The Simpsons returns for its 24th season Sunday on Fox, and the venerable animated series is as plugged in to pop culture as ever. Spinoff Online recently joined other members of the press in a conversation with Al Jean, who’s been writing for The Simpsons for more than two decades. We talked about everything from the upcoming season to the performer who declined an invitation to guest star to the way Jean makes sure the show remains fresh. Be warned, there are some spoilers about the season premiere.
The season opens with the Simpson family returning to New York City, where Bart tries to reconnect with his long-lost love Mary Spuckler (voiced by Zooey Deschanel). While the Simpsons have visited the Big Apple before, Jean said he tried to make sure this episode didn't repeat any that came before.
"We do locations that I haven’t seen, not even in an animated show, but even in films, like, they go to the High Line, which wasn’t there when they went to New York previously. So, we try to do stuff like that," he explained. "You know, New York is a rich place full of interesting things. We just tried, either if we repeated something it would be to say, here’s what happened to that person. Or if we don’t repeat it, in general with the show, we’re trying to cover new ground."
That said, there are several nods to the Simpsons’ previous adventures in New York. The Khlav Kalash vendor makes an appearance, and Homer, although no longer a parking fugitive, still is sick of the city’s crime.
"There is a funny thing where he gets his pocket picked, and he says, 'I thought there was no more crime in this city, Giuliani,'" Jean related in his best Homer Simpson voice.
This season's “Treehouse of Horror" episode is set to air Oct. 7, and Jean is excited about that legacy. The Halloween special travels back to the time of the Mayans, whose calendar ends on Dec. 21, 2012, leading to the belief a major global catastrophe will occur on that date. The plot seems like a given considering that we’re only weeks away from supposed doom.
"The 'Treehouse,' because it’s such a thriving genre, I think is a little easier to come up with ideas for. Plus you don’t have to come up with a full storyline," Jean explained. "You’re often just saying I’m going to hop on the shoulders of this original great story that people are familiar with. Coming up with ideas and new storylines is definitely the hardest thing that we can do, and the most difficult aspect of the job now. But I would say with the 'Treehouse,' it’s actually easier."
He added that they've already completed next year's "Treehouse" episode, which includes "a very violent world resembling Dr. Seuss’, and also the movie Freaks."
Fans might have noticed the promo ad for the 24th season that follows Homer Simpson as he casts his vote for president. That scene isn't in any specific episode, but Jean said they might find a home for it yet. After the good response to the scene in which Homer voted in 2008, Jean knew he wanted to try to tie in the 2012 election.
"We were trying to figure out a way to remind people the premiere was Sept. 30, and the Halloween show is early this year, Oct. 7,” Jean said. “So I thought, hey, why don’t we have Homer vote again like he did in 2008, you know with the topical references to this year’s election. We wrote it about a month ago, and then Dan Castellaneta came in, and he does all of the voices, except the woman on the voting machine is Tress MacNeille. And Film Roman animated extremely quickly. Hey, it helped."
In addition to Deschanel, it's already been announced that Steve Carell and Benedict Cumberbatch will lend their voices to the new season. Jean added that Janet Reno, Edward Norton, Tina Fey and Jane Krakowski will also guest star.
With 23 years of The Simpsons under his belt, Jean has seen a lot of voice actors come and go. He said his favorites have been Phil Hartman, Kelsey Grammar, Anne Hathaway and Kiefer Sutherland, but there are still celebrities who turn down the opportunity to appear.
"There are people that even asked to be on, and then we wrote them a part, and then they declined. I won’t name them," Jean said, before adding, "All right, I will: Jon Bon Jovi."
The Simpsons has been renewed through its 25th season, but Jean said he doesn't see any reason to stop there. He gave the sense that he'll keep writing as long as Fox keeps letting him.
"The pickup was definitely open-ended. Nobody ever said we’re going to stop the show after we produce these episodes," he said. "So, you know, at the beginning I was hoping for five years, much less 25. I wouldn’t even guess where we’d end up."
The bottom line is that Jean is proud of the show that has become such a part of his life.
"The basic style of the show which came from Matt Groening, I think is so original and intriguing to the eye that I think no matter what we stand out," he said. "Flipping through the channels and you hit The Simpsons, you always know it."
The 24th season of The Simpsons premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.