They're the dynamic duo of comedy and a beloved writing pair to Simpsons fans and television fans alike. Their influence on the show as writers from seasons 3-6 and showrunners through seasons 7-8 further entrenched the cartoon as the greatest of its genre and beyond, and their timeless humour is quoted by millions around the world. Springfield Weekly has had the privilege of interviewing Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, and as always, their answers are insightful and appreciated by fans. Although Bill Oakley answered the questions, considering their shared qualities, the responses could be from either. Enjoy their comments, you just might learn something new.
With so many extraneous variables ultimately deciding the fate of a program, timing is perhaps most important. In 1999 when "Mission Hill" premiered, Fox had five primetime cartoons (Simpsons, Family Guy, Futurama, PJ's, and King of the Hill), UPN had Dilbert, and even NBC premiered two short-lived cartoons. Do you believe "Mission Hill" could have experienced greater success if not hidden in a wave of new cartoons?
Absolutely. The glut of cartoons at that time had really turned off some fans, and the press as well, so that by the time MH came around the reaction -- from people who hadn't even seen it -- was like, yuck, another animated series. There's even a joke about that in the MH pilot episode.
However, you may know that also anytime the WB Network launches a comedy, it already has two strikes against it because 1) they have nowhere to put it and 2) everyone knows almost every comedy in WB history has been a failure. So the audience was primed to dismiss MH as well on those grounds.
Ultimately, though, MH would've been better on cable anyway because it would never have appealed to a broad enough audience due to the subject matter and world. Check out our interview on morphizm.com to see more on this topic. No cable channel would've been able to afford MH, though, with its big budget and hand-painted cels. (We were the last show to use hand-painted cels, all the other ones had gone to computer coloring at that time. But we liked the look.)
The WB used your connection to "The Simpsons" to promote "Mission Hill", but both the physical look and settings of the shows varied significantly. (Mission Hill utilized the 18-35 demographic for characters while the Simpsons featured primarily children and adults) Do you think this advertising technique may have turned away viewers who were expecting another version of the Simpsons?
Honestly, when the show was on the WB -- those three times -- I don't believe almost any Simpsons fans were even watching. There was almost no promotion for the show, very few ads, and they actually did some study that indicated that of all the new TV shows coming on that fall -- practically no one had EVEN heard of Mission Hill. It was gone before it even got a chance. I do believe that of the 1.8 million viewers we had, maybe 2,000 were the die-hard Simpsons-fan type. And whether they like the show or not, even their support provided only a tiny fraction of the viewers we would've needed to survive.
To answer the question more specifically, I don't think this technique turned away viewers. I think it got us a couple of extra thousand.
Were there any episodes that you or the staff didn't feel held up in quality to other episodes yet were well-received and strangely still revered among Simpsons fans?
This happens constantly. Our personal impressions of the episodes are usually formed at the first-draft stage. "You never get a second chance to make a first impression", as they say." It's actually rarer that we LOVE an episode and the fans LOVE it as well. Anyway, as we said on NoHomers, sometimes lousy first drafts make great episodes because of all the time and attention lavished on them whereas great first drafts just coast on through and come out as mediocre episodes.
I don't feel comfortable criticizing the ones other people wrote but I will say among the ones we wrote, I am always surprised that "$pringfield" is regarded as a classic but that "Bart vs. Australia" is not. And I will also say that at least two of the allegedly all-time most-loved episodes are ones that none of us though were anything special. They were long, difficult rewrites and all I can remember is the difficult boring nights spents working on them.
What writer generally contributed the most jokes to episodes they weren't necessarily credited for writing?
George Meyer is the single most valuable and creative writer in the history of the show in this regard. This is a fairly well-known fact and was actually covered in a "New Yorker" profile of George about six years ago. Although George has only been credited as a writer on a few episodes, he's been there since the beginning adding thousands of jokes and plot twists, etc., that everyone considers classic and brilliant.
In addition, during the seasons we ran, some of the guys with fewer script credits made up a lot of awesome stuff. Steve Tompkins, Ken Keeler, David Cohen, Donick Cary, Dan Greaney, Ron Hauge, and a few others I'm sure I'm not remembering right now were all invaluable.
In one of your favourite episodes "Homer's Enemy", you contrast Homer's obnoxious personality with Grimey's "normal" personality, but in doing so, the episode almost took Homer to a new level of stupidity and immaturity. (a problem often cited as the most significant problem in today's episodes) Was there a conscious decision during your tenor to ensure Homer never became to stupid or tasteless?
Yes, there was. We liked Homer the way he was in the second and third seasons. That was what we consciously used as our model. Dimwitted, loving, hyper-enthusiastic, creatively goofy, parody of the American father -- drawn with real emotions, though admittedly amplified. This was exemplified in "Mother Simpson", "Lisa the Iconoclast", "Diddly-Dum-Doodly", and a couple others. In some of the less reality-based episode, i.e. the Beer Baron one -- usually Swartzwelder's, we'd treat this stricture with a certain amount of latitude.
In the hyper-meta "Homer's Enemy", we are actually parodying to some degree the Homer we don't like. That's one of the things that episode is supposed to illustrate -- "Homer gone wrong". Although, I would argue that in "Homer's Enemy" he's not even really even all that excessively stupid or immature, actually.
Al Jean calls you tomorrow and pleads with you to return to the crew. Despite all of your projects you're currently undertaking, would you consider rejoining "The Simpsons"?
Though it would be very gracious of our friend Al to make such an offer, we really like working on our own projects and on our own schedule and I don't think there is any way we would consider returning to "The Simpsons" if we were not in charge.
Having worked for the show during the exact timeframe of the "classic era" (typically cited as seasons 3-8), you've been around the most influential people in the show's history - Al Jean and Mike Reiss, David Mirkin, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, James L. Brookes - the list is endless. Which writer(s) would you say has had the most (positive) impact on "The Simpsons"?
Every one of the people on your list has been absolutely invaluable in their own way and they have all had enormous impact in various aspects of the show. Jim Brooks brought the show to life with Matt and Sam, shaped and still shapes to some degree the family and their emotional underpinnings. Mike and Al are hilarious, multi-talented in bringing everything together. Mirkin is probably the funniest guy to ever work there, possibly excepting Conan. George is the most brilliant, sharply satirical comedy writer alive (see above). And Jon Vitti came up with and wrote some of the best scripts in the history of the show.
And you can't forget Swartzwelder. The guy is an eccentric and very prolific comic genius and his humor is infused through dozens of the best episodes.
And finally, in January of 1994 an earthquake hit LA, damaging buildings where you and the animators work. The following day, you two were the only writers to show up to work. Just how dedicated were you?
How did you know this? Did we say that in an interview or something? Wow. Well, we were pretty freaking dedicated, I guess. We were Simpsons nerds of the first order and were huge fans before we even got hired. It was basically the equivalent of getting hired on SNL in 1978. The entire original staff was there. The only "new guys" were Conan and us. We lived and breathed that show from 1992-1997, as evidenced by the 65 pounds I gained and, on the upside, a nice house my Simpsons money paid the downpayment for. We had a huge amount of Simpsons merchandise in our offices and we would greet such trivialities as the new Simpsons pogs (remember those?) with great joy. We loved working on the show, and we were also hyper-responsible workaholics. That's why we showed up that day, I guess. Did I mention that the Fox security guards would not let us on the lot anyway? We gave some excuse about how the Simpsons had to go on, but they didn't buy it so we went and worked at my house. We didn't even take the day off. Ugh, we were crazy, weren't we?
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