In her bimonthly column, Nancy Cartwright interviews Simpsons showrunner Al Jean.
Over the next few articles, I am branching out and asking my industry friends to give me their insider takes. I am going to focus on subjects that professionals need to have some knowledge of and get opinions from a wide range of specialties and hats in the business.
So far I have interviewed good friends Jack Thomas (The Replacements), Mike Scully (The Simpsons), Carolyn Omine (The Simpsons), Ginnie McSwain (voice-over director), AJ Riebli (Pixar Animation editorial manager) and now Al Jean, showrunner and long-time writer on The Simpsons.
Al Jean started out as a writer on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,, where he worked with Mike Reiss. The two wrote a spec episode for Golden Girls, which led to their writing scripts for various shows, including the popular sitcom ALF. After serving as a producer for Showtime's It's Garry Shandling's Show, Al moved to Springfield, a gig which turned out to be a long-term residency.
Now an executive producer and the current showrunner for The Simpsons, Al has received four Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award for his work on the show. Hes responsible for such popular episodes as "Lisa's Pony," "The Way We Was," and "Lisa's Sax," among many others.
Als other credits include The Critic and Teen Angel, both of which he created with Mike Reiss, as well as being a consultant on The PJs in the 1990s. He was also one of the 11 writers on The Simpsons Movie and created the Flash-animated series Jesus And His Brothers for icebox.com, which is featured in AWN's Media Center.
Nancy Cartwright: You served as vice-president of The Harvard Lampoon magazine. Did this open doors for you regarding Hollywood"?
Al Jean: At college, I was privileged to meet and work with some very talented writers who went on to work for Saturday Night Live, Seinfeld, Late Night with David Letterman and The Simpsons. No doubt my exposure to them at a very young age has been enormously helpful to my writing career.
NC: Back in 1989 when The Simpsons was first developed as the only animated show on primetime, what were your initial thoughts and contributions? How did you work as a writing team? Does it differ from today?
AL: I never dreamed The Simpsons would became an international hit lasting more than 19 years, but I always thought it would be a high-quality show, thanks to the involvement of Matt Groening, James L. Brooks and Sam Simon. I was one of the first staff writers hired for The Simpsons, and the show then basically worked the same as today, with a writer's first draft being constantly rewritten by the whole staff -- except today the staff is about twice as large (20 writers).
NC: As the showrunner for The Simpsons, what exactly do you do?
AL: As the showrunner, I am involved with and responsible for all aspects of the show, including writing, directing, editing, sound, music and budget. Basically, when something goes wrong, it is my fault.
NC: What are the actors responsibilities when cast in a show? How much input do you expect and/or want from the voice-actor?
AL: The actors first read the script at a Thursday session, where the writers see what material works and what doesn't. The rewritten script, including contributions from our highly talented cast, is recorded the following Monday, then continuously rewritten and rerecorded up to the air date approximately eight months later.
NC: The animation industry has the reputation of being a very tight-knit group, from writers to animators to voices. What does it take to be successful in this part of the business?
AL: To be successful in animation is like anything else in business; it takes a little talent, a good attitude and a lot of hard work.
NC: So, if I am interested in being a writer for animation, what steps would I take?
AL: To become a writer for animation, it is necessary to write a spec script, not necessarily from an animated show. If a producer reads and enjoys the script, you could get hired to write a freelance episode or possibly be put on staff.
NC: What are my chances of a successful career in animation if I dont live in New York or Los Angeles?
AL: It is difficult to find work in animation (in the U.S.) unless you live in New York or especially Los Angeles. Most of the industry is here.
NC: It used to be that voice-overs merely supplemented an artists desire to act on camera. Nowadays, you cant watch an animated show/film without seeing the name of a celebrity. What are your thoughts about this trend? Should there be a separate category for non-celebrity talent?
AL: I believe in the last 20 years the profession of voice-over acting has reached such a level that it attracts the finest in the profession. I feel a separate "non-celebrity" category is not needed, as all work is of such a high caliber.
NC: What is your proudest accomplishment?
AL: My proudest career accomplishment was releasing The Simpsons Movie this year, two months after we aired our 400th episode. My proudest accomplishments in general are my daughters Monica and Violet.
NC: And finally, what do we have to look forward to Al Jean doing in the near future?
AL: I hope some day in the future Al Jean will get a little rest.
Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in a career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently, she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disney's Kim Possible and Todd Daring in Disney's The Replacements. To learn more about Nancy's career, listen to her audio book My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy or visit her website.