In a rare interview, Simpsons writer Mike Scully talks about the show’s A-list musical guests, his love for Ned Flanders and upsetting the entire population of Brazil. He also tells us what to expect from The Simpsons Movie, which blockbusters its way onto the big screen in the summer.
I wish to give prior notice that on July 27 I will be washing my hair, coming down with the ‘flu, attending my Auntie’s funeral, visiting the dentist, waiting in for the gas man and generally unavailable.
These multifarious demands on my time are in no way connected to this also being the date that The Simpsons Movie receives its worldwide cinematic release. Though if I’m feeling better and have everything done by 2pm, you might see me queuing up outside The Savoy Cinema in O’Connell Street for the matinee.
It’s for matters of a Simpson-ian nature that I’ve tracked one of the show’s mainmen down to a hotel in – believe it or believe it not – Springfield, Massachusetts where it’s minus-one outside and snowing.
“If it carries on like this, we’ll have to call Mr. Plow,” laughs Mike Scully, a former stand-up comedian who joined The Simpsons in 1994 as a writer, and before long was elevated to the position of Executive Producer. One of his qualifications for landing the top job is that he’s a hopeless music fan.
“You wouldn’t be let in the front-door if you weren’t,” the 49-year-old resumes with a smile. “There’s always a shopping-list of musicians we’d like to get in if the right scenario presents itself.”
Or when out of the blue Paul McGuinness rings up and says, “My band want to be on your show!”
“Yeah, Paul called saying the guys were fans and would love to do it and, as luck would have it, we had the episode where Homer runs for Sanitation Commissioner of Springfield in production, which was perfect for them. Homer interrupts a U2 concert to deliver his campaign message to the voters; Bono pretends to be interested in what he’s saying because it’s a political issue; and then Homer’s taken backstage by the security people who beat the hell out of him. And you get to watch it all on the jumbo big screen!”
Were they one-take specialists or did Mike and his colleagues have to coach them through it?
“It did take quite a bit of time, but that’s because we kept manufacturing reasons to keep them there,” he confesses. “There aren’t many occasions you get U2 all to yourself, so milk it! You hear stories about rock stars being assholes, but they couldn’t have been nicer or more appreciative. When it came to the part where they were supposed to be in Moe’s Tavern singing a song, Bono turned round and said, ‘It’d really help me get into character if I had a beer!’ so we immediately sent out for a case.”
As the beer flowed, did the XXX-rated Motley Crue stories come out?
“Er, no,” he says apologetically. “The Edge and I did spend a lot of time talking about girls, but these particular ones were our daughters – he’s got four and I’ve got five, so there was much comparing of fatherly notes! You’re sitting there trying to be all matter of fact while in your head a voice is going, ‘I'm discussing parenting with The Edge!’”
As delighted as he was to have bagged Bono and the boys – “I’m very, very blessed that it happened on my watch” – Mike’s favourite musical episode of The Simpsons is the one where Homer attends rock ‘n’ roll boot camp.
“It was great being able to call the episode How I Spent My Strummer Vacation in honour of dear old Joe who’d recently passed away,” he proffers. “I hate to see anybody go down early, but when it’s Joe Strummer or Joey Ramone or any of The Ramones, it’s extra tough. God ought to arrange it so that rock ‘n’ rollers have longer lifespans than us mortals!
“By this time I’d finished my stint as Executive Producer but was brought back by my successor, Al Jean, to produce an extra episode that Fox wanted for that season. It’s actually two halves of two different stories that I’d previously never known how to make work. The first half was Homer getting incredibly drunk and ending up on a confessional TV show where he says such horrible things about his family as: ‘Marriage is like a coffin and each kid is like another nail.’ My first instinct – which had me coming up against brick walls all the time – was that he had to apologise. Then I thought, ‘What if the family realises that although said the wrong way, Homer has a point and needs rewarding for all the sacrifices he’s made on their behalf?’ Which put me in mind of these Rock ‘N’ Roll Fantasy Camps I’d heard a guitar-player called Leslie West promoting on The Howard Stern Show. Realising that I could combine the two was a real 'eureka!' moment."
And the cue for Lady Luck to knock on the door again.
“We got a call from the Rolling Stones management saying they were going out on tour and would we be up for a Mick ‘n’ Keith guest appearance,” Scully recalls. “‘You kiddin’? We’d kill to have the Stones on!’ Once we had them running the camp, there was no way Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello, Tom Petty and Brian Setzer were going to turn down the roles of instructors.”
How did Sir Mick measure up in the thespian department?
“Extremely well. His manager came into the recording studio and said, ‘Mick wants to talk to you.’ I didn’t know whether to be excited or scared, but I walked down the hall and found him alone on a couch. He beckoned for me to sit next to him and we went through the script page by page, with Mick telling me the jokes he liked and suggesting a few word changes. I had to project the cool, calm image of a Hollywood producer while inside I’m like a 12-year-old girl screaming, 'Oh my God, oh my God, it's Mick Jagger!'
“Elvis Costello was fantastic too. He’d originally come over to participate in a documentary I was making about NRBQ. Have you heard of them?”
No, but my good friend Wikipedia has. Formed in 1967, the New Rhythm & Blues Quartet hail from Miami and reached the lofty height of number 70 in 1974 with their 'Get The Gasoline Blues' single. Despite the lack of any other hits, their jazzy pop has earned them a huge Grateful Dead/Phish-style live following and the undying love of Mike Scully who made them the house band on seasons 10 through 12 of The Simpsons.
