How ‘The Simpsons’ Showrunner Al Jean Keeps the Show Relevant 31 Years Later

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Photo Source: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

In mid-August, soon after Sen. Kamala Harris was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate, a Springfield housewife who usually doesn’t get into politics took to an animated stage to make herself heard. Having been told by one of Donald Trump’s senior advisers that the Senator’s voice is comparable to her own—unfavorably so—Marge Simpson (portrayed by Julie Kavner) let viewers know that such petty jabs are beneath what she teaches her kids. 

Al Jean, long-time showrunner of “The Simpsons,” tells Backstage that the 27-second clip was one of the fastest things they’ve ever put together. “We did it in about a day,” he says. “What happened was we read the quote—which I thought was crazy, because to say somebody sounds like Marge Simpson, I think, is a huge compliment. I think it’s a great thing to be compared to her. But having said that, we thought it would be good for Marge to respond.”

The short video became an instant viral hit, a testament to the enduring appeal of “The Simpsons” as well as to the nimble ways its cast and crew maintains the animated Fox series’ relevance more than three decades after its first episode aired. For Jean, who has been with the show on and off in different creative capacities since it began in 1989, that remains one of the reasons he still enjoys his work there: “Even here in Season 31, you do something with ‘The Simpsons’ and it gets, you know, 200,000 retweets and articles all over the place. The attention the show gets and the things that you can say through the show are unparalleled. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

But the video also highlights how iconic the show’s cast of vocal performers has become. And at a time when interest in voice work has never been higher (thanks, coronavirus), Jean is particularly effusive about his actors. “Well, I heard that Meghan Markle was going into voice acting and it made me think it was something where people may assume it’s easy,” the showrunner says. “Or it’s, you know, something that you can just immediately get into. The cast we have on our show are really amazing professionals.” 

He cites not only the well-known Nancy Cartwright and Hank Azaria, both Emmy-nominated this year for outstanding character voice-over performance, but also Tress MacNeille, who portrays a number of minor characters on the series, as actors who are able to take on a huge variety of voices that come from within. “I'm constantly impressed by the level of talent that we have in our cast,” Jean says. “As far as I’m concerned, they should all win Emmys every year. I mean, they’re great!”

The speed with which the Marge clip was produced also proves how Jean and his team have successfully adapted to a new normal that has required a change in workflow due to COVID-19 restrictions. With no in-person contact whatsoever—everything from the writers’ room to sound mixing is done via Zoom nowadays—Jean assures that while the pandemic has changed the way they do the show, it has not changed the episodes they’re making. In other words, don’t expect Springfield to be dealing with a viral outbreak any time soon.

Looking at the Simpsons’ upcoming season, premiering Sept. 27, Jean teases a David Harbour guest appearance in the premiere (as Mr. Burns’ undercover persona) as well as tantalizing tidbits from the next installment of the fan-favorite “Treehouse of Horror,” which will feature a Spider-man spoof (“Into the Homer-verse”) and a satirical take on Pixar done entirely in CGI.

At its heart, audiences can expect all the same things that have made “The Simpsons” the longest-running primetime scripted series in the U.S. “The biggest thing is that we’re about a family. As long as families have problems, we have episodes,” Jean insists. “We keep it fresh by trying to relate to life as it is. And, you know, it’s a very strange thing, life, right now. So we try to do it as best we can.

“We’re trying to do the same sort of shows we’ve always done about this family in the world of Springfield,” he adds, “which is a place I’d rather be right now.”

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