5 for Friday: Al Jean, longtime ‘Simpsons’ showrunner, writer and producer
"The Simpsons" was already one of the most popular shows on TV as it entered its third season in the fall of 1991 — drawing more than 20 million viewers every week — but during the next few months the show truly embraced its lasting love of sports. That October, Magic Johnson became the first athlete to ever "guest star" on the show. (Some three weeks after the episode aired, Johnson announced he had HIV and was retiring from basketball.) In January 1992, "Lisa the Greek" pitted Lisa’s innate gambling skills against a manipulative Homer with dollar signs in his eyes, all set against the backdrop of Super Bowl XXVI and Washington’s victory over Buffalo. (The writers correctly predicted the real-life outcome, which was central to the episode’s plot, three days before the Big Game.)
But it was on Feb. 20, 1992, with 31-year-old Al Jean in his first season as showrunner (a duty he split with then-writing partner Mike Reiss), that the most ambitious episode in Simpsons history aired: "Homer at the Bat." Featuring the voices and likenesses of nine All-Star ballplayers — from Ozzie Smith to Roger Clemens to Ken Griffey Jr. and so on — the episode took many months to bring together but would mark the first time "The Simpsons" beat "The Cosby Show" head to head. (It also beat the Winter Olympics telecast from Albertville, France.) That was episode No. 52. Last May, the show concluded its 25th season with episode No. 552.
Now, exactly 500 shows removed from that momentous airing, "The Simpsons" is still going strong — the show’s 26th season premieres this Sunday night — and Jean is still as integral to the show’s success as ever. After briefly leaving it for a few years in the ’90s, Jean is now in his 14th straight season as showrunner. Taking a brief break while on the FOX Studios lot earlier this week — from his office in the same building they’ve worked in for 25 years — Jean spoke with FOXSports.com for a Simpsons- and sports-themed edition of 5 for Friday. Now the gritty veteran of the show’s staff, Jean reflected on the ambitious feat that was "Homer at the Bat," which athlete he’s always regretted not being able to cast and why the oft-imitated and much-admired Vin Scully has yet to be Simpson-ified himself.
1. MALINOWSKI: Obviously, "Homer at the Bat" was a huge milestone for the show, but you guys were all really kind of green back then. You had only done two seasons when it was time to pull that kind of an episode together, and perhaps at some point you think it’s easy because you can just catch these guys as they come into town to play the Dodgers and Angels — but then you actually have to do it. Did you have any appreciation for just how logistically challenging it would be to pull off something like that?
JEAN: I’ll tell you the truth: We had a discussion — myself, Mike Reiss and [co-creator] Sam [Simon]. Sam had suggested this episode, and I said, "Oh, I don’t think we could possibly get all nine positions filled with big-league players." And Sam said, "No, no. You can get them when they come to LA to play, and you can get them piecemeal because it’s animated." And he was right. So, yeah, in that sense, it was the most ambitious undertaking we’d had to that point.
Nowadays, we can record a lot of elements easily. The cast is in a different location. It’s a much easier thing to record someone over the phone from New York or London. But at that time, you had to go where they were or they had to come to you. We also got some of the players to come in together; we had like [Don] Mattingly and [Steve] Sax at the same time. [Mike] Scioscia and [Darryl] Strawberry were also local. And I remember Griffey came with his dad, and Dan [Castellaneta] was there for Griffey. When Griffey Sr. came in, Dan went into the Homer voice and he said something like, "July 21, 1974, you hit an inside-the-park home run against the Cubs and … " He had remembered this big home run that Griffey Sr. had hit, and he really laughed.
We rework stories all the time. When we were doing the later episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled," people turned us down. I think we tried to get the Rolling Stones and they turned us down, so we then got the Red Hot Chili Peppers. So Mike and I went through that script changing it again and again. When we sent it to Johnny [Carson] originally, he turned it down. So we asked his nephew, who ran his company, what the problem was, and he said that in the original draft, he was kind of a moocher and he doesn’t want to be that. So we said, sure, totally, and we rewrote it.
