Thursday, February 16, 2012

INTERVIEW: We Talk to Michael Price, Writer of the 500th Episode of The Simpsons!

This Sunday in the US, The Simpsons will reach the massive milestone of an unbelievable 500 episodes! For most of us, the show has been around for a large part of our lives and is infinitely watchable and quotable. Even your least favourite episodes still have some of the funniest moments and lines to rival any other show. This a great time to reminisce and celebrate everything you've ever loved about America's favourite four-fingered, yellow, geometrically hair-styled family. 

And it gets even better. I had the huge honour of interviewing Michael Price, long-time writer and co-executive producer on The Simpsons, who also just happened to write the upcoming 500th episode!

Mr. Price generously shares a ton of fascinating information on his process, the behind-the-scenes goings on of the show, and hints to some very funny stuff we can expect in the future. This is unmissable reading, so join me after the jump to learn all about The Simpsons straight from the source! I am wearing a tuxedo while typing this!

Congratulations on writing the 500th episode of The Simpsons! That is a massive honour and a testament to your talents. How did this come about and how does it make you feel? Surely everybody is going to watch this one!

Thanks! Well, of course, I'm thrilled to be playing such a big role in a landmark episode like this, but when I pitched this story I didn't have the 500th episode in mind at all -- I was just trying to come up with a fun story that would make it past our Showrunner Al Jean's desk! 

As anyone on our staff will tell you, the onus of coming up with new stories that we haven't already done on the series only gets harder with each passing season, so it's a bit of a struggle sometimes to find ones that fit that criteria. Anyway, I'd come up with a few ideas that didn't pass muster and I finally hit upon the big idea that constitutes the first act and a half of this episode. 

The Simpsons are driving around town and find that everyone else in Springfield is attending one of those town meetings they seem to have a couple of times a week. The Simpsons wonder why they weren't invited, until they sneak in the back and discover that their friends and neighbors are conspiring to toss them out because they're just really sick and tired of all the mayhem Homer, Bart and the bunch have caused over the years. My original pitch had them leaving town, starting off with a clean slate, and moving to a wonderful sparkly clean planned community along the lines of Disney's Celebration, Florida. But, Al Jean thought that was too similar to an episode Joel H. Cohen wrote a few years back where Flanders moved his family away and briefly settled in the very Flanders-y town of Humbleton, PA ("Home Away From Homer" Season 16). 

That's when I remembered an idea my son, Wills, told me about a few years ago. He and his Mom had discovered an out-of-the-way neighborhood about 30 minutes away from downtown LA that was "unincorporated" -- meaning it had no city jurisdiction by either Los Angeles or any other city and was only occasionally patrolled by Sherriff's Deputies from distant Ventura County. As a result, this place attracted certain types of people who were interested in living "under the radar", and their homes were kind of slapdash and really not up to any kind of building code. Wills told me "Homer should move the Simpsons there, because then he could do whatever he wanted and not get in trouble." 

Unfortunately, at the time we were writing the episode about Springfield installing security cameras and Homer discovering that his backyard was a blind spot where he could conduct all kinds of unsavory business. ("To Surveil With Love" -- Season 21). Cut to 2 years later and I remembered WIlls' tale of this out-of-the-way spot and I pitched that as the place the Simpsons could wind up after they've been evicted from Springfiield. Happily, Al liked that idea of the Simpsons settling in this kind of wild place filled with other of society's outcasts and malcontents and I was sent off to write the script. When I turned it in and we started to work on the rewrite, Al decided the subject matter made it an appropriate choice for our 500th episode. And, like I said about 1000 words ago, I was thrilled. I was and remain amazed that I have the privilege to take part in producing this wonderful series that so many people around the world love.

When we last chatted it was about the very funny Lego Star Wars: The Padawan Menace, which you also wrote. The Simpsons, like Star Wars, is one of the hugest pop culture phenomenons that just about everyone has engaged with. 500 episodes is such a huge achievement. Why do you think the show has endured?

Number one, we’re animated, which means the characters never age. Someone on our staff recently pointed that many of the current longest-running scripted shows (Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, American Dad) are animated. And we now have animated shows (Beavis & Butthead, Futurama) that have come back from the dead – and this is possible precisely because animated characters never get old, don’t get DUIs, don’t have sex scandals, don’t get offers to do movies… or any of the other reasons live action casts eventually break up.

Also, the fact that the show is animated made possible the dozens of characters that populate Springfield and the limitless possibilities of places for the Simpsons to go. But I think beyond that I think these amazing characters created by Matt Groening and the original writers of the show are just such a wonderful home base for a show that strives to not just be funny and entertaining, but also say a little something about the world we live in and the stupid things our society does. And since society manages to find new and entertaining ways to be corrupt and venal we’ll have fresh fodder for satire for quite some time.

