John Swartzwelder, Sage of “The Simpsons”
(Originally appeared in The New Yorker, May 2021)
It’s been nearly twenty years since the reclusive, mysterious, almost mythical comedy writer John Swartzwelder left “The Simpsons,” and yet, to this day, one of the biggest compliments a “Simpsons” writer (or any comedy writer) can receive is to have a joke referred to as “Swartzweldian.” Meaning: A joke that comes out of nowhere. A joke that no one else could have written. A joke that sounds almost as if it were never written, as if it’s always existed.
Take the following joke, a favorite among “Simpsons” writers and fans, which appears in Season 8’s “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment,” when Homer stands atop a stack of barrels, outside a pawn shop, and delivers a toast to a gathered crowd: “To alcohol. The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
Swartzwelder has been deemed “one of the greatest comedy minds of all time.” He is famously private and never grants interviews. Few photos of him exist, although he did make some animated cameos as background “Simpsons” characters—once as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. His voice can be heard on only one “Simpsons” DVD writers’ commentary, for “The Cartridge Family” (Season 9, Episode 5). Ambushed by phone, while at home cooking a steak, he sounds pleasant and courteous but eager to finish up the encounter, which lasts all of a minute and twenty-four seconds.
A few facts seem certain. Swartzwelder was born in 1949 in Seattle. He worked a few years as an advertising copywriter in Chicago. He applied for, but never got, a job at “Late Night,” and had an uncomfortable interview with its host, David Letterman. He worked at “Saturday Night Live,” in 1985, for one particularly rocky season, before being hired four years later at “The Simpsons,” based partly on his contributions to a little-known comedy zine. He went on to write fifty-nine episodes, more than any other writer in the show’s history.
Swartzwelder’s specialty on “The Simpsons” was conjuring dark characters from a strange, old America: banjo-playing hobos, cigarette-smoking ventriloquist dummies, nineteenth-century baseball players, rat-tailed carnival children, and pantsless, singing old-timers. After leaving the show, in 2003, Swartzwelder wrote and self-published the first of his thirteen novels, all but two of which feature one of the most wonderful creations in printed comedy: Frank Burly, incompetent private eye and occasional time traveller. None of the books run more than a hundred and sixty pages; all are packed, like a dense star, with more material than seems physically possible.
Recently, in the course of a month and a half, I corresponded with Swartzwelder via e-mail. He patiently answered most of the questions I asked him about writing the best jokes in the best episodes of arguably the best comedy of the last century. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When I asked if you would participate, you said that you typically wouldn’t, but that The New Yorker name has always held a certain magic for you. Did you grow up reading the magazine?
The New Yorker was the home of a lot of writers I liked when I was growing up, including my favorite: Robert Benchley. Benchley was wonderfully funny when he felt like it, and he didn’t seem to work at all. All he and his Algonquin Round Table friends seemed to do was play silly games and try to make one another laugh, leaving the party occasionally to type out a Pulitzer Prize-winning story. After ten years of wasting their talent like this, they had all become rich and famous, won every award you can think of, and created The New Yorker. The lesson to me was clear: comedy writing was the way to go. Easiest job on the planet.
Do you still consider comedy writing to be the easiest job on the planet?
No, sir. I do not.
Beyond Benchley and the Algonquin crowd, who were some of your comedic influences?
Steve Allen was my first comedy hero. He was effortlessly funny. And while the adults around me were dragging themselves home from work every night, looking like it was the end of the world, Allen could apparently just sleep all week, roll out of bed on Sunday afternoon, wander over to the studio, and kid around with his friends and the audience and maybe Elvis Presley for an hour. Then it was “Good night, everybody,” and back to bed. This made quite an impression on me.
You talk as if you sought out a lazy career, and yet your reputation is of being one of the most productive comedy writers in television history. Was it not so much about an easy career as being in charge of your own destiny?