So in "Homer at the Bat," we were going to do a "Bull Durham" parody for Canseco where he’s in a bathtub with Mrs. Krabappel, but we just tweaked that and used it instead for Joey Kramer, the Aerosmith drummer, in "Flaming Moe’s," and that’s because Canseco’s wife had a real problem with him being with a cartoon woman in a bathtub, so we just decided to make this the most heroic thing possible. I directed Strawberry, but when I directed Canseco, he did two takes and he goes, "OK, that’s good enough." I said, "Well, actually we usually like to get more." And I was able to talk him into a little bit more, but it wasn’t very easy. I wouldn’t say he was unpleasant, but he did not trust the judgment of me as to what would work better for an animated voiceover performance.
On the other hand, Mike Scioscia — I didn’t direct him for that show, but I directed him when he came back to reappear on the show — could not be a nicer guy. You almost forget he’s the manager of the Angels and they can win another World Series again this year. He’s just so friendly and such a regular guy. It was such a pleasure. And we didn’t kill him off with radiation poisoning in "Homer at the Bat." We didn’t kill him off. We just gave him super-managing skills, it turns out.
When we recorded Magic Johnson, we obviously had no idea about the HIV. He was just very difficult to do. He couldn’t find the time. So we actually went over to his house on the last possible day with a tape recorder, and the producer thought for a second that he had forgotten the tape, which would have been a disaster. But we found the tape and recorded him. We killed time by talking about Magic growing up in Michigan, as I also did, and I talked to him a little about that and he was very nice. Then after that episode aired is when he announced he had HIV, and he’s done so well since, it’s amazing.
2. MALINOWSKI: "Homer at the Bat" aired at such an opportune time for you guys. You were already wildly popular and you had just emerged from this whole national controversy involving the president. What was life like for you guys after the episode aired?
JEAN: Well, it’s weird because, I mean, this was the first show I had ever run, with Seasons 3 and 4, and I was really petrified because it was such a great show and I did not want to be the one who led to its cancellation. That would kill me. (I still feel that way by the way! That’s one reason, certainly not the only reason, it’s lasted 25 years.) Now in terms of "Homer at the Bat," there’s been a little rewrite of history where people say, "Oh, it had taken the show a while to catch on." That’s not true. It was a huge hit. The shorts were really funny, and then the first episode was the highest-rated show in the history of FOX. And after the first 13, it was unbelievably popular. There was literally an article in the papers every day about "The Simpsons". You could walk down the street and hear people talking about it.
And then we went to Thursdays. FOX moved us against Cosby, and every time in history that’s happened, the new show moving to the new location has had problems. Although there was a first-day headline about us beating Cosby, we really didn’t beat him for the first year and a half because he was much more entrenched and it was very hard. But we just kind of wore them out, and this was the first one that actually rated higher than Cosby. It was a great thing for us. We had worked really hard and held our own. And this was the one that broke through.
3. MALINOWSKI: Has there ever been any serious thought to doing a sequel to "Homer at the Bat"? You now literally have a completely different generation of ballplayers, and perhaps it would be fun to play around with a whole new cast of characters.
JEAN: You know, the sequel really was "Krusty Gets Kancelled" because I suggested that we just do another one, this time with showbiz celebrities and a lot of moving pieces. And there’s been "Homerpalooza" and there have been a couple others that were in this vein.
So I don’t think we would do it again just with baseball players again just because my view is that — and this might be surprising for a show that’s done 552 episodes — I don’t think sequel episodes usually work. We’ve done a couple, but I think when people like something a lot, it’s hard to recapture the magic of that first time. And that goes for this one, especially. It’s fixed in such a specific time in baseball, and some of them are still really well-known. Some not so much, like Strawberry. I was the one who put the tear in his eye. He never knew we were going to do that, and I always felt a little guilty about that.
4. MALINOWSKI: I wonder how much sports informs the overall sensibilties inside the writer’s room and how you take your cues from real-life events and then apply those to either plots or entire episodes. I’m thinking specifcally about the "MoneyBART" episode, which had a lot to say about the sabermetrics movement in baseball. And there have also been more soccer-themed episodes over the years. When do you know that something sports-related is ripe for show material?
