Thirty years ago this month, America’s favorite animated family made their debut as part of The Tracey Ullman Show. To celebrate, CoS will be broadcasting live from Springfield all week with a slew of Simpsons features. Today, Andrew Bloom looks back on the showrunners responsible for making The Simpsons so amazing, enduring, and endearing.
Too many talented writers have passed through the doors of The Simpsons to count. From folks who’ve gone on to create great television shows of their own like David X. Cohen (Futurama) and Greg Daniels (The Office, King of the Hill) to stellar longtime contributors like John Swartzwelder and George Meyer to those who’ve broken out as stars in their own right like Conan O’Brien, the writers’ room of The Simpsons has seen a nearly unmatched array of superb comic scribes contributing their wit and humor to the program.
But in the nearly 30 years The Simpsons has been on the air, only nine individuals (with one honorable mention) have served as showrunners for this hallowed and hilarious series. They’re the first names you see in the credits after the end of an episode, a sign that however a story began, however it may have changed and been shaped by the show’s fantastic team of writers, animators, and performers, the buck ultimately stopped with them. These nine people were responsible for shepherding each episode from the first pitch to the final cut, and it makes their contributions to The Simpsons unique, even among the scores of creative people who make the show possible.
Indeed, for the many cooks that have passed through The Simpsons’ kitchen, each showrunner’s tenure reflects the style and sensibilities of the people in charge. At a time before showrunners were notable as major figures in the world of television, these nine creative individuals left their distinctive marks on each season they supervised. From the down-to-earth family drama of the show’s early going to the more wild and wacky bent it would take on in its later seasons, each development can be traced back, in no small part, to the particular individuals supervising the process.
So, it behooves us to look back at these nine showrunners and see the ways in which the different eras of this seminal show bear their distinctive fingerprints. Whether they started in the world of cartooning, classic sitcoms, late-night talk shows, or The Simpsons itself, all of them would come together to collectively produce one of, if not the greatest television show of all time. These nine people each brought something different to the table but created a diverse-yet-unified series that each can call their own.
Matt Groening, Sam Simon, and James L. Brooks (Seasons 1-2)
You may also remember them from: Life in Hell, Futurama, Taxi, Cheers, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment
Matt Groening was an underground cartoonist who managed to make waves with his cynical Life in Hell comic strip, suddenly finding himself with the chance to break into television. Sam Simon was a well-credentialed TV writer, with experience as a showrunner for Taxi and a writer-producer on Cheers. James L. Brooks was a well-respected writer-producer himself, having helped create pioneering series like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Room 222 that offered different sorts of lead characters and broke new ground for television. Together, these three unlikely bedfellows set a new standard for what an animated show, a sitcom, and television writ large could be.
That achievement, however, took a combination of their collective sensibilities, and it was not always an easy mix. Groening and Simon would often clash behind the scenes. Groening was the anti-establishment disruptor, having made his way up through the world of alt-weeklies, ready to shake up what was acceptable in a sitcom setting. Simon was a TV stalwart who tried to mold Groening’s ideas into a package that would be bold, but still accessible to the average viewer.
That combination led to discord when things fell apart, but beautiful harmony when it worked. It was Groening who thought up the famous chalkboard and couch gags, while it was Simon who differentiated Lisa as The Simpsons’ brainy misfit and deepened the dynamics of the family as a whole. The two men never had a great relationship, but that push and pull — between Groening’s sardonic wit and novel take on the nuclear family and Simon’s sharp understanding of the importance of character and the demands of episodic storytelling — resulted in a show that fit the sitcom format even as it was transcending it.
Brooks, the veteran producer who already had a collection of big successes under his belt, also provided one of the most important elements to making The Simpsons into what it would eventually become — protection from network interference. He negotiated a provision that kept the show relatively free of FOX’s network notes, which allowed for the sort of creative freedom that made the great work from all the other people on this list possible. With the clout that came from having written and directed the Oscar-winning film Terms of Endearment, Brooks helped create an environment where the show’s writers could make unusual and uncompromising choices, just as his other earlier boundary-pushing shows had.
