“The writers should be ashamed of themselves.” – Lisa Simpson
“Cartoons have writers?” – Bart Simpson
“Enh, sort of.” – Lisa Simpson
The Simpsons ran its unprecedented and unequalled course in the 1990s. The show found the tender underbelly of American culture, pulled no punches, and used its tremendous media platform to make sure everyone saw the body blows. It mocked everything: religion and politics, unions and corporations, marriage and children, you name it. Even subjects not usually considered much for comedy (the space program, child abuse, feminism) were the subject of merciless satire. It made headlines regularly, for doing everything from defaming New Orleans to becoming a part of one of Bush the Elder’s 1992 re-election stump speeches.12
Only a tiny handful of television shows can stir that much shit, but The Simpsons had an ace in the hole that made it elite even among the select few that cause that kind of trouble. Unlike most programs, The Simpsons never suffered because of interference from above. On pretty much every show on television, know nothing “executives”, many of whom have as much useful experience in broadcasting as they do in deep sea exploration, are allowed to change plots, object to jokes, and generally make themselves feel important at the expense of the program.13 The Simpsons never had to deal with that.
As part of the original contract, drawn up when FOX was still a fly-by-night operation, The Simpsons had total immunity from network interference. The only people who were allowed to decide what happens in Springfield were the ones in the writers’ room.
That freedom allowed the show to become what it was, but it also concentrated enormous responsibility on the ever changing writing staff. Whatever they came up with was what got animated and ended up on screens all over the world. So while the protection from management interference gave the show unprecedented creative freedom, it also meant that any disruptions among the writing staff would have enormous effects on the quality of the show. For good and ill, The Simpsons was entirely its own creation.
Understanding how the writers worked has been the subject of much speculation, conjecture and reporting over the years, but the basic outline is well established. The Simpsons is headed by a “show runner”, which is sometimes a single person and sometimes a pair of people. The show runner’s job is to pick which ideas get turned into scripts, dole out writing assignments, and manage the group rewriting of each episode. In short, the show runner is indeed running the show.
The Simpsons went through four different show runners during its first eight seasons. The first two seasons were run by Sam Simon, a long-time television writer who assembled the original writing staff. Seasons 3 and 4 were jointly run by Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who were among Simon’s first hires.14 Seasons 5 and 6 were run by David Mirkin, who was brought in when Simon’s original staff began to depart; and Seasons 7 and 8 were run by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who came aboard in Season 3.15
Those eight seasons were one of the best rides in television history, but that kind of thing can’t last. The show’s sustained excellence not only required extraordinary effort and talent, but a grueling, year-long production schedule as well. Working on The Simpsons demanded enormous hours and kept everyone extremely busy, often into the wee hours of the morning. People can only produce that kind of work under those kinds of conditions for so long, which is one of the reasons why no show runner, or even pair of show runners, lasted more than two seasons.
The original Season 1 writing assignments are credited to just a few guys: Sam Simon, Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, and John Swartzwelder.16 As the show took off, two more regular writers were added for Season 2: Jeff Martin (who is credited with many of the show’s famous songs) and David M. Stern. With plenty of help from outside writers who penned the occasional episode, that core of guys wrote the first three seasons of The Simpsons and created all but a couple of the secondary characters that have given the show such breadth.
Starting at the end of Season 3 and moving into Season 4, the writing staff got more fresh blood in the form of Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula and Dan McGrath. But Season 4 also saw the first significant departures. After four years, Simon and many of the people he’d hired were burned up, pissed off, or simply wanted out.17 Kogen, Wolodarsky and Stern’s names stop appearing in the credits in the middle of Season 4. Jon Vitti and Jeff Martin departed at the end of that same year.
That was the first big change in the writing staff, but the show itself didn’t skip a beat. Several of the replacement writers had already been with the show for a season and the overall staff still had a strong and experienced core. David Mirkin, the new show runner for Season 5, built around that core and expanded the staff significantly. Remarkably, several of the people he brought on board, notably David S. Cohen and Greg Daniels, were writers on their way to the top of the television world. In terms of people who would later go on to huge success at other programs, the show peaked during Mirkin’s tenure in Seasons 5 and 6.
