PASADENA, Calif. — Talk about a “thriller” experience.
Al Jean still remembers the day he worked with Michael Jackson on The Simpsons 1991 episode “Stark Raving Dad,” in which Jackson — under the pseudonym John Jay Smith — performed the speaking voice of Leon Kompowsky, “a big white guy who thinks he’s a little black guy.”
Jackson, a longtime Simpsons fan, had called executive-producer James L. Brooks out of the blue, Jean told Canwest News Service and offered to do a guest-voice role.
Brooks came up with the initial idea of an overweight mental patient who thinks he’s Michael Jackson, then asked Jean and Jean’s co-writer at the time, Mike Reiss, to write the script.
“Like a lot of things involving Michael, it was full of mystery and intrigue,” Jean recalled of his experience. “Musically, there was no doubt he was a genius. I’m not the first person to say that. But it was also probably the most high-pressure assignment of my life, except for doing The Simpsons Movie.”
Jackson wouldn’t commit to doing the episode until the actual table read, Jean recalled.
“Which is the only time that’s happened in the history of The Simpsons.”
The table read was at the house of Michael Jackson’s agent at the time. Jackson was there, but one of the cast members — Jean wouldn’t say who — was half an hour late in arriving.
“So we’re just sitting there in silence, very nervously,” Jean said. “Then, finally, we have everyone there, and we start to read. And we come to his lines, and — thank God — he laughs.”
The following Monday, Jackson suddenly stipulated that he wanted a sound-alike to do the singing in the episode. He would record his own dialogue, though.
Oookay, Jean thought. That’s a little — weird. But, what the hey, it’s Michael Jackson. Roll with it.
The singing chores fell to singer-songwriter Kipp Lennon, lead singer at the time for a rock band called Venice. Jackson thought Lennon was hilarious, Jean recalled. Cue a sigh of relief.
Then, things got complicated.
Jackson wrote the song “Happy Birthday Lisa,” which appears in the episode, Jean confirmed, and was later included in the album Songs in the Key of Springfield.
“Singing in the show is Kipp,” Jean explained. “Speaking in the show is Michael. And the song, ‘Happy Birthday Lisa,’ was written by Michael, but sung by Kipp.”
Got all that?
The Fox network repeated the episode shortly after Jackson’s sudden death on June 25 of heart failure.
Jean said he wanted to look at the episode again before it aired.
“I wanted to make sure it was OK,” he explained. “We had to make one fix, but it had nothing to do with Michael. There was a phone number there that is now a real phone number, so we had to blot that out digitally. Otherwise, it was unchanged.”
Looking back after Jackson’s death was hard, Jean admitted.
“I’d met him briefly when we did the episode, but I wouldn’t say I knew him well. Obviously so much happened between then and now that, when you watch the episode, you can’t help but have mixed feelings. I think he was brilliant. And he was very nice to us. He was a genius, but clearly a troubled guy. It’s sad the way it ended, and it’s sad he’s not with us here today.”