A Q&A With Al Jean

By Jen Chaney
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, August 11, 2003


    Al Jean Al Jean, executive producer of "The Simpsons." (Photo Courtesy of Fox)
Al Jean, executive producer of "The Simpsons," has been a member of the animated family's extended clan since the series began. The Harvard graduate joined the "Simpsons" staff in 1989 and has received writing credits on such classic episodes as "Stark Raving Dad" (the one with Michael Jackson) and "Treehouse of Horror II and III," two of the show's annual Halloween episodes. Jean recently took a break from his schedule to answer a few questions about the show and the new DVD release, "The Simpsons: The Complete Third Season." He also offered a couple of teasers about the upcoming season, which we think you'll agree are, as Mr. Burns might say, "excellent."

Do you provide any of the commentary tracks on the season three DVD?
I did do some commentary, along with other writers, producers and some of the actors. The only difficult part is that I'm doing them on my lunch break while running the show, so it turns into a bit of a blur from season three to season 15.

What is your favorite episode from season three?
There are two that were my favorites: the one where Homer comes up with the cocktail the Flaming Moe ... and the one where Mr. Burns puts all the ringers on the company softball team. In my opinion, that was an excellent year, but I like those two because it was really fun to meet those baseball players [who did the guest voices]. And with Flaming Moe's ... I just couldn't believe we were doing all this on a TV show.

Did you get to meet Michael Jackson when you worked on the episode "Stark Raving Dad," in which he guest starred?
I met him briefly. Jim Brooks [one of the show's creators] directed his voice. In person, he seemed nice, if a little bit shy.

Is the plan for these "Simpsons" DVDs to release one per year, or will there eventually be multiple seasons released each year?
I'd say the biggest hurdle to getting them out is getting the time free from the current season. Ideally, we'll do one per year.

Now that you're releasing DVDs of the series, does that impact how you approach creating the new shows?
Not particularly. Every once in a while, we have something we have to cut, and we say, "That would work on the DVD." But my priority is thinking about keeping the new shows good and not thinking too much about the DVDs.

Do you have a favorite "Simpsons" episode of all time?
It's hard to be objective. I ran the show in seasons three and four, 14 and now 15. There are so many that we've done, it's like having a favorite child. The two I just named from season three are certainly up there in the top five.

In a recent article, Entertainment Weekly counted down the top 25 "Simpsons" episodes and a lot of them came from seasons three and four. Did you agree with that?
There's a perception that the older ones are the best. I think there was only one in the last two years that was listed in that article. I think it's a little distorted to say nine of the best 25 are from those two years. That surprises me.

If you could do a "Freaky Friday"-style switch with a "Simpsons" character, whose body would you want to inhabit?
I guess I'd take McBain's body, since he's got the best one.

Who would you want to inhabit you?
It would be pretty funny to watch Homer in my body.

Is there a character that you personally relate to the most?
Lisa. I've got a soft spot for her. She's the one I was most like as a kid.

What is the most random piece of "Simpsons" merchandise you've ever seen on a store shelf?
Matt Groening once talked about going into a store where all of the action figures were sold out except for Superintendent Chalmers and Resort Smithers. I'm not sure I'd buy either of those for my kids.

Do "Simpsons" fans often ask you ridiculously obscure questions about the show?
Yes, especially when we go to events. I often don't remember things [about certain episodes], which is a little embarrassing. But I'm always startled and thrilled when someone asks for my autograph.

Do a lot of people do that?
More than none, which is a surprise to me.

What's the strangest thing a fan has asked you?
At one festival in Montreal, someone asked if I'd smoke a doobie with him. I passed.

Some critics have said -- and one of the "Simpsons" opening sequences slyly alluded to this -- that the show has "jumped the shark." How do you respond to that?
It's a hard thing to sustain the quality that people are used to with this show. The only thing I can say is the numbers are up this year, as far as the ratings the show gets as opposed to last year. If quality is represented by awards or Emmys, we're getting nominations for as many if not more. We'd never been nominated for a Golden Globe before, and last year we were. I don't want to look like I'm blind to constructive criticism, but I still think we have a loyal fan base who's enjoying the show. I still think there's a lot of life in it yet.

How do you keep the writing process interesting?
There are a couple of ways. First, there are 50 or so characters. We can really do different episodes every week and not stretch it as thin. And the fact that our characters don't age means we won't have shows coming out later where people will say, "This isn't the 'Happy Days' I fell in love with. Fonzie's teaching high school now." We all work really hard, the actors and the writers, to make it the best show it can be.

Can you provide a quick preview of next season? What plot developments and guest stars can we expect to see?
The first one is the Halloween show, where Jerry Lewis will be playing the father of Professor Frink. Oscar de la Hoya and Jennifer Garner will also guest star in that one. Glenn Close will return as Homer's mother. There's one where the Simpsons go to London; J.K. Rowling and Tony Blair are doing guest voices. There's another one where Maggie applies for a gifted preschool and the admissions officer is played by Simon Cowell.

Last question: Do you ever visit D.C.? Do you have a favorite place to visit when you're here?
The two times I've been there, I was really excited to visit the White House, go to the Mall and go to the Smithsonian. I'm sure the people who live there get pretty jaded about all that, but I was really excited by it.

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