February 18, 2013 2:38pm PT by Scott Feinberg
James L. Brooks on His 'Simpsons' Journey, from 'Tracey Ullman' to the Oscars (Video)
Last week, I experienced something that my adolescent-self would have never dreamed possible: I went to the offices of The Simpsons, located on the Fox lot in Century City, and spent a chunk of the afternoon picking the brains of two of the people most responsible for the animated TV show's unprecedented success over the past 26 years, executive producer James L. Brooks and animator/supervising director David Silverman.
Back in 2011, Brooks suggested that Silverman -- who previously helmed The Simpsons Movie (2007), a feature film about the show's characters -- direct a Simpsons short in 3D. A little over a year later, Maggie Simpson in 'The Longest Daycare,' a four-and-a-half minute silent dramedy, played before every screening of the Fox animated blockbuster Ice Age: Continental Drift. Last month, it was nominated for the best animated short Oscar, one of the few prizes that The Simpsons hasn't yet won. (It has garnered 27 Emmys, 30 Annies and a Peabody award, among many others.) And, on Feb. 24, Silverman, representing The Simpsons creative team of which he is so proud to be a member, will be headed to the Academy Awards.
I caught up with the 72-year-old Brooks, who seems almost shy despite having been in the spotlight for decades, in a room filled with Simpsons memorabilia -- Emmys, framed news clippings and life-size cutouts of the show's characters -- just next door to the writers' room where so many episodes of the beloved show, which is now the longest-running primetime animated sitcom in TV history, were conceived.
Brooks was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 9, 1940. His childhood in North Bergen, N.J., wasn't all that happy; he once told Esquire, "My father was an alcoholic and model of what to avoid; my mother taught me survival." But his interests and pursuits, from a very young age, suggested that he possessed great drive, intelligence and talent. He enjoyed plays, which he took in while working as an usher. He liked picking the brains of accomplished people, which he did while corralling interviews for his high school's student newspaper. And, though he wasn't able to attend college, there was no question that he was willing to take on hard work.
He landed a job at CBS, and worked his way up from usher to copy boy to news writer. He then decided to transition into documentary filmmaking, but when that didn't work out and he was unemployed, he decided to try to write a spec script for television. Prior to that, he says, "I always loved writing, but never considered that I could do it professionally." When his script sold, he began freelancing, and, after a couple of years, wrote the pilot for Room 222, which got picked up in 1969 and ran until 1974. After that he became prolific, churning out hit after hit -- many in collaboration with producer Allan Burns -- including The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977); its two successful spinoffs, the comedy Rhoda (1974-1978) and drama Lou Grant (1977-1982); plus, of course, Taxi (1978-1983).
Eventually, he decided to try his hand at filmmaking, and his first attempt was an incredible critical, commercial and awards success: He wrote, directed and produced Terms of Endearment (1983), which led to him winning Oscars for best picture, best director and best original screenplay at the Academy Awards. Only five other people have ever had the same haul: Leo McCarey for Going My Way (1944), Billy Wilder for The Apartment (1960), Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather, Part II (1974), Peter Jackson for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and Ethan Coen and Joel Coen for No Country for Old Men (2007). And Brooks' sophomore effort was hardly a lesser achievement: The semi-autobiographical Broadcast News (1987) is still widely regarded as of the best dramedies ever made, and Brooks has said that hardly a day goes by when he's not asked about Albert Brooks (no relation), who's sweating-under-the-lights scene is but one highlight of the film.
After Broadcast News, Brooks did something previously done by few people who achieved success in film and had the option of continuing to work in the medium -- he returned to television. "Television is communal, more fun, less on the line," he says, calling it "a writer's medium." He adds, "I always think a successful television series is the best job because it gives you community, it doesn't demand temporary insanity the way movies do and you can be almost a normal person." In his case, that series was The Tracey Ullman Show (1987-1990).
"I came to 20th Century Fox to do movies," he remembers, "and then they started a network and they asked me to do a show as part of their starting what became the Fox network. This was a time when 20th Century Fox was in shaky financial trouble; I think they were sort of on the verge of going under several times. And, in that environment, somebody made me aware of Tracey Ullman, and we did a sort of loose, crazy show, with this wildly talented woman." When he had to figure out how to fill 30-second gaps between skits on the show and commercials -- also known as "interstitials" or "bumpers" -- he remembered a panel of original art by Life in Hell comic strip artist Matt Groening that his Terms of Endearment production designer Polly Platt had given to him as a gift after she received her Oscar nomination.
