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By Suzanne

Al Jean

Interview with Al Jean of "The Simpsons" on FOX 9/18/14

Final Transcript
FBC PUBLICITY: The Simpsons Conference Call
September 18, 2014/1:00 p.m. PDT

Al Jean – Executive Producer of The Simpsons

Meg: Hi, everyone. Thanks for joining us today on the conference call with Executive Producer Al Jean on behalf of the season premiere of The Simpsons. In the milestone 26th season premiere, the unthinkable happens: a Springfield resident dies. The episode’s entitled “Clown in the Dumps,” it airs Sunday, September 28th at 8:00 p.m./7:00 Central on FOX.

Also, following the season premiere of The Simpsons, worlds collide in a special one-hour season premiere of Family Guy, when the Griffins go to Springfield to meet the Simpsons. That’s at 9:00 p.m. Thanks a lot, we’re ready to begin the call.

Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for standing by. Would you like to take the first question and answer from Suzanne Lanoue with TV Megasite. Please, go ahead.

Suzanne: Hi, this is Suzanne. How are you?

Al: Good, good. Nice to talk to you.

Suzanne: Nice to talk to you. Now, when you say “the unthinkable happens,” didn’t we already lose a couple of people? Flanders’ wife, as I recall correctly?

Al: Yes, this may have been a little overhyped.

Suzanne: Just a little.

Al: That being said, I think it’s a wonderful episode and I think it works along the parameters we originally set out. I think that people will really like it.

I wanted to mention there is a brilliant couch gag at the beginning by artist Don Hertzfeldt. Don’t tune in late; you’ll really be sorry if you miss it.

Suzanne: Cool. Congratulations on 25 years, that’s really amazing.

Al: Yeah, we just had a show at the Hollywood Bowl. We were really pumped that it worked out great and it’s been a wonderful year.

Suzanne: Cool. Can you tell us anything about David Hyde Pierce’s guest starting role on the show?

Al: He’s in the first episode. I’m afraid I can’t give out any more clues about anything more – it’ll blow the secret, so that’s what I’ll say is he’s on that first show.

Suzanne: Alright, well, I’m looking forward to it. Thank you.

Moderator: (Operator instructions.) We have a question from the line of Tim Clodfelter with Winston Salem Journal. Please, go ahead.

Tim: Hello.

Al: Hi, how are you?

Tim: Fine. On the subject of the Hollywood Bowl, are there plans to broadcast that or put it out on DVD or anything? Where does that stand?

Al: Well, I don’t think we ever would because the talent that did it, you know, did it as a favor. We never talked about broadcasting it. Obviously, there were cameras, but they would have to make a dealwith everybody to release it, and I don’t think that’s too likely because everyone was honestly doing it as a favor. That’s why we tried to tell people I hope you can go because it’ll probably just be these three nights and you won’t get to see it.

Although, surprisingly, people brought cell phones and filmed it and put it online. So I can’t stop you from looking at those.

Tim: Great. I wasn’t able to fly across the country to see it—

Al: No, I know, I wish people could—

Tim: It looked like a lot of fun.

Al: No, I felt sorry for people who weren’t able. But, as I say, not that they’re authorized, if you look at the things on YouTube, I think they give you a good flavor.

Tim: Alright, well, thank you very much. I’ll let someone else ask a question. I’ll jump back in later.

Moderator: (Operator instructions.) Our next question comes from the line of John Jurgensen with The Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.

John: Hi, Al. I’m curious about what kind of conversations – I know you can’t tell us who’s going to die in the episode – but I’m curious about what kind of conversations you have about what that means for the longevity of the show. All of these characters – Springfield is so tightly woven and some of these characters have connections to each other. Do you have to discuss the long term ramifications about losing a specific character to possible storylines or plans you might have had for him or her? I guess this depends on how major or minor this character may be.

Al: Yes, my main feeling is I’ve got eight days to get through without blurting it. That’s my goal. But in terms of the show, I’m not being glib when I say the long term future has rarely looked brighter. That marathon on FXX did wonders for us in every way. We’re still doing really well on the network.

It’s still an international hit. We just did a little video where Dan Castellaneta, voice of Groundskeeper Willy, advocating an “I Vote for Scotland,” and that got 4 million views. So, if you said how long is the show going to last, I’d say my guess is at least two more years, probably four, maybe more. Nobody’s talked to us about wrapping it up. Nobody.

John: Do you also feel like – as you said, the show’s still going strong and the success of the marathon attests to that – but with the plans for the crossover to Family Guy and this possibly overhyped, as you said, death in the first episode—

Al: Nobody every says “underhype.” It’s always over.

