When Al Jean first showed up in the Simpsons writing room in 1989, he never imagined he'd still be giving life to Homer, Bart and the gang 18 years later. Nor did he expect to be helming a show that's nothing short of a full-fledged pop-culture phenomenon. Id never dreamed that it'd be something I'd be talking about almost 20 years later, he says.
Jean has been guiding the show since its transition from clips on The Tracey Ullman Show to what Fox Programming Executive VP Craig Erwich humbly calls “probably one of the greatest TV shows in the history of the medium.” As the animated program nears its 400th episode and the release of its feature-film debut, The Simpsons and Jean show little sign of slowing down. “We still have lots of great stories we want to tell,” he says. “Honestly, I don't see the end yet.”
A long way from selling nails
Jean has come a long way since he toiled in the family's hardware store in Michigan. Born in Detroit, he was raised on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show (he calls the cartoon “very influential”), Get Smart and Laugh-In—although his mother felt the last two were a bit risqué for young boys. He fondly recalls CBS' fabled Saturday-night comedy block—which included All in the Family, Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Newhart—and its impact on the cultural landscape. “You'd watch the shows with your family, then talk about them Monday in school,” he says.
Jean studied at Harvard, where he worked on the college's famed humor magazine, the Harvard Lampoon. Upon graduating in 1981, he stuck around Cambridge to be editor of National Lampoon, again to the chagrin of his mother. “It was the kind of magazine where you could see topless women when you were 13,” he explains.
Like so many Lampooners, Jean headed west in 1982 to test his comedy-writing chops in Hollywood. He spent 20 weeks writing gags for the film Airplane 2 and had a staff job at HBO comedy program Not Necessarily the News—preceding Lampoon vets and future Simpsons colleagues Conan O'Brien and Greg Daniels by a few years.
Then, Jean was tapped to write for a bona fide industry icon, as a staff writer on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. While Jean's interaction with the late-night master was somewhat limited, he recalls Carson as a “very charming” guy—albeit one who wasn't above setting a match to material he found substandard and tossing the blazing script in the garbage. His Carson stint toughened Jean's resolve, honed his writing skills and affected him in more profound ways.
“Looking back on the show now, I felt like a part of TV history,” he says, “like meeting JFK or something.”
Gigs followed at Alf and Showtime's It's Garry Shandling's Show before producers Sam Simon and James L. Brooks contacted Jean and his writing partner, Mike Reiss, about expanding The Simpsons on Fox. “They wanted to hire these two other guys, but they were unavailable,” says Jean. “So they turned to us.”
The Simpsons institution
Eighteen years later, Jean is still brainstorming story ideas, shaping scripts and overseeing animation. Erwich says The Simpsons wouldn't quite be The Simpsons without Al Jean. “He's so devoted to the integrity of The Simpsons institution,” Erwich says. “It's an incredible legacy that Al helped create, and he lives up to it every day.”
Although little, if anything, has changed in The Simpsons' hometown of Springfield, the TV world has changed dramatically. For starters, Jean says, the emergence of the laptop has vastly expedited the collaborative writing process. And with viewing options growing from a handful of networks to hundreds of channels on different devices, writers have been pushed to up their game. Given The Simpsons' wildfire success, the writing staff has doubled to about 20, so that two separate groups are always at work. With ancillary products like videogames and the film, Jean says, the extra bodies come in handy.
Fox is extremely tight-lipped about The Simpsons Movie, which only stokes anticipation for its July 27 release. Jean, who says he's doing “showrunner-type functions” for the film, will allow only that it stays true to the show's attitude and its guest stars include funnyman Albert Brooks.
Revolution going strong
Although Simpsons fans will no doubt queue up well in advance of the premiere, Fox sees the movie bringing fresh eyeballs to the network Sunday nights (the program still consistently pulls strong ratings, comparable to Fox's more recent animated hit Family Guy). “It's an opportunity for new people to become Simpsons watchers,” says Erwich. “It's never too late to join the Simpsons revolution.”
The revolution is going strong, and The Simpsons' influence on television—whether it's animated family sitcoms like Fox's King of the Hill or the absurdist fare on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim—is immeasurable. Family Guy showrunner David Goodman concedes that there would be no Peter Griffin without Homer Simpson, and he credits Jean for keeping The Simpsons sharp. “It broke ground when nothing on TV was breaking ground, and it's still the gold standard,” he says. “Al's the one who keeps it fresh week to week and keeps coming up with original and amazing stories.”
With both the film and series under his watch, Jean's free time is limited. He enjoys the occasional L.A. Clippers basketball game, watching shows like The Daily Show and Campus Ladies, and simple pleasures like taking his young daughters to the park. “I'm doing so much,” he says, “that a little thing like that is really fun for me.”
Jean's parents, who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, still operate Jean's Hardware in Farmington Hills, Mich. Al recalls the store fondly but doesn't miss the days spent selling nails and cans of WD-40. “That's one reason I wanted to do well in show business,” he says. “So I wouldn't have to go back to working in the hardware store.”