The panel was entitled "12 Ways to Die in Los Angeles" -- among them drive-bys and freeway shootings, as well as failure and success. "I had that hanging up," he says. ("I still have it, faded, you can barely see what's there, but I still have it," he adds.) And it was that which prompted him to call in Groening and ask if he would animate those characters for The Tracey Ullman Show. Groening was making a decent amount of money selling mugs and other items featuring the likeness of the characters from that comic strip and was unwilling to give up the rights to it. Brooks remembers, "Matt wanted to protect that, and his protection against that was to draw something hurriedly in the outer office." On the spot, he came up with the core characters who would go on to become the protagonists of the interstitials and, within two years, The Simpsons (1989-present).
When The Simpsons went on the air, no animated sitcom had been part of the primetime schedule since The Flintstones in the 1960s. Why did Brooks feel that The Simpsons could buck that trend? Because, he says of the title characters, "They're the most user-friendly characters to have to work with, from a writing point of view, and from an animator's point of view, I think, as well. You can do whatever comedy you want with them. You can do an emotional comedy, you can do satire, you can do parody, you can be broad, you can be emotional, you can do a romantic-comedy -- they will travel with you. So anything that goes wrong is your fault, not theirs."
As the show became increasingly popular and referenced back in the pop culture that it so frequently referenced, its legions of fans began to bang the drum for a feature film version. Brooks says, "We resisted a feature for a long time -- for a long time -- and then the resistance ended and we did it," making The Simpsons Movie (2007) under the direction of David Silverman, an animator who has worked on the show since the very beginning and eventually rose to the position of supervising director.
Brooks reflects, "Ultimately it was a very positive experience. But it took us I think a year and a half of sitting at the table to just lose our white knuckles over it -- 'Oh, what if we screw it up?' 'What if we screw up the whole franchise?' -- everything like that. You know, just doing the show requires a certain looseness; you can't be so tense over it. The job is always to seem like you don't give a crap, that you're just riffing, you know, that you're having fun. And it took us a long time to get there because we cared so much. The degree to which we cared got in the way for a long time, but once we got over that hump it was a fantastic experience."
When Brooks raised the idea of making a Simpsons short, he once again turned to Silverman to direct it. "I would entrust anything to David Silverman," he says. "He is, I think, as responsible for The Simpsons being a series as anyone because he accosted me, drunk, at an office Christmas party long ago, and just spilled out passionately how there hadn't been an animated series on television for a quarter-century, at that time, and how much it would mean to animators to have a series out there with animation. I was really impressed. I think that moment led to doing the series as much as anything."
As far as the short, Brooks says it "was just like people getting together to play jazz." He elaborates, "From the moment of saying 'Let's do it' to having the outline for what we'd do was shockingly fast. Notions of what we were going to try to do happened very quickly. And it was close to pure fun." Possessing only four-and-a-half minutes with which to work, the team made a decision very early on to build it around Maggie, the show's 26-year-old baby who has spoken only one word in her life ("Daddy," voice by Elizabeth Taylor), and make the entire thing silent and in 3D. Brooks explains of the former decision, "It was simple and allowed us to do it quickly." Of the latter, he refers to his and his colleagues' mindset after they recently took compensation reductions in order to continue the show for two more years: "Holy mackerel, man. We're on a network, we have a television show, let's just do different stuff. And this was part of that."
The short has now been seen and embraced by the critics, the public and even the Academy, which nominated it for the best animated short Oscar -- one of the few entertainment-industry awards The Simpsons has not yet won -- to the great surprise and delight of Brooks, Silverman and the whole Simpsons team. "We just have had so much fun with the nomination," Brooks laughs, "with Maggie suddenly being in the Oscar race!"
But the key to the enduring success of The Simpsons is something that Brooks struggles to articulate, even after all these years. For one thing, he theorizes, the show has evolved and changed. It started out with "very rigid rules of believability," he says, but "what's helped us so much is every once in a while we'll throw a rule overboard." But, most of all, he seems to feel that it's the fact that neither he nor anyone who works on the show or its various offshoots takes their work for granted or phones it in. As he puts it: "Nothing is old hat. This has always been our point of pride. Let's say you come from Mars. You come on the Fox lot, where they're doing a lot of television shows and a lot of movies, and you walk into our writers' room. You say, 'This is a first-year show,' because of the way people are working, pitching and what jokes are thrown out and what jokes aren't."