Admit it: you'd lost sight of just how fond of the Springfield community you are until you found yourself sucked into endless half-hours of that FXX marathon a few weeks back.
It's no surprise that, after 26 seasons, fans may have started to take The Simpsons a little for granted until that big wallop of both nostalgia and enduring quality reminded everyone just how great the show has been over the years. Executive producer Al Jean, an original member of the writing staff and showrunner since Season 13, promises that the show's creative team is definitely not undervaluing the residents of 742 Evergreen Terrace and their friends and neighbors in the new season, which promises a startlingly ambitious and exciting slate of episodes.
In the first half of Season 26, which kicks off on Sept. 28, a Springfieldian dies, for good; Futurama's Bender travels back in time to kill Bart to save the future; the Simpsons are haunted by their Tracey Ullman-era incarnations; Kang and Kodos' home planet is revealed; and guest stars like Nick Offerman, Willem Defoe and Elon Musk pop in. And, of course, Springfield is invaded by the Griffin family of Quahog, Rhode Island in the Sept. 28 season premiere of Family Guy, a highly anticipated -- and hotly debated -- crossover.
In a recent conference call with journalists, Jean teases out even more details from making the latest season, reveals what it meant to him to revisit the complete series during that epic marathon and weighs in on whether we'll one day be celebrating the show's 30th season.
On the death of one of Springfield's familiar residents -- the identity remains top secret -- in the 26th Season opener "Clown In the Dumps":
Al Jean: This may have been a little overhyped! [Laughs] That being said, I think it's a wonderful episode and I think it works along the parameters we originally set out. I think that people will really like it. I wanted to mention there is a brilliant couch gag at the beginning by artist Don Hertzfeldt. Don't tune in late; you'll really be sorry if you miss it. David Hyde Pierce is in the first episode. I'm afraid I can't give out any more clues about anything more -- it'll blow the secret, so that's what I'll say is he's on that first show.
On whether the dearly departed character will follow in the paw prints of Family Guy's Brian with an insta-resurrection:
Well, when we kill them, they stay dead! That's my motto! But, you know, in animation, you can certainly have somebody remember somebody else or fantasize or have a dream about them, so I wouldn't rule that out. But we're not going to do what they did with Brian. It's not going to be a time machine or something that solves the problem and he or she is back as a living character.
On the much-anticipated Family Guy crossover episode, which airs immediately after the season premiere:
I can tell you this: I've seen it. I've seen the whole episode, and I loved it. That's probably my strongest recommendation. Rich Appel, who works on Family Guy, approached us -- Rich had also worked for us, and I've known him a long time; a really great writer. Him working on it, I thought, ‘Well, it's going to be great.' You know, they all did a great job: him and Steve Callaghan and of course Seth McFarlane. I can only say -- I don't want to give anything away, I don't want to reveal the jokes in it -- but I thought it was actually sweet, and it made me laugh multiple, multiple times, so I'm glad it exists. If they sold a DVD of it, I'd buy it… It's their episode. They were great about it. By the way, the Futurama crossover was us, so in both cases, both shows who are the host show wrote a script, submitted it to the visitor, and said, "Let us know if we're off with anything." We gave really, really tiny notes. Jim [Brooks] and Matt [Groening] and I all signed off on the Family Guy crossover, but that's their show. I came to it more as a viewer than anything else.
On the Simpsons-produced crossover episode with another of Matt Groening's animated creations, Futurama:
Futurama is a hugely natural fit, with brilliant voice actors. It was something that we loved doing. [Futurama co-creator and executive producer] David [X.] Cohen worked with us on it, and he's great, of course. Everything that we are doing is something that we thought was creatively good. It wasn't really something that we were doing for hype or promotion. It just turned out, luckily, that when we mentioned these ideas, people would say, "Wow, that's great -- I'm really excited!" The biggest joy was -- besides, as I just mentioned, working with David Cohen and of course Matt Groening got to work with himself -- was that we had at our table read, Maurice LeMarche and Billy West and John DiMaggio plus our cast, all in one room. And I really thought, this is the greatest assembly of voiceover talent ever. It was just really, really fun. We got Katey Sagal later; we have everybody from Futurama in the show. It was just such a natural fit because the styles of the shows are from the same creator, the sense of humor is the same, and it was really just a pleasure to do. It'll be airing November 9.
We had Harlan Ellison as a guest, and we said, "Everybody's stolen your plot about someone from the future coming back to kill someone in the present to save the future, so we're going to steal it, too."
