George MeyerBy David Owen
"Taking Humor Seriously - George Meyer, the funniest man behind the funniest show on TV."
Several years ago, Entertainment Weekly ran an effusive review of the television show "The Simpsons." The review's author, Ken Tucker, singled out a particular episode as "a masterpiece of tiny, throwaway details that accumulate into a worldview." That episode was written by Jon Vitti, who at the time was one of the show's most talented and prolific writers. "The article quoted five jokes from the show" Vitti told me afterward. "It was extremely flattering except that I hadn't written any of those jokes." Everything Tucker quoted from the episode was actually the work of a colleague of Vitti's named George Meyer. "That kind of thing happens to all the show's writers all the time," Vitti said. 'A show that you have the writer's credit for will run, and the next day people will come up to you and tell you how great it was. Then they'll mention their two favorite lines, and both of them will be George's"
Meyer began writing for "The Simpsons" late in 1989, a few months before the show's premiere, on Fox. The credits in recent years have listed him as one of several executive producers, but no title could adequately describe his role. He has so thoroughly shaped the program that by now the comedic sensibility of "The Simpsons" could be viewed as mostly his. Mike Scully, who shares Meyer's title and serves as the program's "show runner," or editor-in-chief, talked to me about Meyer not long ago in his office at Fox. "George is the best comedy writer in Hollywood," he said. "When I first came to work here, seven years ago, he just blew me away. I had done a lot of sitcom work before, but George's stuff was so different and so original that for a while I wondered if I wasn't in over my head." On other sitcoms, Scully explained, the dialogue is highly predictable, and the same kinds of setups inevitably lead to the same kinds of jokes. "The writers on those shows get to the point where they can almost write scripts in their sleep," he said. "George completely changed my approach, and I'm a much better writer as a result. People are always asking why 'The Simpsons' is still so good after all these years, and, at the risk of pissing off all the other writers, I think I'd have to say that the main reason is probably George."
"The Simpsons" is now in its eleventh season; on the beach last summer, I overheard my teen-age daughter and several of her friends trading favorite lines from favorite episodes, some of which dated back almost to their toddlerhood. Longevity like that is rare in television, especially for a sitcom. Even more unusual is the breadth of the show's popularity. My wife and I watch "The Simpsons" as avidly as our children do, and we have for years; it's the only show we all watch together, the only one we plan meals around, and the only one during which we don't read, fold laundry or talk. The program from the start has had a large and loyal following among Hispanics (whose ardor explains a semi-cryptic message superimposed on the screen at the beginning of every episode: "SAP Transmitido en Espanol"). College students still regularly rate it the best show on TV. Time recently named it the best television program of the twentieth century.
People who disparage "The Simpsons" (or who forbid their children to watch it) often do so reflexively, without ever having seen it. They assume that the show is tasteless, sophomoric, and profane-like, say, "South Park," a crude cartoon whose principal claim to fame is that its characters use bad words. Animation aside, though, "South Park" shares almost nothing with "The Simpsons," which I think is not only the funniest but also the most literate show on TV - program that, in the words of the poet Robert Pinsky, a longtime fan, "penetrates to the nature of television itself" Pinsky's observation points to the main source of the show's strength: to a degree that is almost unheard-of on television, "The Simpsons" belongs to its writers.
Because animation is an enormously labor-intensive and time-consuming process, preparing the visual images for each "Simpsons" episode requires most of a year. Meyer and his colleagues take advantage of that long gestation by repeatedly adding and deleting jokes, inserting scenes, lengthening or shortening pauses by fractions of a second, and calling for rereadings of individual lines by the show's company of vocal performers (who, because they don't appear on camera, tend to be far more tractable than Hollywood stars).
Such care creates a textural density that makes each episode seem to last far longer than half an hour. It also gives rise to innumerable small touches that reward attentive viewing, among them a local beauty parlor called the Perm Bank; the word "yoink," a coinage of Meyer's, which characters sometimes utter in the act of snatching something; and a greeting posted outside the Springfield Community Church following a hurricane "God Welcomes His Victims." The scripts contain allusions to books and movies and other television shows, and they are strewn with enchanting obscurities, such as the fact that Montgomery Burns, the dark-hearted owner of the local nuclear power plant, uses a version of the telephone salutation promoted unsuccessfully by Alexander Graham Bell: "Ahoy - ahoy."
