It’s still weird that Disney owns The Simpsons. It will probably always be weird. But despite the studio change, the show is still in the same hands: those of Al Jean, one of the original writers who served as co-showrunner for the series’ iconic third and fourth seasons. After leaving the show for five seasons to create The Critic, he returned to The Simpsons as a writer in 1998 and became showrunner again in 2001, and has held that position since.
Most recently, Jean had his hands in the first special project featuring Springfield, USA to be produced by Disney. The Maggie Simpson-centric short “ Playdate With Destiny,” which premiered in theaters before Onward, is coming to Disney+. Nerdist got a chance to talk to Jean about the short before its debut on the site, along with how things will (or won’t) change for The Simpsons under Disney, living up to the series’ legacy, old fans versus new, and more.
Was this the first Simpsons project you’ve done for Disney?
Al Jean: Yes, but the origin was that it was an episode we didn’t air two years ago by Tom Gammill and Max Pross. Jim Brooks said, “Hey this would be a great short if we just lifted it from the episode.” So we were working on it and then got bought by Disney.
We showed it to them and they really loved it. They thought it’d be perfect to put in front of one of their movies. Obviously our first wish was Pixar, and we were thrilled they put it in front of Onward, which I think is a great film. Of course, the opening “Walt Disney Welcomes The Simpsons” was added, but [the short] was actually in the works two years ago. And the episode it was taken from, which is now a sequel episode with Hudson the Baby, is going to air April 19th.
What was your favorite part of the short?
AJ: I pitched the scene where you see the babies on the beach at Santorini. My wife is Greek-American, so I thought it was a really beautiful shot. And I’m glad it became a publicity still for the short. And I love the ending. I don’t want to give it away, but the little twist ending is great.
Did you have to make any changes to the actual story itself since it was going to air before a Disney movie?
AJ: Nope, none. It was the same as it was. It’s funny; a couple reviews said, “They Disney-fied the show.” It was exactly the same even before we knew we were owned by Disney. The opening joke and the Mickey at the end were put in. But the basic short? No.
Has Disney talked to you about how the show might change under their banner? Or do they just want you to keep doing what you’re doing?
AJ: The latter. They just say, “Do what you do, there’s a place for you here.” I know The Simpsons is doing very well on Disney+. They want the show to have the same edge. We had the Mark of the Beast in the Halloween show and it was Mickey Mouse’s head, so they’ve been great.
Have you found that you’re finding a whole new generation of fans because it’s on Disney+?
AJ: Some, and I think we’ll get some because of the short. Because I think it does appeal to the very youngest. And I’m thrilled that we’re on it. It was great, and of course during these terrible times it’s going to be seen even more. So we’re very, very thrilled we’re on Disney+. And very, very excited the short did get a theatrical release in front of a Pixar movie.
I read that you like to watch old episodes. Have you found yourself going back and watching them because the show is on there now?
AJ: To be honest I’m still working on the show. We do it via Zoom. It’s intense, and I’m very glad and lucky to be working, so that’s enough Simpsons for the day. [Laughs] Doing the work. Some day I’ll go back and look at everything.
How do you make sure you’re not redoing ideas you did 20 years ago?
AJ: I’ll put it like this: “We never repeat ourselves. We never repeat ourselves.” [Laughs] The truth is we do at least “rhyme” with previous episodes—intentionally, in the sense that if it’s a Homer and Lisa episode, there’s going to be some notes that are the same, because it’s a great relationship. But we’re looking at how they bond in today’s world. So we had a recent episode where they were bonding in a Halloween episode, which was great, just as we had them bonding like they did in the “Moaning Lisa” episode years ago.
Do you ever think about what it would take for you to actually say, “You know what, maybe it’s time for the show to end”?
AJ: Well, it wouldn’t be my call. In no way would it be my call. And we’re just a little tiny part of the world. But the way that times are, suppose I had said six months ago, “Oh maybe we’re running close to the end.” I’m glad we kept going. I’m glad we’re still doing it. I would miss it if were gone right now, even if I wasn’t still working there.
I think the first eight seasons are the best television show ever. Do you find that older fans like me, who got away from the series over the years, are coming back to it now that all the episodes are on Disney+?
AJ: I’ve heard every sort of thing. I’ve heard what you said quite a bit. And I’ve heard people younger than you who say the best years are seasons one to 16. Or another date, probably depending on when the person went to college. I’ve heard people say they came back to them and liked them. And some have said they came back to them and didn’t like them.
It’s very hard for me to be objective. I just know we work as hard and try as hard. And everyone cares about it as much as we did on season one. I will point out we did win the Emmy last year for Outstanding Animated Program. So I would say that if the standards of The Simpsons have declined, so have the standards of the Emmys.
The one remark I don’t pay much attention to is people who go, “It sucks, I haven’t seen it in years.” I say, “How do you know?” When I was, say, ten, for me to enjoy something that was 30 years old, it would be a Mickey Mouse cartoon from World War II. Thirty years is a long time, but [The Simpsons] definitely seems to be evergreen. The thing I do know is if you have kids and you show them The Simpsons, they get into it right away. To them it’s new and to them it’s fresh. Like I said, I know it’s doing quite well on Disney+, and a lot of that is a new audience.
Now that you are under the Disney umbrella, what opportunities does that provide you and the show that maybe you wouldn’t have had before?
AJ: It’s a weird time to discuss it, but Disney has so many avenues where you can do things. We have done an amusement park ride. But to be able to do something with, say, Hong Kong Disneyland would be fantastic. To do a feature, or to have Disney Animation do a feature with us, or another short. There’s so much that they do and so many great things that they have, and Disney+ is certainly one of them. We had just started getting into it and talking about it when [the COVID-19 pandemic] hit, and I have no doubts when things are up and running there will be a lot of different stuff we can do with it.
Lots of old shows are coming back. Any chance we could ever see more of The Critic?
AJ: I would like to. I can’t say for sure that it would happen. It would be great to see how Jon Lovitz’s character would be in today’s world. And I think he would be very interested. So, it’s definitely not a no. I would love it.
You’ve worked on The Simpsons for so long and in different eras, but there are a lot of people who think the two seasons you ran were the best seasons of television ever. How do you continue to make episodes decades later when that’s the standard some people are holding you to?
AJ: It’s kind of you to say that about those years. I was there, and nobody at the time thought we were living through this golden age. What happened was, when I saw the first episode, the Christmas show [“Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”] that I worked on and put together, I thought, “Oh my God, this is the best thing I’ve ever worked on.” Then [The Simpsons] became such a big hit. So when we took over, I was terrified. I thought, “I don’t want to let people down and ruin this thing that everyone loves.”
Season four, a lot of the original writers’ deals were up. As they deserved, they got really good offers from other places. We were terrified season four was gonna be a disaster, and we hired this new guy Conan O’Brien. And he was great, and we did the best we could. Now I do hear sometimes people say season four of The Simpsons is one of the greatest seasons of anything ever. And I’m amazed having been there at the time. If you told me that while we were pitching it out I would have said, “No. You’re nuts.”
Do you feel any pressure from that as you work on the show now? Or does it not have any influence on you?
AJ: I always try to remember the roots of the show, the characters and their relationships. We just did an episode that I co-wrote called “Better Off Ned.” It was trying to hearken back to the way the show originated. But in terms of how we work on it, I just would say we always approach it the same as we always have. I’m not more daunted than I ever was. Which was quite a bit, in that I always wanted it to be good and I always wanted it to be the best. To me, I’d say it’s less season four than just trying to uphold the fans’ appreciation for it from season one. We just didn’t want to let anyone down.
Featured Image: Disney
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