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John Swartzwelder, Sage of “The Simpsons” (newyorker.com)
150 points by mooreds 12 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments





Even though more than the credited writer collaborates on a Simpsons script (as Swartzwelder says in this interview) it's fun to count how many jokes are packed into a John Swartzwelder episode of the Simpsons. I did it for several of his greats and I found it to be around every 10 seconds something comical was happening.

I've read a few of his books as well, and while I haven't counted the rate feels similar (of course, depending on how fast you read).

That pace of humor is both prodigious and after excessive analysis a tad tiring. But a Swartzwelder episode isn't a thing to dissect, it's a thing to behold. It's really some of the best comedy every produced, hyperbole be damned. Just take a minor key episode like "Whacking Day"-- it manages to hit this incredibly assured series of notes. It's both completely ridiculous (a town holiday to beat snakes) and at the same time a cutting satire about how people dogmatically stick to tradition. It's completely relevant today, even though many of the younger folks watching might not know who Barry White is. And that's kind of the secret sauce-- the longevity and levity are intimately tied in a way that other comedies (or even the Simpsons of today) can't quite match.


even though many of the younger folks watching might not know who Barry White is.

Many of the younger folks watching when the episode first aired in 1993 probably didn't know who Barry White was, either. His hits were from 20 years prior. Even if you didn't know who he was though, he works in the episode because his distinctive voice is written into the story & used as a plot point. He doesn't just make a cameo appearance that any random celebrity could have made.

Keep in mind, this is a show that made Rory Calhoun references in 1995!


But everyone knows who Rory Calhoun is, he's always standing and walking!

Most people only know who Thomas Pynchon is, is from the guy with the paper head over his head who appeared two times on the Simpsons as a throw away joke.

There's so many jokes in vintage Simpsons episodes that I can't understand how they were even written. They can't have made sense on paper. The writing was amazing but so was the cast and the writers had to have so much faith that putting a stage direction Homer shrugs and grunts would be devastating at the right moment. It can't be understated how big an impact they had. Every show, even non-comedy, has borrowed inflections and phrases from 90s Simpsons.

My favorite is Mr. Burns answering the phone "ahoy-hoy".

It's funny on so many levels, and it requires an amazingly esoteric bit of knowledge in a time before it was easy to find that kind of stuff on the internet.


"Alexander Graham Bell originally suggested 'ahoy' be adopted as the standard greeting when answering a telephone, before 'hello' (suggested by Thomas Edison) became common." - from the Wikipedia page on 'Ahoy'.

When the joke was first made (Mr. Burns using the phrase), it wasn't "common" knowledge, but it was a known thing. Like one of the "fun facts" you'd find on a cereal box, or in between segments of a TV show, or as a Jeopardy question.

I remember seeing the episode and understanding the joke... it was just meant to make Mr. Burns appear *really* old.

Maybe I just had a ton of useless/esoteric knowledge as a kid -- that's likely too.


I answered the phone by saying ahoy-hoy for years as a kid. I loved Mr. Burns’ random antiquated phrases

If anything the jokes of the vintage years have got better with age.

Not only because I understood the cultural references or occasional 'adult' jokes more, but also because of the layers to a joke.

Like many Pixar movies, the same gag can make you laugh in different ways as a kid, as a know-it-all young adult, and as a middle aged person.


I learned from this interview that The Simpsons are what popularized the word "meh." I had no idea that it was not a common word before this.

This is probably the quintessential example of what I'm talking about. I was actually surprised to learn they didn't coin it themselves. It's not even a word, but it has so much meaning. It's an entire mood and everyone knows what it means. Lisa says it to Homer in an offhand exchange. It's not even a joke but I will never not laugh at it.

The hullabalooza episode in reference to the younger generation being apathetic to the world. (Neither Highs nor Lows)

It's a perfectly cromulent word.

Also the word "yoink" I think.

They were written and then endlessly workshopped to increase the number of jokes per minute. I believe the goal was 6 per minute during early seasons of the Simpsons.

Obviously that is really hard to do and its fallen out of style.


It is still fairly common advice in stand-up to keep the jokes coming every 7-10 seconds.

Because animation takes so long to produce there's a lot of time to polish and dial the jokes.

Very few cartoons are broadcast live. It's a terrible strain on the animators' wrists.

They just need to use both arms.

In high school my friends and I would discuss during the commercials to see what jokes each of us were laughing at, because we knew it would be different.

“The Simpsons” did something I didn’t think possible: it got viewers to look at writers’ credits on TV shows.

This made me think about what The Simpsons, or any show, really is. For a show with a relatively thin premise, it can really be anything the writing team wants it to be. Homer at the Bat might as well be from a different series from The Bonfire Of The Manatees. The cast is the same, so the different writing team is really felt.