You’ve put your finger on it. The biggest appeal of writing is that, theoretically, you can do it anywhere. I pictured myself surfing in Australia while working out the plot of my next blockbuster comedy novel, or mailing in my latest joke from the top of a mountain. That’s how it looked to me when I started. In real life, however, most of the time you have to drag yourself into an office and chain yourself to a desk.
What was it about Benchley’s writing that appealed to you? When I read your books, I’m reminded mostly of S. J. Perelman—in both cases there’s a wildness and absurdity, the possibility that a joke can be taken anywhere, even at the expense of plot or realism. And Perelman was so adept at mocking the style of pulp detective writing, something we see in your Frank Burly books.
Perelman was great. Benchley actually wrote the same kind of crazy stuff that Perelman did, and he did it just as well, if not better, but he was much more casual about it. Perelman crammed every joke he could think of into every sentence and polished his pieces relentlessly until they couldn’t get any crazier. There’s a story that a friend called him up while he was writing something, and Perelman said, “I’ll call you back when I finish this sentence.” He called back the next day and said, “O.K., what do you want?”
When I first read Perelman, it was completely over my head. Half the words he was using didn’t exist in the real world, as far as I knew—and I was twelve, I’d been around. I figured one of us was nuts. Later on, when I had started writing for a living and picked up a few more multisyllable words, I checked him out again. I’ve been a fan ever since.
How was such a career even a possibility for you? Did you know any comedy writers? Did you even know anyone who knew a comedy writer?
I never knew any comedy writers when I was growing up, or heard of anybody around town trying to make a living that way. So it was an unusual choice for me to make. And because it was unusual, it was hard to know where to start. When I told people I didn’t want to carry cement for a living, I wanted to write comedy and be a national treasure instead, I got some odd looks. Some people suspected I might be stupid. Others were sure of it.
But I figured if Benchley and Twain and Shakespeare could do it, I could do it, too. Ominously, just after I started my fun new career, I read an article that talked about the grim turn written humor had taken in recent years, due to the grim times we lived in.
What was the article?
The article appeared in some magazine back in the sixties, and it basically said that the Cold War had bummed everybody out to such an extent that nobody wanted their humor whimsical anymore. It said that if Robert Benchley were alive today he would starve to death. Bitter, hard-edged gags—that’s what people wanted to laugh at now. Benchley and me were out.
It’s interesting to see how comedy ultimately turned into something less bitter and hard-edged, but without losing that sharpness and intelligence. “The Simpsons” and your books are perfect examples of that.
Do you remember the first funny thing you wrote?
I do, mostly because the reaction I got to it was so startling. I had just learned how to form letters into words, so I decided to write a play. The only thing I remember about the play itself, except for the last two lines, is that it was hilarious. But, when I read it aloud to my family, it got no laughs! Just supportive smiles and nods. I didn’t get it.
But then I got to the second-to-last line, which was supposed to set up the big joke at the end. The setup line was: “This play has been brought to you by the Trash Can Airplane Company,” which—since this was Boeing country—got a huge, possibly undeserved, laugh. Baffled, but feeling that I finally had my audience in the palm of my hand, I leaned back and practically screamed the big finish: “P.S. It stinks!!!” More supportive smiles and nods. Plainly, there was a trick to comedy, and I didn’t know what it was.
Do you know what the trick is now?
No. “P.S. It stinks!!!” should have gotten a laugh. I don’t get it.
Early on, you did ad work for Van Brunt & Co., in Chicago. Was that your first professional writing job?
My first writing job was with Hurvis, Binzer & Churchill, which at the time was the hottest boutique advertising agency in Chicago. I got the job by sending them a parody I had written of one of their campaigns, Screaming Yellow Zonkers. After I got there, I asked the writers next to me what we were supposed to be doing, and they said it had something to do with selling things. “Sounds good,” I said. I managed to pick up enough to get by, but it took a lot of patience on everybody’s part.
A few years later, I went to work at Van Brunt & Co., another award-winning boutique agency. A few years after that, the two agencies merged and promptly went out of business. Not my fault—I was halfway across town when it happened. But both of those agencies did a lot of great stuff over the years. Look them up.
