'Simpsons' Lego episode: Behind the writers' favorite inside jokes
Last night’s episode of The Simpsons was not your typical Springfield adventure — no brick off the old block, if you will. Viewers were treated to a universe-busting installment that plunged Homer into a land of Lego, where he would have to figure out a way back to the squishy-meat world. Over the last two years, co-executive producer Brian Kelley, who wrote “Brick Like Me,” and executive producer Matt Selman, who oversaw the episode, had quite a challenge on their flesh-monster hands trying to pull off this ambitious installment. (Click here for a Q&A with the pair.) “It was like assembling an incredibly complicated Lego kit without the instructions,” says Kelley. “And all the bags were mixed together on the rug,” chimes in Selman. The episode is stacked with fun inside jokes, and now that you’ve seen “Brick Like Me,” the duo can share the stories behind their favorite ones and how they snapped into place. Check it out below:
The writers spent a considerable chunk of time brainstorming Lego versions of iconic Springfield places (such as the Brik-E-Mart), and Lego-centric new ones (such as Brick, Block & Beyond), which you can enjoy while Homer drives through town. “While the animators were busy making Lego Springfield look really cool, we focused madly on puns,” says Kelley. “But you very quickly run out of them. We did everything humanly possible. This sequence has one of my favorite jokes in the whole show, which is the Adult Blocks store. I’m happy all out of proportion with the fact that there’s an adult block store, and it’s a little seedy and off to the side, and almost no one will ever see it. It’s really fun to reward careful viewing.”
The moment in which we pan across the ruins of the school and see Martin Prince so focused on the Lego mini-fig version of the human anatomy poster that he doesn’t notice the school has collapsed around him was a late addition. “There was a thing where Wendell was vomiting up Lego pieces because Wendell is kind of a barfer,” says Selman. “And Lego didn’t want any stuff where kids were putting Legos in their mouth because kids can choke on them, so we replaced it with the anatomy joke.” (Wendell remained in the scene, but instead was given an involuntary toilet dunking. And check out Superintendent Chalmers and Lunchlady Dora, sneaking kisses! ) As for the anatomy poster joke, “We needed some poster for the wall here, and what I was surprised to discover is how many parts there are to a mini-figure,” says Kelley. “I thought there would be torso, feet, and head, but there are tons.”
If you scan (darkly) across the paperback titles in Comic Book Guy’s Android Dungeon, you will notice that the writers paid props to beloved sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick. “The plot of this episode was loosely inspired by the type of mind-bending, reality-questioning stories written by Philip K. Dick,” says Selman, adding: “The toy Homer buys for Lisa, ‘Perky Patty’s Princess Shop,’ is a reference to The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a story in which space colonists project their consciousness into ‘Perky Pat’ playsets, because living in a toy world is vastly preferable to the harsh life on Mars.” Eagle-eyed viewers will also notice that another part of the episode includes a poster for Block Runner, a play off Blade Runner, which is based on a Dick novel. “We were going to have a contest where fans could write in with a worse Philip K. Dick brick pun,” cracks Kelley, “but we realized it’s impossible to win that.”
The Android Dungeon is block full of Lego gags. “That may be the most dense part of the whole show to look for these jokes,” says Kelley. Selman guides you to the comic that Lego Comic Book Guy is reading: “It has a Lego version of the classic X-Ray specs ad on the back, with a mini-fig using the specs to look into the ‘bones’ of his plastic claws.” Elsewhere in the store, you may notice the mention of Block-go Comics on the Radioactive Fig poster, which is a wink at Simpsons creator Matt Groening’s Bongo Comics.
NEXT: Moe’s Tavern makeover
Hardcore Lego fans will know that the toy offers several Advent calendars, including Lego City and Star Wars versions, prompting the writers to imagine a Springfield Advent Calendar (complete with Apu boasting to Homer that he’s in the final week of it.) “For us, the fun of the episode was leaving no Lego stone — or no Lego brick — unturned,” says Selman, quipping: “I was like, ‘Is The Lego Movie going to have a Lego Advent calendar joke? I doubt it.’ We wanted to do the deep cuts from the Lego world. And then someone bragging about being closer to Christmas is funny to me.” Adds Kelley: “We definitely debated in the writers’ room which characters would be in there, and which order they would be in. [Director] Matt Nastuk and his designers spent a ton of time designing this thing, because it has to be fun and nice to look at, but it also has to communicate this joke, and not everyone is familiar with these Lego-specific Advent calendars.”
To come up with the levels on the Love Tester in Moe’s Tavern, Kelley spent some quality time in his son’s room. “I sifted through his enormous box of Legos, trying to think what makes a Lego piece more interesting than another and what features of a Lego piece gets my son really psyched to have it in his collection,” he says. He decided that “RED 8X2 WITH SLANTY PART AND HINGE!!!” should represent the hottest position, but notes diplomatically: “It did feel like a betrayal to name a most boring piece, because every piece of Lego is obviously crucial and beautiful in its own way. The debate is still going in my head.” To the right of the Love Tester, another machine received a makeover. “Since there are no cigarettes in the Lego world,” says Selman, “the vending machine sells what every mini-fig needs: Hats and hair.”
