George Meyer has led me into the mountains of northern Los Angeles. We’re here because he’s heard stories about an abandoned missile silo, though he has only a vague notion of where it might be. We take Mulholland Drive until it dead-ends, then follow a dirt road on foot. Hours later, we’re hopelessly lost. Meyer spots some coyotes in the distance and waves. I have a weird feeling that I’m going to die up here.
George Meyer is a television writer, probably the best television writer of his generation. He is to The Simpsons what Doug Kenney was to National Lampoon, or Michael O’Donoghue was to Saturday Night Live. He didn’t create it, but he’s largely responsible for its greatness. He’s written for the show since the beginning, and he’s still considered its Grand Pooh-Bah, the silent architect behind TV’s only true satire.
Given his reputation, I imagine Meyer to be a giant. But he’s thin and lanky, with a voice so soft you expect his words to evaporate into wisps of smoke. There’s a sadness about him that’s difficult to place. He only smiles when recalling his favorite Simpsons’ jokes, which he never takes credit for writing. He also enjoys stale Botan Rice Candy, and he’s more than happy to share.
We eventually stumble across the silo. There aren’t any actual missiles, but it’s still a frightening discovery. Meyer is delighted by a sign affixed to the silo’s door, with a single quote by Nikita Khrushchev: “We will bury you.” He wonders aloud at its purpose. Was it meant to motivate the silo’s long-departed personnel? Maybe scare them? It’s unclear.
The coyotes are closing in, but Meyer hasn’t noticed. He’s gazing at the LA skyline, his thoughts elsewhere, perhaps dreaming of yellow men.
“I LOVE THE IDEA THAT A HOBO WOULD BE ‘ALL BUSINESS’.”
THE BELIEVER: I should warn you right up front that I’m one of those obsessive Simpsons fans.
GEORGE MEYER: (nervously) Okay…
BLVR: It’s not something that I’m particularly proud of. I’m the kind of guy who’ll waste entire evenings dissecting obscure characters like Mr. Teeny, the chain-smoking monkey.
GM: That’ll bring the ladies a-runnin’.
BLVR: And I’m one of the sane ones. Have you heard about the Ned Flanders cult in southern England?
GM: Oh, lord! Are you serious?
BLVR: Well, maybe “cult” is too strong a word. They’re devoutly religious and they get a fetishistic thrill from dressing like Ned. Does it disturb you that fans take this stuff so seriously?
GM: I find it intoxicating. I like that people are patterning their lives after our little fictional world. Even the non-fanatical fans have a weird relationship with the show. They want it to be like a dollhouse, and they’re enormously proprietary. When we’ve tried to change too much, they’ve gotten very upset with us. After we killed off Maude Flanders, people were in an uproar. They feel like these characters belong to them. I can understand that, but at the same time, as a writer you sometimes feel the need to shake things up.
BLVR: Do you get the sense that some fans have unrealistic expectations?
GM: Oh, certainly. They seem to believe that we have unlimited time and resources for each episode, and that we’re able to examine everything from every possible angle. And really, the show is more like a hurricane swirling around us. Every joke can’t be dazzling. And if you think you spotted an inconsistency, brother, you did!
BLVR: Does viewer reaction bother you at all?
GM: Honestly, no. We really don’t think about the audience very often. We’re writing for our own enjoyment, or for our friends who write for other shows.
BLVR: I’ve heard that any given episode is peppered with inside jokes. Is there anything that we may have missed?
GM: All of our inside jokes are fairly obvious, if you’re paying attention. We’ll slip in references to “golden showers” or “glory holes,” stupid things that are only there to make us laugh. We had a chloroform run for a while. We just thought chloroform was funny, so we tried to include it in as many episodes as possible. Somebody was always pulling out a rag soaked in chloroform and using it to render somebody unconscious for no good reason. We get these crazes every now and then. There was a period when we were obsessed with hobos. Specifically, hobos and their bindles. In the boxing episode, Homer was fighting a hobo who kept turning to check on his bindle. (Laughs.) Stuff like that is basically about wasting the audience’s time for our own amusement.