On the latest -- and very ambitious -- 25th anniversary installment of "Treehouse of Horror":
The Halloween show has three segments that are all wonderful. One is "A School in Hell" that's a little bit inspired by the Sandman comics of Neil Gaiman. Really beautiful. The middle segment is Kubrick-inspired -- it's "A Clockwork Orange" segment, and it was just such a pleasure to watch his films again with that. And then the Simpsons meet their Tracey Ullman selves, and that came off really funny, so that one's very, very ambitious, and there's more to it even than I just described. And then, coming in January, we're going to air the episode where they visit the home planet of Kang and Kodos, and that was directed by David Silverman, who's our longtime brilliant director -- one of our longtime, brilliant directors -- and it came out great.
On the wildly popular "Every Simpsons Ever" 12-day marathon of all 552 episodes to date that marked the series' debut on FXX and hit ratings highs:
It was a surprisingly wonderful, emotional experience. It was literally like seeing my life flash before my eyes, with very few commercials. I've been here the whole time, in one form or another, and I remember, both of my daughters were born during the run of this show, I remembered the writers I had worked with. We really loved live Tweeting right from the start with people like Jon Vitti and Jeff Martin, and then the current writers like Tim Long. I wish everybody could have as wonderful an experience as I had with that marathon.
On the revelations he had as he watched the marathon:
There were two observations I had -- and remember, this is my opinion; everyone's entitled to their own. The first was in, like, Season Three or something, we kept ending each episode with a parody of Starsky and Hutch where everybody just started laughing for no reason. I was like "We did that a few times too many."
Then my second observation: The episodes were "Once Upon a Time in Springfield" and "Million Dollar Maybe" and "Boy Meets Curl" -- those three episodes I watched in a row. This is from the later era of the show, which sometimes people say they don't like as much, or whatever. I found them really funny. I was going, "These are really good -- and emotional, too." People will say, "You don't write emotional episodes anymore." The three of them were full of emotion. I thought it was really wonderful that the last day of the marathon was the highest rated, even though those episodes had just aired on FOX. I really felt people who may have stopped watching when they went to college or left college would watch some new ones and go there's a lot of great stuff in these newer episodes.
On the most obscure character in the Simpsons universe that Jean loves the most:
Baron von Kissalot is where Arty Ziff tried to kiss Marge and then she took a taxi home and the guy asks for her fare and she said to ask 'Baron von Kissalot.' Then they cut to this real baron with a big pair of lips. That joke was a David Mirkin joke. Really funny.
On the show's most recent primetime ratings:
A guy I worked with years ago told me ratings depend on two things: What you're against, and what you're after. Every fall, we're after football, so people go "Wow, really strong numbers." And every spring, there's no football, so they go "Hmm, they took a drop." But in terms of the 18-49 demo, in terms of the profitability of the show, I think our ads are about in the Top 5 of all shows on all networks, and we're huge in 18-49, even more in males 18-34, and we always are. We rerun really well. If I was looking at the show without looking at the name or how long it had been on, I'd go, "This is something that's clearly doing really well for the network."
On whether the show's long-lead production time leaves the creators wishing they had room to be include more topical, of-the-moment humor:
Because we produce it a year ahead, and also because, as you saw with the marathon, we aired shows from 20 years ago and they held up, I believe, we want a sort of a timeless quality, where we do subjects like poor healthcare or people getting screwed on their mortgages -- things that are going to be always a problem. Whereas, as much as I admire South Park, they're shooting for something a little different, and I never feel like we're in direct competition. People will go, "Oh, are you trying to outflank them? Make yourself edgier? Or less edgy?" I go, "We're just ourselves and they're just themselves, and there's room for both."
On TV boundaries and taboos in 2014:
In terms of what's off limits, what's funny is that certain things that weren't off-limits -- like, Maude did an abortion episode -- are now more off-limits than they were. It's a funny sort of dynamic in terms of what television wants to see and what it allows. I also happen to be running the show after 9/11 and people then said, "Well, you can never make fun of the president anymore. That's just going to be the end of that." And I was just like, "Really? George W. Bush is never going to do anything funny?" And, of course, that was insane. So it's hard to ever say, "Oh, X will never be done," because Jim Brooks, who runs the show and did Mary Tyler Moore -- his career was taking something that had never been done and doing it.
On the long-term future for the series beyond Season 26:
I'm not being glib when I say the long-term future has rarely looked brighter. That marathon on FXX did wonders for us in every way. We're still doing really well on the network. It's still an international hit. We just did a little video where Dan Castellaneta, voice of Groundskeeper Willy, is advocating an "I Vote for Scotland," and that got 4 million views. So if you said how long is the show going to last, I'd say my guess is at least two more years. Probably four, maybe more. Nobody's talked to us about wrapping it up. Nobody.