Most of the creative work on "The Simpsons" takes place at big tables in two nondescript conference spaces at Fox, which are collectively known as "the rewrite room" -- or, simply, "the room." This is where stories are conceived, fleshed out, and tinkered with, and where Meyer, according to his colleagues, is the master. He is considered by the show's executives to be so valuable in the room that he is seldom excused from editing duties to produce complete scripts of his own. Instead, he spends almost every weekday reshaping and polishing the work of his collaborators. Last summer, I accompanied Meyer to Fox one day and sat in on a long rewrite session, during which he and half a dozen colleagues were fussing over a crudely animated early version of an upcoming episode. Most of the jokes and ideas proffered by the writers at the table provoked no reaction whatsoever. (Polite laughter is considered counterproductive.) The atmosphere was less that of a comedy club than of a high-school classroom in which none of the students have done the assigned reading -- evidence that the toughest audience for a comedian is a roomful of other comedians. I sat near the back wall and observed a phenomenon that Mike Reiss, a longtime writer, had alerted me to: "Simpsons" writers involuntarily glance at Meyer for approval when they pitch lines of their own. (Ian Maxtone-Graham, another writer, recently told a reporter, "I would rather make George Meyer laugh than get an Emmy")
The lines that did inspire laughs that day were usually Meyer's. I recalled a story that Mike Scully had told me earlier, about the most intense laughter he had ever heard in the rewrite room. The incident had occurred several years before, on a day when the staff was working on a subplot in which Homer, at a police auction, buys an impounded muscle car that formerly belonged to the town's resident criminal, Snake. Snake wants the car back, so he escapes from jail and contrives a recovery scheme worthy of Wile E. Coyote: he stretches a wire across a road in the hope of decapitating Homer as he drives by. The wire misses Homer, but his car is followed closely by another.
"The driver of the second car is holding a sandwich at a ridiculous angle high up over his head and saying, 'I told that idiot to slice my sandwich,"' Scully explained. "That's where we were going with the joke. But then George suddenly said, 'What if the wire cuts off his arm?' That made the people in the room laugh so hard that they were coughing they were literally choking because the joke was so unexpected. It was a shocked kind of laugh, and it just started rolling, one of those laughs that build the more they reverberate through you." Jon Vitti once told me that laughter inspired by Meyer's best jokes has a unique, open-mouthed sound, because people are surprised at the same time that they are laughing: "It's like what they say about baseball players-that you can identify a batter by the sound of his bat hitting the ball."
In a group of a dozen or more very funny and competitive people, Vitti said, it would be unusual for any writer to come up with two jokes in a row which made their way into a final script. Here -- called a "Simpsons" rewrite session, however, during which Meyer at one point had supplied six consecutive jokes -- a notable feat even for him. When the staff turned its attention to the next troublesome line, one of the other writers began to speak. Mike Reiss, who was running the meeting, held up his hand and said, "Sh-h-h. George is thinking."
Meyer is forty-three years old. He has a scruffy beard and straight blondish hair that hangs not quite to his shoulders. His hair often falls across his eyes, and when it does he will sometimes lurch forward at the waist and then violently straighten up to throw it back out of the way. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, and he has big hands and big feet. He likes hats; among his favorites are a wide-brimmed white canvas bucket hat, which he wears to keep the sun off his face, and a baseball cap with a logo advertising a heavyweight title fight between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield -- a fight that had to be cancelled when Tyson was convicted of rape. For several years, he wore a woven wristband that he bought at one of the seventy or eighty Grateful Dead concerts he attended during the last five years of Jerry Garcia's life. He is a student of yoga and a strict vegetarian. He is a couple of inches over six feet tall, and he looks taller, because he stands and sits very straight. He walks so fast that other people often have to trot to keep up with him. He has an infectious, staccato laugh, which sometimes seems slightly maniacal.
