Friday, August 05, 2011

How we got our first SIMPSONS assignment

Thanks for your Friday Questions. Here are some attempts at answers.

DyHrdMET gets us started.

Can you tell the story of how you got to THE SIMPSONS and came up with this story idea?

My partner, David Isaacs and I were friends with Sam Simon and had worked with him on a couple of other shows. When he became the showrunner for THE SIMPSONS he asked if we would write one. At the time they paid much less than a standard live-half hour sitcom. Because they were animated, the studio was able to get away with paying essentially the same as a Saturday morning cartoon. But we were fans of the show, wanted to help Sam out, and my kids were little at the time and Sam promised them jackets and toys. That’s really why we did it – for the swag.

We came in with some story notions. Most were Homer stories. At the time (early in the run) Bart was the breakout star but we identified more with Homer (Gee. wonder why that is?). I had spent the last three summers broadcasting baseball in the minors so the idea of Homer becoming a mascot for the local team stemmed from that experience. Those goofy guys dancing on dugouts very much exist. 

There are a lot of inside jokes and references to the International League in that episode – shamelessly so.

As I recall, the three of us (me, David, and Sam) worked out the story in a morning. I’m here to tell you, the real creative force behind THE SIMPSONS was Sam Simon. The tone, the storytelling, the level of humor – that was all developed on Sam’s watch.

Writing the script was a blast. I remember saying to David that there was so much you could do with these characters that I thought THE SIMPSONS could go five or even six seasons. They’re on what, year 35?

From purplejilly:

How would someone get to be a freelance script writer? For example if someone had a job, kids, and couldn’t afford to leave that job, but just wanted to write scripts on the side? Has that ever happened? Are there any successful freelance scriptwriters for TV?

I wish I could be more encouraging. But there are very few scribes today making a decent living as a freelance television writer. And if they do, chances are they’re veterans and getting these assignments from producers they’ve worked with before.

The WGA contract requires shows to farm out a minimum number of freelance assignments. But generally producers give those out to writers’ assistants or people they know, or in rare cases, young writers who’ve impressed them enough that they want to give ‘em a shot to see what they can do.

When I broke in (just after the Ice Age) there were smaller staffs and most shows had plenty of slots for freelancers. That’s how most writers got their first break – by getting a freelance assignment and delivering the goods. Now writers often get hired on staff based purely on their spec scripts. It’s a gamble that can sometimes backfire. Much less risk giving someone a freelance assignment. The first eight scripts we sold (including MASH) were as freelancers. But again, this was awhile ago.  The continent of Atlantis was still on the map.  

How you get a freelance assignment? Producers are intrigued by your specs, you have a good agent who talks you to the heavens, or you know the producer in some capacity. It’s hard to do under ideal conditions but almost impossible from long distance. Again, wish I had better news.

And finally, from Paul Eisenbrey:

I have a baseball related question. Specifically, about sportscaster grammar. Every once in a while, just often enough to be disturbing, one of you will say something like "that ball was hit a mile off the bat of Bud Cort", or "That young man has come quite a way at just 24 years of age". "Off the bat of"? "Years of age"? Who talks like that? It's as if Yoda got a gig in the broadcast booth.

Seriously (well, sort of...) is there a book of broadcast grammar that recommends such sentences? Or does stress of having to remember to give a plug every 43.23 seconds cause it? Or is ad-libbing for three and a half hours just very difficult (I couldn't do it, anyway) and sometimes oddball sentences just pop out? Or do you guys have a bet going to see how long you can get away with that sort of grammar before someone complains?

Let me know. In the meantime, it is time for me to make the dinner of Paul.

Grammatically incorrect phrases get repeated so often they just become accepted. Announcers don’t even think of them as oddball. The phrases just evolve.

Back in the '40s and '50s the style was much more formal (Chris Berman would last maybe five seconds) and I suspect phrases like “off the bat of” and “years of age” stem from that era.

Here’s the one that drives me crazy, and to my knowledge, I’m the only one who doesn’t say it. “On the night, Pujols is two-for-three.” It’s not ON the night… it’s FOR the night.” So I always say “For the night”, and for all I know the audience thinks, “That’s just weird. Doesn’t this guy know English?”

What question have you?


Rays profile said...

The most persnickety broadcaster I ever heard was Waite Hoyt, the old Brooklyn pitcher who did games for the Reds for many years. He always did games in the past tense - "Kluszewski swung at the pitch, it was a long fly ball to right where Aaron caught it for the second out." Not as a recap, but as the actual pxp. He always said he couldn't say it exactly as it happened, so he had to say what had happened.

Rory Wohl said...

How long did it take to get to Atlantis from Pangaea? Were there direct flights, or did you still have to go through Atlanta?

purplejilly said...

Wow, thank you Ken for answering my question, even though there was no super-positive answer. It's always better to hear the truth!

