: Next season will be the sixteenth season of The Simpsons. In your wildest dreams, did you foresee it going on this long?
Silverman: No. Now I'm hoping we'll break Gunsmoke's record.
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