BLVR: There’s a special place in my heart for the train-riding, spongebath-loving hobo from the “Tall Tales” episode.
GM: Oh, yeah! That one had my personal favorite internal gag that nobody outside of the show will ever see. At one point, the hobo is spinning a yarn, and Lisa interrupts with a story of her own. The hobo snaps, “Hey, who’s the hobo here?” And in the script, his dialogue note is “(ALL BUSINESS).” (Laughs.) I love the idea that a hobo would be “all business.”
BLVR: “I’m not a stabbin’ hobo…”
GM: “… I’m a singin’ hobo.”
BLVR & GM (singing in unison): “Nothing beats the hobo life, stabbing folks with my hobo knife.”
GM: Wow, you weren’t kidding about being obsessive.
BLVR: It’s a little sad, though, don’t you think?
“OTHER THAN DEATH AND SPEAKING IN PUBLIC, ONE OF THE BIG FEARS THAT EVERYBODY SHARES IS THAT THE JOKE WILL HAVE BEEN ON THEM.”
BLVR: Let’s talk a little about Army Man. For those who don’t know, it was an obscure ‘zine that you wrote with a few writing buddies back in the late 80s. In comedy circles, it’s taken on almost mythological proportions. The core of the Simpsons writing staff was allegedly hired straight from Army Man. And that doesn’t include contributors like Jack Handey, Ian Frazier, and Bob Odenkirk. There’s so much hushed reverence surrounding what was basically a black-and-white, xeroxed newsletter distributed only among a few hundred friends.
GM: I have no idea how it got so big. I was just trying to find something to do while I was living in Boulder, Colorado, which isn’t really a funny town. There are a lot of smart people there, but comedy isn’t at the forefront of their minds. For most of Boulder, comedy is just something you see at the multiplex every week or so. To me, it’s like oxygen. When the National Lampoon entered its slow-motion death, it really hurt me. It was like losing a friend. There were very few publications that were just trying to be funny. Even Spy magazine, which was in some ways its successor, was not primarily funny. It was subversive and satirical, but I don’t think its goal was to provoke belly laughs. So I tried to make something that had no agenda other than to make you laugh. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I reprinted a lot of stuff without getting permission. On her honeymoon in Hawaii, my sister Nancy found a great review of Cannonball Run II, which was breathtakingly sharp and funny. I just stuck it in there. I like to think that Army Man was somewhere between a real publication and a very irresponsible, lawbreaking ‘zine.
BLVR: How in god’s name did you end up in Boulder anyway? Didn’t you spend much of the 80s in New York, writing for David Letterman and Saturday Night Live?
GM: Yeah, but I never cared for New York. I was having problems with my girlfriend and I was very frustrated at Saturday Night Live. I just decided that I needed to start fresh and reconnect with whatever made life worth living.
BLVR: So what happened exactly? Did you just open a map and throw your finger down?
GM: Almost. I knew very little about Boulder, other than that it had a college and a few good record stores and bookstores. It was also close to Mile High Kennel Club, and I was really into dog racing at the time. Beyond that, I just wanted to get as far from the New York environment as I could. It was very healing, and a good place to eliminate cynicism from my work. Or what do you guys call it again? Snark?
BLVR: (laughs) Yeah, Snark. Is that starting to catch on? Has it become an actual buzzword?
GM: Oh yeah, sure. So I felt like Snark, or cheap cynicism, was beginning to play out as a comic sensibility. I thought that sincerity and individuality were going to be the next wave of comedy. Obviously, I underestimated cynicism’s appeal.
BLVR: I’m actually a little surprised by that. Not that I think your writing has a mean streak, but The Simpsons isn’t exactly known for lighthearted, sanguine comedy. It may not be outwardly cynical, but it certainly has a more cynical edge than the average TV comedy.
GM: To an extent, sure. But the comedy I was reacting to was just reflexively snide. It’d pull some stooge apart and leave him writhing in agony. On The Simpsons, we try not attack something just for the thrill of watching it die. I’ve always felt that the nihilistic approach to comedy is inherently limiting. It’s not particularly clever, and it’s so openly hostile that it even puts the audience on the defensive. Other than death and speaking in public, one of the big fears that everybody shares is that the joke will have been on them. It’s a primal thing. When (Simpsons writer) Dana Gould was starting out in stand-up, he didn’t connect with the audience very well. Another comic told him, “The audience wants to like you. But before they will, they want to know that you like them.” And it’s really true.