I have another question for you, for next Friday. What do you think about script writing software? Do you use it nowadays? I've heard several people make comments like 'don't even bother to write a script if you aren't using XXX brand softwriting script and know it inside and out.' What's your opinion on this?

Ed Dempsey said...

You've probably covered this at some point in the past, but I'm curious about some of your favorite sportscaster catch phrases.

Growing up in Baltimore with Chuck Thompson, the thought of the line "Go to War, Miss Agnes!" still brings back fond memories of warm summer nights on the front porch listening to the O's.

Mike said...

The best years of "The Simpsons" were when Sam Simon was still actively involved. They episodes were generally grounded in reality and had some heart, in addition to a lot of laughs. As much as I liked season 5, when David Mirkin took over, you could feel the tone change perceptibly. It became wackier, and the characters became more "cartoonish". And the show's connections to reality became less obvious.

Tim Dunleavy said...

Here's a Friday question for you regarding this SIMPSONS episode. (This may have been addressed on a DVD commentary, but I'm not sure.)

I've read the script, and there are two scenes involving Tony Bennett. In the first (which made it into the episode), the family drives into Capital City as Tony sings the "Capital City" song, and he waves and says hello to them as he stands on a streetcorner. But in the second scene (which didn't make it into the episode), Tony sings the National Anthem at the minor league ballpark and messes up the words, but the crowd goes wild anyway ("He's the best! Nobody sings the National Anthem like Tony Bennett!"). It was a very funny scene.

My question is, why was the second scene omitted? Was it for time limitations, or did Tony himself object to it? (I suppose that if it had aired, there might be some weird people who would think of Tony as "the guy who messed up the anthem," even though it didn't happen in real life.)

Tony Collett said...

Great post, Ken.
I can remember watching The Simpsons from the beginning, and I got a lot of interest at Disney-MGM Studios when I wore my Simpsons shirt there a couple of months after the series started. I had to go up to Fort Wayne to take the CPA exam the same week "Dancing Homer" was first shown. It was far enough to warrant staying overnight, and my second biggest worry was getting Fox in good enough to watch The Simpsons on Thursday night (who cares about Cosby?). I timed my study break for when it came on.
It was comfort in a crazy time. Thank Mr. Issacs and you for writing it.

Jeff Heath Bar said...

ON the night, FOR the night...neither are necessary. "Pujols is 2-for-3." If you are speaking of a different night, then say what night. Less is more...more or less. Too many 'casters believe that there can never be any silence. Bull! Watch MLB.TV's condensed game broadcasts - no broadcasters! Just the game, some crowd noise and that is all. Rarely is there a need for a broadcaster on TV. Radio, of course, is a different kettle of corn, at least for now. Once they perfect 3D radio, you're all history!

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Dancin' Homer had one of the best audio commentaries on the Simpsons season 2 DVD. Worth listening at least once.

Looking back, Sam's contribution to the show can't be forgotten. But he wasn't the only one either. George Meyer, Jay Kogen, Wally Wolodarsky were just as influential, as were of course, Mike Reiss and Al Jean.

Hard to believe that I once believed that show wouldn't get past season 7. Next september we have season 23 coming up on the air, and I'm still psyched up to watch it. Episode 500 in february also (and Al's still showrunning after this long).

I didn't mind the show becoming a little more cartoony over time. David Mirkin had something to bring to this table, as did Mike Scully, and also Oakley and Weinstein.

Mike said...

It takes non-steroid-shrunken balls to come to an announcer's own blog and say that less is more and even praise broadcaster-less broadcasts. Impressive, I suppose.

I understand why grammatically incorrect phrases have evolved -- and I find it, like a lot of others 'flaws' of baseball, part of the charm. But I, as well, hate "On the night" -- it just doesn't work for me, no matter how many times I hear it, I'm bothered. It's the irregardless of broadcaster speak.

Michael said...

One of the greats of baseball broadcasting, Ernie Harwell, said a fan once asked him why he called it a "ground rule double." Everything that happens on the field is related to the ground rules. So he stopped using the term. He also said someone pointed out to him that when he says, "no score," there actually IS a score: zero-zero.

My peeve, named pet, and even The Vinnie does it: RBI's. RBI is an acronym for runs batted in. It's already plural.

Another note about sportscaster speech. When I went to grad school in New York, I got to hear Bob Murphy do the Mets and Marty Glickman do the Jets. Both were getting up there. Glickman said in an interview that he realized, at his age (more than a decade younger than Vin is today, by the way), he couldn't speak so quickly or keep up so easily, so he tried to eliminate excess verbiage. I noticed that Murphy, on Mets broadcasts, did that, stuff like, "The throw! The slide! Safe!" It worked for him, since he only lasted about 50 years in the majors ... only a dozen years fewer than Vin.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

Question: The first season of Cheers famously took place entirely in the bar; they didn't go to an outside set until the second season. When you were there that first year, did the Charles Brothers consciously set a rule that the show would not leave the bar, or did it just work out that way?

Johnny Walker said...

