There will be more than a moment of silence in Springfield today: The Simpsons co-developer and executive producer Sam Simon, who was instrumental in the launch and rise of the animated Fox comedy, passed away on Sunday at the age of 59 after a battle with colorectal cancer. The Emmy-winning writer-producer—who also served as showrunner of Taxi and a writer on Cheers—exited The Simpsons in 1993, but left a lasting legacy on the show (and also in the world of philanthropy, as the animal lover donated tens of millions of dollars to charity and started the Sam Simon Foundation). Simpsons executive producer and current showrunner Al Jean worked closely with Simon in the show’s early years and spoke with EW on Monday about Simon’s impact on the show and beyond.
“He had the quickest mind of almost anybody I’ve ever met. And there are a lot of really quick minds here. He just grasped things that became brilliant Simpsons staples and did them in a flash. He said, ‘Let’s imply that Smithers is in love with Burns but not make it a big deal and people are gonna catch on and it’ll be really cool.’ That kind of thing would just come out of him—a great idea all the time.
“Here’s a joke that he put in in a show that was written with him and Matt [Groening, the show’s creator] and Mike and me. Bart is doing something to be popular and Homer goes, ‘Son, being popular is the most important thing in the world.’ And that kind of summed up The Simpsons, where it’s this dad giving what seems to be TV Dad advice, but it’s the worst advice in the world. It’s what no TV Dad should ever say. There were very few jokes that encapsulated The Simpsons as perfectly as that one. Another idea, we had a line in the script where the German guy, a Phil Hartman character, was buying the nuclear plant and said ‘We are from the Land of Chocolate’ and Sam said, ‘Let’s show it. Let’s cut to the Land of Chocolate.’ That sort of cut-away style of humor, it’s not like it didn’t exist at all, but he really pioneered it and that was a wonderful example.
“There were three people—all geniuses, Jim [Brooks, executive producer] and Matt and Sam—that were responsible for The Simpsons. They are all really funny. And Sam was the one that taught me how to run the show, how you do the nuts-and-bolts daily writing stuff…. He was a guy who didn’t like inefficiency or stupidity. And I think not liking that is a very good quality in someone running a show. It is a characteristic I have heard of a lot of great showrunners possessing. I can only say my life was touched infinitely for the good by him.
“Considering a lot of people say The Simpsons is one of the best shows ever, he certainly deserves an enormous amount of credit. Along with Jim and Matt, his legacy forever will be The Simpsons. And then his second legacy is really advancing the cause of animal rights. He’s really shined a light on places that exploit animals, and he’s done wonderful things. What he did with setting up spay and neuter vans and helping sea animals that were in horrible captivity is well-known and amazing. He was very generous privately too—in ways people don’t know. And the world will be a better place for both.
“He just was really, really brilliant and really funny to be with in person and a great friend… It’s a real loss. He was one of the funniest, most brilliant men I’ve ever met. He was the real deal.”