BLVR: So it’s not so much the message as the messenger?
GM: Exactly. If people think you’re coming from a place of smugness or viciousness, it won’t be as funny to them. Take somebody like Lenny Bruce. If he were only an angry, spiteful comic, I don’t think he would’ve had the same influence. George Carlin gets away with murder in his standup, because people sense that he’s honestly hurt that the world isn’t a saner place.
BLVR: Well, how about Bill Hicks? He was almost entirely fueled by anger and resentment.
GM: Yes, but he was never smug about it. There wasn’t a smirk behind his anger. He railed against the government because he felt let down by it, not because it was an easy target. He was so much more sincere than a lot of political comics, who strike me as very calculated.
BLVR: Without getting all snarky on you, I’ve never been fond of comics like Michael Moore or Al Franken. I agree with their politics one hundred percent, but at what point does satire become propaganda? It seems to me that they’re just pushing a political agenda with jokes.
GM: Personally, I like to keep an audience guessing. Just before the ’96 election, we did a Halloween special where Bob Dole and Clinton were kidnapped by aliens. We killed off both of the presidential candidates in the middle of that segment. They were asphyxiated and floating in space. At that point, I defy anyone to tell us what our politics were.
BLVR: You know, I never realized just how horrific that actually was. You literally killed the standing president.
GM: For a giggle, yeah.
“I NAMED MY DAUGHTER AFTER VALENTINA TERESHKOVA, THE FIRST WOMAN IN SPACE.”
BLVR: Most of the Simpsons episodes attributed to you share a common theme. They deal with characters giving up on an institution or a belief system. Homer stops going to church, Lisa loses faith in the political system, Bart walks out on Thanksgiving.
GM: I guess that’s true. I have a deep suspicion of social institutions and tradition in general. I was brought up Catholic and, of course, I strayed and repudiated it. That’s a painful thing to go through, because you have to look back and realize that you wasted a gigantic chunk of your life. It’d probably be healthier to recall my past with wistful amusement, but I just can’t do it. I still feel betrayed. I didn’t want to be an iconoclast. As a child, I tried to play by the rules. I got very good grades in school; I was an Eagle Scout; and I believed in all of it. But I eventually realized that these institutions didn’t care about me.
BLVR: Most of the Simpsons characters went in the exact opposite direction. They depend on the sense of identity they get from institutions. Look at characters like Principal Skinner, the Comic Book Guy, or Rev. Lovejoy. Their only power comes from the meaningless authority of their jobs. Without that social standing, they’d wither and die.
GM: It’s sad to think of it that way, but it’s probably true. Life is challenging for everyone. If someone can believe that he’s a sovereign in his tiny domain, it’s just an adaptation to life. There’s a touching quality to it. Viewers ask us, “Why do you guys keep making fun of Comic Book Guy?” Hey, we love Comic Book Guy. We hang around with people like Comic Book Guy. It’s that know-it-all quality that we all have in some form.
BLVR: Has anything changed for you in adulthood? Do you continue to have a distrust of institutions?
GM: Yes, but occasionally something will slip through. An institution I trust, for instance, is Conservation International. They’re a group that tries to preserve bio-diversity around the world. I went from being a joiner as a kid to a lurker as an adult. I prefer to linger on the periphery before making a commitment. But these people are so sincere and so real and so dedicated. It’s the only organization that I really care about these days. I’m not patriotic. I’m not religious. I do have a baby — a four-month old girl — and that’s a religion in itself.
BLVR: How has being a father changed your perspective?
GM: It makes me more concerned about earthquakes. I don’t want pictures falling off the walls and landing on her. I’m in a very odd place right now. I resisted parenthood for a long, long time. But having a daughter has given me a sense of hopefulness that I didn’t have before. We named her Poppy Valentina, for Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space.
BLVR: I understand that you collect memorabilia from the Russian space program.
