Neely: When did you start on the show and how long have you been associated with it?
David: I’ve been there over 20 years. The first time I worked with Jim Brooks, “The Simpsons” were on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” as those little minute interstitials. He asked me to be a guest writer on her show. It was a big thrill for me. Jim Brooks was my idol and it turned out he liked my work on “Newhart” and asked me to come over and write a couple of sketches for that show. That’s when I met Jim and really enjoyed working with him.
Then when “The Simpsons” was starting up as a half hour, I was asked to join the writing staff, but by then I had a couple of my own projects in development, one of which became “Get a Life.” I actually didn’t come on to “The Simpsons” until the end of 1992. So it’s just about 20 years now, yet amazingly I’m only 32…
Neely: …me to.
I’ve also noticed that many of the writers who started with “The Simpsons,” went off to other things and then returned, oftentimes repeating that cycle several times. How does that work?
David: When I was asked to take over “The Simpsons” in 1992 and become the showrunner, I had to pretty much rebuild the entire staff from the ground up. It’s such a difficult show to write and there’s no hiatus like there is on other television shows – every other television show has about a three month hiatus where you can rest up. “The Simpsons” has no such thing because it takes 9 months to do one episode. Literally six months of the year we’re working on two seasons simultaneously. This leads to serious burnout and levels of psychotic behavior that re high even for comedy writers.
When I came in, I started something new. I had wanted to keep George Meyer, who was a friend who had worked on my sketch show “The Edge.” I was a fan of his. So we worked out a thing where George could come in two or three days a week so he wouldn’t be as burned out. I did the same thing with Al Jean and Mike Reiss. We worked it out so they could come in a day a week. I had worked with Al and Mike on “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show” and just love both those guys.
Neely: Well it’s one way to get the best out of the writers and they stay fresh and relatively un-stressed.
David: Yeah, they come in all fresh, happy and positive and everyone just wants to kill them for having any kind of outside life. The great David Lloyd was like that on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” I don’t think he was there all the time.
Neely: Phoef Sutton talked about how David Lloyd did that on “Cheers” as well..
David: I had been one day a week on “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show,” and was one day a week at the beginning of “Larry Sanders.” I managed to do this consulting thing where you help with the rewrites and give outside advice.
So I started doing that with certain writers on “The Simpsons” to keep people around who we liked. Then when I stopped running the show I became one of the people who was doing one or two days. I could go off and direct a movie and work on other series like “Larry Sanders” and because each “Simpsons” takes nine months from start to finish, I could still have input on every episode of every season.
Neely: That also answers the question I was going to ask next, which was how many times have your recycled onto the show? You’ve never cycled off.
David: Never cycled off. Deathly afraid they would never let me back. As it is, no one there has made eye contact with me for over 10 years. There have been some people who have completely left and then come back.
But I, myself, never took such a chance. I was always able to work it out even if I had to go off to direct a movie for three months and really be gone for three months; that’s still only three months out of the nine month process. I still had the opportunity to come back and contribute.
Neely: Well also, clearly, one thing that works on that particular show is that you may be working nine months in advance, but it seems that just prior to putting it on the air you’re tweaking to get something in there that is very current.
David: It’s quite disturbing how many people we seem to kill by referencing them (Neely laughs). We’ll refer to someone and then they die right before the show goes on and we have to rush and change the reference. So, yeah, things in the world do change in the nine months and the lucky thing is that “The Simpsons” have 16 mouth shapes so it’s very easy to change what they say (Neely laughs again and again).
We continue the rewrite process up to about 2 weeks before it hits the air. Sometimes it’s tighter than that. Sometimes we’ve done things in less than a week in advance. An idea or a new reference will hit us and we can put something in the show, some small little thing, very quickly. So even though we may have generated an early idea nine months ago, by the time it’s on the air it still feels like it’s referencing what’s going on in the moment.
Neely: I’m not sure there’s anyone in the world (perhaps a slight exaggeration) who hasn’t seen at least one episode of “The Simpsons.” Do you have a favorite character? Parents always say (falsetto voice) “Oh I love all my children equally.” Well no. They don’t.
David: As a writer, there’s almost nobody more fun to write for than Homer because he’s such a fascinating combination of things. He’s so just naturally funny and for a negative-thinking person like me, he’s an incredibly positive, resilient idiot and that’s exciting. And he’s not always an idiot. He may have trouble figuring out how to open up a door, but at the same time he can name all the justices of the Supreme Court and know intimate, arcane details about each one.
“The Simpsons” exist in what I call flexible reality and Homer has flexible intelligence that goes way up and way down depending on his mood, depending on the situation, depending on the body of knowledge that he’s interacting with. So it’s really fun to write someone who’s changing all the time and is that resilient. He actually is quite positive no matter how many times he gets knocked down and he’s instantly enthusiastic about a new subject – dangerously enthusiastic about a new subject. Even after all this time he’s still surprising to write for which is why he’s my favorite character.
