Since they thought no one would watch, the writers didn’t make the kind of show they saw on TV. They made the kind of show they wanted to see on TV.
“Each episode was unpredictable and the only rule we made for ourselves was don’t be boring,” said Reiss.
“Scenes were snappy and packed with jokes—in the dialogue, in the foreground, even in the background. When Homer went to a video arcade in episode six, Al and I filled the place with funny games like Pac-Rat, Escape from Grandma’s House, and Robert Goulet Destroyer. Remember, this was 1988. It’s no joke to say that the fastest-paced, most irreverent comedy on TV at the time was “The Golden Girls,” a show about three corpses and a mummy.”
He paused then said: “I broke into sitcoms writing a script for ‘The Golden Girls.’ Now I am one.”
Check Your Ego at the Door
Every episode of “The Simpsons” required a team effort no matter who wrote the first draft.
“Somebody writes a script — and they write the very best script they can, knowing that it will go to a room full of writers who will sit there and change it a line at a time,” said Reiss.
Often it will go to a second writers room for polishing. Then, they read the script out loud with the cast to hear how it sounds, how the story is tracking, and rewrite it again. The animators create a rough black-and-white storyboard, which is again critiqued by the creative team, and a rough animation called an animatic is developed and shown to a group.
“We see what's making people laugh and we fix what's not working,” Reiss said.
Even after an episode is sent off for full-color animation, changes are made based on audience reaction.
“You have to pity a poor joke that’s in the first draft of a script because it’s gotta make a room full of people laugh four or five separate times to make it to the finish line.”
By the end of the process, about 80% of the original script will be changed — almost always for the better.
“There’s no room for ego in this process,” he said. “If a writer fights to preserve his original script, he’ll probably get fired.”
Say No to A-holes
Due to such a collaborative process, success in the writer’s room requires a delicate balance of talent and attitude. One irritating or obstinate writer can bring the entire machinery of the show to a halt.
“Long before ‘The Simpsons,’ I worked with a writer who was very talented, but he was also an A-hole. The boss called him in and said, ‘we love the work you’re doing here, but everyone thinks you’re an a-hole. So, we’re going to have to fire you unless you can, you know, stop being an a-hole.’ The guy said, ‘let me think about it.’ He went home that night and returned the next morning. He said, ‘I discussed it with my wife and she agreed — I can’t stop being an a-hole.’”