‘Question Reality’

Simpsons writers have unique challenge

Although the 6 thesps who provide the major voices on “The Simpsons” have been stealing the limelight in recent months, one mustn’t forget the tenacity of the 14 staff writers and producers of “The Simpsons,” who have the unusual task of thinking up new adventures for the demented yellow-skinned denizens of Springfield.

“I’m flabbergasted that we’ve hit the 200th episode benchmark,” says George Meyer, the show’s producer and writer, who has been with the series since its first season. “We often had the discussion about how many years it would last, and most people thought 6 or 7 years, and the fact that we’re now writing the 10th season’s show is quite frightening.”

Meyer, a Harvard grad, and a one-time writer for the Harvard Lampoon, “The David Letterman Show” and “Saturday Night Live,” was approached by Sam Simon to work on the show, which was a spin-off of toon shorts featured on “The Tracey Ullman Show.”

“I think one of the reasons I don’t feel burned out is that we have enormous freedom on the show,” suggests Meyer. “We can put a scene where somebody appears on the great wall of China, and animation allows you to that without worrying about the costs or the logistics.”

Meyer, who grew up on shows such as “Batman” and “Get Smart,” believes “The Simpsons” ‘ original point of view is one of the reasons for its durability. “It not only offers entertaining jokes and stories, but it also takes an iconoclastic view of the world,” he adds. “If I had to distill the message of the series it would have to be, ‘Question reality!'”

Meyer says after 200 episodes, he and the rest of the gang still love to keep the audience guessing. “We have enough different opinions on the staff that we don’t espouse anyone’s political views. Hey, we even have a few Republicans here!”

During the long, 12-hour work days of summer, the writers often try to dredge up all kinds of experiences from their own past to keep the storylines buzzing. “The best humor comes out of times that everyone’s very punchy from lack of sleep and overwork,” notes Meyer. “Everybody gets kind of silly and you have these amazing kinds of combustion…it’s like a Jerry Garcia solo in a Dead show.”

Write what you know

Executive producer Mike Scully, who has been with the series for six years, says last year’s Christmas episode, in which Bart is caught shoplifting, was based on experiences from his own life. “It’s great to be paid for reliving the horrors of your life,” he jokes.

The writing process, according to Scully, goes something like this: “A writer will come up with an idea. Then, we get together as a group and flesh the idea out. The writer will then write a detailed outline of the story and we will offer notes on the outline. After the writer finishes the script, we all come back and tell him how much we love it, and then, we all tear it apart!”

Scully, who once wrote for now-forgotten shows such as “What a Country,” “Out of This World” and “The Royal Family” says he was intimidated at first when he began to work for “The Simpsons,” because the show had a reputation for hiring the best people in town.

“I grew up watching ‘Taxi’ and ‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ and one of my dreams was to work for Jim Brooks,” says Scully. “I took the long way around and worked through a lot of crummy shows, but I’m still in awe of the man every time I talk to him.”

Scully points out that executive producer James Brooks has been a constant source of inspiration for him. “I learned a lot about writing strong characters. Jim knows that once you have the right characters and emotions, the jokes come naturally.”

Homer sweet Homer

And which character stands out as the writers’ favorite? “We like all the characters, but one of the easiest to write for is Homer,” confesses Meyer. “He’s just such a raging id machine that you can pretty much do anything you want with him.”

Meyer mentions that although the show has only one female staff writer (Julie Thacker), Lisa Simpson is the most articulate character on the show. “She can represent a more complex take on the world.”

Lisa is also one of producer and staff writer David S. Cohen’s favorite characters. Cohen, who penned the famous episode in which Lisa becomes a vegetarian (guest-starring Paul and Linda MacCartney), and a recent one about Lisa’s discovery of an angel’s skeleton, says “We get our inspirations wherever we can find them.”

He adds, “I thought of the angel episode after visiting the Museum of Natural History in New York. I figured it would be a good idea to address the whole evolution issue in an episode with Lisa.”

It’s not surprising that Cohen likes to squeeze in scientific references in his episodes. The 31-year-old writer studied physics as an undergrad at Harvard and theoretical computer science as a graduate student at Berkeley. His big comedy break, however, came as a result of writing spec scripts for MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-head.”

Last season, Cohen wrote the hilarious “Poochie the Dog” episode, in which Homer supplies the voice of a new addition to the toon within the toon, “The Itchy and Scratchy Show.” “That’s one of my favorites, because the story is a metaphor about what happens when a show stays on the air for a very long time,” says Cohen.

Unexplored territories

Cohen, Scully and Meyer all say they still feel very passionately about the show. They admit however, that it’s becoming more and more difficult not to duplicate things that have been done on the show before.

“We are finding that more often than not somebody pitches a story and it bumps to previous storylines we have done in the past,” says Scully. “There are so many episodes now that we can’t even remember all that we’ve covered in the past season.”

As far as what’s on tap after the special 200th episode which guest stars Steve Martin and rock group U2, Scully reveals, “Homer is going to quit his job to become the next Thomas Edison. We’ll find out that there are some big celebrities who have been hiding in Springfield all these years. Homer is going to find his hippie roots, and Marge and Homer will try to spice up their sex lives.”

As Cohen puts it, “It may be hard to believe, but usually, we sit around and think for hours and hours until our brains are smoking. The writing involves some hard work, but once very few months, like the time we wrote the musical version of ‘The Planet of the Apes,’ we really had a blast. I cried with laughter. It’s still a great job!”

And how about some profound words of wisdom in honor of the 200th episode? “Some day man will look back and realize that the sitcom was his greatest creation,” offers Scully. D’oh!