John: No such thing. Do you feel like this is a good time to remind us that you guys are still going strong and to give yourselves a sort of creative shot in the arm?

Al: In terms of the show, we work as hard on it as we ever did. I won’t lie, the Hollywood Bowl took a lot of our time and that was a huge endeavor, but we really did it for the fans. I mean, I wasn’t paid anything. I worked really hard on it. We did it because we wanted to, the people that love the show, to give them something to enjoy in person.

That being said, we care that much about the series, as well. Each one of these, sort of, event episodes – I mean, Futurama is a hugely natural fit with brilliant voice actors. It was something that we loved doing. I loved working – David Cohen worked with us on it, and he’s great, of course. Everything that we are doing is something that we thought was creatively good. It wasn’t really something that we were doing for hype or promotion. It just turned out, luckily, that when we mentioned these ideas, you guys, people, would say wow, that’s great, I’m really excited.

John: Thanks a lot.

Moderator: Our next question comes from the line of Anthony D'Alessandro with Deadline Hollywood. Please, go ahead.

Anthony: Hi. I was just curious just about – do you see a spike in ratings whenever you kill someone off? Like when you killed off Flanders’ wife?

Al: No, there’s never anything that – ratings – a guy I worked with years ago told me ratings depend on two things: what you’re against and what you’re after. Every fall, we’re after football, so people go wow, really strong numbers. And every spring, there’s no football, so they go hmm, they took a drop.

But in terms of the 18-49 demo, in terms of the profitability of the show, I think our ads are about in the Top 5 of all shows on all networks, and we’re huge in 18-49, even more in males 18-34, and we always are. We rerun really well. If I was looking at the show without looking at the name or how long it had been on, I’d go this is something that’s clearly doing really well for the network.

Moderator: Our next question comes from the line of Scott Hoover with Comic Book Resources. Please, go ahead.

Scott: Hi, Al. You touched on the Futurama episode. I’d like to hear a little bit more about that. Was that a challenge to make that work within a Simpsons context? What were the joys of doing it?

Al: The biggest joy was – besides, as I just mentioned, working with David Cohen, and of course Matt Groening got to work with himself – was that we had, at our table read, Maurice LeMarche and Billy West and John DiMaggio, plus our cast, all in one room. And I really thought this is the greatest assembly of voiceover talent ever. It was just really, really fun. We got Katey Sagal later; we have everybody from Futurama in the show.

It was just such a natural fit because the styles of the shows are from the same creator, the sense of humor is the same, and it was really just a pleasure to do. It’ll be airing November 9th.

Scott: Can you say a little bit about the premise, at all? Or do you want to keep that under wraps?

Al: Well, you know, we had Arlon Ellison [ph] as a guest, and we said everybody’s stolen your plot about someone from the future coming back to kill someone in the present to save the future, so we’re going to steal it, too.

Scott: Thank you, Al.

Moderator: Wonderful. Our next question comes from the line of Alex Strachan with Postmedia News. Please, go ahead.

Alex: Hello, and thank you so much for doing this. I know you’re very, very busy with the show. Listen, I hate to ask a question that’s been asked a thousand times before, and it’s an open-ended question, but the reality is that news always keeps slipping and changing. A two part question, really: one, are there any subjects – at this point you’ve done more than 500 episodes – are there any subjects that are completely off limits from your point of view? And two, you’re not as edgy as South Park, but do you ever feel a pressure on the show, a need to reflect very quickly something that happens in the news or some burning issue that everybody’s talking about in the moment?

Al: Well, we’ve been able to do that online. Like I said, we just took a position on Scottish independence. In terms of the show, because we produce it a year ahead and also because, as you saw with the marathon, we aired shows from 20 years ago and they held up, I believe, so we want a sort of a timeless quality, where we do subjects like poor healthcare or people getting screwed on their mortgages – things that are going to be always a problem.

Whereas, as much as I admire South Park, they’re shooting for something a little different, and I never feel like we’re in direct competition. People will go oh, are you trying to outflank them, make yourself edgier or less edgy – I go we’re just ourself and they’re just themselves and there’s room for both.

Alex: Very quickly, before I let you go and let somebody else ask a question. I am curious about the marriage with Family Guy. I mean, obviously they’re both animated shows, they’re both FOX, they’re both Sunday nights, and there’s a sort of commonality, there. But they’re so very, very different in tone. When I first heard that you were doing that, I think the first thing that went through my mind was gee, how are they going to pull this off and make it coherent?