“Never have I so wantonly abused my position,” he beams. “I got my first fake ID, aged 16, to get into one of their shows and have been an obsessive fan ever since. They’re incredibly funny on stage, never have a set-list and count Keith Richards, Bonnie Raitt, Peter Buck and Mike Mills – who also appear in the documentary – among their fans. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney are admirers too, but I was financing the shoot myself and ran out of time.
“What is it about music that makes normally sensible adults behave like children? I got together with five or six of my friends recently when Tower Records shut down and you’d have thought that somebody we knew had died. Tower going really marks the end of an era.”
It may have died in the States, but Tower Records is still alive, well and relieving me of a goodly part of my wages in Dublin.
“You’re joking? Guess where I’m bringing the family on summer vacation! The tradition of having music on The Simpsons has continued with Al Jean who made both Metallica and The White Stripes very happy last year when he had them on the show.”
Sadly, another of The Simpsons’ quarries is proving more elusive.
“I’ve tried quite shamelessly to get Bruce Springsteen, but his management people said, ‘All he likes to do is play music and hang out with his kids.’ The bastard! You shouldn’t hate a guy for working hard and being good to his children, but that day I did.”
Cocooned as they are in their own pixilated world, are The Simpsons crew aware of the show’s cultural significance beyond the 20th Century FOX lot?
“We work in quite isolated quarters so, yeah, you do sometimes forget that this thing’s going to air on all five continents,” Mike reflects. “It doesn’t play in a theatre with a live audience, so we don’t get to hear people laugh – or not laugh as the case may be.
“My last time realising how big the show is was sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas and the guy opposite going ‘Woo hoo!’ when he won and ‘D’oh!’ when he got a bad hand. At first it was kind of a kick because you realised you were having this cultural impact, but after two hours it got really annoying!”
Who’s the unlikeliest person that’s confessed to being a Simpsons addict?
“As hard as it is to imagine him sitting in front of the TV watching a cartoon, we were told that Stanley Kubrick loved the show. Prime Minister Tony Blair was another fairly odd one.”
Talking of elected leaders, how did it feel when the President of Brazil, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, complained about The Simpsons portraying Rio as a city where all the men are bisexual, fearsome monkeys roam the streets and tourists are kidnapped by taxi drivers and mugged by orphans?
“I don’t want to speak for Al Jean whose episode it was, but if you can upset an entire country with a cartoon you know you’re doing something right – and Brazil's a big one too!” he laughs again. “Australia was pretty upset with us portraying them as a nation of drinkers – where did we get that idea from? – but hey! The observations on countries tend to slip by the FOX Broadcast Standards Department, who are more concerned about sex and violence.
“The way I look at it is if you get a mention on The Simpsons, good or bad, you’re somebody who matters. Rarely is it malicious because if we don’t like somebody we ignore ‘em!”
Before we venture away from matters musical, what were The Who like to work with?
“Roger Daltrey immediately disappointed me by turning up 20 minutes early – and he calls himself a rock star! He apologised for being a little raspy, but he’d been sanding the floors in his house. I thought, ‘Don’t you have people to do that for you?’ I was over there to record him with Dan Castellaneta, who does the voice of Homer, and it turned out that both were equally thrilled to meet the other. The two of them both looked at each other, starstruck. It was really funny to watch.
“There’s a scene in the show where The Who have to huddle up and make a decision and, not being afraid to poke fun at their image, Roger said, ‘If it’s really a Who huddle, we ought to be punching each other!’ Someone else who’s got a great, dry sense of humour is Tom Petty – so much so that I’d like to do a whole show with him.”
In between stepping down as Executive Producer of the TV show and working full-time on The Simpsons Movie, Scully kept his hand in writing for Everybody Loves Raymond. How do the worlds of live and cartoon comedy compare?
“You couldn’t set Raymond on fire or have him throttling his kids! A man pointing a loaded gun in his wife’s face – as Homer did in The Cartridge Family – is only funny when it’s animated.”
Having recently overtaken Scooby-Doo’s 371 episodes, The Simpsons is second only to Gunsmoke and its 635 episodes as the longest-running light entertainment programme on American television. What’s the secret of their longevity?
“Lower your quality standards," he deadpans. "Once you've done that you can go on forever!"
Are the writers protective of the show's characters?
“We’re the worst offenders when it comes to disrespecting them, but at the same time we’re their biggest protectors and have certain rules that can’t be broken. Dr. Hibbert may have gone from being a pillar of the medical community to rivalling Dr. Nick in the incompetence department, but Marge, Lisa and Ned Flanders’ beliefs and principles will never change because you need something solid to contrast the madness with.”
I know tongues will be pulled out if the plotline’s divulged, but having been mooted since the mid-‘90s, can Mike tell us why now is considered the right time for The Simpsons Movie?
“We all need the money,” he deadpans. “Ex-wives to pay, children to send to the orthodontist. The idea originally was to do it as a postscript to the show, but we came to the realisation a while back that the show may never be done. Every time the audience appears to be greying, along comes a new generation of viewers.
“James L. Brooks is the one who got everybody together and said, ‘Now is the time’, and we’ve been working on it for a little over three years. The tricky parts were coming up with a story after you’ve done 400 episodes, and giving the audience something extra while staying true to the look of the TV show. It’s a question of size and scope and being able to do really elaborate scenes on the big screen that wouldn’t work on the small one. We’re still writing new material as fast as the animators can draw it and throw it away! It’s looking good though.”
As I said earlier, I’m busy on July 27.
Simpsons Images: The Simpsons TM and © 2007 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.