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Tag Archives: Al Jean
Too many talented writers have passed through the doors of The Simpsons to count. From folks who’ve gone on to create great television shows of their own like David X. Cohen (Futurama) and Greg Daniels (The Office, King of the Hill) to stellar longtime contributors like John Swartzwelder and George Meyer to those who’ve broken out as stars in their own right like Conan O’Brien, the writers’ room of The Simpsons has seen a nearly unmatched array of superb comic scribes contributing their wit and humor to the program.
But in the nearly 30 years The Simpsons has been on the air, only nine individuals (with one honorable mention) have served as showrunners for this hallowed and hilarious series. They’re the first names you see in the credits after the end of an episode, a sign that however a story began, however it may have changed and been shaped by the show’s fantastic team of writers, animators, and performers, the buck ultimately stopped with them. These nine people were responsible for shepherding each episode from the first pitch to the final cut, and it makes their contributions to The Simpsons unique, even among the scores of creative people who make the show possible.
Now that Harry Shearer has agreed to return to The Simpsons, we will never know whether showrunner Al Jean’s earlier statement that the show would recast all of Shearer’s parts was an empty threat. It would be a tall order to replace characters as diverse and as central to the series as Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Principal Skinner, and Reverend Lovejoy, not to mention God, The Devil, and Hitler.
But I’m inclined to believe that Jean really meant it. During tense contract negotiations in 1998, Fox executives went as far as hiring casting directors in five states to replace its disgruntled stars. And as hard as it is to imagine someone new voicing Dr. Hibbert, let alone Bart Simpson, this latest round of negotiations may have proven a proposition that has vexed and delighted the show’s die-hard fans in equal measure — The Simpsons may never end.
It’s fairly easy to divide up the first twelve years of the The Simpsons, into different eras based on who served as the showrunner for each season. Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon established the show in its first two seasons. Al Jean and Mike Reiss took the series to new heights in Seasons 3 and 4. David Mirkin brought a more joke-heavy style in Seasons 5 and 6. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein ran the show with a more experimental bent in its seventh and eighth seasons. And finally, Mike Scully presided over the series’ creative decline in Seasons 9-12. Each period within this time frame has its own style and sensibility that can be traced back to the individuals in charge.
After that, however, things get tricky. Al Jean returned as showrunner for Season 13, and instead of the usual two-to-three year tour of duty on the job, he has proceeded to hang onto that title for over twelve years, producing more than 250 episodes in that time.
That’s nearly half of the show’s run, and it’s much more difficult to chop up those seasons up into discrete eras. Some of the show’s most ardent fans have thrown around terms like “Early Jean,” “Late Jean,” and “the HD era.” Some have tried to use The Simpsons Movie as a dividing line during Jean’s tenure. But it’s much harder to classify the gradual, sometimes rocky, evolution of the show under a single individual than it is to note the sharp changes in direction that came when different showrunners each brought their distinct visions for the series to the table.
Someday, The Simpsons is going to end.
As a diehard fan, even one who has some significant misgivings about the current state of the show, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The Simpsons has been on as long as I’ve been watching television. Even at its lowest lows, it’s been the small screen version of comfort food for me, and sooner or later our favorite family will sign off for the last time.
If show runner Al Jean is to be believed, that might not be for another twenty-five years. Still, the day is going to come, and I think it’s close on the horizon. With the recent contract negotiation, standoff, and finally renewal through Season 25, the end of the show appears to be on the minds of those who work on and produce it. Whether it’s threats to pull the plug in order to prompt salary cuts or requests for a share in the back end profits of the show, those involved seem to have a not-too-distant endpoint in mind.
This begs the question – how do you end a show that will have been on television for a quarter of a century and produced more than five-hundred episodes? How do you sum up, honor, and conclude twenty-five years worth of adventures? It’s a tall order to say the least.