The behind the scenes books seem to pain Sam Simon and George Meyer as the real creative forced behind The Simpsons. Did you get a chance to feel out Meyer's contributions?

Also: Did they ever start giving the writers a decent wage? How horrible to learn that they were being screwed over.

SeanK said...

I always figured that "years of age" had to do with broadcasters not wanting to imply someone was old. It's the psychological trick: 35 years of age is just the guy's age. 35 years old means the guy is old.

Cap'n Bob said...

As one who listened to Dizzy Dean broadcast baseball on TV as a kid, grammar wasn't a prime consideration to me. I loved the way he mangled the language.
Poster Michael hit on something I was going to mention, about RBI/RBI's. I've always heard it said RBI's as a plural and RBI singular. Nowadays, I hear some sportscasters say RBI as a plural. Technically, it should be RsBI, shouldn't it? I prefer RBI's if it means more than one run batted in. By the way, Ken, thanks for returning to the booth. We're 3-0 since you came back. Oh, and ground rule double indicates the runer was awarded tow bases because the ball was out of play as opposed to him earning it while the ball was still live. I think it's a valid distinction.

@IFeedUrTV said...

Paul (from the question in the post): if you want Yoda, listen to Mike Goldberg on a UFC fight."Started martial arts training at age 5, did Serra."

My biggest sportscaster peeve is inflection. Outside of play-by-play, every other sentence seems to be inflected this. WITH...that pause. There must be a reason for it, and I'd LIKE TO KNOW...what it is.

Chris said...

Here's one for next week.

Just saw a 7-people writing credit on the pilot of Murder One. Teleplay-4, Story-3. That was back in '95, when did the WGA rules change and why have they?

Bruce said...

One of my favorite Simpsons line is when the family is sitting on the couch an Homer is waving a pennant and they're waiting for the summer tv season to begin and Homer says something like "and most of them will probably be animated, 'cuz that way they don't have to pay the actors squat!". Good to hear (or sorry I guess) its not just the actors that get stiffed, but I always thought what a great line from the writers to the actors.

Wayne said...

My question. What is that explosive percussive noise heard about every 5 seconds in almost every movie preview. Does the noise have a name? How is it made? What does the script for a movie preview look like?
Thanks for your funny insights in a great blog.

Mary Stella said...

For years the Phillies broadcasters fell into this weird sentence structure "He's 1 for 3, is Ryan Howard".

Even Richie Ashburn and Harry Kallas fell into this habit. I could take it once or twice a game, but after nine innings it drove me crazy, it did.

DyHrdMET said...

thanks for taking another one of my questions.

i have a follow up question:
was the Dancing Homer episode the only time you let your two careers (play by play and writing) cross? I remember that you played the play by play announcer in that episode.

Michael said...

Mary Stella, Ken worked with a great broadcaster, Chuck Thompson, in Baltimore, and he used to say things that way. He started in broadcasting in Philadelphia in the 1940s with By Saam, who broke in Whitey and worked with Harry in his last years. I wonder if there's a connection.

benson said...

Ken, I know this is a kind and gentle blog with not even the slightest utterance of controversy to ever come from your keyboard, so I won't ask if you'd have an opinion on the latest hat in the presidential ring.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

Also, worth pointing out, we should be about to find out if The Simpsons is going to get renewed for another number of years or not. The current contract for the voice actors expires at the end of this year.

Fox has to make a decision before december, since that's when season 24 is scheduled to enter production, given the constraints of producing animation on a tight schedule. Season 23 begins airing in september.

Stat said...

"RBIs" is perfectly acceptable.

Jeff said...

Here's a question I hope you have an answer for.

On many shows I've seen use of the name Perlmutter (spelling may be wrong). It's usually a bit part, like a coroner, but I hear the name used too often for it to be a coincidence.

I know there's a story here but so far I've been unable to track it down. IMDB lists too many Perlmutters, and many of them real names instead of character names. So far I haven't been able to find other information about use of the name in a script.

Do you happen to have any knowledge about this name you could share?

thanks in advance

Lou Gravity said...

In addition to "years of age" there is "makes his home in" as opposed to lives in. I always have a visual image of the poor relief pitcher with hammer and 2X4s endlessly "making his home."

Alejandro said...

Question: Do you prefer any sitcom format in particular? I mean single cam, multi cam, mockumentary, animation? Or do certain projects depend on specific formats to work?

Stephen said...

What are stock sitcom jokes you hate most? For me, it's the set-up of two or more characters playing cards when Character A says "Gin", Character B says, "We were playing [insert game]" and Character A responds, "I know, I was asking for one". Haha-frigging-ha. Gin works as a drink and a card game. We get it. Let's move on!

Assignment Help said...

The behind the scenes books seem to pain Sam Simon and George Meyer as the real creative forced behind The Simpsons. Did you get a chance to feel out Meyer's contributions?
What a lovely post! I read most of the same books as a kid too -- really got me hooked & made me want to study literature in college.
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