I've known Meyer for almost twenty-five years. We met at Harvard, where we were classmates and members of the writing staff of the Lampoon, the college's humor magazine. He was by an order of magnitude the funniest person I knew. I remember a two-panel cartoon that he drew one night when we were seniors. Meyer is no artist; the drawing (which was scrawled on a sheet of notebook paper) could have passed for the work of a demented third grader. But the joke made a big impression on me. In the cartoon's first panel, a guy was screaming "You asshole!" as he split another guy's head with an axe. In the second panel, the killer was being led away by a cop and muttering, "Me and my big mouth."
The violence of that cartoon belies Meyer's own gentleness, and his almost tender empathy for others. The writer Jack Handey, with whom Meyer once shared an office, says, "It's almost as though George believed it would be bad karma to say anything bad about another person." One of Meyer's sisters says that he was once moved nearly to tears upon spotting a store for left-handed people a business that he felt was doomed, and that later inspired the Leftorium, a struggling enterprise owned by the Simpsons' neighbor Ned Flanders.
Meyer is also unassuming about his talents, and about the high points of his career. Maria Semple, a television writer who lived with him from the early nineties until last year, when they broke up, told me, "On our first date, George took me to the state fair. It was his birthday, which he didn't tell me, and he was up for an Emmy that night, which he also didn't tell me. He kept checking his watch, so I thought I was boring him, but then, later, when we were in the car, he said, 'I've got to find a place where I can change into this'-and there in the back seat was a tuxedo." "The Simpsons" did win an Emmy that night, but Semple learned about it only by reading the newspaper the next day.
Like a shocking number of relatively young people in Hollywood, Meyer has made so much money that continuing to work has become essentially optional. Still, his only significant acquisition so far has been a small gray stucco house situated within sugar-borrowing distance of the houses of Marion Brando and Jack Nicholson, in northern Beverly Hills, high in the Santa Monica Mountains. From the yard -- a lush, compact mesa bordered by well-tended shrubbery -- you can look north to the San Fernando Valley, south to the Los Angeles Basin and to the Santa Monica Bay, and straight down onto a stucco-and-clay-tile interpretation of Versailles owned by Vanna White. On the nearly vertical slope between White's house and Meyer's is an infant vineyard -- the modern Hollywood equivalent of the vegetable garden -- which also belongs to White.
Meyer's house is handsomely but not ostentatiously decorated. Among its appointments are various items from his extensive collection of space-program memorabilia, an interest he discovered several years ago through his "Simpsons" colleague John Swartzwelder (who is the author of Meyer's all-time favorite "Simpsons" line, a toast in which Homer calls alcohol "the cause of - and solution to - all of life's problems"). The collection includes a letter signed by Barbara Morgan, who was Christa McAuliffe's understudy for the doomed flight of the Challenger; seven cigarette lighters that once belonged to the astronaut Dick Gordon; a knife designed to cut space-capsule parachute cords which was once owned by the astronaut Gordon Cooper; and a flare gun that supposedly had been part of a survival kit carried in Korea by the astronaut Buzz Aldrin. In a bathroom near the front door is a small, un-ironic shrine to Jerry Garcia, who for several years was probably the closest thing in Meyer's life to a spiritual figure. In the living room is a television set on which he watches little except professional football games and documentaries. ("I can watch a documentary about anything," he told me. "I could watch a store surveillance camera. I just love reality")
Meyer's interest in professional football is strictly pragmatic: unlike most vegetarian, yoga-practicing, Deadhead collectors of space-program memorabilia, he is a studious and enthusiastic gambler. He spent many hours at the dog track when we were in college, and during a period in the early eighties when he lived in New York, his single sartorial flourish was a three-piece suit, which he wore on days when there was a heavyweight title fight. He is well acquainted with the short flight from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
Parked in the driveway outside Meyer's house is a Honda Civic, which he ordered without an air-conditioner, because he believes that air-conditioning is an environmentally irresponsible excess. The car is too cramped to comfortably contain two grown men, so when I visit him in Los Angeles -- as I have done several times in the past few years -- we usually take my rental car when we go anywhere. If we are driving in the city, I typically have to ask him every mile or so if we are still heading in the right direction, because I don't know my way around and his mind tends to wander. On one occasion a few years ago, he became preoccupied by the thought that somewhere within the metropolitan area at that moment Dean Martin was probably either waking up or eating breakfast-in his view a selling point for L.A.