GM: Oh, yeah, I love it. Lately I’ve been interested in Russian space propaganda posters, which are stunningly beautiful. They’re these fanciful, stirring images of Yuri Gagarin reaching across the stars or people standing in the exhaust of a missile and being joyously transformed and, sure, disintegrated. I’m enthralled by the national yearning that the Russians had during the 50s and 60s. The whole century was pretty rough for them. They suffered genocide, war, poverty, and half the population was sent to labor camps. But they were determined to get into space first. And then to launch the Sputnik and beat the U.S., it must’ve been such a surreal thing. They had the first man in space, the first woman in space. It shocks me that so many people haven’t heard of Tereshkova. In fact, a surprising number of people aren’t familiar with Yuri Gagarin either.
BLVR: Are you hoping that your daughter will have an interest in space exploration?
GM: (shrugs.) I can’t think that far in advance, but I suppose it’d be nice. When we heard that Neil Armstrong would be getting an award in LA a few weeks ago, we took Poppy downtown to get her picture taken with him. We were trying to think of which living human would be the freakiest person to have a picture with, down the road. Neil was very sweet, and he recalled meeting Valentina. It was peculiar to be standing so close to him. He’s just a man, but still, what a thing to be Neil Armstrong!
“I COULD WRITE TEN JOKES ABOUT CATHOLICISM IN THE NEXT TWENTY MINUTES.”
BLVR: I assume that you’re still not married, right?
GM: God, no.
BLVR: You’re probably the most effective anti-marriage spokesman out there. I can still vividly recall Edna Krabappel’s argument against marriage: “Most of you will only marry out of fear of dying alone.” That line really shook me when I first heard it. It kept me away from marriage for years. I desperately didn’t want to become the punch line to that joke. And you see it all too often. We all know people who’ve slipped into safety marriages.
GM: My parents are still married and I guess they’re relatively happy. For me, marriage is a grotesque, unforgiving, clunky contrivance. Yet society pushes it as a shimmering ideal. It’s as if medicine came up with the iron lung, then stood back and said, “At last! Our work is done.” Men often struggle with their attraction to other women. They don’t quite understand why they have to be with the same woman forever. Marriage has a compassionate answer for them: “Oh shut up, you selfish crybaby.” Is it any wonder men have to be pressured into this nasty, lopsided arrangement?
BLVR: What about a couple like Homer and Marge? Would you say that’s a good marriage, or is it another one based on fear?
GM: Well, their neuroses are complementary, and that always helps. Marge needs to have a loose-cannon guy in the house. She likes being the authority figure, and Homer gives her something to wag her finger at. And obviously Homer needs Marge to keep him alive. But no, I don’t think they have the greatest marriage. I’m always surprised at how that never comes across to some viewers. There’ll be an episode where Homer passes out drunk on Christmas, or sells his family to Gypsies, and people will say, “It was funny and you did your jokes, but that’s a family that really works. That’s a good marriage.” It blows my mind. They have to see that, even if it’s not there.
BLVR: As long as we’re knocking institutions, we might as well bring up religion. The Simpsons is the only real critique of modern religion that’s actually accepted by popular culture. Catholicism probably gets the worst of it. Or as Homer has called it, “The one with all the well- meaning rules that don’t work out in real life.”
GM: Yeah, I guess we’re a little tough on them. As I was saying before, it was so hard for me to be a Catholic. It wound my spring almost to the breaking point. The spring is still uncoiling from those early years. I’m a thoroughly virulent atheist.
BLVR: Really? You’re an atheist? You’ve abandoned religion entirely, and yet it remains such an important factor in the lives of your characters?
GM: Our show is one of the very few that’s willing to acknowledge that religion even exists. Other shows don’t want to take it on because it’s such a powder keg. People get very upset. The sponsors get edgy about it. I’m still not sure how we get away with it. Fortunately, the Simpsons writing staff doesn’t have a lot of deeply religious people. If we did, there’d probably be more fistfights in the writer’s room.
BLVR: When did you decide to become an atheist? Is this a recent development, or have you always been a closet atheist?