I’ve seen a few of your mid-seventies TV advertisements on YouTube, including the three animated ads for Kitty cat food. Can you recall any of the other ads you worked on?
One memorable campaign, or at least memorable for me, was a series of radio commercials for Continental Airlines featuring Bob and Ray, who were great heroes of mine, and a couple of fine fellows. Most of the commercials we did still seem funny to me, and I think they helped seal the deal when I was being interviewed to write for “Saturday Night Live.” Most of the “S.N.L.” staff liked Bob and Ray as much as I did, especially [Al] Franken and [Tom] Davis, who were running the show at the time. So I think I got some extra points when I trotted out those commercials.
Were you the go-to copywriter for ads that needed humor?
No, there’s no specialization like that in advertising that I know of. All ad copywriters are expected to write humor or scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo or any other kind of writing, whatever’s needed for the campaign. And they’re expected to write it fast, too, because it’s due tomorrow. Good training, actually.
John Hughes was another writer who was working in Chicago advertising at the time. He has been credited with the famous credit-card shaving test, for Edge. Did you know John?
John and I had a few mutual friends, so I knew who he was, but the only time I ever sat down with him was when he tried to hire me to work for him at Leo Burnett, one of the biggest, richest, and boringest—to me—advertising agencies in town. Charlie the Tuna, Tony the Tiger, that sort of thing. I almost took the job, because the money was good and the view was terrific, but I discovered I wouldn’t have an office of my own. I would have to work in a kind of horse-stall setup, in the middle of a huge open area full of similar horse stalls. See those tragic figures down there? One of them is going to be you.
Well, I’d always had my own office, so I said no. Later, when John was making a million dollars per second directing movies, it occurred to me that maybe I should have taken that job, after all. When he went to Hollywood, I could have hung onto his leg. Nothing wrong with horse stalls, when you think about it. Horses like them.
What made you want to make the leap to television?
I’d been sending out letters to TV shows, off and on, ever since I got into advertising. I liked the ad business well enough—it beat working—but the TV business sounded like more fun to me. And, of course, it is. Finally, one of the letters I’d sent out paid off. The Letterman show contacted me.
You applied to write for “Late Night with David Letterman,” but not exactly in the traditional way. Jim Downey, a longtime “S.N.L.” writer and an early head writer at “Late Night,” told me that your 1983 submission consisted of just one joke on a three-by-five card, with your name and no other information.
I’m surprised Jim remembers that, after all this time. I’m surprised even more that he remembers it wrong. I submitted two or three pages of jokes to him, with a cover letter, complete with name, address, and phone number. All this was stuffed into a regular letter-sized envelope, which had the words “Free Jokes Inside!” on the outside. Jim told me later that it was the surprising unprofessionalism of this submission that intrigued him enough to open the letter. And he called me right up.
His confusion on this stems from his attempt to hire me for “S.N.L.” two years later. Discovering that I wasn’t in Chicago anymore, and that I had no forwarding address, he set about trying to find me, God bless him. He eventually tracked me down in Texas, where I’d been working for a Houston ad agency for long enough that some people had actually started calling me Tex. [Downey remembers the chronology somewhat differently.]
What was it about the writing on “Late Night” that impressed you?
It was funny. More importantly, it was the kind of writing I thought I could do. Don’t ask me why I didn’t get the job. I thought my interview went all right. Come to think of it, better not ask Jim Downey either.
According to Jim, the joke you submitted on that three-by-five card went like this: “Mike Flynn’s much publicized attempt to break every record in the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ got off to a rocky start this week when his recording of ‘White Christmas’ sold only five copies.”
That was definitely one of the jokes I sent to Letterman. Jim got that right.
How did you ultimately get the writing job at “S.N.L.”?
