'Simpsons' Exec Producer Reveals Writing Team's "Hobbit-esque" Eating Habits
Writing for THR, Matt Selman explains how meals (and snacks) have become an important part of the daily work routine behind Fox's long-running animated comedy.
Otto the Bus Driver: What were you guys smoking when you came up with that?
TV Animation Writer: We were eating rotisserie chicken.
— The Simpsons, "Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie," Feb. 9, 1997
Once, in an old Simpsons script, there was a scene where Homer became tethered to a whale. The creature thought it had got the better of Homer, until Homer's impossible heaviness dragged the whale itself to the bottom of the sea. That bit was ultimately cut from the script. Homer may be a lot of things, but he isn't heavier than a whale.
Still, Homer Simpson sure does love to eat. Stories about food are a mainstay of the 550 (and counting) episodes of TV's longest-running comedy. When Homer's greed exceeds all reason, the show's writers call him a "food monster." But what of these writers — these minds whose task it is to think up what Homer eats — what is their relationship with food? What do they eat? Are they Homer Simpsons? Are they food monsters?
I can safely say that we are not. The Simpsons writing staff would have exploded a long time ago if they tried to live Homer's hyper-caloric lifestyle. However, if an army "marches on its stomach," the Simpsons staff "snacks on its ass." The creative team enjoys a daily eating schedule that can only be described as Hobbit-esque: breakfast bagel, 11 o'clock cereal, noonish yogurt, 1 p.m. take-out lunch, 3 o'clock coffee, low-cal popcorn at 4:00, order dinner at 5:30, think about dinner till it arrives at 7:00, then hopefully go home for some kind of cake. Grazing, more than gorging. But always craving the next delicious thing. The same can probably be said about most groups of TV writers. But after 26 seasons, we've been doing it for longer.
As the culture of gastronomy went mainstream in America, so was the Simpsons team swept up in foodie mania. Most writer types cannot boast about their athletic or romantic (or anything) conquests, but we would often brag about a meal at a distant dumpling joint, a visit to an off-the-map purveyor of goat stew, or — with jubilant cackling — about a vacation visit to El Bulli itself. (We used to keep score over who had checked off the most places from Jonathan Gold's yearly "99 Essential L.A. Restaurants" list. Some describe this as "sad." Others, "pathetic.")
Once while working on the Simpsons movie, we paid an impromptu visit to Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianco, where we savored what was said to be America's best pie. And none of us will forget an apocalyptic banquet at the infamous Thai restaurant Jitlada, where we gorged on wave after wave of stomach-exploding curries, while drinking highly toxic double-snake wine. (Double-snake wine is wine that has a snake in the bottle and that snake has another snake in its mouth. Do not ever drink it.)
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At the end of the day, one might ask: Is good food fuel for good comedy? Does an ever-ravenous office culture make our show about a fat guy funnier? Well, not really. If you eat too much lunch, you get very sleepy, and can't think of anything funny to pitch. (Avoid big Chinese lunches at all costs if you want to stay conscious in the afternoon.)
And over time, the gorgings have calmed down around the office. Aging writers have turned their attention to lean, high-protein chicken breasts from the commissary and lunchtime visits to the Fox gym. (Power move: If you go between 9 and 10 a.m., the workout room is empty.)
Truth be told, the eating culture of the Simpsons writing staff never quite matched the heights of some other classic shows' foodie zeal. Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal famously flew in Florida stone crabs and Zingerman's corned beef for his team. We could never compete with that.
Perhaps we've channeled our inner food monsters into the show itself. We wrote an episode called "The Food Wife," in which Marge and the kids become foodies, leaving Homer and his pizza-and-beer palate behind for walrus mustaches and zero-G parsnips cooked in the vacuum of outer space. And an upcoming show has Homer delving deep into Springfield's mysterious barbeque underworld.
I myself have transferred my food obsession into a charity. Well, gluttonous charity. I co-host an annual "Beefsteak" party (the next one is on Saturday), which raises money for the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. It's an all-you-can-eat black tie affair, with no plates, silverware, or napkins — but everyone gets an apron.
At the end of the day, for the Simpsons, food is more than what fills Homer's arteries with plaque. Food is family. The shared family meal is a fundamental human experience, for both the Simpsons and the show's billions of once-and-future viewers. But having shared hundreds of meals together over the decades, we writers too are like a family. A family that is tired of each other and wants to get the script done so we can spend time with our real families.