GM: I was agnostic for most of my adult life, but then (Simpsons writer) Mike Reiss started giving me grief about it. He said, “Oh come on. Dive in. Go all the way. Be an atheist. The water’s fine.” I guess I started to realize that being an agnostic was such a wimpy position. I don’t know what the universe is all about, but to me, nothing is gained by slapping a God sticker on it. It has never been a comfort to me to believe there’s an all-seeing eye in the sky. And I don’t like the antagonism that most religions have for science, and freedom and, frankly, individuality. I do like the Dalai Lama.
BLVR: So why venture into that minefield? As you said, most TV shows blatantly ignore religion, with good reason. If you can easily dismiss it in your personal life, why mention religion at all on The Simpsons?
GM: Because it’s so highly charged. There’s a built-up tension in religion, and if you can release it, you’ll get a huge and satisfying laugh. When people have no interest in a subject, it’s very hard to get them to laugh about it. If I had to write ten jokes about potholders, I don’t think I could do it. But I could write ten jokes about Catholicism in the next twenty minutes. I guess I’m drawn to religion because I can be provocative without harming something people really care about, like their cars.
BLVR: Do you think that religion has too much influence on our society?
GM: Absolutely. But I also want to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs. I have wonderful friends who are religious, and I don’t want to say that they’re dimwits. They should certainly be able to pursue what works for them. I’m just saying that it doesn’t work for me and I don’t want to pretend that it does.
“I DON’T LIKE THAT THE SIMPSONS ARE SPOKEPEOPLE FOR BURGER KING AND MASTERCARD AND BUTTERFINGER.”
BLVR: You’re kinda a rarity among TV writers, in that you have a seething hatred of all things television.
GM: (laughing) I don’t know if I’d call it seething.
BLVR: C’mon, George. We all read your New Yorker profile a few years back.
GM: I actually blame the viewers for the glop you see these days. They have a baleful, unearned suspicion of anything new. That probably has a lot to do with advertising hype. The first response to any new show is usually, “What are they trying to pull? What are those Hollywood producers trying to shove down my throat?” I don’t think it was always that way. When I was a kid and I saw the fall preview edition of TV Guide, I was thrilled. I remember reading about a new show called Time Tunnel, where the heroes travel back in time. I was so grateful and overjoyed that somebody was making it. But you couldn’t have that innocence anymore. Now people would just groan and say, “Aw great, another time travel show.”
BLVR: Isn’t that because we’re accustomed to having our hearts broken? If you’ve watched enough TV, you have an intuitive understanding that Time Tunnel is going to be god-awful.
GM: That could be a part of it, sure. There’s also been such a massive flood of entertainment in the last twenty, thirty years. Instead of three networks you have three hundred or three thousand. Audiences are inundated with programming, and that sometimes gives them a sense of petulant entitlement. That was partly the inspiration for Comic Book Guy. There was one episode where he stated it explicitly. He just came right out and said that the networks owe him. Well, as Bart pointed out, haven’t they been providing you with free entertainment week after week?
BLVR: Worst… episode… ever.
GM: Exactly. They don’t want to hear it.
BLVR: Since you already brought it up, let’s talk a little more about advertising. You’ve made no secret of your contempt for consumer culture. You’ve attacked it on the show and in personal interviews. And yet The Simpsons is obviously just another medium for advertising. It exists to sell products.
GM: (sighs.) Yeah, I’ve never been very happy about that. I don’t like that The Simpsons are spokespeople for Burger King and MasterCard and Butterfinger. In the first Gulf War, I was really upset that the Simpsons characters were being drawn on tanks and bombs. But those are things that I don’t control. People have attacked me for being anti-advertising because, well…
BLVR: Because it seems hypocritical?
GM: Yeah, I guess. I mean, it pays for the show, and it pays my salary. So that makes me a big hypocrite. But I… I don’t see it that way.
BLVR: But it is that way, isn’t it? Advertising does pay your salary. You are an employee of Rupert Murdoch. You claim to despise advertising, and yet you’re still working to sell their products. How do you align yourself with that as an artist?