Jim found me in Houston, had me submit some more examples of my work, then brought me to New York and sat me down on a small chair in the middle of Franken and Davis’s office, surrounded by the staff, who asked me trick comedy questions like “How was your flight?” “Fine.” “What do you think of this comedian?” “He’s rotten. Unless you guys like him.”
Then I was taken to meet Lorne Michaels for his seal of approval. The first words Lorne said to me were “How old are you?” I answered, truthfully, “Thirty-six.” Lorne looked stunned, and the other two people in the office, Robert Downey, Jr., and Anthony Michael Hall, who were frisking around playing tag or something, stopped and stared at me. I quickly added, “But I feel younger.” And Lorne said, “No, no, that’s all right. You can be thirty-six.” He looked worried, but apparently not enough to overrule Franken and Davis. So I was hired.
Al Franken was thirty-four in 1985. Michael O’Donoghue was forty-five. Herb Sargent, another writer, was sixty-two. What was Lorne Michael’s concern?
Franken, O’Donoghue, and Herb all were solid “S.N.L.” vets with proven track records. I was a middle-aged rookie on a youth-oriented show. I think Lorne’s concern was legitimate.
A lot of writers have expressed frustration with “S.N.L.,” whether about the all-night writing sessions, the office politics, or the limited airtime for their ideas. What was your particular experience at the show like?
I liked everything about “S.N.L.” It was a lot of fun for me. The all-night writing sessions were a fun challenge, and the office politics were the best. And I only had to work eighteen weeks that year. Top that.
That season featured a very young cast: Downey, Jr., was twenty years old, and Hall was seventeen. But the cast also had older actors, like Randy Quaid, who didn’t have a lot of experience in sketch acting. Did the writers ever feel hindered by such an inexperienced cast?
I don’t recall that ever being a complaint. It was an eccentric collection of talent, but they got those jobs because they were good. I remember an agent saying that getting a spot on Lorne’s new “S.N.L.” show—after what amounted to a nationwide talent search—was like getting a seat on the space shuttle. Of course, the space shuttle crashed that season. Killed everyone. It’s a tempting idea to blame actors for your own bad writing, and I’ll try it, but I don’t think anyone is going to buy it.
Do you remember any of the sketches you wrote that made it to air?
“Time Machine Trivia Game,” with Teri Garr. The sketch was about four adults playing Trivial Pursuit while one of their kids, Anthony Michael Hall, was upstairs fooling around with a time machine, changing all the answers.
There was also “Line of Death,” “Guys Behind Bars,” and “Those Unlucky Andersons.” And there was a “Weekend Update” joke I always regretted didn’t make it to air. It was, “Tragedy struck the slopes of Mount Rainier this week when a stranded hiker had to eat the people who were rescuing him just to stay alive.” It got a big laugh in dress rehearsal, but only one big laugh, from one big guy in the back. Everyone else just sat quietly in their seats, waiting for someone to tell them a joke. So it got cut. Too bad.
Did you leave or were you fired after the ’85-’86 “S.N.L.” season?
Technically, neither. My deal was up and, like a lot of other people on the show that year, I simply wasn’t asked back. It’s the same as being fired, but without all the yelling. They did ask me back a couple of years later, though, and I accepted, but the day before I was supposed to fly to New York the Writers Guild went on the longest strike in its history. By the time it finally ended, I had decided to stay in L.A.
I wrote for “Nightlife,” which was David Brenner’s late-night talk show, then I did some episodes for sitcoms: “The Dictator,” “Women in Prison,” “Mr. President.”
“Women in Prison?” A sitcom about . . . women in prison?
Sure. It writes itself.
What were “The Dictator” and “Mr. President” about?
“The Dictator” was about a foreign dictator rescued by the U.S. government during a coup attempt and flown to America, where he was set up, with his family and his favorite general, in a laundromat in Queens. It starred Christopher Lloyd as the dictator. “Mr. President” was about our funny, funny President, George C. Scott.
I did one script each for “Women in Prison” and “Mr. President,” and probably a total of two of my lines survived to air. Straight lines, at that. “Hello, Mr. President!,” that kind of thing. Only two episodes of “The Dictator” were ever filmed, one of them mine.