Billboards and window signs also derail his train of thought. He hates advertising, which he views as a global force of destruction. ("I hate it because it irresponsibly induces discontent in people for one myopic goal, and then it leaves the debris of that process out there in the culture. An advertiser will happily make you feel bad about yourself if that will make you buy, say, a Bic pen.") This antipathy has made Meyer a connoisseur of brazen marketing; he is especially interested in examples of ad copy in which the word-to-falsehood ratio approaches one. He once showed me a magazine advertisement for a butter substitute called Country Crock. "It's not from the country; there is no crock," he said. "Two words, two lies."
In the car one day, as we missed another turn, he said, "I love to ask people what their favorite product is."
I couldn't think of mine immediately, so I asked him what his was.
"Um, gee," he said, and he looked out the window and laughed. "I guess I don't know." He thought for a moment. "There's a tool that I bought that probably ought to be my favorite product, because it's very elegantly designed. It's a pair of pliers, it's a knife, it's a screwdriver. I love it. But I never use it." He looked out the window again. "The most bang for your buck would have to be LSD, I guess," he said. "Don't you think? Because it's, like, five bucks, and then you go crazy, and maybe you'll even jump out a window. Can you imagine? It might change your life, and it might make you drop out of society That's really a lot."
Meyer grew up in Arizona, the eldest of eight children in a Catholic family of mostly German descent. His parents still live in Tucson. (His mother sells residential real estate, and his father has held a variety of jobs, most of them in real estate or consulting.) "There were so many of us that there weren't a lot of family activities," he told me. "Usually you would make your own plans. Sometimes we would all go to SeaWorld or something, but the family was so big that it was hard to mobilize for anything. You can see why the military is run by people who are constantly yelling and screaming. It seems like an inefficient strategy, but it does get the job done, in a way." His parents were demanding, and his relationship with his father was often turbulent. One of his sisters had previously told me, "My parents had the habit of saying that one or another of us was the cause of all the family's problems, in those exact words. Who it was would change from week to week, but mostly it was George."
Life in large families is filled with logistical challenges. (Meyer's mother used to place dental-appointment cards in the tops of the children's stockings at Christmas.) People who grow up with many siblings tend to want either large families of their own or no families at all; Meyer and his siblings, the youngest of whom is now thirty-one, have thus far produced three marriages and just two children. Meyer once told a friend that he didn't believe in marriage, and that he would never have children because he felt he had already helped to raise seven of them. When my wife and I got married, shortly after college, he responded to our wedding invitation with a brief note: "I hope it works out."
As a child, Meyer struggled not only with family responsibilities but also with his parents' religious beliefs. "I felt like I was a happy kid," he told me, "but I did feel that I was made to shoulder a lot of burdens that shouldn't have been mine -- such as the frustrations of older women wearing nun costumes. People talk about how horrible it is to be brought up Catholic, and it's all true. The main thing was that there was no sense of proportion. I would chew a piece of gum at school, and the nun would say, 'Jesus is very angry with you about that,' and on the wall behind her would be a dying, bleeding guy on a cross. That's a horrifying image to throw at a little kid. You really could almost think that your talking in line, say, was on a par with killing Jesus. You just weren't sure, and there was never a moderating voice. Once, I was sent to the principal's office, and when I went in my parents were sitting there. They had been summoned somehow. God, that was scary; I would have been very unhappy, but not particularly surprised, if they had said, 'This time you have gone too far. Now you must die.' I would have thought, Oh, fuck -- well, I did go too far. I would not have thought, No, no, this can't be happening! No sense of proportion. That's why one of my favorite forms of black humor is the casual cruelty of bureaucrats and doctors-like, 'Here's the rod we're going to put in your spine."'