GM: (long pause.) I think the show can be a Trojan horse. As a vegetarian, I hope that by introducing young people to the idea of vegetarianism, it’ll somehow be a counterweight to the Burger King commercials. When I was growing up, I never even heard the word “vegetarian.” Now millions of kids will at least see Lisa being a vegetarian and ask about it. That’s a powerful thing. When we introduce environmental issues, we usually do it in a goofy way. There was that episode about the tree that was cut down and ended up speeding across the country for no reason. It didn’t have a conventional “save the earth” message, but just by bringing up the environmental movement, I’m sure it served to get kids talking about it. At least that’s my hope.
BLVR: There obviously isn’t an easy answer. I think a lot of writers would agree that your choices are limited. When it comes right down to it, working for the consumer culture is really the only way to get exposed to a wide audience. The only other option is to work on a smaller scale, creating art within your own community.
GM: And I have nothing but respect for the purist who won’t work for the pharaoh. But I’m not that strong. It’s a daily battle between my principles and my ambition, and it’s never really clear to me which side is winning. I had a bumper sticker on my car for a long time that said, “Kill your television.” People helpfully pointed out that I was a total fraud because I was a television writer. But I didn’t mean that people should stop watching television, I just meant that people should defy its power and not allow it to dictate all of their life choices. But it’s ubiquitous. For instance, as a John Kerry supporter, I wanted to send him a check. But then it occurred to me that most of that money would end up in the hands of advertising agencies and television networks. And the money would be used to create deceptive commercials that flatter our point of view and shade the facts our way. And I wasn’t comfortable with that. But on the other hand, that’s how the game is played. You’re always grappling.
BLVR: But as you said, these are factors outside of your control. If you spend too much time worrying about The Simpsons’ commercial integrity, it’s going to distract you from what’s important, which is the writing itself.
GM: Yeah. (Pause.) When it’s working, when you’re in that flow zone, it can be exhilarating. It’s oceanic. You forget yourself. All the anxiety and pettiness just falls away. It’s like that crud that falls off a rocket when it’s being launched. It drops away. You don’t get those moments very often. You feel giddy.
BLVR: Do you have a favorite moment or joke from the show? Is there something that you’ve written that still makes you proud?
GM: I don’t remember a lot of what I write. I try to release it after it’s out there so that I can be fresh again. I find that the creative side of my brain and the archival side of my brain don’t work well together. When I’ve done my best work, I’ve been in a trance-like state. Of course I write jokes that are more by-the-numbers. But they tend to have a flat, pedestrian quality compared to the dizzying flights of silliness that we occasionally achieve. That said, I’m pretty sure I wrote “Pray for Mojo.” Do you remember that line?
BLVR: Weren’t those the dying words of Homer’s helper monkey?
GM: Uh-huh. It’s almost like an epitaph for Western Civilization.
BLVR: That seems about right.
GM: It’s this bloated, fucked-out corpse that washes up on the beach, burping up its final breath.
BLVR: What a lovely, pro-America message for the kids.
GM: (laughs.) I do what I can.
“EVEN IF YOU HAVEN’T HAD ONE OF YOUR BUTTOCKS CUT OFF OR BEEN RAPED BY PIRATES, WE CAN ALL APPRECIATE THE HORRORS IN CANDIDE.”
BLVR: What’s always fascinated me about The Simpsons is how it finds the balance between pessimism and hopefulness. There was an episode early in the show’s run where Homer briefly leaves the nuclear plant to work for a bowling alley. Marge ends up getting pregnant and Homer has to return to the job he hates. In the hands of a lesser sitcom, that resolution could’ve easily turned into an uncomplicated moral lesson. But you didn’t gloss over the undercurrent of sadness. Just because he’s willing to sacrifice for his family doesn’t mean he’s happy about it. He still loathes his job. He did the right thing for his daughter, and he knows that, but his life is still miserable. You celebrated that glimmer of hope without ignoring the world of suffering that surrounds it.
GM: You have to respect people’s suffering. To deny that the world is unfair and painful for most of the people living in it would be false and judgmental. We all know the perennial optimist who urges us to reframe every experience in a way that will render it lovely and rewarding. I’d like nothing more than to be that person, but I just can’t do it. I tend to look at the world more from Voltaire’s perspective. Incidentally, if you haven’t read Candide lately, it’s a fabulous book. It’s riotously, laugh-out-loud funny in a way that no Shakespeare comedy will ever be.
