In 1996, The Simpsons passed The Flintstones as the longest running prime-time animated show. In the 30-year interim, the tenor of adult cartoons had shifted dramatically: The Simpsons was more caustic and puerile than The Flintstones, a shameless Stone Age remake of hit 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners. What had hardly changed was the creative process.
Like The Flintstones, The Simpsons relied on a large Los Angeles-based writer’s room, a coterie of directors, a squad of storyboard and design artists, and dozens of animators. The biggest change in production over three decades was simply geography; by 1996, The Simpsons had begun outsourcing the final stage of animation to a studio in South Korea.
A year after The Simpsons passed The Flintstones, South Park premiered on Comedy Central. If The Simpsons was a middle finger to the establishment, the animation of Trey Parker and Matt Stone was a burning bag of shit. It was cheap and fast to animate with paper cutouts and computer animation, which allowed the show to comment on recent events. Cartoons at the time, requiring months of costly animation, needed to be comparably timeless in their story and humor, but South Park targeted the present.
Thanks to computer animation and the internet, South Park, the shows of Adult Swim, and countless online-only animated shorts, like Homestar Runner, have made animation faster, rougher, and looser. But The Simpsons, to this day, embraces the formula of the past. While an episode of South Park can now be created in a single week by a lean team, The Simpsons has actually added roles and failsafes to its lengthy process. In the world of animated TV, The Simpsons may be the last of its kind, an expensive, high-touch, slow-paced production built on formulas dating back to Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbera.
The Simpsons is now in its 27th season. This is how an episode of the program is made, a detailed, meticulous look at a process that has its bedrock but builds upon it with the tools and lessons of the future.
It begins with a pitch….
A few weeks before the warm Christmas of Southern California, the writers of The Simpsons — the longest-running sitcom in the US, starring everybody’s favorite family: Homer, Marge, Lisa, Baby Maggie, and their son Bart — take a retreat. The rest of the season, the team breaks scripts in the sterile writers’ rooms of the Fox studio lot, but the creative process always began in a home or the big conference space of a nearby hotel.
Each writer brings a fleshed-out minute or so episode pitch, which they deliver with gusto to a room full of funny people. They laugh, take notes, then co-creator Matt Groening, executive producer James L. Brooks, and showrunner Al Jean — a portion of the braintrust from the earliest days — provide feedback.
In an essay on Splitsider about the writing process of seasons three through eight, former Simpsons writer and producer Bill Oakley described the pleasure of the retreats:
“It was always a huge treat to see. You had no idea what George Meyer (for instance) was going to say, and suddenly it was like this fantastic Simpsons episode pouring out of his mouth that you never dreamed of. And it was like, wow, this is where this stuff comes from.
A lot of times people worked collaboratively, too. We would work with Conan, back and forth, and we’d exchange ideas and help polish them up. And so everybody would usually come with two, sometimes three ideas. You’d take fifteen minutes and you’d say your idea in front of everybody — all the writers, Jim Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon when he was still there, and also the writers assistants who would be there taking notes on all this stuff.”
Writing a draft
After receiving notes and some creative direction, an episode’s writer takes two weeks to pen a first draft. “Almost all of the writing is done here at the Fox [lot] in one of two rewrite rooms,” says Al Jean, who at the time of the interview is deep into production of the show’s upcoming 27th season. “The two rooms was a change that came about around season nine. We split because we had enough writers, and we could get more done.”
Getting more done with more tools and more hands is the throughline of the modern Simpsons production process. There are more people doing more jobs with more failsafes at a higher cost on The Simpsons than the majority of — if not all — animated television shows.
A writer has four to six weeks to complete rewrites. “We’ll continue to rework [the script] six or seven times before the table read,” says Al Jean. “Jim and I will give notes. We rewrite it.”
In those late night television commercials that promise to make everyone a screenwriter, the script is often called the blueprint of our favorite television shows and films, a term that implies an exacting, blessed, top level instruction which the rest of the dozens if not hundreds if not thousands of artists involved obey. That notion — as anyone who has seen a summer blockbuster or network sitcom can tell — is false. The script is vulnerable, malleable, and subject to constant scrutiny. There’s a blueprint for animated shows, but it comes later. The completed draft is like a guide through the woods, ready to be supplemented, revised, or outright redrawn if need be.
(An excerpt from Judd Apatow’s The Simpsons script, The Daily Beast)
The table read
Each Thursday of production, the cast, producers, and writers meet for a table read of the latest script. Some of the cast attends the table read, others phone into the room. Occasionally, voice actor Chris Edgerly, who has handled “additional voices” for the show since 2011, will fill in for one of the leads. “It’s very unusual that they’re all at the table at the same time now,” says Jean. “People’s schedules got busier, people actually moved out of Los Angeles. It’s the normal sort of entropy of life, you know.”
Despite being to hundreds of table reads, Al Jean still can’t get comfortable. He describes a critical setting in which the script is judged on its creative value, but also under the duress of external forces. A cell phone might go off or an actor might be fighting a cold, and the read’s vibe shifts. “Last week,” says Jean, “there was a truck backing up, that came in the middle, and that was distracting people. The table read is my number one unpleasant experience.”
On the Monday following a table read, the cast performs the voice recording, typically at the studio in LA. The actors and actresses record on separate tracks, rather than together — a common method for capturing voice-over. “It’s funny,” says Jean. “I read a review in The AV Club where they said about a certain show there was great interaction between two people, and they never met. They didn’t record in the same place. I’m glad it worked, but there was no physical connection.”
As work transitions from script to animation, the episode is offered to a director, who, if they accept, is given ownership of production and animation responsibilities. “[The role is] sort of akin to a TV director who takes the script of a show and turns it into an episode,” says Jean. “Except our director has to create everything. [… The director] takes the audio track, supervises the design, the motions, and what we call the acting of the animation, and [supervises] the whole visual aspect of [the episode].”
Both Jean, who serves as story liaison throughout production of the series as a whole, and each episode’s director work in tandem to shepherd the script through the animation process…