Meyer watched a huge amount of television when he was growing up -- his childhood coincided with a period in which TV was not yet so old as to have become widely perceived as injurious to the mental well-being of young people who ingested it in large doses -- and his memory of nineteen-sixties programming is acute.
"I just watched everything," he told me, "and always with the same slack expression on my face. I watched so much and from such an early age, in fact, that I didn't understand what TV was for. I say this to people and they think I'm kidding, but I didn't realize that 'The Dick Van Dyke Show' was supposed to be funny I thought you just watched it. The people said things, and they moved around, and you just waited till you saw the kid-you know, you liked to see Richie. My brothers and sisters and I rarely laughed at anything we watched. We watched more to learn what the world was like and how adults interacted, and what a cocktail party was, what a night club was, what you did on a sea cruise -- although I did like shows where the joke would be that somebody got shot or fell out of a window. When you're a kid, you like to see adults getting away with stuff; because you hope to join them one day in anarchy and mayhem."
Meyer also liked "The Wild, Wild West," "Get Smart," and other shows with lots of gadgets. "I believed that all those things existed," he said, "and that the adults had just locked them away somewhere. I thought it was only a matter of time until I would have my own shoe phone, and I couldn't understand why people owned station wagons when there were perfectly good Batmobiles out there just waiting to be driven." He spent much of his childhood yearning not only for those gadgets but also for the toys he saw in commercials, and he became resourceful at finding ways to acquire at least a few of them. He sold helium balloons at a rodeo parade, painted house numbers on neighbors' curbs (avoiding addresses containing the numeral 8, for which he didn't own a stencil), and paid his brothers and sisters twenty dollars each to stand in line for several hours to buy tickets for a Rolling Stones concert which he later scalped. Once, when he was desperately envious of a friend who had a rock tumbler, he gave up trying to persuade his parents to buy one for him and built his own. "I studied the technology;" he told me, "and then I had a brainstorm. I took a glass jar and filled it with some rocks I wanted to polish, and I added some sand and water, and then I taped it to the hubcap of my dad's car. I thought, We'll just go to church, and when we get back the rocks will be polished. But the whole thing fell off before we were out of the driveway."
Meyer's parents had extremely high expectations for all the children. His mother used to say, "We're not just winners-we're super winners" (a term that Meyer later used in a sketch on "Saturday Night Live"). He and his siblings felt pressure to succeed but enjoyed little sense of personal accomplishment when they did, because their triumphs were taken for granted-a dilemma that one of his sisters described to me as "a lose-lose situation." Meyer became a model teen-ager: a straight-A student, a member of his school's speech team, the editor of the student newspaper, an Eagle Scout, and an altar boy.
The single most important influence on his intellectual and moral development, however, was Mad magazine. Meyer would accompany his mother on evening trips to the grocery store, then stand in front of the magazine rack reading the latest issue while she shopped. On the drive home, he would read a few lines each time the car passed under a street lamp. (One of Meyer's most prized possessions today is an issue of Mad in which he himself is depicted, in a two-page spread called "A Mad Peek Behind the Scenes at 'The Simpsons' Studio.") He remembers being particularly struck by a parody of "Dennis the Menace." He told me, "It was a cartoon that showed Dennis coming into the house holding a skull, and the caption was something like 'Hey, Mom, look what I found in Mr. Wilson's head.' That absolutely put me away. The next day, my stomach muscles hurt from laughing. I felt like I'd been worked over by bullies."
Meyer still admires that cartoon, because, he says, it led him to a significant insight about humor. "It jumps a step, and to me the best comedy always jumps a step," he explains. "Dennis could have said, 'Mom, I killed Mr. Wilson and here's his head,' and Mrs. Mitchell could have said, 'Oh, Dennis,' or something like that, and I still would have thought it was pretty funny, because part of the humor for me was simply that a kid had killed an adult. But, Jesus, what a great joke. Michael O'Donoghue"-- the late writer for National Lampoon and "Saturday Night Live"-"used to say that humor has to be startling, and I agree with that. It has to reframe reality in a way that is exciting. It's like seeing in two dimensions and then opening the other eye or looking through a View-Master and suddenly seeing in three."