Neely: What about a favorite (or several) episode – written by you or by others?
David: Now those are the children and you love ‘em all. Which ones you like the most change as time goes on. The episode that I wrote called “Deep Space Homer” holds a special place for me. First of all because it was a difficult birth; it was controversial at that time. There was some concern by a small minority that it seemed like too big an idea to send Homer into space. I never saw it that way. Coming from an engineering background and more specifically an aerospace background, it wasn’t really far from the truth at all. Just because there was that kind of resistance made it more exciting to me. I thrive under those circumstances. My greatest successes have come in the face of resistance.
I usually think I’m on to something good if an idea’s upsetting to some people. I have to admit that there were some writers who were nervous about it, but many of the writers loved it and supported it from the beginning – George Meyer, Conan O’Brien and Mike and Al. Knowing they liked it actually made it quite easy for me to be confident but because there was some discussion about whether this was a proper thing to do, Jim Brooks got involved. Keep in mind that Jim was incredibly busy the first year I was running the show and was really not around much except for the table reads. He was working on a film but cared enough to take the time to read my early script and he loved it. I did wind up adding a bit more to the emotional element to the story – but very little. A good number of stories I did were quite heavy on emotion but this one was conceived to be mainly funny. It is important to mix it up like that to have a balanced season.
The fact that there was controversy was part of what made it exciting, but also the episode had my favorite guest star of all time – James Taylor. It turned out to be a terrific use of James, who is another idol of mine and a dear friend; he was hilarious in it. We also had Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, who was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Just your typical fearless super-smart hero. He melted one of our microphones with a beam he shot from his eyes. All the astronauts who went to the moon came back with that ability but the government doesn’t like that to get around.
Of course, as is fairly typical with a controversial concept, “Deep Space Homer” became one of the most popular shows we ever did. It also became a favorite show of NASA who used it in their training – which I think we should all be very worried about. Astronaut Ed Lu liked it so much that he asked me to send him a copy of the episode up in space. It was before we had any DVDs of “The Simpsons,” so I burned a DVD at home and then it got sent up in one of those Russian supply ships. Ed sent me back a picture of that DVD floating in the ISS cabin in front of a window showing Earth in the background. A surreal experience.
A couple of weeks ago, James Taylor actually video chatted with astronaut Dan Burbank up in the International Space Station from his home in Massachusetts, mirroring the scene from “Deep Space Homer.” NASA had sent my original DVD back to me and Dan asked again for the episode. So this time I sent up the entire 5th Season DVD box set – at 10% off.
So you can see there were a lot of things associated with that episode that make it very very special to me. I was thrilled with how well received it was. I really was.
Neely: We’ll wander off the path here for a bit because this is something I didn’t know about you. You just said that you had an engineering and aerospace background. You’ve got to be kidding!!
David: As I always say, I started off like most comedy writers as an electronics engineer. (Neely chortles) That was the background of my family. My father was a computer engineer in the 50s and into the 60s, well, the very early 60s because he died in 1960. Also my fantastic older brother Gary, who was also a huge influence on my sense of humor, was a television engineer at the NBC affiliate in Philadelphia.
So I’m a tech head, a tech geek and tech freak and I love it; I always did. I loved filmmaking at the same time but I loved the technical aspect of it as much as the artistic aspect. But in my family, it was really kind of an unstated belief that, “Yeah, you want to be a filmmaker? You want to be a writer? That’s just dreaming. You could never possibly do something that would make you that happy. You have to be realistic. You have to be a little sad or maybe even a lot sad.” Becoming an electronics engineer was a more realistic way to go.
I went to Drexel University which was a really wonderful university for engineering. Luckily they had this work/study program. You went to school for six months and then you worked for six months in your chosen profession. I got to work at a place called the National Aeronautics Federal Experimental Center (NAFEC) and it was work designing digital radar systems. I used to go up and fly through thunderstorms to find out why planes crashed in thunderstorms.
Neely: (exploding with laughter) You’re kidding!
David: I really did use to do that. It was like – “Send the new kid up and let’s see what happens!” I got to find out first hand what it was like to be an engineer while I was in school and I got to find out just how much I hated it. I enjoyed designing something once, but I didn’t like repeating the process. Once you design one circuit and one piece of equipment, it’s really just minimal variations to create anything – a television, a stereo system, a death ray. It became repetitive to me and I got over it very quickly. I also started to notice there was a definite lack of gorgeous actresses who wanted to sleep with electronic engineers.
