'Simpsons' Showrunner Debunks Divorce, Critiques Celebrity Breakup Obsession

Al Jean talks with THR about why he would never split up Homer and Marge and why the idea of their breakup — and Kermit and Piggy on ABC's 'The Muppets' revival — went viral.
 Courtesy of FOX

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season 27 premiere of Fox's The Simpsons, "Every Man's Dream."] 

Fox's The Simpsons opened its 27th season Sunday with another controversial episode. While last season opened with the series killing off a character after showrunner Al Jean's comments went viral, the same thing happened this year with rumors that Homer and Marge — TV's longest-running couple — would divorce.

That turned out not to be true, as the entire episode was a dream within a dream within yet another dream of Girls' Hannah (Lena Dunham), with the actress lending her voice to play Homer's love interest.

Here, Jean talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the idea of the episode and why Homer and Marge's rumored divorce — and The Muppets' Kermit and Piggy breakup — went viral, plus what else is in store for the new season.

So the premiere is meant to be a dream that Hannah had on Girls?

Yes. We were trying to get to the nub of the answer to the marital dilemma. Husbands and wives think differently, husbands and wives have friction — how do you solve it? When you get down to it, the therapist says it — and our answer is: there is no answer. We didn't realize it would get all this publicity that Homer and Marge were going to divorce. We were aware that we'd done a number of relationship episodes and people would go, "Oh, not another one!" There are always things that come up in a marriage that I think are worthy of comedy. But the takeaway we wanted was: When you think you've got a handle on it, that's when you're wrong. I would never presume to say I have marriage figured out.

Where did the idea for this episode originate?

It came from the writer, Stewart Burns. I don't know how much is based on his life. He's divorced and we wanted to explore the real things you go through when a marriage is falling apart and have Homer and Marge go through it. Our trick was it was a dream. Everyone was horrified that Homer and Marge break up, and the episode is called "Every Man's Dream." What I liked a lot that Stewart pitched is that it's not that it's a dream — it's another dream and another dream. Ultimately, what we're saying is we can't give an answer. Who has it? Nobody. We never have really gone for it. You always know Homer and Marge are getting back together. We'll never break them up. Nobody ever wants to see that couple split for real on The Simpsons. But we thought by this method, we could really explore what it would be like for Marge to go back to her maiden name and date someone else. Really, if you were married to Homer, I don't know what woman would have put up with him for like, half the time Marge has. It's insane! Julie Kavner's [who voices Marge, among others] theory is that Homer is great in bed (laughs). She's very careful: Whenever we write Marge, she says, "Don't ever put a joke in implying Marge thinks Homer is ugly or that trope that she doesn't want to have sex with him. Always have her think that guy — the bald man with two hairs — is sexy."

Were you surprised by the backlash to the divorce rumors?

I was startled. The only thing that compared to it was the year before. Both times, I'd offhandedly mentioned one plot of one show, with a major character dying, and then Homer and Marge separating. I never said "divorce" because I'm that cautious. Both times it was worldwide headlines. We did a rebuttal on the splitting up, but of course I'm trying not to give away what happens, and walking that fine line. But rest assured, the show is in the hands of the people that have thus far avoided catastrophe.

Have you considered doing an episode where Homer and Marge really do divorce?

No. We do without arcs because for our show, it's great that you can see an episode from season 19 or season four and — aside from the animation style — not tell the difference. I never want to do anything where people go, "That's that period where they were separated." That works for other things, but not for us. We get away with a lot of stuff, but people want Homer with Marge; people want Lisa to have a little sense that she might win someday; they want Bart not to be all bad. There's stuff you have to obey because that's what people want in the show. People consider The Simpsons as an extended family now; they take it seriously.

Homer and Marge's "divorce" rumors went viral. As did Kermit and Miss Piggy's breakup. What do you think that says about our society?

There are these iconic figures from childhood and people have certain things they want kept pure. It's not Kermit and Miss Piggy, but Sesame Street often will do something similar — an ice bucket challenge or something about Donald Trump — and people like seeing reality in a safe guise of say puppets or cartoon characters exploring where it'd be too tragic if it was a real couple.

The opening credits were a nod to the Beatles. How did that come together?

It's actually a parody written by Dan Castellaneta [who voices Homer, among others] that's on a CD he released. We did the album covers, but the song, he's the vocalist and he wrote the song. It's good, a very close Beatles-inspired album from 10 years ago. I listen still to Revolver in my car, and I keep thinking, "Boy, shit's changed." How can we try to change pop culture the way that did? Where everything is like something you've never heard before. We try to do things in a different way and that kind of thinking led us to get guest stars, different couch gags and do things like this episode where we're trying to experiment with marriage crisis tropes that we recognize has been done a lot.

Spider Pig is coming back this season. Do you want to bring more elements from the movie to the show more frequently?

Well, there are other ones that will be coming here and there, but Spider Pig is a really adorable B-story where it's sort of a silent movie where Maggie befriends the animals on the roof, and it's beautiful Disney-esque animation. The episode is called "Puffless" and it airs Oct. 11.

Halloween is a month away. What's in store for this year's Treehouse of Horror?

We're trying to break barriers and it's like nothing we've ever done. It's a bit of a very scary tribute to Hanna-Barbera cartoons, but updated. Then we have Sideshow Bob killing Bart. And if you wanted Bob to kill Bart, you're going to get your wish. I was always the kind of kid that wanted Coyote to eat the Roadrunner, so this made me very happy. Kelsey Grammer [who voices Sideshow Bob] was definitely for it. He was like, "Oh, finally!" And Bart can still reappear on the show — we're not really killing Bart because it's the Halloween show and it doesn't "really happen," unlike everything else that really happened. Then we have a Godzilla parody, where it turns into all the remakes of Godzilla they make that nobody wants to see. Then there's a segment based on Chronicle, that found footage movie with kids superpowers, but it turns awry.

Do you have plans of doing anything on Empire this season or in the future?

We have no plans yet — I'd love to get Taraji P. Henson on the show. I think she's really talented, and she can sing, too. We've talked about it but haven't approached her yet. We haven't had a big enough role yet, but I'm sure it'll happen. I'm sure some Empire cast member will appear eventually — it's going to be around longer than us (laughs). But yeah, I'd love it.

Read more 'The Simpsons' at 500: Untold Stories

You're renewed through season 28, with the cast signed on with options through season 30. Do you want to do more after 30?

It's quite possible that we don't have to go through the whole negotiation for 30. I wouldn't be stunned if we stopped at 28, but my bet is on at least 30. But then you'd have to resign them again. If you made me pick one, I'd say the likeliest is ending after 30, but I've been wrong before. I thought five seasons was good when I got there (laughs).

Have you thought about what a series finale of The Simpsons would look like?

If it should end, we want it to be a fulfilling ending for the viewer. To be honest, there was one point where we thought it might end in season 23, with the Christmas episode, "Holidays of Future Passed," (1989) but we didn't end there, so no plans at the moment. I had an idea, I thought it'd be cool if the last episode ended with them getting ready for the Christmas pageant that appeared in the first episode, so that the whole series was a loop that didn't have any beginning or end. That's my two cents — but no one has approved that or anything.

What did you think of The Simpsons premiere? Sound off in the comments below. The Simpsons airs Sundays on Fox.

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