“The Simpsons” is about to head into its 27th season, with another season already locked down. With the long-running comedy’s place secured in the record books, executive producer Al Jean sat down with Variety to discuss what goals are possibly left.
How does it feel to reach season 27?
We used to go, “We’re looking at you, ‘Gunsmoke.'” Now we’ll get to 625 episodes. That’s amazing. I’m really, really happy to get there. If it goes further, that’s even better. We have two-year options with Fox after that.
Could you have imagined this from the start?
Back then, to get to 100 episodes was wonderful. Then 200 was the limit. “Cheers” reached 250. Subsequently animation has proven to last longer, but if you add up “Family Guy” plus “South Park,” it’s still under 500. So 600 is going to be quite a lot.
How do you still manage to keep it fresh and timely?
We just had this thing a year ago where we did a World Cup parody. We were reading about the corruption in Greece. We had a FIFA executive get arrested, and now this week it’s gone online and gotten half a million views. There are things that happen in the world. We can’t do daily humor like “The Daily Show,” but there’s always insane stuff going in the world that you can’t imagine. I still think back, the Vice President shot a guy in the face — and the guy apologized. That happened! If we put it in a show people would go, “That’s ridiculous!”
Do you feel handcuffed by your production schedule?
We do have a couple of ways to respond (to news). Now with Twitter we can say something and we can put it on Facebook. Occasionally we can do something which I really love like when Scotland was having its referendum, we filmed a small bit with Groundskeeper Willie where he was for Scotland and got “Aye or Die” tattooed on his chest. We have a good range. The chalkboards are always up to the minute. And on the very sad side, if someone’s passed away, we can do an in memoriam.
Will Homer vote in the coming presidential election?
We’re definitely going to have Homer vote in 2016. One aspect of the pickup that made me happy is that Homer can vote again. He voted for Romney in 2012 because he invented Obamacare. He tried to voted for Obama in 2008 but all his votes went to McCain.
Any hints on who will he vote for?
We’re not sure who the candidates are yet, but whatever he wants it’s not going to happen.
What’s ahead this season?
In the premiere, it’s discovered after all these years Homer has narcolepsy and it’s an incredible strain on the marriage. Homer and Marge legally separate, and Homer falls in love with his pharmacist, who’s voiced by Lena Dunham. We’ll have cameos from the other women from “Girls.” We have an episode coming up where Lisa befriends a homeless woman who turns out to be an incredible singer. The woman’s voiced by Kate McKinnon, but the singing is done by Natalie Maines. In another episode, Spider Pig makes his return. Sideshow Bob appears in a segment, and we finally see him do something he’s wanted to do for 25 years. And we have an episode based on the film “Boyhood.” It’s a flashback/flashforward about Bart. We go to various points in his life and his life to come which I think came out really well.
Who’s still on your wish list for guest stars?
Sadly, we would have wanted Neil Armstrong and J.D. Salinger but they both passed away. I keep saying Sandy Koufax but I’ve never gotten a call.
Can you talk about Sam Simon’s legacy?
He was the guy who taught me how to run the show. He’s a huge part of what made “The Simpsons” a success. As for the philanthropic stuff, there’s even more to it than people know. He was a very generous man, and it’s still being felt. I’ve never seen someone who passed away who still seemed so alive.
What have you learned over the course of doing the show?
You never know what’s going to happen. You air a show and what people react to is not what you expect. What you learn is you have to be constantly prepared to moderate your course because you’re in an environment where feedback is constant.
Any episodes you’re particularly proud of?
It’s hard to say. Last year I was proud of the Halloween episode. We had a Stanley Kubrick parody, and I found out after he passed away he was a huge Simpsons fan so it was a tribute to him. I wrote two episodes this year, and I was really happy about that.
Do you write often?
There are other shows where the showrunner has his or her name on every episode. A lot of episodes that have aired are ideas where I’ve said to the writer, why don’t you write this. But I don’t want to take the money away. But I realized, hey, it’s been 15 years I’d better write something. Now I’ll wait another 15 years.
What are the episodes you wrote about?
One is a Christmas show. I always feel sorry for people who have to work on Christmas eve or aren’t home. Homer stays at Moe’s too late, so Marge kicks him out of the house. He’s wandering Springfield meeting with the different lonely people on Christmas Eve, and he meets Ned Flanders, who starts to cry about losing Edna Krapappel. The other was a completely opposite tone. Jim (Brooks) said why don’t we do a show about Kang and Kodos’ home planet. We did every sci-fi (reference) we could.
Why do you think the show can manage so many different tones?
Jim always says whatever show you want to do, “The Simpsons” will put on the clothes and do it. It’s an unbelievable vehicle for any satiric thing you want to say. I always thought the people who created it — Jim and Matt and Sam — were all geniuses in different ways. The actors are all great. But the centrality of it is it’s about a family. Everyone comes from a family of some kind. Everyone has a father and a mother even if they’re not always present. That makes it a show that everyone could relate to it immediately, and the supporting characters flesh it out great. And it’s timeless because it’s animated.
Will you ever do another movie?
The movie was such a time-intensive operation, it pulled a lot away from the show. I would rather end the show whenever that happens before doing another movie. It’s unlikely there’ll be another “Simpsons” feature while the show is being produced.