Simpsons live episode: Producer reveals details
You’ve seen Homer as a 3-D being, in puppet form, and even as a LEGO creation. Now you’re about to experience him in a new way: live. On May 15, The Simpsons will allow fans who call a 1-888 number to personally interact with the animated legend. The approximately three-minutes will come at the end of the episode titled “Simprovised” (8 p.m., Fox), which is about Homer trying his hand at improv comedy to regain confidence after mangling a speech at work. That’s thematically fitting, as Dan Castellaneta, who voices Homer, will be fielding questions as his animated alias while riffing on the fly. EW dialed up Simpsons executive producer Al Jean on a non-toll-free line to learn more about a live stunt that surely will put a terrible strain on the animators’ wrists.
EW: So, how long have you been toying with the live concept?
AL JEAN: It’s funny. We talked about doing a Homer-going-live thing on The Tonight Show for a promotion for The Simpsons Movie with motion capture. We discussed it as long ago as that [in 2007], but it didn’t seem like the technology was up to what we wanted. And then John Frink, who wrote the episode, said, “Hey why don’t we try to have Homer improv for real at the end of the show?” So we looked back at the motion capture [technology], which had advanced. Fox Sports had worked out a program from Adobe, and I thought it was much more convincing — at least for about three minutes, which is what we’re using it for at the end of the episode. The other thing that’s terrific is Dan Castellenata does improv all the time. He’s one of the best improvvers there is. We couldn’t have somebody better to be doing it.
EW: Why only three minutes? Did you explore the idea of a longer segment, or even an entire episode?
AJ: [Motion capture technology] used to have electrodes wired into the person. Now they don’t. The actor just speaks into a mic, and the camera records his motions, and transfers it to the character onscreen. However, you can only do that with one or at most two characters. The backgrounds don’t change and the character can’t really interact with somebody in the background. We have background jokes that are pre-set. For three minutes, that’s fine. For 30 minutes, I think people would get pretty tired of it. (Laughs) Anything’s possible in the future, but at the moment, three seemed like the perfect amount.
EW: You mention that you could have done it with two characters. Why didn’t you?
AJ: We thought about it, but then it was like, “Who would the other person be? Would we get a celebrity?” And we thought the better thing would be for Homer to interact with the fans.
EW: But couldn’t you have Homer answering questions with Bart or Marge?
AJ: Theoretically. Maybe we would do that someday. But for this, when you see the story of the episode, it’s all about Homer improvising, so the thematic part of the show is Homer conquering his fear of public speaking.
EW: Will those characters or others make cameo appearances in the background?
AJ: They appear in the background doing some stuff, but they don’t speak.
EW: I assume you’ve run some tests of this. Any funny glitches that you had to work out?
AJ: We haven’t had any glitches yet. I always feel — and this is the whole SNL philosophy: If there’s a little glitch, that’s fun, too. That’s the excitement of live television. And to my knowledge, no animated show has done this before… I think this is going to be really incredible — or incredibly terrible.
EW: Fans can ask questions in this segment, and you’ve always been reticent about breaking the fourth wall. What types of questions will you be screening out and what will he answer?
AJ: A question like, “What actor does what?”, that won’t get by. It would have to be a question to Homer, not a question breaking the fourth wall. I assume everyone is going to want to make it into this episode, so they’re going to try to think of questions that we would use, rather than get rejected. There’s still a wide variety of questions you can ask him.
EW: How will this work? Where will Homer be?>
AJ: He’ll be in a Fox secret bunker in an undisclosed location. That’s the background we’ve drawn. (See photo below.)
EW: But that doesn’t break the fourth wall?
AJ: No, because we’ve always said that there is a connection with Fox and The Simpsons, but he doesn’t think he is an actor or a character.
EW: What’s the set-up to get him in the bunker?
AJ: The family is on the couch and Lisa says, “Now we’re going to do something that was first done on TV 50 years ago, and we’ve finally gotten around to it, and our dad will answer questions.” And Bart says, “Take it, Homer.”
EW: Does Homer think he’s interacting with random people who have interest in his life and they’re just calling to ask him questions on the phone?
AJ: Yeah… He just thinks: He’s been an astronaut. He’s done a lot of things. Why won’t people want to ask him questions?
NEXT: Castellaneta’s initial reaction to the live idea, what the animation will look like
EW: What was Dan’s reaction when you first pitched it to him?
AJ: He’s game for everything. He’s a very brave man and very funny and didn’t blink. He’s up for the challenge.
EW: Dan will be answering questions off the cuff, right? But will the writers be there to help him out, frantically slipping him material?
AJ: We’ll be there to screen questions and maybe think about [jokes] if there’s a big event that day. But the truth is, you want to have somebody funny who doesn’t feel like he’s got eight things to try to decide between, where he’s just going with his gut. So it really will be him. God only knows, if Donald Trump says something stupid, we might make a joke to lead off. But in general, it’s just going to be Dan. That’s what makes it live. That’s what makes it exciting.
EW: And you’ll prove it’s live by making a couple of topical references?
AJ: We’ll do the equivalent of holding up today’s newspaper, where we talk about something that’s going on right then. It will be live, I guarantee it, and the way we set it up, it’s to make it very clear that this is really happening. It’s not a trick.
EW: It is a tightrope walk to do a live segment like this. What appealed to you most about it? The excitement of the unknown?
AJ: Yeah — and I wanted to do it before any other animated shows did it. (Laughs)
EW: Your animation process is usually very lengthy. What will the motion capture look like to viewers who are used to the show’s specific visual style?
AJ: It shouldn’t look any different. The difference is, there is less of a variety of motion, and after awhile, it might start to look a little repetitive. That’s why we’re not doing any more than three minutes. You have a limited number of lip assignments and motions that Homer can make, and you see him run through those in the course of the three minutes. The reason I don’t think they’re going to be doing half-hour motion capture shows in the near future is because although it is much cheaper and you can just film it live, you can’t do the complicated set pieces that people want from animation. We do everything we can in the three minutes that’s possible. But there would be no way we would be doing a full show like this anytime in the near future.
EW: What is your biggest fear with this segment? What’s the worst that can happen?
AJ: There could be a snafu where we don’t get the question to Homer, that there’s a little bit of a glitch. But as I say, that proves it’s live. We’ll have a seven-second delay, so it’s not going to be any Janet Jackson sort of thing. Homer’s not going to take off his clothes.
EW: Dammit! How will this compare with Grease Live?
AJ: A lot less danger to the performers.
EW: How will the phone system work? And Homer will be interacting on social media as well?
AJ: The phone number will be released to the public in plenty of time. My guess is because you’re going to get on an episode of The Simpsons, we’ll fill up quickly and then we’ll just have people waiting… We’re going to have one tweet that he’ll answer and also a couple of writers will be tweeting and answer questions as Homer, one on Facebook and one on Twitter simultaneously. We’re trying to answer as many questions as we can.
EW: If you could ask Homer anything, what would you ask?
AJ: Hmm, that’s a good question… “What does Marge possibly see in him?”
EW: Any advice for fans calling in?
AJ: Just ask an interesting question about Homer, and his life and if it’s funny, we’ll try to get it in. We’re not looking for people to ask trivia questions about season 23.