And, of course, finally and most importantly – we still love making the show and enough people still like to watch it to make it worth the money and effort to produce. I think Troy McClure said it best in the 138th Episode Spectacular clip show: “Who knows what adventures they'll have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable?''

Are you guys surprised at all that it’s made it this far? Or is Simpsons unstoppable?

Honestly, I think we’re all surprised. Mike Reiss (one of the original writers and Co-Showrunner of Seasons 3 and 4) recently said that when he and Al Jean were offered a job on the Simpsons staff for Season 1 they both thought it wouldn’t last more than 13 episodes. Apparently at the table read of Episode 200, (former Showrunner) David Mirkin jokingly said “We’re half-way there” and it brought down the house. So yes, we’re all surprised. And, speaking for myself, I’m extremely grateful that I get to continue working with these wonderful characters and great writers, actors and artists.

Again to draw a Star Wars comparison, any property that has endured so long tends to draw the criticism of bitter older fans who claim the new stuff isn’t as good as the old stuff. Personally, I think the series has continued to evolve along with its audience - and it has to. It’s still a very sharp funny show. What’s your perspective on the show’s evolution?

Well, of course, the show can’t be like it was in 1990, if it was I don’t think it would be around any more. The show did evolve and, I’d argue, continues to evolve – especially now that our animation is done in HD, we were asked by Fox to switch to a 4-Act structure, and we have many more characters to follow and service.

It’s tough for me to make judgments about quality because I’m on the inside and I live the show every day, so, naturally, my experience of the show is different from the average viewer. But even that term “average viewer” needs to be broken down – our viewership runs the gamut from intensely committed folk who instantly hop on the internet to register their opinions of each episode to the more casual viewers who see the show as something fun to watch on Sunday night but don’t have as much invested in it. While it’s true the various Simpsons-centric web sites often have extreme reactions (both good and bad) to the current show, I find a more broad-based “average viewer” response on Twitter, where after most episodes the reactions can vary widely but are, in the main, positive. And I think over these past ten seasons that I’ve been here we’ve produced many episodes that stand up to the best the show has done. And we even had a big time TV critic retract his earlier denunciation of these later seasons – after he actually took the time to watch them. (

Like “Star Wars”, I think a person’s view of The Simpsons could be colored by what their experience of it was originally and their age now. If you were 12 when the show began and it opened up a whole new world of comedy and satire to you, there’s no way it could ever have the same impact now that it did then. That’s not to say anyone who thinks the show isn’t as funny as it was is wrong – that’s their opinion and of course they are entitled to feel that way, and they’re certainly entitled to exercise their God-given right not to watch it anymore. Then again, nothing can be as funny now as it was in 1992, with the rare exception of Newt Gingrich.

From my own personal perspective, my son, Wills, who is 14 now, first experienced the show through the episodes I was working on (he first started watching around Season 17 or so and actually pitched me jokes for my Season 19 episode “E Pluribus Wiggum” and the 500th episode). He’s since become a complete fan and has watched just about every episode on the air now and on DVD and, to him, the early Season 1 and 2 episodes are very slow moving – because he’s accustomed not just to the pace of our current Simpsons episodes but of animated comedy in general.

Of course, like I said, it’s a very subjective argument that, looked at one way, is a testament to how beloved the show is. When it comes down to it, all I can say is that we take our job seriously, have great love for the show and spend every day doing our best to produce episodes that makes us laugh, are entertaining to others, and honor this awesome legacy.

You’ve personally written many episodes of The Simpsons between 2003 and now, but also serve as a co-executive producer. What does that entail? The credits for the Simpsons continue five minutes into each episode so I’m assuming that this is a massive production! Has your role evolved?

The length of the credit roll is testimony to how big our writing staff is! We now have 14 full-time writers and another 9 who work one, two or three days a week. (The average sitcom staff these days is about half that size.) With a few exceptions, everyone with any kind of “Producer” or “Co-Executive Producer” credit is on the writing staff. (This is true for just about all sitcoms and most dramas on TV.)

It’s very arcane, but this dates back to the ‘70s when the way sitcoms were produced and written changed from a time when scripts were largely written by freelance writers and re-written by the Executive Producer and a very small staff, to shows written by a large staff of in-house writers. Thanks to the work of agents and our wonderful Writers Guild, these writers are now awarded an upwardly sliding scale of credits from Staff Writer to Story Editor to all the variations of “Producer.”

The only “evolution” of my role is that over the last few years I’ve done a little bit of directing the actors every once in a while, which I greatly enjoy. I come from a theatre background (I originally trained to be a theatre director) and I really have a great time watching these amazing actors do their thing.

