- A Decade Of
"Doh!" - an article by Catherine
... Ian Maxtone-Graham ... a Simpsons
co-executive producer, was showing me around ..."
It hasn't received as
much hype as, say, the Y2K thing. But this month marks
another remarkable anniversary: The Simpsons--which was
originally introduced as shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show
in 1987--made its half-hour debut on Fox ten years ago
this month. (That first episode, "Simpsons Roasting
on an Open Fire," was written by cartoonist Mimi
Pond and involved Homer blowing all his Christmas
present money at the dog track. But all ended happily
when he brought home the losing whippet, Santa's Little
Helper, as a pet for the children.)
Not only was the fledgling Fox network transformed by the
success of its new animated sitcom, so was television
comedy. Freed from the constraints of live-action living
room shows, The Simpsons was free to use the more
cinematic single-camera technique--a method that's since
dominated ground-breaking comedy like HBO's Sex and the
City and NBC's Freaks and Geeks.
Because of Fox's structure for selling commercials, each
Simpsons episode from the beginning crammed three acts
into 22-minutes, just like a full-length play. (Live
action sitcoms, even one as densely plotted and
character-packed as Seinfeld, are two-acts.) Then of
course, there's animation's freedom from physical
"We used to say on The Simpsons, every episode would
be a $30 million movie," Josh Weinstein, one
of its former showrunners, told me once.
So one day I stopped by the show's headquarters for an
inside look at how the show works. Simpsons central is a
pleasant little two-story '20s building with a courtyard
fountain tucked away in a corner of the Fox lot. Writing
room decor includes a "Simpsons, simplified"
chart, useful for keeping track of the huge cast of
Also on display that day was an Internet newsgroup item
reporting that while the audio line in one episode
referred to "the first car to come equipped with
Fahrvergnuegen," the closed-caption read that the
car was "featured in Diznee's electrical
Actually, the closed captioning didn't mean that the
Simpsons team was secretly trying to needle Disney; it's
just an example of how sitcom jokes are constantly
tweaked in the writing room at the last minute, in this
case after the script was already sent off to closed
captioning. Simpsons writers use the "Diznee"
spelling just in case the line is used and the real Mouse
gets mad. They could (theoretically, anyway) point to the
script and say, "See? We didn't mean YOU.")
But it's this sort of obsessiveness--which creator Matt
Groening has remarked gets annoying--that's satirized
in the recurring character of Comic Book Guy, who at one
point commented: "Last night's 'Itchy &
Scratchy' was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever.
Rest assured, I was on the Internet within minutes,
registering my disgust throughout the world."
Also decorating the walls of the writing room was an old
photo from Studio 54, in which a tall young preppie guy
could be seen standing next to Andy Warhol. And beneath
that photo was that same tall guy, Ian Maxtone-Graham--still
tall and preppie, but now 40 and a Simpsons co-executive
producer, who was showing me around.
"You only have to be 40 to be an elder
statesman" in comedy writing at this point, as
Simpsons alumnus and Futurama showrunner David X.
Cohen remarked to me some time ago, so I guess that's
what Maxtone-Graham is now--a Simpsons elder statesman.
"What can you do?" he shrugged. "I find it
so hilarious when you see the published ages of people
and you just kind of roll your eyes and go, 'yeah, OK,
The upside is that Maxtone-Graham is a triathlete who
also swims on the UCLA masters team, and he noted that
"the good thing about swimming is every five years
you move into a new age group." So now he doesn't
have to compete anymore "against those 35-year-old
Unlike some of his younger, more driven peers--whose
typical route to the top of the comedy-writing heap began
with a fast jump from The Harvard Lampoon--Maxtone-Graham
has a rather full, laid-back life beyond his work. He
goes spearfishing and kayaking, reads an enormous amount,
cooks elaborate meals on weekends, and almost never
His career has been similarly relaxed, even somewhat
meandering. His first job after graduation from Brown was
as a support diver for an underwater research project;
his second was an internship at the Riverside (Calif.)
