Tribeca: 'The Simpsons' Team Talk Dream Guest Stars and Fox-Disney Changes at 30th Anniversary Panel

Simpsons panel at Tribeca - H Getty 2019
Getty Images

The Simpsons will turn 30 years old this year, having debuted as an independent show in December 1989 following its initial run on The Tracy Ullman Show, and its anniversary was celebrated Sunday at the Tribeca Film Festival. Following a screening of two episodes, "Marge vs. the Monorail" and "The Day the Earth Stood Cool," executive producers James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean and Matt Selman took to the stage alongside Harry Shearer, who has voiced many of the show’s most iconic characters. During the ensuing conversation, which was moderated by actress Yeardley Smith (who voices Lisa Simpson), the group discussed their dream guest stars, spinoff ideas and how things have changed on the Fox lot since the company was acquired by Disney.

“For us, I think to be honest about it, it’s been energizing,” Brooks said of the Disney acquisition. “It’s like being forced out of college or something.” Groening added that the main difference so far is a logistical one: “On the Fox lot, you used to just show your ID going in, and now you have to show your ID going out as well.” Asked what he would miss most about Rupert Murdoch, Shearer joked that he would miss “having a daily inspiration for the words and mannerisms of C. Montgomery Burns,” and added that Fox has been “a warm and fuzzy place, I think for all of us.”

When Smith asked the group to name their dream guest stars, Brooks noted that the show has never featured a U.S. president. “I’d love to have this president,” he added, “if he’d read the script as written!” As the panel laughed, Shearer pointed out that President Donald Trump is “not a good reader.” Groening said that Robert De Niro was his dream guest star, while Shearer named Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Selman said that he’d love to write a part for either John Cleese or Michael Palin. 

Shearer, who is the voice of numerous characters, including Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders and Reverend Lovejoy, was asked which of his characters he’d most like to see given a spinoff. “I guess the one I think would benefit from a spinoff at this point would be Reverend Lovejoy,” he said. “There’s never been, as far as I know, an American TV show about a clergyman.” He added that when the show began, some critics denounced it “because Bart [Simpson] was a bad role model, as if any comedy show’s characters are good role models. But by Season 15, I was being interviewed by The Christian Century magazine, because this was the only show that had not one but two avowedly religious characters in Flanders and Lovejoy.”

Though Smith was technically moderating, the flow of the conversation naturally shifted to allow her to share her experiences of playing Lisa for 30 years. The panel took an emotional turn when Groening asked Smith about what the character has meant to her. “You broke the moderator!” a tearful Smith joked, before answering: “She is truly one of my favorite characters of all time, and I would say that even if I didn’t play her. She’s one of the most fleshed out, multifaceted, brilliant, funny female characters in any medium.” Jean noted that Lisa, often the most introspective and emotional of the show’s regular characters, functions as a mouthpiece for the writers.

Asked whether their process for coming up with episode concepts has changed over the years, Jean acknowledged that the political climate has an impact. “People might have noticed that America is getting kind of crummy these days,” he said, adding that “you just have to go back to the basics of what makes you really angry, what makes you laugh, what makes you sad. Usually if you start with what’s happening in the real world, you can turn that into a good episode.” He recalled a time when the team wrote a joke about the Soviet Union, “but by the time the episode came back, the Soviet Union had broken up. But now it’s coming back together, so you never know!”