Let’s talk about Army Man, a small, photocopied, homemade comedy zine that the comedy writer George Meyer put out in the late nineteen-eighties, mostly for friends and those in the comedy world. There were only three issues, with circulation never topping a thousand, but it quickly attracted a cult following.
A magnificent magazine. I had a great many jokes in Army Man, including, “They can kill the Kennedys, why can’t they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?” I also did a cartoon that had some nicely drawn chickens in it—one dead in the middle of the road, with the other two wailing, “Why? Why!?” Classic stuff. And the beaks were perfect.
Is it true that the producer and writer Sam Simon, who was beginning to staff “The Simpsons,” was impressed enough with Army Man that he hired many of its contributors, including you?
The Army Man jokes got me my initial interview with Sam and Matt [Groening], which led to my first script assignment, “Bart the General,” but I wasn’t actually hired to work on staff until I’d done three episodes. “The Simpsons” didn’t have enough money for a full-time writing staff until late in 1989. They’ve got enough now, of course.
It seems that writers for “The Simpsons” were left alone to do what they wanted. There was much more freedom than on other shows. Did you find this to be true?
Yes. Thanks to the deal [executive producer] Jim Brooks had, Fox executives couldn’t meddle in “The Simpsons” in any way, though we did get censor notes. The executives weren’t sent advance copies of the scripts, and they couldn’t attend read-throughs, even though they very much wanted to. All we had to do was please ourselves.
This is a very dangerous way to run a television show, leaving the artists in charge of the art, but it worked out all right in the end. It rained money on the Fox lot for thirty years. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
For my generation, the “Simpsons” writers’ room was the comedic Valhalla that “Your Show of Shows” had been for young comedy writers in the fifties and sixties, and that the “S.N.L.” writers’ room had been for those starting in the eighties. Did it feel special to you at the time?
I know some people think of us as gods, and maybe we are. I’m not saying we’re not gods. But we never got a big head about it, because we knew we could be replaced by other gods in about two seconds, anytime, probably for less money. The original group was very good, though, and credit goes to Sam Simon. Assembling a writing staff for a new show is difficult to do, because you’ve got to find people who are great at their jobs but who can’t find work anywhere, which is an unusual combination. Finding those people was, in my opinion, one of Sam’s great talents.
From the beginning, the show seemed as if it could be a much more subversive sitcom because it was animated. And yet these weren’t your typical jokes for animation.
The obvious example of this would be “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” [the violent cat-and-mouse children’s cartoon within “The Simpsons”].We could show horrendous things to the children at home, as long as we portrayed them being shown to the Simpsons’ children first. Somehow this extra step baffled our critics and foiled the mobs with torches. We agreed with them that this was wrong to show to children. “Didn’t we just show it being wrong? And, look, here’s more wrong stuff!”
And, yet, for all its subversion, “The Simpsons” is one of the few shows that appeals to both kids and adults. Did you try to write for both?
Neither. We just tried to make ourselves, and each other, laugh. Comedy writers. That was the audience. Luckily, a lot of other people, both kids and adults, liked the same jokes we liked.
How did the writing process work? A writer was assigned an idea, they went off to write the script, and then it was collectively rewritten?
This is the way we did it when I was there. A writer is assigned a story, often a story he originally came up with himself, though not always. 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. 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. There might be other rewrites I’ve forgotten. If a joke survives all that, it’s probably pretty good.
How intense was the schedule for you?
Writing the scripts and whipping them into shape, even though there’s not a lot of time for each step, is actually quite fun. The difficulty of working on “The Simpsons” is that each episode takes about six to eight months from beginning to end, and if you’re on staff you’re always working on half a dozen episodes at the same time, all of them at one stage of completion or another. It’s actually quite exhausting, or was back then. It’s probably the easiest job in the world now. You “Simpsons”-writer kids today don’t know what work is.