There are of course the episodes you are credited for writing, but do you also get to throw jokes into other episodes as a team? The ideas and gags are so rapid in a single episode of The Simpsons that it feels like a somewhat collaborative effort. Is there a favourite joke of yours in someone else’s episode that you want to take this opportunity to claim as your own? They won’t know.

It’s a VERY collaborative effort. When you are the credited writer on an episode, it means that you came up with and pitched the story idea, then went off for 2 weeks to write the first draft of the script. Once you turn that draft in, the script essentially belongs to the whole staff and we set about re-writing and punching it up in the room. (Because our staff is so big, one set of writers may be working on one script while the other team works on an entirely different episode.) By the time a show reaches your TV it’s probably gone through at least 8 different rewrite passes that take place before, during and after the animation process is finished.

The nature of our work means that each of us have jokes or bits in every episode, with a greater degree of our own stuff in the episodes we’re credited with – though by the time it reaches air, a show I wrote will have maybe 3% or so of my original script making it to the end.

As far as a favorite joke of mine that was used in someone else’s show, there are so many, but one that sticks out might be from our Season 19 episode “Apocalypse Cow” – written by Jeff Westbrook. Long story short, Homer is dressed in a cow suit to save a real cow Bart took under his wing. Unbeknownst to Homer, he’s being trucked with a bunch of actual cows to a slaughterhouse. But Homer’s vision is limited by the eyeholes of his cow costume and when he sees the sign on the building he happily thinks he’s being taken to a “laughter house.” I can’t say why, but that bit just always makes me chuckle to this day.

Wikileaks' Julian Assange will appear in the 500th episode, and each season has an incredibly impressive list of guest stars. How does that work from a writer’s perspective? Are guest stars discussed and then the scripts written around them, or as a writer are you able to come up with a person and the show has the clout to get them? It’s hard to imagine anyone would ever turn down the chance to be Simpsonized.

It happens! Apparently, we’ve tried several times over the years to get Bruce Springsteen on the show, but for whatever reason he’s declined. That’s certainly his privilege – I just hope we don’t see him turn up on “Bob’s Burgers”. 

 When it comes to guest stars they usually fall into two categories: cameos (celebrities playing themselves for a quick joke – like Julian Assange or Stephen Sondheim) and guest roles (actors taking on major parts in an episode, such as this season’s episode where Joan Rivers played Krusty’s former lover/agent and an episode of mine later this season where Brent Spiner of Star Trek: TNG voices several dozen robots brought in by Mr. Burns to replace all his human workers.) If it’s a guest role we’re casting, we’ll write the episode and, if it’s decided it’s best to have that part played by a guest (as opposed to one of our regulars doing it), we’ll talk about who would be a good fit for the role and our casting director Bonnie Pietila will reach out and ask them. Cameos are fun, and we usually get excited to meet the person when they come to record, but we only do them if we think it’ll add to the episode. We try not to do guest stars just for the sake of having guest stars.

I’m still amazed at the enormity of 500 episodes. So much so, will you indulge me by telling you a story. In 2000 Australia hosted the Sydney Olympics, and not being a sports fan I watched an around the clock Simpsons marathon on cable instead. They showed at least eight hours of unique episodes per day, and STILL didn’t run out of episodes throughout the whole Olympics. And that was 12 years ago! Now you could watch Simpsons for months. And the weirdest thing is that by the end of it all, I was starting to feel genuinely attracted to Marge. Have you ever experienced anything like that?

No, but I really crave the maplewood-aged, fire-squeezed taste of new Duff Hard Lemonade.

Homer is easily one of the greatest and most iconic characters ever created. Is that initimidating to come in at the half way point and run with a character like that, or is it liberating? Is there a balance between respecting the past and embracing the future?

It was absolutely intimidating to join this amazing staff, and it took me quite a while before I felt confident that I knew what the hell I was doing. Within my first few weeks of working on the show (in January of 2002) I was pitching jokes alongside George Meyer, helping other writers break a story with John Swartzwelder and watching Mick Jagger record his part for “How I Spent My Strummer Vacation.” It was overwhelming, to say the least. I’ll never forget when I wrote my first episode (“My Mother The Carjacker” – Season 15). I turned in my draft and had to sit there while these writers I idolized read my stuff – just hoping to hear a chuckle from one of them.

Luckily, these guys are not only great writers but also incredibly nice people and I eventually felt at home not only with the staff, but also with the characters – especially Homer, who I feel some degree of boneheaded kinship with.

I’d have to say that the past doesn’t really enter into my thinking when I’m in the room pitching lines for Homer or any of the characters – except to the extent that we don’t want to repeat jokes or stories that have already been on the show. When it’s your job to pitch jokes for Homer or whoever it’s best to just let fly with whatever you think is funny and fits the situation and then there’s usually someone on staff with a long enough memory to say “we did that already” -- but to self-censor beforehand would lead to very little getting pitched.