Yes. Thanks to the deal [executive producer] Jim Brooks had, Fox executives couldn’t meddle in “The Simpsons” in any way, though we did get censor notes.

I guess Fox had to take some sort of risks when they were a nascent network (especially before they had the NFL). It was probably an exciting situation for the show runners to be in. I don't they could've gotten such a deal at a more established station.


> it can really be anything the writing team wants it to be.

“Moaning Lisa” was an episode idea for the show Taxi.

If I remember my Simpsons DVD commentary correctly one of the Simpson’s writers was fresh off of Taxi and had this idea for an episode for a long time, that didn’t catch on for that show, so it was remolded and rewritten for the Simpsons.


That was James L. Brooks! He was indeed coming off of Taxi.

I've gotten into the habit of looking at writers credits when a show I'm watching starts to go downhill. Inevitably its because some key person at helm started to leave.

I've been debating with my friends about the Simpsons vs Family Guy/South Park. And while Family Guy/South Park definitely have their merits, the Simpsons is just in a different league. There's a great roundtable^[1] of Simpsons writers hosted by Conan O'Brien (who also was a writer). They talk about how with the Simpsons, no matter what, the family fundamentally cares about each other. Whereas with more modern animation and comedy as a whole, there's this extremely misanthropic feel. Bob's Burgers is probably one of the few shows that actively bucks this trend.

Of course The Simpsons is also just really funny. Family Guy/South Park are too, although I find that Family Guy resorts to shock humor far too much and South Park often repeats the same joke for the entire episode ad nauseum.

[1]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtJ28qOEG1g


The golden era simpsons is some of the best comedy ever written. Sometime after season 10 or 11, quality dropped. I'd argue that golden era simpsons is definitely in a different league than southpark/family guy. However, after the golden era they are pretty comparable with, frankly, the simpsons being on the lower end of humor.

The newer seasons, while not as good as the golden era, are fairly decent in my opinion. I stilly try to catch a new episode when it comes on on Sundays and they seem to have picked up some steam. The newer episodes feature all sorts of characters as the main plot runners.

> no matter what, the family fundamentally cares about each other (...) Bob's Burgers is probably one of the few shows that actively bucks this trend.

King Of The Hill comes to mind as well.


For some reason, KOTH never caught my eye when it was on regularly. Saw it again a few years ago and loved it.

I enjoyed this article. Especially his discussion of writing filler text in scripts that would be ironed out later during rewrites. I see a nice correlation to writing software. Get it working in general and then go back and optimize it.

This is a well-known trick of writers though. You put something down that sucks, and it basically makes your brain think about it while you're not doing anything. Harlan Ellison talks about this too. It's why so many Simpsons episodes are parodies of films; you take the basic plot outline to a film, change up as much as you can to make it funny, and then fill in the rest.

I've never been prouder than when the new hire refactors my code.

I did something similar for a show script I had to write once (a spoof of a children's show). I got the original plot down, then worked with a partner to actually go back and insert the jokes we'd thought of while writing the first draft.

Worked out pretty well, though I don't have any awards to show for it.


write drunk, edit sober

Found that very interesting too! I'll try working around writer's block using that technique :)

"They can kill the Kennedys but they can't make a decent cup of coffee?"

Army Man Magazine: https://armymans.tumblr.com/


Wow- now that is some comedy gold. This feels like the sort of thing a person would know about, but I didn't! Thanks.

It's best to read this interview in Ron Swanson's voice.

It was often speculated that Swartzwelder was the inspiration for Swanson in Parks and Rec, but Michael Schur denied it. Though, Greg Daniels was the one who worked with Swartzelder while at The Simpsons, so I don't know if Schur's denial holds water considering it would have been Daniels' who intended it.

They do look and sound strikingly similar.


Simpsons-specific content starts around 50% into the interview. My favourite snippet:

>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.” 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. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way.

That's a good reminder that can be applied across domains. even perhaps engineering.



Anyone read his self published novels?

I've read most of them. Some of the stuff is just gut bustingly funny. But it isn't grounded by anything, it comes close to just being a stream of nonsense. They basically come off as ideas for novels, or television shows, with no polish.

Where's the interview? I see just two paragraphs introduction, and then a list of links to (unrelated) books and articles.

I was seeing that too. I switched to a different browser and it started showing the whole article. It was very confusing--I thought for a minute that the article just ended there as some sort of cruel joke about a person that doesn't give interviews.

Yes, the New Yorker paywall is confusing. There is no indication that you are not seeing the complete article. Their website in general is a layered failure of design.

Interesting, Wired does the same thing. Must be a Condé Nast thing.

Looks like it's behind their paywall.


Is it just me or archive is unusable on mobile now due to the capcha being off screen?

I was able to view the captcha by rotating my phone into landscape mode

You are living in the year 3000

This is truly the darkest timeline

I'm going to have to read his books. Even his jokes in the interview are comedy gold.



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