The styles of all three men are reflected in those early episodes. While these were the show’s breakout years, where Bart became emblazoned both on thousands of bootleg T-shirts and on the minds of pearl-clutchers worried about the show’s influence on American society, it’s a quieter, more down-to-earth version of Springfield than would become the standard later on. There are fewer outrageous situations (though not none). Homer is dim, but not a dolt. And, most importantly, there are fewer laugh-out-loud moments, but more subtly funny, cutting observations about modern life.
The show’s sense of humor was more in line with Groening’s Life in Hell comics, with wry commentary on family, politics, and religion that would set the stage for the show’s “no punches pulled, no target off limits” mentality. The characters themselves were more grounded, the situations they faced more typical, even as the show approached them in an anything-but-typical fashion. While to the modern eye, those first installments can seem like a test run for what we now think of as The Simpsons, these three men set a tone and developed those characters and their world with a balance of Groening’s cynicism, Simon’s character-focused comedy, and Brooks’s own devotion to groundbreaking TV.
Al Jean and Mike Reiss (Seasons 3-4)
You may also remember them from: The Critic, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Queer Duck, Teen Angel
The Simpsons itself has joked about the number of Harvard alums in its writers’ room, but when Al Jean and Mike Reiss took over as showrunners in Season 3, it was the ascendance of two men who met there as freshman. Both wrote for The Harvard Lampoon, the school’s humor magazine, which would also provide a springboard for fellow Simpsons writers like Conan O’Brien, Jeff Martin, and Jon Vitti and offered a space for the two men to hone their comedic voices before they hit it big.
Their efforts as college students quickly led to jobs in television, writing for shows as diverse as Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, ALF, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. That got the attention of Sam Simon, who brought the pair on as the very first staff writers hired for the nascent series. With the benefit of writing for the show from the very beginning, Jean and Reiss truly understood these characters and their offbeat ecosystem, which allowed the pair to take the show in familiar but novel directions when they became showrunners.
It was a daunting task. Jean in particular remarked on how much pressure they felt not to “screw up this thing everyone loves.” But that anxiety led to repeated, devoted script rewrites and some of the series’ very best episodes. Jean and Reiss presided over the era of the show where The Simpsons became The Simpsons, offering the defining take on Springfield and almost everyone who called it home.
Homer fully and finally became the well-meaning dope who could save the nuclear power plant with a game of “eeny meeny miny moe” and spend 10 minutes daydreaming about The Land of Chocolate. The family dynamic solidified with Bart softening a bit from his hell-raiser roots, Lisa doubling down on her plight as the nerdiest Simpson, and Marge seeking occasional escapes from her put upon domestic existence. It’s the era that cemented what The Simpsons was and is in the popular consciousness.
In short, this is the period of the show that Family Guy’s Peter Griffin was referring to when he drunkenly confessed, “We act like we didn’t take a lot from The Simpsons, but we took a lot from The Simpsons.” This is where the show’s penchant for classic movie parodies and cultural references of all stripes took hold. It’s the point where loonier gags and more absurd humor began to seep into the series’s DNA. It’s where guest stars started to become a more consistent presence, whether they were musicians like Michael Jackson, Tom Jones, and Sting; legends like Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, and Johnny Carson; or a collection of MLB all-stars.
It’s also the incredible stretch of the show that gave us the Flaming Moe, Colonel Homer, Unkie Herb, Kamp Krusty, Mr. Plow, the Monorail, and “I Choo Choo Choose You.” In this era, the series found the creative voice that all future installments of the show would be measured against. As much as Groening, Simon, and Brooks set the stage for the show, it’s Jean and Reiss who took that stellar early work and carried it forward into one of the strongest, most-defining periods of the superlative series.