Is it true that, after a few years into your time at “The Simpsons,” you received special dispensation to work away from the office, because you wanted to be able to smoke?
After Season 4, I renegotiated my contract to allow me to work from home. I didn’t want to go in to work every day anymore. Getting old, I guess. It had nothing to do with smoking.
And is it true that you purchased the same diner booth where you used to write, not far from the “Simpsons” offices, and then used it for your personal writing space at home?
Actually, I bought a new diner booth and had it installed in my home. Later, I added a second one, in a different part of the house. Diner booths are a great place to write. Try it.
How much time and attention did you spend on these scripts? Another “Simpsons” writer once compared your scripts to finely tuned machines—if the wrong person mucked with them, the whole thing could blow up.
All of my time and all of my attention. It’s the only way I know how to write, darn it. But I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. 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—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. 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. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. 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.
That’s interesting. So create an imperfect world and then improve it?
That’s the way I do it.
Do you have a favorite episode that you’ve written, out of the fifty-nine?
I don’t have one I prefer over all the others, but I do have some favorites I always enjoy watching. “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” “Bart the Murderer,” “Dog of Death,” “Homer at the Bat,” “Homie the Clown,” “Bart Gets an Elephant,” “Homer’s Enemy,” and “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment.”
You mentioned “Homer’s Enemy,” which has to be one of the darkest half hours ever on television. It’s about an upstanding, decent, and hardworking character named Frank Grimes, who’s driven mad by Homer. At the end, Grimes accidentally electrocutes himself, and then Homer snores and talks in his sleep at Grimes’s funeral, to the amusement of the attendees. Not what James Brooks might refer to as a “lot of heart.”
Grimey was asking for it the whole episode. He didn’t approve of our Homer. He was asking for it, and he got it. Now what was this you were saying about heart?
I’ve heard that a good script for a “Simpsons” writer would have a twenty-five per cent success rate—meaning, seventy-five per cent of the original script would be rewritten and tweaked, and twenty-five per cent would be kept. For you, though, the percentage of material kept was supposedly the highest among all the writers: fifty per cent.
If those numbers are correct, part of the reason for my higher percentage might be because I always reacted with great dismay, rage, and even horror every time one of my jokes was cut. The other writers were more grown up about it when their jokes were cut. And see what it got them. Now everyone is laughing at their percentages.
I’ve read that you were almost solely responsible for all of the “Itchy & Scratchy” material. Were these characters you created or just enjoyed writing for?
Everybody did “Itchy & Scratchy” cartoons, but I certainly did more than my share. They were fun for me. I didn’t create them. But I did, along with Sam Simon, create the nice [version of] Itchy and Scratchy, as seen on “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” which still makes me laugh every time.
Among the writers, were some of the characters more popular to write for than others?
I think we all had favorite characters. A Mr. Burns episode was always fun for me. And Homer, of course. Patty and Selma, less so. But all of the characters in Springfield can be funny. It’s just a matter of giving them something funny to say.
Were you responsible for the use of the word “meh” on the show?
I do claim credit for that. I originally heard the word from Howie Krakow, my creative director at Hurvis, Binzer & Churchill, in 1970 or 1971. He said it was the funniest word in the world. I don’t know when it was invented, or by who, but I got the impression it was already very old when Howie told it to me.
The longtime “Simpsons” showrunner Mike Reiss once told NPR that you wrote Homer Simpson as if he were a big dog. True?
Yes, he is a big talking dog. One moment he’s the saddest man in the world, because he’s just lost his job, or dropped his sandwich, or accidentally killed his family. Then, the next moment, he’s the happiest man in the world, because he’s just found a penny—maybe under one of his dead family members. He’s not actually a dog, of course—he’s smarter than that—but if you write him as a dog you’ll never go wrong.
You left “The Simpsons” eighteen years ago, but your name is still revered among the show’s writers.
I’m certainly pleased that people still like the episodes I did. I would say that all the praise makes me humble, but, of course, praise does the exact opposite.