Humor, for Meyer, became the key to emotional survival. His sister Ann -- who is married to Jon Vitti --once said to me, "People sometimes ask me why all the kids in our family have a sense of humor, and I just think it was that or die. The choices were very limited. For George, it was an extremely hard task to be the eldest in a group of eight, and the fact that he was incredibly intelligent made it even harder for him. The rest of us were all a little afraid of him, because he was older, but he took care of us and we looked up to him, and he really made us laugh. He used to dislike the show All in the Family,' partly because he could see the jokes coming a mile away.
There was one episode where Archie is tempted to have an affair with a waitress, and then Edith finds a piece of paper with the waitress's phone number written on it and asks him, in this trembling voice, Archie, whose phone number is this?' We all used to repeat that line, and George would crack us up by screeching it, in this quavering imitation of Jean Stapleton's voice. At Thanksgiving dinner one year, my mother made us all write down what we were thankful for, and three of us, completely independently, wrote Archie, whose phone number is this?' My mother was exasperated, because she was reading these things aloud. Meanwhile, we were all laughing so hard that we were crying."
Midway through his sophomore year at Harvard, Meyer won a spot on the writing staff of the Lampoon and, for the first time in his life, found himself surrounded by people who looked at the world more or less as he did. The magazine is housed in a quirky; wedge-shaped building near Harvard Square called the Castle, which for more than ninety years has served as a sort of Masonic lodge for former class clowns. Inside the Castle, Meyer felt truly at home.
"I don't think most people like to laugh as much as I do," he says today. "Most people, sure, they like to laugh, but it's down on their list, like No.8. At the Lampoon, though, people took humor very seriously. There was nothing more important on earth than laughing and making other people laugh. That changed my life. The Lampoon was the only voice of anarchy in the whole school, except for maybe the Spartacist Youth League." He was elected president of the Lampoon midway through his junior year.
Outside of the Lampoon, Meyer was mostly miserable at Harvard. Distracted by the allure of the Castle, he made good but not exemplary grades, and he suffered from a gnawing fear that he was screwing up. Immediately after he became president of the Lampoon, a group of staid types on the business staff tried to overthrow him in a bitter and vituperative internal battle, because they thought he wasn't responsible enough to run the magazine. Meyer not only survived that coup but also, characteristically, became a close friend of his principal rival, Steven Crist. (Their friendship was forged partly at the greyhound track; Crist today is the editor and publisher of the Daily Racing Form.) He had two close brushes with suspension-once for failing to deliver a refrigerator he had sold to a freshman, and once for smashing a dorm-room window with an electric guitar. He was often depressed, sometimes deeply so. 'At one point," he recalls, "I took the sheets off my bed and put blue Christmas lights around the mattress, and just slept on the bare mattress. I did it partly as a joke, and partly not. It had something to do with a U.F.O. landing strip, or something. And for a while I set my room's thermostat at exactly one hundred degrees. I honestly don't know what I was thinking. I do remember seeing notices advertising the university's counselling service and thinking, Who in the heck is so crazy that they would go in and talk to those people? And the truth is that I should have been there most of the day."
This dark interlude in Meyer's life continued after he graduated, in 1978. He had applied to medical school and was accepted, but he never enrolled. He spent a brief period at home, in Tucson, then scraped together fifteen hundred dollars and moved to Denver, where he intended td use "scientific" handicapping methods to make a fortune at the dog track. He rented a cheap motel room and spent his days studying tip sheets at the Denver Public Library, Despite his diligent research, though, he ran through his stake in just two weeks and had no choice but to admit defeat and move back in with his parents. He then tried and failed to make a living as a substitute teacher, a research assistant in a medical laboratory, a salesman in a clothing store, and a television game-show contestant. (He won a little more than two thousand dollars on "Jeopardy"-his largest paycheck by far during his first two years after college. On the show he had a five-day plan for making a growing nuisance of himself Eliminated after one day, he didn't get past the plan's first phase: incessantly using the first name of the show's host, Art Fleming.)