And by the way, I would also say that this desire to not do the same thing over and over has manifested itself in my career. I don’t like to continually repeat things. That’s what’s great about “The Simpsons,” because you try to make every week something different. It can be a horror show or a romantic comedy; it could be science fiction or a murder mystery. We do every single genre so we keep it alive and fresh that way. And that is what really stimulates my brain. It’s not repetitive. Have I said that enough? I don’t like to repeat things. I don’t like to repeat things at all.
Neely: So I take it that you don’t like to repeat things.
David: Because I knew I disliked engineering while I was still in school, I was able to quickly change gears and switch to Loyola out here and try my hand at film. I learned very early on that making no money doing something I loved was going to be better than making a good living doing something I didn’t. So that’s how I didn’t become an aeronautical engineer and the world is definitely a much safer place because of it.
Neely: Going back to “The Simpsons,” how many showrunners have you had on the show?
David: It started out with teams. Jim Brooks ran it with Sam Simon and Matt Groening in the beginning; then Al and Mike and then it was me, I was the first solo showrunner; then there was another team, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein; then Mike Scully and then Al Jean again, this time by himself. And that’s where we are now.
Neely: How is the room run?
David: When I was running the show, we just had one room. I have a tendency to control most things and felt I had to be in the room pretty much for every moment. For instance, if I have to leave the room for a short time and we’re working on a specific joke, the other writers could keep working on that joke and maybe one after it. I’ll come back in the room and they’ll have something brilliant and so funny; it really makes me laugh – like I got to be an audience for a second. But if I’m gone any longer than that, and it’s just the nature of writers, they’ll start to take it in a direction I didn’t want to go. I’m not saying that my direction is better than theirs or vice versa, it’s just that when you run the show, that’s what you get to do. You get to choose every direction it’s going to go.
So I think from about the time of Oakley and Weinstein, the team who ran the show after me, it broke into two rooms and Mike Scully kept the two rooms. So now there are multiple rooms working simultaneously. But when I was running it, it was just the one room with me. If I had to go direct the actors, all the writing would stop; if I had to go edit the episodes, all the writing would stop. With just one room going, there were a couple of nights a week you would go to 2 a.m., although that’s kind of true of every great series – it generally goes to the wee hours of the morning. On “30 Rock,” the only way any writer ever sees a loved one is for 5 minutes a week on Skype.
But again, because there’s no time off on “The Simpsons,” it would create burn out. Having the two rooms makes it so that those wee hour things don’t happen so often and it’s a much more reasonable time schedule. But when I was showrunning, we were just all in a room and going beat by beat. It’s a long process but would give you some really amazing results.
When we would go till dawn, I would try to put a positive spin on it. I would say to the other writers, “Well you don’t want to have to drive home in the dark, do you?” They didn’t think it was funny and would often beat the crap out of me in the parking lot.
Neely: You also wrote the screenplay for “The Simpsons Movie,” as well as a couple of the songs. Who came up with the idea of doing the movie and are there plans for another?
David: We had always been under pressure to do a movie from very early on. The only reason we didn’t do it sooner was because we were all too busy writing the show or other projects and there was no time. We had to wait.
Actually, the multi-room thing made it possible. There was finally going to be time when enough of the key writers of the show – Al Jean, Mike Reiss, myself, Mike Scully, Jim Brooks and Matt Groening, as well as the great writers John Schwartzwelder, George Meyer and Jon Vitti were free to do it. As a side note, John Schwartzwelder wrote more episodes than anyone else, including some of my favorites. I think some of the most brilliant episodes are by John Schwartzwelder. And the same thing with Jon Vitti. Just brilliant brilliant episodes.
It was a matter of getting the show to a place where it was running smoothly enough so that the group I just described could get together for what we planned would be two years. It was really just a matter of our availability versus the show and the ability to keep the quality of the show up while we did the movie. We figured it was going to take about two years because of the way Jim Brooks works. He really hunkers down on something and there’s nothing like it. He just works it and works it and demands perfection at the top top top level of everything, for however long that takes. And instead of two years, of course it took four years (both laugh). It was fantastic to get to work with him in that capacity. It was super intense and sometimes very difficult but you wouldn’t trade it for the world. I really love every one of those guys. Whenever we’re all together in a room it’s very special – you can cut the sexual tension with a knife.
I’m sure there’s going to be another one. It’s a matter again of our availability and everybody being able to sit down and do it again. But everyone is definitely very excited and passionate about squeezing every last dime out of the golden goose.
Neely: Hmmm. Do I see “Simpsons: The Musical” on the horizon?
This is a great place to break before we talk about your early career. So stay tuned for more David Mirkin. To Be Continued.
And If you have any questions, go to “Ask the Writers” at the top left column and fire away.