But I am pleased by the attention. “The Simpsons” did something I didn’t think possible: it got viewers to look at writers’ credits on TV shows. When I was growing up, we looked at the actors’ names, and maybe the director, but that’s it. Now a whole generation of viewers not only knows about writers, they’re wondering what we’re really like in real life. And they want to know what we’re thinking. And look through our windows. That’s progress, of a sort, and we have “The Simpsons” to thank for it.
I agree. I’m looking through your window as I type this next question: What do you make of the compliment “Swartzweldian”?
I guess I understand what they’re driving at, and it all sounds very complimentary, and I thank everybody for that, but I can’t help thinking “Swartzweldian” is about the most awkward-sounding word in the English language. I mean, I thought “Oakleyesque” and “Vittiriffic” [after “Simpsons” writers Bill Oakley and Jon Vitti] were bad, but “Swartzweldian”!
So how would you describe your sense of humor, your comedic sensibility?
You were known as the “Simpsons” writer who specialized in jokes about bizarre, old-American characters that one normally wouldn’t see on television: boxcar tramps; aging, alcoholic former TV-Western stars; carnies; sea captains with an artificial leg and one or two glass eyes. What is it about these subjects that holds such a fascination for you?
I’m tempted to say that I use all these old references because it gives me more things to get humor out of, more raw material, than if I just confined myself to the things that happened this week. But, in point of fact, I mostly use old references because I’m old. I don’t know what happened this week. Or last week either. And I don’t want to know. I’m satisfied right here in good old 1936.
But it’s more than just that. You’re not a hundred and ten years old. There’s something about that time and that way of life that you must love and respect enough to write jokes about, right?
I’m a history buff, so I guess I like Alf Landon and trench-warfare jokes more than most people do. But I think you’re wrong about me not being a hundred and ten years old.
Who is Alf Landon?
He was the Republican candidate for President, in 1936, against F.D.R. He was beaten very badly.
What are your specific comedy-writing pet peeves? Are there tropes that you see on TV or read that drive you crazy?
No monkeys. Monkeys aren’t funny. When I was young, I thought all comedy was funny. If I didn’t see the humor of a joke, that was plainly my fault. But then, in 1961, came the TV première of “The Hathaways,” starring Jack Weston, Peggy Cass, and the Marquis Chimps. It was not funny, not at all. Even I could see that. And I blamed the monkeys. They were ruining comedy. So no monkeys, please, and if you must use monkeys, for God’s sake, don’t put hats on them.
“Simpsons” fans sometimes talk about a “golden age,” and they often claim that it lasted until 1998 or so. Do you agree that there was such a time?
I’ll let the TV historians debate that. I will say that I’ve always thought Season 3 was our best individual season. By Season 3 we had learned how to grind out first-class “Simpsons” episodes with surprising regularity, we had developed a big cast of characters to work with, we hadn’t even come close to running out of story lines, and the staff hadn’t been worn down by overwork yet. Season 3 was a fun year to be in the “Simpsons” writers’ room, and I think it shows in the work.
After “The Simpsons,” you moved on to your own show, “Pistol Pete,” a parody of nineteen-fifties Westerns. It never aired, and only a pilot was shot, but it’s become a legendary “lost” sitcom, especially after it was posted on YouTube. Can you talk about how the show came about?
“Pistol Pete” was just a spec script of mine that landed on my agent’s desk at the right time. I thought Stephen Kearney, a very funny Australian actor, would make an admirable Pistol Pete. And Fox was apparently in a good mood at the moment, so a deal was made, and, suddenly, I had about hundred and sixty people working for me, and a rapidly approaching deadline. So be careful when you’re writing spec scripts. They’re dynamite.
Have you written spec scripts or movies that you’ve tried, or are still trying, to have produced? Are any floating around in executives’ drawers?
I wrote a lot of spec stuff in the old days. Most of it deserves to stay in whatever drawer it ended up in. But some of it, as I recall, is pretty good.