Behold the large orange statue in the front of the church behind Reverend Lovejoy, which is a Lego brick separator. “It’s worthy of being the symbol of their religion, because it performs a function that no other Lego does, and it is this master piece,” says Kelley. “But I’m interested to see if people get this joke or what they assume that to be, because I’ve shown to this people and they said, “Oh, that’s a rectangle.'” Why is it the central piece of the religion? “It doesn’t look like much but it actually does make taking Legos apart incredibly easy — it doesn’t look like it will and then it does,” he explains. “It is, in that way, miraculous. I think it deserves to have a religion based upon in and its powers of separation.” But isn’t religion about unity and joining together? “I think a miracle is a miracle,” says Kelley, “and you take it where you can get it.” Take notice, as well, of the duck in the stained glass window, which Selman notes is “a reference to Lego’s first hit creation from 1935, a wooden duck pull-toy — before Lego ‘went plastic.'” Extra Sunday school points to those who also noticed the Lego version of that day’s hymns.
In the town square, the famous Jebediah Springfield statue received a Lego facelift, right down to the town motto: “A noble spirit embrickens the miniest fig.” Check out the upscale tuxedo shop called Elements of Style — Fine Torsos for Men, and the Plastic Surgery Center, which, as Selman notes, “can make you think you have lost weight by painting a more slender waist onto an identical plastic body.” Details like these weren’t taken lightly. “There was a lot of discussion when we were doing this thing about where the soul of a Lego mini-figure resides — I like the idea that you can just go by a new torso,” he says. “And also: Where do Legos come from? Because they kind of buy themselves. It’s a very strange world. I don’t think we answer any of these questions — we just raise them.”
NEXT: Lego Movie cameos
Selman wanted to tip his hat to the Lego friend playsets by Lego-ifying Malibu Stacy, as seen on Lisa’s wall. “Our kids love the Lego friend playsets,” he says, “so it seemed cute that Lisa’s Malibu Stacy dolls would look like the Lego Friend designs.”
Bart’s giant super robot elicited shock and awe from Selman and Kelley. “We were stunned to receive pictures of an actual model from the Lego builders based on what we’d written in the script,” says Kelley, noting that their instructions were to imagine what would happen if a kid assembled a bunch of Lego sets, picked them up and smashed them on the ground before putting together a new creation using those big, half-destroyed chunks. “This is a real model. This thing would actually be able to walk around. I don’t know if it would actually be able to fire light sabers. They put a lot of work into it, and our animators put a lot of work into it, and it’s so above and beyond what Matt and I thought this would be. It’s one of the coolest things in the episode.” Adds Selman: “If you look closely, you can see that indeed there are pieces from Hobbit-hole, Spongebob, and Batmobile playsets in the robot. Also, for some reason, Bart pilots it from the crotch.”
The Simpsons team had been working on a Lego episode independently of The Lego Movie, and when the film came out in February, “I said, ‘Oh god, this movie’s really funny and the plot is similar to ours!'” recalls Kelley. “So I immediately texted Matt and said, ‘Go to the theater right now.’ And he went and saw it and said, ‘No, no, no, we’re fine.’ But it definitely felt like at the end of the episode, it was an appropriate time to say: ‘We realize that there might be a small similarity here.’ Also, we just wanted to have Emmet and Wildstyle in our episode because we were fans of the movie.” While the Simpsons‘ Lego world couldn’t be altered much at all because it was in the finishing stages of CGI, the writers were able to add those two cameos and Homer’s joke in the 2-D world. In addition, they edited out a few moments that felt too close to elements in the movie. “When Homer goes between dimensions, he used to go through a magical tunnel, and we lost it because there is that tunnel in the movie,” says Selman. A short construction scene was also left on the cutting room floor after they saw that Emmet was a construction worker and had a big construction-site scene.
The episode’s final joke — the camera pulling back on the neighborhood, country, world and solar system until we see the Lego claw hands folding up the Universe — was Selman’s nod to cult classic Time Bandits, even using the music from the movie. “I am the biggest Time Bandits weirdo in the world,” he says. “I thought: What if the so-called real world is actually part of a giant cosmic Lego set? I hope young people who see it will not think it is a reference to Men in Black, as the Men in Black ending was a twist on the ending to Time Bandits.” To settle on the age of the universe and the number of pieces (which is the number of atoms in the observable universe), Selman consulted with Simon Singh, the author of The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets. “The fans would never forgive us, if we did not have the accurate number of plastic molecules in our Philip K. Dick-ian meta-universe.”