Thursday, April 15, 2010

Writing for THE SIMPSONS

Friday questions anybody??

James gets us started.

How was it writing for The Simpons vs. live action shows? I take it you didn't have to deal with stars asking for rewrites, and you could write a story about Homer having a pet hippo in his back yard if you wanted to. Was it better, worse, or just a different circle of Hell?

There certainly is more freedom when you write animation. It costs just the same to have Homer at the Million Man March as it does to have him sit in the kitchen. But sometimes that freedom can be a trap. When you can do anything, selecting the best thing can sometimes be difficult. THE SIMPSONS always serve the story first, which to me is why it’s still so great after 67 seasons.

I can’t speak for all animated series but on THE SIMPSONS we had table readings just like live sitcoms. So if the actors had a problem they did have an opportunity to express it. And although it always pains me to say it, often times they were right and the script improved because of their objections. Doh!!

My musings asks:

I very recently started blogging (just moved from New York to Zurich, so there's plenty to write about), and was wondering about your approach to blogging. How much in advance do you plan your posts? Do you have a general idea about what you want to write on a weekly basis, or are you more spontaneous than that and pick your topic on a daily basis?

It depends. The idea is to post as much as I can without the blog becoming a burden. The zero income I get from this endeavor makes that policy easy to follow.

I try to post something new each day but there are days when I’m just too busy or just don’t feel like writing. So I try to have a few non-time-specific posts in the bank. Stuff like excerpts from my 60s book and general writing advice. But most of the time I’ll write about what’s currently going on. That’s the beauty of a blog – you can serve it while it’s hot. I watched the AVN awards last Sunday and knew THAT’S my post for Monday. And of course reviews of AMERICAN IDOL get posted immediately. By Thursday no one even remembers they saw the show.

The challenge is to keep thinking of new things to write about. I’m surprised I didn’t run out of topics by 2007.

A lot of you have said you really like when I answer questions so I decided to devote Fridays to that. Otherwise, I don’t want to restrict myself and be locked into daily features. This isn’t the MICKEY MOUSE CLUB where every Monday is “Fun with Music Day” and Thursday is “Circus Day”.

And finally, from Scott:

It seems like a lot of people who have been in the business for a while say that this is the worst it has ever been for writers. I am just wondering Ken if when you were writing and producing shows, did you have older writers saying that things were much better back in their day and that it just seems to be getting worse?

Writers always think that things were better back “in their day”. They have selective memories. It could not have been fun being on MY FAVORITE MARTIAN and getting the network note: “A Martian wouldn’t say that.”

Today’s writers will be saying “You kids don’t understand, but back in our day we still had broadcast networks!”

However, I will admit that writers of TV westerns did have it better in previous decades. Same with variety show scribes.

As for the business being the worst it’s ever been, that’s just cyclical. In the early 80s everyone felt that sitcoms were dead. The future was in light dramas like MAGNUM P.I. but the strict half-hour form was quickly heading for extinction. And then COSBY came along. Ten years later between the networks, cable, and first-run syndication there were something like 60 sitcoms on the air. Thanks to terrific new shows like MODERN FAMILY , the half hour comedy appears to be making a comeback yet again. Thank God.

As Carly Simon once said, “These are the good ol' days”.

What’s your question?


Don From Vancouver said...

Hi Ken,
I'm just amazed at the power of twitter. I'm a young (ish) writer from Canada and just a short three years ago, I would have had to do some sort of sexual favour just to get your information to send you a question. Do you like how available twitter and your blog makes you to random people and fans like me? Anything really irk you? Thanx in advance.

B said...

"THE SIMPSONS always serve the story first, which to me is why it’s still so great after 67 seasons."
Does it really though? The Simpsons started drifting away from that mentality years ago.
...although King of the Hill stuck to it and remained remarkably consistent, so I agree with your point.

Dave Mackey said...

I think "Family Guy" does table reads, possibly at the insistence of Seth MacFarlane.

WhichWasTheInningOfDeath said...

You didn't run out of ideas in 2007? Just good ideas?

We kid because we love.

Michael Zand said...

Speaking of Modern Family, has anyone else noticed that the last two episodes were weak? The last one in particular was downright annoying. I worry that they may have lost their mojo or some of their better writers. The same thing happened to Scrubs. It was hilarious for the first 12 episodes and then it just became a parody of itself.

l.a.guy said...

I think you do an amazing job with this blog. I can't imagine coming up with something to post everyday.

Here's a "Friday Question"

Do you still actively look for episodic work or did you make a conscious decision to focus your energies on other projects? According to IMDB you haven't done anything for a few years in television. If an Emmy Award winning writer of your pedigree can't get work I think that's got to be alarming for new writers.

sjml said...


I've heard (and believe) the adage that "writing is rewriting." Can you share any specific stories of a piece that went through several iterations before turning out great?

Paul Duca said...

Yes, I'm sure it wasn't nice for a writer to get a memo reading "A Martian wouldn't say THAT!"--but then, how could he have known that three decades later he could turn that into a book?
(referring to Leonard Stern's volume by that title)

"Please avoid anything morbid, inappropriate or detrimental to his image in the display of the dead gay midget lying under the toilet"

WV "deniying"--the closest I'm come to an actual word in ages.

dodz said...

simson family is funny and i'm having great fun while watching it

Unknown said...

It still amazes me week after week that Ken is able to post one entry each day - sometimes more.

I know it sounds silly but I think this is what is one of the things that you just have to have if you want to be a writer - the ability to get up every single day and do your work. Sometimes you get more done and end up with something you can post out of order, other days you post about something that just happened and certain days you have to sit in front of your TV, pen ready, and write it down and publish it fast because it's important you have it online as soon as possible - and Ken always delivers. The consistency is amazing. I know it sounds silly, but I know how hard it is to do something every day (or seemingly every day) for a couple of years.

Just try doing 20 crunches every day for a year and you know what I mean.

Unknown said...
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Mac said...

But what, as Homer asked, about live animation? The answer, his producer explained, is that they don't like to do it because "it's kinda tough on the animators' wrist."
The Simpsons has crammed zillions of great gags into everyones' brains. There must be a Simpsons' gag for every possible situation in life.

Roger Owen Green said...

As Carly Simon once said, “These are the good of days”.

Isn't it "good OLD days"?

Or is this some sort of writer code?

My musings said...

Having non-time specific topics is a great idea. I've been reading your blog since the 2007 Writers Strike, and haven't stopped since!

Dr. Oz said...

What Ken wrote was "these are the good ol' days". Which is the way Carly sang it. Better get those glasses checked Roger...

gih said...

I really love this cartoon/comedy show that entertains my kids at home.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I'm not inside enough, but what were the Simpsons episode titles that you wrote? It would have helped to get that info alongside, not unlike baseball stats...