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Sunday’s “Bart’s New Friend” was written in 1990 — weeks after The Simpsons debuted and a then-aspiring writer Apatow penned the script as a spec. “He recently did an interview where he reminded us of it,” said Simpsons showrunner Al Jean of the episode that features Homer believing he’s 10 years old. “I’m always looking for something that gets an emotional story between family members and thought it was great.”
The episode will see Homer become Bart’s best friend and, naturally, had to be updated with more timely jokes — including references to Disney’s California Adventure and a reference to prolific producer Apatow’s film career.
“They made it way, way better!” Apatow joked, adding in a nod to Girls that “everybody is naked in most of the episode.”
Apatow, who voiced a character on the series earlier this season, becomes the latest member of his regular band of cohorts to pen an episode (Freaks and Geeks star Seth Rogen previously wrote one with Evan Goldberg). “When I first started writing comedy when The Simpsons premiered, it really felt like something incredibly exciting happened,” he said, noting that he’s going to attempt to come up with a story the show hasn’t done before to write a second episode. “I remember when Saturday Night Live started as a kid and it felt like that; [it’s like] all the rules have completely changed.”
While comedy has struggled lately, both Jean and Apatow credited creator James Brooks‘ singular vision for The Simpsons being able to maintain its loyal and dedicated viewership. (The series is up year-over-year, likely thanks to the show’s FXX syndication and online hub.)
“The last time I developed a show, there were so many execs — a dozen, maybe — giving contradictory notes,” Jean said of the development process. “I found it to be almost impossible. With The Simpsons, you report to Jim and that’s it. He has notes and they’re consistent.”
Cover story: ‘The Simpsons’ at 500: Untold Stories
Apatow, meanwhile, who had broadcast dramedies Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared run for one season, just saw HBO renew critical darling and niche Lena Dunham comedy Girls for a fifth season ahead of Sunday’s return.
“The reason why there are better shows on cable and Netflix is because they empower people to complete their vision — it isn’t done by committee,” he said. “People give you some notes but they’re dramatically different. When you get an order to do a season at HBO, you don’t have to worry about being canceled the entire time. When you’re at a network, you have a gun to your head — ‘Do our notes or you disappear — that doesn’t exist on cable. So you get to do an entire season. They may not order more, but you’re able to follow your vision for that season and that empowers people to do a better show.”
As for how Jean and Apatow would fix the genre, neither had a definitive solution but stressed that “quality” shows shouldn’t be judged by their lackluster viewership.
“Networks want higher ratings than the cable stations and you can be successful with a show that has fewer viewers than network, but network tries to appeal to massive numbers and I think it’s difficult to do that these days, and I’m not sure why,” said Apatow, who is a big fan of Amy Schumer‘s Comedy Central series. “There’s a lot of great shows with a few million viewers and that’s enough. It’s good for quality but trickier for networks because they’d like to have way more people watching.”
As for the Simpsons episode, Jean said he has always seen Homer as a “tragic person,” whose mother ran off when he was young and whose father was distant, so Apatow’s episode gave the series the opportunity to depict a character who was a sweet, goofy and dumb kid looking for love. “He’s the perfect foil for Bart, who is a bit cooler — and that’s what the episode explores,” Jean said of 10-year-old Homer.
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