Meyer's life as an adult didn't begin to come together until 1981, when he got a call from the office of a semi-obscure comedian named David Letterman. Letterman was about to be given a late-night slot on NBC, following the "Tonight Show," and he wondered if Meyer might consider moving to New York and working as one of his writers. Meyer had been recommended by two other writers, Tom Gammill and Max Pross, who had been a year behind him on the Lampoon and had described him to Letterman as "the funniest man in America." (Gammill and Pross later wrote for "Seinfeld," among other shows, and they now write part time for "The Simpsons.") Meyer submitted samples culled from the writing he had done in college, and Letterman was bowled over. "Everything in his submission, down to the last little detail, was so beautifully honed," Letterman told me. "I haven't run across anybody quite like that since." Early in the first season, Meyer came up with a stunt that was the progenitor of many subsequent Letterman routines: squashing things with a steam roller. (Among the items squashed were a watermelon and a "nutritious breakfast.") He also wrote segments in which Letterman would demonstrate a variety of strange gadgets, which were presented as new products but had actually been conceived by Meyer. Those gadgets included a pizza centrifuge, for removing unwanted toppings, and Lotion-in-a-Drawer.
Meyer left Letterman after about two years in order to take a job at "The New Show," Lorne Michaels's much anticipated successor to "Saturday Night Live." (While there, he wrote one of my favorite TV-comedy routines of all time, a John Candy sketch called "Food Repairman.") "The New Show" was cancelled after just two and a half months; Meyer moved first to "Not Necessarily the News," and then to "Saturday Night Live." None of these experiences were entirely satisfying. He liked writing for television but didn't have the same sense of belonging that he had felt at the Lampoon. "My stuff wasn't very popular at 'Saturday Night,' "he told me recently. "It was regarded as really fringey, and a lot of times my sketches would get cut. Sometimes they would get cut after dress rehearsal, and I would have the horrible experience of looking out and seeing a painter carefully touching up my set and getting it all ready to be smashed to pieces and sent to a landfill in Brooklyn. It was just a mismatch, although I didn't realize it at the time." He quit in 1987, after two years.
By that point, Meyer was fed up with television and with New York. He moved to Boulder, Colorado, more or less on a whim, and rented a condominium. While living there, he wrote a movie script for Letterman;. That project was dropped by Letterman and the studio when Letterman's television show took off, but Meyer's script is still considered a masterpiece by the small group of people who've seen it. A tattered copy had a second life, in the "Simpsons" rewrite room, where for several years the show's other writers would guiltily consult it whenever they were stuck for a joke.
On the side, Meyer published a small, offbeat humor magazine called Army Man, whose subtitle was 'America's Only Magazine." Meyer created Army Man partly to avoid working on the Letterman script, but in some ways it proved to be the most fulfilling creative project he had ever undertaken. Army Man was at the opposite end of the entertainment spectrum from a network television show. The first issue (there would eventually be three) contained eight typed pages and was written almost entirely by him. He laid it out on his bed and printed just two hundred copies, which he gave away to friends.
Despite its modest appearance, Army Man attracted a surprisingly broad and loyal following. It made Rolling Stone's Hot List in 1989, and for years it circulated in samizdat on college campuses. "The only rule was that the stuff had to be funny and pretty short," Meyer told me. "To me, the quintessential Army Man joke was one of John Swartzwelder's: 'They can kill the Kennedys. Why can't they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?' It's a horrifying idea juxtaposed with something really banal-and yet there's a kind of logic to it. It's illuminating because it's kind of how Americans see things: Life's a big jumble, but somehow it leads to something I can consume. I love that." (Meyer is the only person I know who can deconstruct a joke without killing it.)