JEAN: Well, I was introduced to Bill James’ stuff by a writer who’s sadly passed away named Joe Bodolai, and I was fascinated the first time I read a "Baseball Abstract". Tim Long, smartly, pitched us to do a "Moneyball" parody, which actually preceded the movie. That episode came out before the movie. And we were able to get Bill to appear on the show and say the line, "I made baseball as much fun as paying your taxes!" And it’s great because not only is he a hero to me and to Tim, but he’s a man who’s changed the world and I’m so glad we had him on the show.
With soccer, it’s changed and it’s become more popular. And also, my oldest daughter played soccer, so Homer being a referee came from my experience going to see her play and what it was like. I mean, you’d see all these parents just going nuts for girls’ soccer! And then this year, Matt Groening said we should do something for the World Cup. So we harkened back to, well, I’d read that the referee scandal had gotten out of hand, and that was the basis for this year’s episode. The crazy thing was, we were trying to think of something and we thought it would be funny for the Brazilian fans to be sadly singing the "Olé! Olé!" song, so we figured, OK, Brazil has to lose, but who would beat them? I go, "Probably Germany."
So we had Germany beating Brazil, and then incidentally we had a Brazilian player getting carried off for flopping and the design really looked like Neymar. That was a total coincidence. But then when Brazil actually lost to Germany, people were like, how did you know? Because it had all aired three months before it happened. It was insane! And then people correct us and say, "Well, you only had them lose 2-0 and it was really 7-1." Like, thanks Nostradamus, but that’s still pretty good. Everyone else thought Brazil was unstoppable.
There’s always been a lot of huge sports fans in the writers’ room. There are people like Tim, who know a lot about baseball. To this day, John Swartzwelder still rents out a stadium once a year. I believe he rents out the Seattle ballpark, Safeco Field, and they get a bunch of people together and play a game there.
There’s always been a lot of huge sports fans in the writers’ room.
Baseball is a good sport if you’re a writer because it gives you something to distract yourself. You look at the box scores, that sort of thing. And the sabermetrics appeal to those of us that are mathematically inclined. But it’s great for socialization.
Jim Brooks is, I would say, the No. 1 Clippers fan. He sits courtside at Staples Center. He’s basically the Jack Nicholson of the Clippers. And I’m actually a Clippers fan, too, partly thanks to Jim. As the underdog in a two-team town that’s finally getting its due, it’s great.
5. MALINOWSKI: Any athletes or sports personalities that you’re still tying to get on the show? Harry Shearer does a great Vin Scully impression, but he’s never actually done his own voice on the show. And generally speaking, is "Homer at the Bat" the one episode people want to talk to you about the most? You’ve publicly said that it remains one of your favorite episodes of all-time.
JEAN: The one we never got was Sandy Koufax. We asked, and I don’t know of any of this personally, but the New York Post (which is owned by News Corp., FOX’s parent company) published some gossip about him that he didn’t like, about his biography, and so I guess he won’t do a FOX show. And that’s too bad because he’s a really admirable athlete and one of the few that has an enormous mystique to him.
As I understand it, Mr. Scully is a really great guy and knows of Harry’s impression and thinks it’s funny and has certainly never given us any trouble. We actually write him very carefully. We love Vin Scully, so we want Harry’s impression to be as lovable as possible. Like, when he mentioned Hitler’s birthday during a game and goes "Ptooey! Ptooey!" I mean, he really does stuff like that! He’s so funny. He just weaves these things in. I ran into him one time in person and he was a very nice guy.
It’s always ironic to me that people always want to talk about "Homer at the Bat" because no one during the making of it — I mean, we were all excited to meet the guys, but while we were making it, nobody thought it was going to be special or memorable or even a particularly well-regarded episode. All of this came after.
You can follow Erik Malinowski, who owes much of his sports sensibilities to the genius of John Swartzwelder’s perfect and prescient "Homer at the Bat" script, on Twitter at @erikmal and email him at email@example.com.