One project I wish had gotten made was a movie script I did called “Fearless Fosdick,” based on the [Dick Tracy parody] comic character by Al Capp. John Landis was going to direct. [Landis said that he could not remember the project but that it sounded like a great idea.] A couple of drafts were done. Then the project just faded away, for some reason. Maybe those drafts had something to do with it. Anyway, I would have liked to have seen the movie. It would have been very, very stupid.
You began publishing your own comic novels in 2004, with “The Time Machine Did It.” Tell me about the creation of the private eye Frank Burly, the lead character in all but two of your novels.
Hardboiled detectives are great characters. They never know what’s going on, they try to solve mysteries with their fists, they blunder into all the wrong places, mouth off to people with guns, and get knocked all over the lot by everybody. In the end, the only way to get them to find the answer to a mystery is to practically rub their hardboiled faces in it. I wondered if there was a way for me to create a hardboiled detective who knew even less about what was going on, and who got knocked around even more. And I think I have.
One of my all-time favorite jokes is from “The Time Machine Did It”: “I was sleeping like a baby—waking up every three hours screaming and crapping my pants.”
Years after “The Time Machine Did It” was published, I saw John McCain use a similar joke on a late-night talk show after his failed 2008 Presidential bid. I planned on using this intellectual-property theft to my advantage if he ever ran again. Anyway, I was glad he liked the joke.
I love the beginnings of your books. You waste no time launching into the plot and the comedy. From “Dead Men Scare Me Stupid”: “Well, they found Amelia Earhart. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, they found her in the trunk of my car.”
Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it. Then you’ve got to put something even more exciting in the second paragraph, to suck them in further. And so on. It’s exhausting for everybody, but it’s got to be done.
Why did you decide to take the self-publishing route, rather than traditional publishing?
It’s easier, faster, and there are no arguments, because all the decisions are yours. If you want to write your book with multiple misspellings, badly misplaced commas, and juvenile bodily-function jokes, your publisher (that’s you!) is with you a hundred per cent on that. He’ll back you up all the way. It’s the kind of control writers dream of having. Of course, a traditional publisher can arrange book tours for you, which I don’t want to go on anyway, and get your book displayed prominently in bookstores, which don’t exist anymore, and, theoretically, at least, make you more money, which I hate, but those, I think, are sacrifices worth making to have that control.
Now, to be completely honest and truthful with your readers, I have to admit that I did initially try to go the traditional book-publishing route, but after I had drummed my fingers for almost a month waiting for a reply to my query letter, I lost patience and just published it myself. And once I got started, I was hooked.
You’re on Twitter—at least, I think this is your Twitter—as @JJSwartzwelder. Many of your posts are excerpts from your books. Why not also tweet out new jokes?
Yes, @JJSwartzwelder is me. I just use Twitter as a billboard to alert people when a new book of mine is coming out, and to shamelessly promote the old ones. Whenever I think of good jokes these days, I always try to incorporate them into whatever book I’m writing at the moment. Which means all I have left to use in tweets are the bad jokes I think of. As a public service, I’ve decided to spare everyone those jokes.
Have you come to appreciate the effect that “The Simpsons” has had around the world?
I like to think that “The Simpsons” has helped create a generation of wise guys, who live in a world where everybody is up to something. If that’s all we’ve achieved, aside from the billions of dollars we’ve made, I’m satisfied.
What astonishes me is just how many people have watched the show. When “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” first aired, in December, 1990, there were 22.2 million viewers. God knows how many have watched it via reruns or streaming since. Today, a solid viewership for a show on network TV would be around six or seven million.
And when that episode aired, the show could only be seen in two-thirds of the country. And in some places, like Boston, people could only see it on weak UHF stations. The sudden success of “The Simpsons” made everyone in America want to have a Fox station in their town immediately. It made the network.
Any advice for those who want to make a career out of trying to make people laugh—beyond not ending a play with the line “P.S. It Stinks!!!”?
Write what makes you laugh. At least you’ll get a laugh out of it.