Legendary Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder on the show's best season and the secret to writing Homer
In his first-ever interview, the famously private writer also talked to The New Yorker about his contributions to The Simpsons and the beloved comedy's legacy.
John Swartzwelder remains one of the most revered Simpsons writers, especially to scribes who've worked on the show, but he's never done an interview until now.
Speaking to The New Yorker, Swartzwelder discussed what he thinks is The Simpsons' best episode, why the key to writing Homer Simpson is to think of him "as a big dog," and his contributions to the iconic Fox comedy.
Asked about the "golden age" of The Simpsons, which some fans believe to have lasted until 1998, Swartzwelder said he personally thinks season 3 was the "best individual season."
"By Season 3, we had learned how to grind out first-class Simpsons episodes with surprising regularity," the writer said. "We had developed a big cast of characters to work with, we hadn't even come close to running out of storylines, and the staff hadn't been worn down by overwork yet. Season 3 was a fun year to be in the Simpsons writers' room, and I think it shows in the work."
And for him, the secret to honing (homing?) in on the show's bumbling patriarch was to write him as if he were a "big talking dog."
"One moment he's the saddest man in the world, because he's just lost his job, or dropped his sandwich, or accidentally killed his family," Swartzwelder explained. "Then, the next moment, he's the happiest man in the world, because he's just found a penny — maybe under one of his dead family members. He's not actually a dog, of course — he's smarter than that — but if you write him as a dog you'll never go wrong."
Though he departed The Simpsons 18 years ago, Swartzwelder is still revered by the show's fans and writers. He wrote 59 episodes, more than any other writer in the show's history. Among his contributions are wry, witty lines like "To alcohol. The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems" (which also made EW's "30 perfect TV punchlines" list).
The fiercely private writer, now in his 70s, also responded to claims regarding the extent of his contributions on the show, like the "Itchy & Scratchy" cartoon within The Simpsons and the use of the word "meh."
"Everybody did Itchy & Scratchy cartoons, but I certainly did more than my share. They were fun for me," Swartzwelder said. "I didn't create them. But I did, along with Sam Simon, create the nice [version of] Itchy and Scratchy, as seen on 'Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,' which still makes me laugh every time."
"I do claim credit for ['meh']. I originally heard the word from Howie Krakow, my creative director at Hurvis, Binzer & Churchill, in 1970 or 1971," he continued. "He said it was the funniest word in the world. I don't know when it was invented, or by who, but I got the impression it was already very old when Howie told it to me."
When it comes to The Simpsons' legacy, Swartzwelder said he only cares about one thing.
"I like to think that The Simpsons has helped create a generation of wise guys, who live in a world where everybody is up to something," he said. "If that's all we've achieved, aside from the billions of dollars we've made, I'm satisfied."
And of course, The Simpsons was a boon for Fox and "made the network," Swartzwelder posited.
When the episode "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge" aired in December 1990, "the show could only be seen in two-thirds of the country," he said. "And in some places, like Boston, people could only see it on weak UHF stations. The sudden success of The Simpsons made everyone in America want to have a Fox station in their town immediately. It made the network."
Swartzwelder also got into the nitty-gritty of what the schedule was like for The Simpsons' writers' room. Writing and rewriting scripts (there was a lot of rewriting) was "actually quite fun," he said. The hard part was having to work on multiple episodes at once.
"The difficulty of working on The Simpsons is that each episode takes about six to eight months from beginning to end," he said. "And if you're on staff, you're always working on half a dozen episodes at the same time, all of them at one stage of completion or another. It's actually quite exhausting, or was back then."
Swartzwelder also quipped that "it's probably the easiest job in the world now. You Simpsons writer kids today don't know what work is."