Al: Well, I can tell you this: I’ve seen it, I’ve seen the whole episode, and I loved it. That’s probably my strongest recommendation. When Rich Appel, who works on Family Guy, approached us, Rich had also worked for us and I’ve known him a long time. A really great writer. Him working on it, I thought, well, it’s going to be great. You know, they all did a great job, him and Steve Callaghan, and of course, Seth McFarlane. I can only say – I don’t want to give anything away, I don’t want to reveal the jokes in it – but I thought it was actually sweet, and it made me laugh multiple, multiple times, so I’m glad it exists. If they sold a DVD of it, I’d buy it.

Alex: Wonderful. Listen, thank you again for doing this, and good luck on Season 28.

Al: Or 30. Who knows?

Moderator: (Operator instructions.) Our next question comes from the line of Jonathan Ryan with Please, go ahead.

Jonathan: Hi, Al, thanks for doing this. Going back, actually, to the subject about what subjects you’ll never touch, obviously Simpsons has done a lot of episodes about the discussion of religion and integrated in people’s lives, which I think has been great. How’s that going to play out in the next season? I know you don’t want to talk about the premiere episode, but does religion play a part in the death situation?

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: Good answer. Thank you.

Al: You know, one of the things about The Simpsons was that it was one of the few shows when it aired that would show a family going to church, even though Homer was listening to his Walkman at the time. We’ve gotten a lot of subject matter out of religion, and different religions, not just Christianity.

In terms of what’s off limits, what’s funny is that certain things that weren’t off limits – like Maude did an abortion episode – are now more off limits than they were. It’s a funny sort of dynamic in terms of what television wants to see and what it allows. I also happen to be running the show after 9/11 and people then said well, you can never make fun of the president anymore, that’s just going to be the end of that, and I was just like, really? George W. Bush is never going to do anything funny? And, of course, that was insane.

So it’s hard to ever say oh, X will never be done, because so much of – you know, Jim Brooks, who runs the show and did Mary Tyler Moore, his career was taking something that had never been done and doing it.

Jonathan: Great. Thanks.

Moderator: (Operator instructions.) Our next question comes from the line of Michael Copland with Mr. Copeland, your line is open. Please, go ahead.

Michael: Sorry about that. Hi, Al. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today.

Al: My pleasure.

Michael: As far as The Simpsons/Family Guy crossover goes, I was wondering, since it’s being done as an episode of Family Guy as the premiere, does that mean that Family Guy’s staff had more creative influence over the episode?

Al: Oh yes, it’s their episode. They were great about it. By the way, the Futurama crossover was us, so in both cases, both shows who are the host show, wrote a script, submitted it to the visitor, and said let us know if we’re off with anything. We gave really, really tiny notes. Jim and Matt and I all signed off on the Family Guy crossover, but that’s their show. I came to it more as a viewer than anything else.

Michael: Alright, thank you very much.

Moderator: Our next question comes from the line of Patrick Day with The L.A. Times. Please, go ahead.

Patrick: Hi, Al. I just had one question. I just wondered, you know, earlier this year, the Family Guy killed off the dog for about three weeks, and then brought him back. Did you pay any attention to how the show handled that death? And will the character that dies in the season premiere, will we see them again?

Al: Jean Well, when we kill them, they stay dead. That’s my motto. But, you know, in animation you can certainly have somebody remember somebody else or fantasize or have a dream about them, so I wouldn’t rule that out. But we’re not going to do what they did with Brian. It’s not going to – a time machine or something that solves the problem and he or she is back as a living character.

Patrick: Thank you.

Moderator: Our next question comes from the line of Stacey Roberts with Please, go ahead.

Stacey: I have to ask about the dead character.

Al: Sure.

Stacey: We will be sitting Shiva or going to a wake? And should we read into the title of the episode?

Al: Well, we gave it that title for a reason. My other quote about the episode would be some people have guessed it correctly and some are really, really off. And I’m like how many minutes until the end of this interview? Until I escape these questions that will trap me into revealing this secret.

Stacey: Yes. Now, what was it like watching the marathon on FXX? Did that reenergize you with the show again?

Al: It was a surprisingly wonderful, emotional experience. It was literally like seeing my life flash before my eyes with very few commercials. I’ve been here the whole time, in one form or another, and I remember both of my daughters were born during the run of this show, I remembered the writers I had worked with. We really loved live Tweeting right from the start with people like Jon Vitti and Jeff Martin, and then the current writers like Tim Long. I wish everybody could have as wonderful an experience as I had with that marathon.

