Ian Maxtone-GrahamBy Charlotte O'Sullivan
"Behind Every Homer Is a Very Tall Man"
Why doesn't 'The Simpsons' have many scripts by women? Because it's 'guy humour', says one of the head writers. Charlotte O'Sullivan sees her dream job go down the pan
Yellow-hued. three-fingered, dysfunctional, the Simpsons family still rules the TV waves. Over here, The Simpsons is virtually Sky's sole claim to fame and, despite duff scheduling, it is BBC2's second most popular show with an audience of about 4 million. But how much do we really know about The Simpsons? Not a lot.
An opportunity to find out more presents itself in the form of Ian Maxtone-Graham, a head writer on the show since 1995, taking a break in London. I know what to look for: the Very Tall Man character, who appears in the episode "22 Short Films About Springfield", is based on him. I spot him immediately - he is indeed long-limbed, scrawny, too, with froggy blue eyes and a wryly helpless manner. "Hi," he says, "the PR woman wants to come along. Just in case I do a diatribe about Sky."
Such casual irreverence is typical of The Simpsons style. Though owned by Rupert Murdoch's Fox network, the show regularly presents Fox executives as morally-retarded "jerks" and has Murdoch popping up as "an evil billionaire" in an upcoming episode. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Bill Gates is portrayed as a vicious capitalist thug. How do the Simpsons team get away with this stuff?
Maxtone-Graham beams. "We're in a very special position. No one wants to be the big ogre stamping out Bart. Murdoch doesn't mind at all, touch wood. But one thing we didn't do with Gates was ask him first. If you ask someone and they say 'No, I'll sue', you're in a tough legal position." He gives a wicked smile. "But if you just go ahead and have an actor do the voice, you're in a better position because they [the celebrity] never said no."
He says working on The Simpsons is a dream. The writing team usually consists of about 12 individuals, with an average age of 30 (at 38, Ian is, in his own words, "a fossil"). One person is responsible for writing the basic script (Ian is best known for "Burns, Baby Burns", which featured Rodney Dangerfield as the son of Monty Burns) but then everyone pitches in "to try to make it that much better".
The atmosphere, so Maxtone-Graham claims, is easy-going. In jokes are encouraged. The team, particularly John Swartzwelder have a penchant for old-time American figures. "Hobos carrying bindles, and box-car tramps," intones Ian dreamily. "We just love hobo humour. Matt [Groening, /The Simpsons'/ creator] doesn't approve, he says none of us have ever seen a hobo and it's true!" And they love cross-overs - they're currently writing an episode in which the Simpson family appear on The Jerry Springer Show.
The surprise is that not all the writers are pop culture junkies. Though a Saturday Night Live veteran, Maxtone-Graham is a literature worm (he sneaks into Shakespeare classes at UCLA), and apart from Monty Python, hates TV. "I pretty much never turn it on," he snorts, "the shows are so crappy." He had barely seen The Simpsons before he started working on it. Was this a problem? He lets out a belly laugh. "We were pitching new names for characters and I pitched the names of all three members of the Flanders family [the Simpsons' neighbours]: Ned, Rod and Todd. Everyone was looking at me like 'Tune in, eight o'clock Sundays!'"
Famous for their attention to detail, it turns out the whole group have a problem with minutiae. They're always mixing up Rod and Todd, for starters. "Todd's supposed to be the tinier one, but that changes and so do the voices." Maxtone-Graham knows such carelessness drives "the beetle-browed people on the Internet" to distraction. They seem to have no life except The Simpsons," he complains. "They see everything as part of a vast plan, but boy, is there ever no vast plan!" The fans took particular exception to "A Star Is Burns", in which Jay Sherman from The Critic comes to judge a film festival in Springfield. "I loved that one," says Maxtone-Graham, "but they thought it broke reality or something." He shrugs. "Go figure! That's why they're on the Internet and we're writing the show."
It's nice to know The Simpsons' scriptwriters aren't aiming their stuff at a nerdy, intellectual elite. So can anyone join this gang? Women, for example? He confesses that there have never been many women on the team, "and right now, it's as male as it's ever been, there are no female writers on the staff". He justifies this by saying "the dominant characters tend to be male - Bart and Homer occupy a lot of the real estate - a lot of that humour's kind of guy humour."
I'm amazed. I've never felt excluded as a female. More to the point, Marge and Lisa seem crucial to the show's success. "Oh sure," agrees Maxtone-Graham with a patronizing smile. "The Lisa shows are great, you get the nice, sweet, observant stuff with her. Really there are two kinds of episodes, one with Homer playing the hilarious buffoon, the other softer thing with Marge and Lisa." I'm beginning to grind my teeth, here. No wonder women find it so hard work on The Simpsons - such a perception of the gender divide harks back to the last century. Maxtone-Graham insists it gets uncomfortable when there are female writers in the room: "We make awful scatological, sexual jokes. It's not like we sit around the table with our dicks out, but having a woman in the room... I think it changes the tenor."
So there goes my dream job. Still reeling, I enquire about the future. The recent murder of regular player Phil Hartman seems strangely ominous - the intrusion of tabloid chaos into pristine cartoon satire. Suddenly less sunny, Maxtone-Graham admits the effect was devastating. "I was never under the impression that it was a perfect marriage," he says, raising his eyebrows, "but when I heard the news... that sort of thing changes your world." And the world of The Simpsons? His response couldn't be more candid: "I think we should pack it in soon and I think we will - we're running out of ideas."
Consumers needn't worry. Two more series are currently being put together - and there's so much in every Simpsons episode that they bear repeated viewing. As Maxtone-Graham is rightly able to boast, "they're going to be re-run for ever".
So, don't look to The Simpsons for a grand plan, or hold your breath for women writers. But if you want iconoclasm and immortal wit, stay tuned.
Transcribed by Lee Maguire
Last updated on October 26, 1998 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)