John Swartzwelder is finally talking — and Simpsons fans may very well lose their minds. The living legend penned dozens of episodes for the Fox cartoon, all considered to be among the best of the show’s running 32-year history.
Swartzwelder explained that he landed his job at the budding Simpsons program thanks to his work on Army Man, a small homemade comedy zine with a short lifespan in the late ’80s.
“The Army Man jokes got me my initial interview with [the late] Sam [Simon] and Matt [Groening], which led to my first script assignment, ‘Bart the General,’ but I wasn’t actually hired to work on staff until I’d done three episodes,” he explained. “The Simpsons didn’t have enough money for a full-time writing staff until late in 1989. They’ve got enough now, of course.”
Asked whether he has a favorite of the 59 episodes he penned, Swartzwelder replied, “I don’t have one I prefer over all the others, but I do have some favorites I always enjoy watching. ‘Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,’ ‘Bart the Murderer,’ ‘Dog of Death,’ ‘Homer at the Bat,’ ‘Homie the Clown,’ ‘Bart Gets an Elephant,’ ‘Homer’s Enemy,’ and ‘Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment.’ “
“Homer’s Enemy” is one of the most polarizing and certainly darkest episodes of the usually lighthearted cartoon. Discussing the 23rd episode of season eight, in which the antagonist, Frank Grimes, accidentally kills himself in a fit of rage at Homer’s unearned, random good fortune in life (compared to Frank’s anyway), Swartzwelder said, “Grimey was asking for it the whole episode. He didn’t approve of our Homer. He was asking for it, and he got it. Now, what was this you were saying about heart?”
Swartzwelder also explained why his scripts had fewer changes done to them than other writers at the time, with most of his making it to air at least 50 percent intact from the first draft.
“If those numbers are correct, part of the reason for my higher percentage might be because I always reacted with great dismay, rage and even horror every time one of my jokes was cut. The other writers were more grown-up about it when their jokes were cut. And see what it got them. Now everyone is laughing at their percentages,” he told Sacks.
Concerning his legacy among fans and writers alike, Swartzwelder said, “I’m certainly pleased that people still like the episodes I did. I would say that all the praise makes me humble, but, of course, praise does the exact opposite. But I am pleased by the attention. The Simpsons did something I didn’t think possible: it got viewers to look at writers’ credits on TV shows. When I was growing up, we looked at the actors’ names, and maybe the director, but that’s it. Now a whole generation of viewers not only knows about writers, they’re wondering what we’re really like in real life. And they want to know what we’re thinking. And look through our windows. That’s progress, of a sort, and we have The Simpsons to thank for it.”