‘Simpsons’ Showrunner Matt Selman Has Read Your Mean Tweets
Writing on a show like The Simpsons seems like it would be a dream job. There’s the security of knowing that, even after 34 seasons, there’s no end in sight. There’s the prestige of contributing to a project that has earned close to three dozen Emmys to date. There’s the pride of being part of a series generally regarded as one of the best comedies of all time… at least for a while.
Current showrunner Matt Selman’s first Simpsons episode — of the 541 with which he’s credited — came in Season 10, and at the ATX Festival today, he seemed to indicate that he knew that his time on the show has mostly not been during what fan consensus regards as its glory years. When he tells people he works on the show, he said he often hears, “I didn’t know that was still on,” adding, “Oh dear!”
Before he was a writer on The Simpsons, Selman was a fan: “It was the thing that made me … think that comedy writing” could be a “smart, fun, goofy career.” He’d only ever thought that, if he was lucky, he’d get to work on a bad show, not one he’d so venerated. And the weight of the show’s long history does press on him and his colleagues: “Holy cow, we can’t screw this up. We can’t do episodes that are just episodes.” Their goal, he said, is for every episode to be “really unique visually,” as well as in its emotion and the targets of its satire so that they don’t “waste this amazing creative opportunity.”
They don’t get network notes; they only have to “make co-creators Matt Groening and James L. Brooks happy with the story,” which “doesn’t always happen.” For anyone who hasn’t watched the more recent episodes, he describes changes of scope and scale: They’re trying “smaller” stories and ones that break the show format. “I feel there’s an upswing,” he said. “I don’t want people to take it for granted.”
Regarding other adult animation shows that became hits well into the run of The Simpsons, Selman noted that while his show can be dark and cover painful topics with psychological realism, it doesn’t reach the nihilist depths of South Park or Rick and Morty. “Only watch one at a time” of those, he wryly advised. “Binge The Simpsons!” Or should we? He quickly corrected himself: “I’m on strike. … Current ethics are a little muddy.” What is clear for Selman — addressing a crowd of admitted big-time TV nerds — is that if the WGA doesn’t get the protections it’s striking for, shows will seem like “thin, cheap-ass garbage.”
Whatever viewers may think about current Simpsons episodes, Selman stressed that thin, cheap-ass garbage it is not. Each episode goes through multiple readings (including a “radio play” just for Brooks and Groening), multiple rewrites and multiple rounds of animatics: “We’re an old show, and we can afford to take our time,” and for him, it’s still exciting to see an episode air, even “after these thousands of years.”
Even as he described all the work that underlies each episode and particular recent ones that he’s especially proud of — and, specifically, efforts to make Lisa (voiced by Yeardley Smith) sound less like a graduate student than like a regular kid whose elevated intellect would probably make her anxious — Selman returned to the ambient criticism that makes its way to him. “I get a little guff online sometimes about being dismissive of the idea of canon,” he said, noting that the characters haven’t aged after 35 years on TV. “Something has to give.”
The writers try not to contradict themselves, but time periods don’t always link up. A long-running show is like a highway, he analogized, with viewers using different on-ramps and off-ramps: “Not that many people are on the highway for the whole highway.” Even if it’s negative, he seems to appreciate that the show still has the power to infuriate a particular segment of the audience. “If people love to hate the show, like, that’s a reaction, you know?,” and a thousand-word screed is “better than apathy, I guess.” The one line that seems to annoy him most is the calls for Fox to cancel it: “You guys can cancel The Simpsons any time you want: just don’t watch it.”
Perhaps sensing that Selman seemed very dispirited about his career and the rudest/loudest members of his show’s fan base, moderator Trevor Scott tried to leave things on a positive note. What advice would Selman give to people who may want to break into the business? “The economics are in a state of turmoil, that’s for sure,” the currently striking Selman conceded, adding that he can’t speak to “money success” that may even be possible. But ultimately, Selman explained, “The joy of collaboration is the best part of the job. … The career element seems very scary, but the fun element has never been more fun.”
Here’s hoping Selman can hold this message in his heart. Deciding to stop reading the comments — including this — would probably help.