Press-Enterprise. His resume since then includes stints
at a game show, The National Lampoon, Not Necessarily the
News, Saturday Night Live (he co-wrote the Adam
Sandler "Hanukah Song")... and somewhere in
that path, four straight years of unemployment.
Although Maxtone-Graham had worked on parody issues of
his college paper, "I actually saw myself as not
being quite funny enough to make the grade," he
recalled. "I thought I'd be a journalist and maybe a
photographer. I knew a lot of guys at The Lampoon and I
thought, 'Well, I'm funny, but these guys are funnier
than I am.'" Thus, the internship as a
Press-Enterprise copy aide, which Maxtone-Graham
desperately hoped would lead to a entry-level job as a
real reporter there "and begin that long, slow march
towards a decent job on a decent paper."
When he didn't get it, he went to live on the floor of a
friend who was writing for the old TV satire show, Not
Necessarily the News. The friend suggested Maxtone-Graham
write some sample sketches for the show. "Throughout
my career every single good thing that's happened has
begun with a bad thing," Maxtone-Graham reflected.
Years later, when he was at the National Lampoon during
its failing, final days, Jack Handey (of Saturday
Night Live's "Deep Thoughts" fame) suggested
Maxtone-Graham try writing for SNL.
Handey had seen Maxtone-Graham's contributions to Army
Man, a legendary and rather surreal newsletter for comedy
writers published in the late '80s by George Meyer
(now a veteran Simpsons writer and, like Maxtone-Graham,
co-executive producer under showrunner Mike Scully.)
"Believe me," Maxtone-Graham said, "being
published in Army Man meant more to me than
anything." A sample Maxtone-Graham Army Man piece:
"Crime Corner: the reason most serial killers are
caught is that they can't resist taunting the police by
leaving little clues to their identity. That's a mistake
I'm not going to make."
The Simpsons is a TV anomaly in that not only has it kept
its high ratings and gold standard quality for an entire
decade, it is a remarkably benign working environment.
This is in contrast, say, to some days on the notoriously
up-and-down Saturday Night Live, where Maxtone-Graham
once got punched in the face by Norm MacDonald
because he'd doused MacDonald's cigarette in the
no-smoking writer's room.
The day I visited The Simpsons, writers milled about
amiably, chatting with each other and informing me of
inside dope like the fact that Homer's famous
"D'oh!" never appears in a script. (What does
appear: the words "annoyed grunt.") Insulting
other people's work in meetings is forbidden at The
Simpsons, an unusual rule in sitcomland.
"I've heard nightmare stories from other
shows," Maxtone-Graham said. "And often you
hear what the show is, and you go, 'Geez, what would be
BAD on that show?'"
"I would rather make George Meyer laugh than get
an Emmy," Maxtone-Graham said. Meyer, who
graduated from Harvard with a degree in biochemistry some
20 years ago, is a revered figure among his
peers--"the funniest man writing in television"
is a typical description. Connoisseurs of the Meyer
sensibility treasure their aging photocopies of the
three-issue Army Man. "I'm a big promoter of the
cult of Army Man," Maxtone-Graham noted. A brief
Gone, All Gone
Do you still have the adorable crayon drawings you made
in kindergarten? I don't. Not a one. Which means that at
one point, many years ago, the following thoughts must've
gone through my mother's mind: "Hmm, what's this?
Oh, I see. It's that irreplaceable drawing by my
firstborn son ... the one he proudly brought home from
school. I'll just put this in the garbage."
Then, as time went by: "Oh, another one of my
child's drawings. What is it that I do with these again?
Oh, yes - I throw them in the trash. That's right."
Eventually, her brain probably got it down to "Art -
Son - Trash." And on the days when my mom was sick,
and didn't get around to throwing my artwork away, my dad
would do it.
I'm not bitter. I know they had good reasons for
discarding virtually everything I ever drew, wrote,
collected or pasted together during my one and only
childhood. I love my parents. There's nothing I wouldn't
do for them.
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