But all good things must come to an end, and that includes the writing staff of The Simpsons. When Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein took over from David Mirkin at the start of Season 7, they had plenty of Mirkin veterans, but they were among the last links to the early days of the show. Besides the two of them, the only other pre-Mirkin veterans were the Four Horsemen of Season 1: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, George Meyer, and John Swartzwelder.
There are twelve other writers listed in the credits for Season 7, which means that less than a third of the staff had been around prior to Season 5. Al Jean and Mike Reiss left after Season 7, as did future television comedy superstar Greg Daniels. The departures continued through Season 8 and Season 9, when Oakley and Weinstein were replaced as show runners by Mike Scully, who had come aboard in Season 5.
For longtime fans of The Simpsons, this was a momentous change. Scully was the show runner for a then unprecedented four years, from Season 9 through Season 12. During that time, the show went from a universally praised and seemingly unstoppable television terror beast to a hobbled old man flailing about and pretending he was still full of vim and vigor. This was when the fan approval numbers plummeted.
Scully was not completely to blame, however.18 As he took over the show, the all important, uncensored, creatively free writing staff was suffering enormous turnover. The chart below lists the percentage of the writing staff that had been with the show prior to the collapse of audience numbers. Note that the lines track closely with the IMDb and Amazon rankings.
Just like the fan approval numbers, there’s a massive drop starting in Season 8. In this case it’s not because of collective opinion, but because there was a quick departure of several important writers. By Season 12, the writing staff was almost entirely newcomers with just a few die hards remaining.
The stark lines above were generated by looking at the number of writers on staff who had been there from a certain season. For counting purposes, “writers” were defined as someone who is both credited with at least one episode as “Written By” and was in the opening or closing credits for that season. The “Written By” credit means that the person was indeed employed as a writer. The regular credit means they were on staff for a specific season. Those credits, assigned at the time and immortalized in the episodes themselves, are about the only piece of hard data we have about who the real writers of The Simpsons were, and they drop precipitously along with the audience rankings.
There is another important thing to notice; the two lines converge over time. When David Mirkin had to replace half the writing staff at the beginning of Season 5, he brought in a number of writers who stuck around for three or four seasons, through the administration of Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein. Those people also began departing after Seasons 7 and 8, which is why the lines converge as you move into double digit seasons. In effect, the Mirkin-hired core of writers lasted about as long as the original Simon-hired contingent, three or four seasons.
You can see the same effect in the next image, which lists every staffer credited as a writer through Season 12. The original Sam Simon cohort is at the top, with each column representing a season on which a person worked. As the seasons go by, the Simon writers, and then the Mirkin replacements, gradually dwindle until there’s only a few left.
When you get into the post Season 9 twilight of the show, not only are there only a few people left from the original staff, there are only a few people left from the original replacements. By Season 12, the only writers left from the Mirkin era were Scully and Mirkin themselves. Even the Oakley and Weinstein hires from Seasons 7 and 8 had only two writers remaining by Season 12, Ian Maxtone-Graham and Ron Hauge.
That the writing staff was able to be successfully restocked once was a small miracle; it simply couldn’t happen a second time. Those changes, combined with the general exhaustion of having told so many stories about the same characters already, was probably more than any show could have withstood. But the show’s fate was permanently sealed when it lost two vital staff members, Doris Grau and Phil Hartman.
Continue to Chapter 6: The Deaths.
Notes and Sources
15. Because of quirks of production, “Seasons” don’t quite match up with who was running each production run. See Appendix B for a detailed explanation of the difference between a “Season” and a production run.
17. Their individual stories and reasons need not concern us here. John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Unauthorized Uncensored History is at present the closest thing the show has to a behind-the-scenes account. Even then, the book’s introduction states that at least some of what it relates is inaccurate, speculative, or flat out wrong.