BLVR: Especially if you enjoy public flagellation and pirate rape.
GM: I love that Voltaire was so willing to shock his readers with arbitrary cruelty. And I can completely relate to it. Even if you haven’t had one of your buttocks cut off or been raped by pirates, we can all appreciate the horrors that take place in Candide. At the same time, he strikes a nice balance between futility and optimism. By nature, I tend to fall more on the saturnine side. But if you’re going to be truly funny, I think you have to be a little Pangloss and a little Martin. You have to be able to shuttle back and forth.
BLVR: In The Simpsons’ world, who is truly happy?
GM: As in the real world, the most oblivious people are often the happiest. Someone like Chief Wiggum, for instance, who is pretty satisfied with his life despite being an absolutely catastrophic police chief. I also think Homer is pretty happy, if only because deep in his bones he realizes that he’s indestructible. There’s not much that can hurt him anymore.
BLVR: I suppose Ned Flanders is reasonably happy.
GM: Yeah, it’s confounding, isn’t it?
BLVR: I’m not sure how he does it. Here’s this guy whose belief in God is so genuine and who is so clearly a good man. And yet he gets nothing but misfortune. Homer is constantly stealing from him. His Leftorium business almost bankrupts him. His house was destroyed in tornado. His wife died in a freak accident.
GM: I like to think that we’re just testing him, like Job. And he’s held up quite well. He’s buoyantly loving and resilient in a way that’s almost Christ-like. No matter how much Homer provokes him, he keeps coming up with another cheek to turn. I think that’s an unusual thing to see in television, because TV and movies are obsessed with revenge. On my way over here, I saw a billboard for that movie Walking Tall. It had this looming image of The Rock, holding a piece of lumber, ready to crack skulls. It’s interesting how that has such appeal for people. And Flanders is really going against the grain. He’s not a hypocrite. He’s a guy who reads the Bible and practices it. Despite my admitted atheism, he’s actually a stirring figure to me.
BLVR: While Ned manages to overcome adversity, characters like Frank Grimes haven’t been so lucky.
GM: (laughs.) Ah, yes. Poor, guiltless Grimes.
BLVR: You have to admit, the poor sap really didn’t deserve to be persecuted to that extent.
GM: Well, yes and no. Grimes’ cardinal sin was that he shined a light on Springfield. He pointed out everything that was wrongheaded and idiotic about that world. And the people who do that tend to become martyrs. He said things that needed to be said, but once they were said, we needed to destroy that person. I’ll admit, we took a certain sadistic glee in his downfall. He was such a righteous person, and that somehow made his demise more satisfying.
BLVR: But doesn’t that bother you at all? I’ve heard pretty convincing arguments that Frank Grimes was a turning point for the show. Before he came along, The Simpsons had a clear moral center. The world was full of heartbreak and misery, but people were still ultimately good. Post-Grimes, there were no longer consequences. Characters stopped adhering to a shared code of humanity. Now more than ever, bad things happen to good people, and the stupid and evil inevitably prevail.
(A long and uncomfortable pause.)
GM: We may have gone too far.
(Both burst into laughter.)
BLVR: You see, that’s all I wanted to hear.
“I KNOW THAT EVERYBODY IS TRYING REALLY HARD. NOBODY IS SAYING, ‘I’LL JUST SLAP TOGETHER SOME PIECE OF SHIT AND FLOAT IT OUT THERE AND SEE IF ANYBODY LIKES IT.’”
BLVR: There’s been talk of The Simpsons ending since the mid-90s. But thus far, it’s still going strong. There was even an allusion to the show’s apparent immortality in an episode closer called “They’ll Never Stop The Simpsons.” The lyrics advised us to “Have no fears, we’ve got stories for years.” Is The Simpsons going to outlive us all? And is that really a bad thing? Will it do irreparable damage to its legacy the longer is stays on the air, as so many predict?