Stacey: We did, in a way. But yes, thank you.

Al: Thank you. Thank everybody. I’m so glad people watched.

Moderator: Our next question comes from the line of Tim Clodfelter with Winston Salem Journal. Please, go ahead.

Tim: Hello, again. Speaking of the marathon, did watching it remind you of any obscure characters that you thought we’ve got to bring them back?

Al: Well, there were two observations I had – and remember, this is my opinion; everyone’s entitled to their own. The first was in, like, season three or something, we kept ending each episode with a parody of Starsky and Hutch where everybody just started laughing for no reason. I was like we did that a few times too many.

Then my second observation, I was watching – the episodes were “Once Upon a Time in Springfield” and “Million Dollar Maybe” and “Boy Meets Curl,” those three episodes I watched in a row. This is from the later era of the show, which sometimes people say they don’t like as much, or whatever – I found them really funny. I was going these are really good, and emotional, too. People will say you don’t write emotional episodes anymore. The three of them were full of emotion.

I thought it was really wonderful that the last day of the marathon was the highest rated, even though those episodes had just aired on FOX. I really felt people who may have stopped watching when they went to college or left college would watch some new ones and go there’s a lot of great stuff in these newer episodes.

Tim: Okay. Do you, personally, have any favorite really obscure characters in the history of the show?

Al: Yes, Baron von Kissalot is where Arty Ziff tried to kiss Marge and then she took a taxi home and the guy asks for her fare and she said to ask Baron von Kissalot. Then they cut to this real baron with a big pair of lips. That joke was a David Mirkin joke. Really funny.

Tim: Alright, well, thank you very much.

Al: Thank you.

Moderator: (Operator instructions.) We do have a followup question from the line of Stacey Roberts with

Stacey: Al, back to the marathon. One of the moments that happened is when Lisa got married has already passed in actual time.

Al: We didn’t count on that, yes.

Stacey: Now when you write the show, are you more particular about going even further into the future if you’re going to do a date? Was there anything that you also saw from the marathon that—

Al: You’re definitely right about going further into the future. Brad Bird, when we did the first flashback to 1974, said you’re going to be sorry. Bugs Bunny was never locked into 1939, and now you’re going to be stuck with this. And we said oh, how long could the show last? Five, ten years? And he was right.

But yes, we try to be a lot – we actually make jokes about it in upcoming episodes – a lot vaguer with when things – you know, the future is the future and the past is the past, and we will not do another show where we advance the time. We’ll stick to the continuity that we’ve described, as insane as it is.

Stacey: Bringing up Futurama and Family Guy, what is it like mixing those animation styles with The Simpsons’ style?

Al: Well, we did a couple of jokes on it in Family Guy because there’s a little bit of a difference. Futurama, I mean, really, they’re pretty seamless. It’s all Matt Groening and his really great, clear vision. By the way, Rough Draft Animation, who does Futurama, was great about helping us and assisting us with their backgrounds. It was great; zero problems.

Stacey: Very cool. Thank you.

Moderator: We do have a followup question from the line of Alex Strachan with Postmedia News. Please, go ahead.

Alex: Thank you. Al, very quickly, something just suddenly popped into my head while you were talking. You’ve done 3D, you’ve done Lego; I was wondering whether you had any thoughts to do a sort of black and white, film noir thing? Is there anything you can tell us, special, unusual, out of the box, that you’re thinking of doing for a Simpsons episode in the upcoming season that you feel like talking about right now?

Al: Well, there’s a few really great ones that I’ve seen in color. The Halloween show has three segments that are all wonderful. One is “A School in Hell” that’s a little bit inspired by the Sandman comics of Neil Gaiman. Really beautiful. The middle segment is Kubrick inspired, it’s “A Clockwork Orange” segment, and it was just such a pleasure to watch his films again with that. And then the Simpsons meet their Tracey Ullman selves, and that came off really funny. So that one’s very, very ambitious, and there’s more to it even than I just described.

We have the Simpsorama, which is, obviously, complicated and very interesting. And then, coming in January, we’re going to air the episode where they visit the home planet of Kang and Kodos, and that was directed by David Silverman, who’s our long time, brilliant director – one of our long time, brilliant directors – and it came out great.

Alex: Okay, well, listen, thank you, again, and get back to work.

Al: Thank you.

Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, that does conclude our conference for today. I would like to thank you for your participation and for using AT&T Teleconference Service. You may now disconnect.

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