All ‘The Simpsons’ Classic Episodes By This Writer Were ‘Lousy’ At First, He Says

The Simpsons is one of the most sophisticated comedies ever to air on television. They’ve been writing episodes for over 30 years, but it was never easy. To find out how hard it was, listen to one of the show’s original writers. John Swartzwelder wrote for The Simpsons from 1990 – 2003. Some of his landmark episodes include “Stark Raving Dad,” “The Boy Who Knew Too Much” and “Radioactive Man.”

The Simpsons family all smiling except Bart
L-R: Lisa, Marge, Maggie, Homer and Bart Simpson | Fox Media LLC

Swartzwelder gave his first ever interview after all this time to The New Yorker on May 2. He revealed his secret for writing such classic episodes is to start with a really bad first draft. 

Who are the writers of ‘The Simpsons’?

Al Jean has been head writer and showrunner of The Simpsons since the third season, with a two-season break when he ran The Critic. Other Simpsons writers like Conan O’Brien and Brad Bird went on to great success when they left the show. The Simpsons’ stable of writers has evolved throughout the decades, but no matter who wrote the script, they all worked together. 

“A writer is assigned a story, often a story he originally came up with himself, though not always,” Swartzwelder told The New Yorker. ‘Two days are spent in the writers’ room, with everyone helping flesh out the story, adding jokes, and so on. Then the writer writes an outline. Then everybody gets back in the room and pitches more changes, additions, and jokes. The writer writes the first draft, and then it’s back to the room for more rewriting.’

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Rewrites continue after the voice cast reads the script, and again after animation commences.

“The script is rewritten again after the read-through and after the screening of the animatic, with additional possible rewrites at the recording session itself and after the finished animation comes back from Korea,” Swartzwelder said. “There might be other rewrites I’ve forgotten. If a joke survives all that, it’s probably pretty good.”

John Swartzwelder never got it right the first time 

When it was time for Swartzwelder to write his draft, he did that alone. However, Swartzwelder still considered himself a rewriter. So as long as he got something down on paper, he could make it better later.

“Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue,” Swartzwelder siad. 

RELATED: ‘The Simpsons’ Theme Song Originally Used a Wrong Title for the Show

Examples of basic bad dialogue include“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” That would never make it onto The Simpsons but it’s not supposed to.

“Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written,” Swartzwelder said. “It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat.”

‘The Simpsons’ magic comes from rewrites

Swartzwelder found it easier to write funny jokes once he got the bad ones out of his system.

“All I have to do from that point on is fix it,” Swartzwelder said. “So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.”

Source: The New Yorker