GM: Well sure, if the shows are no good. But my feeling is that we’ll probably get bored with it before the audience does. We have to spend more time with it and immerse ourselves in this weird little universe. If it’s completely dried up, I think we’ll know it. I hope so anyway.
BLVR: Well, you haven’t exactly had the best of luck saying goodbye. You’ve been repeatedly quitting and returning to The Simpsons for at least a decade.
GM: I like to think that I’m easing my way off the show. I’m working two days a week as a consultant. I just didn’t want to quit cold turkey, because the last time I did that, it didn’t take. The other writers had a going-away party for me and they gave me a little brick of silver – which is a great gift, by the way. It’s hard to leave The Simpsons. Every once in a while I get romantic notions that I should be doing something much more subterranean. Something like Army Man, or maybe guerilla filmmaking.
BLVR: What keeps you coming back?
GM: It’s the chance to have a worldwide audience. There’s absolutely no way that something I do on my own is going to be seen in Malaysia. My subscription department is just not going to have that kind of penetration. The idea that people are watching this show in so many different countries and languages is just the coolest thing to me. I don’t know what they’re getting out of it, but I’m awed that people are drawn to it.
BLVR: Wouldn’t it be nice, though, to do something that was entirely your own creation?
GM: Well, sure. I tried to get a few of my own projects off the ground, but for one reason or another, it never happened. At first, I was bitter about it, but as I saw more and more good people get shot down, I realized that I couldn’t take it personally. What I enjoy most about staying at The Simpsons is that the worst is over. Launching a new TV show is probably one of the most difficult things that a writer can do. In the early days, it’s like a baby crawling across a freeway. It’s such a miracle if it gets across. I used to take a cruel delight in the failures of others. But I’m past that now. I know that everybody is trying really hard. Nobody is saying, “I’ll just slap together some piece of shit and float it out there and see if anybody likes it.” Most TV writers are doing the best they can.
BLVR: And few of them have succeeded at your level. I get the sense that you don’t really appreciate what you’ve accomplished. You’re not exactly a poster-child for failed potential.
GM: I guess not. And whenever I think about leaving The Simpsons, my girlfriend gently whacks me upside the head and reminds me what a rare opportunity it is to work there. She once told me, “No matter what you do from now on, your obituary is going to lead off with ‘Simpsons Writer’.” That enraged me at the time, but I guess it’s true.
BLVR: It seems like a lot of comedy writers feel that they should be doing something more meaningful or important. Look at what happened to Doug Kenney. I wouldn’t claim to know what was going through his head when he jumped off that cliff, but I get the impression that he was a little underwhelmed with being a comedy writer, even a great comedy writer. It rang a little hollow to him.
GM: That’s a constant struggle. I know that I should be proud of what I’ve done on the show. But there’s a melancholy that comes with being a TV writer. When I was first hired to write for The Simpsons, I knew it was a complete crapshoot. It could’ve just as easily been this embarrassing cartoon that I did before moving on to write jokes for the Academy Awards. And then it suddenly hit in such a big and unequivocal way. It was an amazing moment of validation for me, but it also made me tremendously arrogant. I was in this limbo state between self-absorption and an inexplicable disappointment with my life. I loved what I was doing, but I was also a little ashamed by it. I was suicidal for a number of years.
BLVR: How did you break out of that?
GM: Well, therapy made a big difference. But sometimes you get moments of clarity in ways that you don’t expect. When I look at my books at home, so many of them are biographies. I didn’t realize it at first, but I think I’ve just been trying to confirm to myself that life is really a bitch for everybody. Once you realize that, it takes some of the pressure off.
BLVR: I think that just comes with getting older. You realize that your disappointments and failures aren’t necessarily unique.
GM: To me, a mark of maturity is realizing that nobody runs the world. Fat cat politicians and secret conspiracies don’t control our lives. In reality, the world is much more complex than that. The people who seem to have a lock on power get swept out in a couple of years. So it’s naïve to keep swinging at the same targets over and over. It took me a long time to realize, but most of the shackles that I flailed against were just illusory.
BLVR: Do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?
GM: I’m a pessimist, but I have many painstakingly applied coats of optimism. I’m very proud of my gloss right now.