In his first major interview, the famously reclusive John Swartzwelder — who wrote 59 episodes of the long-running animated series The Simpsons — spoke to The New Yorker about his time writing for the Matt Groening created comedy and which episodes he still enjoys watching today.
Now 72, Swartzwelder began writing for The Simpsons in 1989, two years after it first appeared as an animated sketch on The Tracy Ullman Show. He remained there until 2003, bringing us some of the show’s most unusual characters and making several animated background cameos, including as a psychiatric patient in the episode titled Hurricane Neddy.
Here are some of the key takeaways from Swartzwelder’s interview with The New Yorker.
He’s Got an Unusual Writing Process
During his interview, Swartzwelder revealed that he has a trick when it comes to writing his scripts.
“Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—’Homer, I don’t want you to do that.’ ‘Then I won’t do it.'”
He continued: “Then the next day when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it.”
Responding to the legend that most Simpsons writers would have 75% of their scripts re-written while Swartzwelder was able to retain 50% of his, the writer quipped, “If those numbers are correct, part of the reason for my higher percentage might be because I always reacted with great dismay, rage, and even horror every time one of my jokes was cut. The other writers were more grown-up about it when their jokes were cut. And see what it got them.”
He Doesn’t Necessarily Have a Favourite Episode That He Wrote
It’s immensely hard for most people to nail down their favourite Simpsons episode, and Swartzwelder is no different, explaining that out of the 59 episodes he wrote, he doesn’t have one he prefers over the others.
However, the writer revealed that he always enjoys watching Itchy & Scratchy & Marge, Bart the Murderer, Dog of Death, Homer at the Bat, Homie the Clown, Bart Gets an Elephant, Homer’s Enemy, and Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment.
Itchy & Scratchy Allowed The Simpsons To Get Away With (Literal) Murder
Of the Itchy & Scratchy cartoons that Bart and Lisa are forever watching, Swartzwelder explained how having a show within in a show enabled the Simpsons writers to portray extreme violence that somehow flew under the radar.
“We could show horrendous things to the children at home, as long as we portrayed them being shown to the Simpsons’ children first,” Swartzwelder said.
“Somehow this extra step baffled our critics and foiled the mobs with torches. We agreed with them that this was wrong to show to children. ‘Didn’t we just show it being wrong? And, look, here’s more wrong stuff!'”
Of course, in the episode Itchy & Scratchy & Marge, the Simpsons matriarch takes on that exact violence shown in the cartoons, resulting in the cat and mouse become docile and effusive with one another.
“Everybody did Itchy & Scratchy cartoons, but I certainly did more than my share,” he said.
“They were fun for me. I didn’t create them. But I did, along with Sam Simon, create the nice Itchy and Scratchy, as seen on Itchy & Scratchy & Marge, which still makes me laugh every time.”
‘Itchy & Scratchy & Marge’
The Simpsons Writers Aimed to Make Themselves Laugh
One of the most obvious reasons for the enduring success of The Simpsons is that it was, and still is, damn funny with jokes that resonate with people from all walks of life.
When asked if the writers consciously wrote jokes for adult or kids, Swartzwelder said “neither.”
“We just tried to make ourselves, and each other, laugh,” he said. “Comedy writers. That was the audience. Luckily, a lot of other people, both kids and adults, liked the same jokes we liked.”
Incidentally, Swartzwelder doesn’t assign comedic value to one Simpsons character more than another saying, ‘I think we all had favourite characters. A Mr Burns episode was always fun for me. And Homer, of course. Patty and Selma, less so.
“But all of the characters in Springfield can be funny. It’s just a matter of giving them something funny to say.”
He’s Grateful for How The Simpsons Changed the Game
Swartzwelder, who has been heralded as “one of the greatest comedy minds of all time”, is thankful that The Simpsons flipped the script for the people who work behind the scenes to bring the show to life.
“The Simpsons did something I didn’t think possible: it got viewers to look at writers’ credits on TV shows,” he said. “When I was growing up, we looked at the actors’ names, and maybe the director, but that’s it.
“Now a whole generation of viewers not only knows about writers, they’re wondering what we’re really like in real life. And they want to know what we’re thinking. And look through our windows. That’s progress, of a sort, and we have The Simpsons to thank for it.”
In addition to that, the cultural impact of the animated series is something Swartzwelder is both aware of and grateful for.
“I like to think that The Simpsons has helped create a generation of wise guys, who live in a world where everybody is up to something,” he said”
“If that’s all we’ve achieved, aside from the billions of dollars we’ve made, I’m satisfied.”