Who is your favourite character to write?

Amazingly, one of the questions we writers are most asked whenever we meet fans of the show is “What character do you write for?’ – as if we are all assigned particular characters. And I always answer “I do Gil right now, but I’m hoping to be promoted to Disco Stu.”

Of course we all write for everyone, but there are certain characters I have a special affinity for: Moe, Mr. Burns, and Chief Wiggum come to mind. But my absolute favorite is Krusty. I grew up as an obsessive fan of old time comedians like Phil Silvers and Sid Caesar, and Krusty is just a glorious potpourri of every corrupt, jaded, and insecure show biz phony who ever lived. He’s endlessly fascinating to me and I could write for him all day.

What about side characters? I love that you did a great Groundskeeper Willie focused episode with My Fair Laddie. You’ve added a lot to the Willie mythos.

I love Willie, too, and shining the spotlight on our minor characters is one way we’re able to come up with new stories that haven’t been done in the previous 500+ episodes. In fact, I’m writing an episode for next season that, in part, explores the life of Roger Myers, Jr. – the man at the helm of the “Itchy & Scratchy” empire – and his struggle with trying to live up to the memory of his father, who created Itchy & Scratchy (stole them, actually). That’s been a lot of fun. “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” is my all-time favorite episode, and I’ve longed to do a story that plays in that same arena.

Do you do anything weird to get in the mindset of some of these characters?

If it’s weird to wear bread bags instead of shoes when you write for Moe, then yes. Actually, it all comes kind of naturally to me. My original training was in acting and improvisational comedy, so I find it very easy to put myself into the mindset of a character and pitch lines from their point of view. And I like to pitch the lines in some kind of approximation of the character’s voice (Dan, Julie, Nancy, Yeardley, Harry and Hank have nothing to fear!), so writing for the show is like acting in the world’s longest-running play every day.

If people haven’t seen the show for a while, then what would you say to them? What don’t they realise they are missing?
Well, for one thing, we now know that the Cat Lady’s name is Eleanor Abernathy.

If people haven’t watched the show in a while I’d urge them to give us a try again. It might not look like it did the last time you watched it – we’re in full HD now and the animation is much cleaner and polished than the old days (for better and/or worse) and, of course, it won’t shock you like it did back in the early days. But we’re still putting out a fun, smart, entertaining show with the greatest set of animated characters ever created. From this season alone, I’d urge to you to check out our Christmas show “Holidays Of Future Passed” and the hilarious caper episode “The Book Job” (with a great guest turn by Neil Gaiman). And, at the risk of sounding self-serving, the 500th episode is a fun show that pays loving tribute to the history of the series and also sets the stage for further adventures. God, that did sound self-serving.

And finally, if you’ll indulge me on a side note - I just completed the classic Simpsons arcade game, which was one of my favourites ever in high school. Have you ever played it? And if so what character do you play? Because if you have we should totally team up and kick Mr. Burn’s ass. I’ll get up at 4am in the morning to make it happen. On a work night! I don’t even care!

I’ve played the arcade game once. A few years ago, I stumbled across an original arcade machine at an out-of-the-way mountain resort here in California. I popped in my quarter and soundly got my virtual ass kicked in the first or second level. But I had the great honor of adapting the arcade game for the iPhone/iPad version that came out a couple of years ago. My favorite line from that was the Squeaky Voiced Teen at the mall food court saying “Minimum wage, maximum rage.” It brought back fond memories of my time as a high school mall flunky.

And what should we be looking out for in the future?

Well, of course, we’ve been picked up through Season 25 (that’s two more seasons after this one) and there’s every reason we could continue past that. We’ve got some fun episodes on the horizon, including Homer’s first exposure to the world of 21st Century Hipsters (with a couple voiced by Portlandia’s Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein), my aforementioned robot episode, a great one (which we watched a rough cut of today) about Bart being thrust into the position of being a kind of “babysitter” for Jimbo’s slatternly girlfriend Shauna, and our Halloween show next fall will include a funny and fantastically animated take on “Paranormal Activity”. And way down the line we’ve got a very touching story involving Homer and the family dog that reduced a room full of jaded comedy writers to tears when Carolyn Omine pitched it at our story retreat in December. Look for that one sometime in early 2013. 

Thank you again, Michael, for your time! I'm really looking forward to it!   
In the US, the 500th episode of The Simpsons airs this Sunday February 19th on Fox. For our Australian readers, look out for it on Channel Ten in March!


  1. Great interview guys. Really looking forward to this episode!

  2. this is such an awesome interview! I love getting a closer insight into the TV writing process. Will be tuning in for 500th for sure!

  3. Riveting! I waited till today to read (cause of spoilers! Duh!) and it was well worth the wait! Good work!