Simpsons: Smithers coming-out episode explained by Al Jean
After 27 seasons of increasingly obvious innuendo, The Simpsons finally addressed the romantic life of Waylon Smithers, Mr. Burns’ servile right-hand man. In the animated comedy’s April 3 episode, our ever-dedicated personal assistant tried to declare his love to his boss after saving his life, but Burns cut him off, leaving him frustrated and heartbroken — and Homer & Co. committed to finding Smithers a worthy male suitor to end all of this pointless pining for his boss. It worked temporarily: He embarked on a whirlwind romance with Julio — and quit Burns both professionally and personally — but by episode’s end, both Smithers and Burns realized that they couldn’t live/work without each other, and Smithers had cut Julio free.
While it was not entirely accurate to term “The Burns Cage” a coming-out episode — the town already knew he was gay, and he never truly got to tell Burns that he loved him — it was, in a way, the longest coming-out story ever told, with roots stretching back to the show’s beginnings.
EW spoke with Simpsons executive producer Al Jean about the Smithers showcase.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long was this episode truly in the making?
AL JEAN: [Late Simpsons executive producer] Sam Simon came up with the idea that Smithers was gay, and he said we should subtly imply in different episodes that Smithers loved Burns and let the viewers catch on. Which they did. Time passed and we realized everyone in Springfield probably knew Smithers was gay except for the man he loved. Rob LaZebnik, [who wrote the episode] pitched a story about Smithers wondering if he was ever going to get a reciprocal attraction from Burns, a man for whom the definition of “gay” is still “carefree.” Rob had mentioned his son is gay, and that was what inspired him to write the episode. We don’t have big lights go off, saying, “Oh, Smithers’ coming-out episode!” I loved that we didn’t make a big deal of it, that the town knew he was gay and it wasn’t unusual. They just wanted to find him somebody that was more of a match than Burns. When he tries to say to Burns, “I’m gay,” we kept having Burns cut him off.
Why? So you could keep that dynamic intact?
Burns will never quite get it, and the point of the episode is not because of who he is but because of who he loves — i.e. Burns — Smithers is doomed to some unhappiness. But in life that happens sometimes: What we want isn’t exactly what will make us happy. He doesn’t want money. He does get something from Burns at the end of the episode that means a lot to him — he says Smithers’ work is excellent; it’s really the first nice thing he’s said to him — and that’s enough. And it’s his choice. He would have been in a happier relationship probably with Julio, but it’s not what he wanted. And sometimes what makes us happy isn’t what we really want. … What people do want is Smithers working for Burns. We’re not going to change the very basic dynamic because — and you can see how wonderful it is that Harry is still with the show, how great a job he did in that episode — people want the show that they’ve seen for 27 years.
Was there a lot of talk over the years of when to do a “Smithers comes out” episode?
No. I’ll say, speaking for me personally, I shy away from episodes where there’s a huge reveal or issue that we’re trumpeting becuase I think the show is one that’s in a continuum. I’ve said that if we ever ended it, it would be my idea to just go back to the beginning and have the end start at the Christmas show that began the stories like an infinite loop … The [coming-out] episode of Ellen was pretty groundbreaking, and the sad thing is I think that was in 1997; it took so long for that episode to air. And if there’s one thing we can do with this episode is just to say that we hope that things have changed to the point where it isn’t such a big deal, that it’s just accepted more naturally.
Isn’t there another Smithers episode in the works?
It’s more of a Burns episode. It’s also a little bit based on our experiences working at the Hollywood Bowl. Burns does a show at the Springfield Bowl to overcome a trauma that he experienced as a child, and Smithers helps with that. But it’s not forwarding Burns and Smithers relationship.
Anyone else that might be gay that you’re planning a big story for? Lenny and Carl?
There’s no other hidden story lines. Patty’s gay. We’ve said that. Lenny and Carl like each other a lot. [Laughs]
Anything to say about that?
I think we’ve just made the reality so elastic that they’ve clearly had girlfriends. They could be bi for all I know.