Army Man eventually became a victim of its own success. Meyer was overwhelmed with submissions, and he hated having to reject contributions from friends. He was also approached by would-be investors, who wanted to take Army Man national or turn it into a television show. He eventually realized that what to him were the magazine's best features -- its small size and its simplicity -- were probably doomed.
He also suddenly found himself with much less time on his hands. One of Army Man's biggest fans turned out to be Sam Simon, who is one of the three original executive producers of "The Simpsons." That program was just getting under way when the first issue came out, and Simon, who needed to build a writing staff in a hurry, was captivated. He tracked down Meyer and hired him and several of his contributors, including Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti. "Sam got quite a bit of his staff from the list of credits in Army Man," one of the show's former producers told me. "In a sense, that little magazine was the father of the show."
"The Simpsons" actually began in 1987, a year before the first issue of Army Man, as a series of one-to-two-minute shorts on "The Tracey Ullman Show." Its creator was the cartoonist Matt Groening, who modelled the original characters on his own family. But "The Simpsons" today probably shares more genetic material with Army Man than it does with those shorts, or even with the earliest episodes on Fox.
The show's characters are the key to its appeal. There are now several hundred of them, and the best have come to seem more real, and more complex, than the characters in many live-action programs. Because they are drawings, they can change and grow while remaining frozen in time. Homer still has the same few hairs on his head, but over the years he has evolved from a surly authoritarian into a dreamy dumbbell and surely one of TV's most original and memorable comic creations. Lisa has become ever more wise and precocious -- "I don't think real checks have exclamation points," she tells Homer, who believes that a sweepstakes promotion he has received in the mail is really worth a million dollars -- and has developed an inner life that in some ways probably comes closer to Meyer's than does that of any other character on the show "Marge hasn't changed too much," Meyer says. "The problem with writing Marge is that you can't have her do stupid or kooky things, because people think that's woman-bashing. And yet you can't make her a totally PC. superwoman, because it has to be semi-plausible that she loves this man and willingly bore his children. It becomes kind of tragic."
Most important, Bart has never had to become a creepy adolescent. (If he were portrayed by a live actor, Bart today would be a sophomore in college.) "The challenge with Bart," Meyer says, "is coming up with literally hundreds of pranks for him to pull that are interesting and wicked but not destructive or easy to imitate. Sometimes we do what we call room jokes,' which are just for our own amusement, like having Bart say, 'Wow! Drinking this Drano gave me super powers!' But the things he does on the show aren't anything like that. For example, in one episode he's just sitting on the living-room floor, singing 'Jingle Bells' and hitting little packs of mustard with a hammer. I love that kind of thing. He's just into the rhythm of it, thinking, Oh, good, I've got more packs that I can hit with this hammer. That's really all he's considering how many are left. The thing I like about Bart is that even though he will put on his grandfather's dentures and bite the ceiling fan and spin around, he is not cruel or nasty" Bart's character fills out from week to week rather than inexorably drifting further and further from the core of the show.
Meyer and I discussed this topic at great length one Sunday last summer. We had visited the La Brea Tar Pits, where Meyer showed me his favorite exhibit --a glass case containing several hundred petroleum-saturated skulls of dire wolves arrayed on an illuminated orange background and were drinking coffee nearby. I asked Meyer what he thought of modern television comedies.
"On most shows nowadays," he said, "almost all the characters are stereotypes, or they embody one basic trait and very little else. And you have shows where all seven characters talk exactly like comedy writers. All the characters seem to be constantly cracking jokes and, specifically, jokes meant to injure other people. My old girlfriend Maria once said that if anyone ever said to her even one of the things that the people on sitcoms routinely say to each other she would probably burst into tears and go running out of the room.
"When you and I were kids, the average TV comedy was about a witch, or a Martian, or a goofy frontier fort, or a comical Nazi prisoner-of-war camp. That was the mainstream. Now the average comedy is about a bunch of people who hang around in some generic urban setting having conversations and sniping at each other. I remember watching, in the sixties, an episode of 'Get Smart' in which some angry Indians were aiming a sixty-foot arrow at Washington, and Max said something like 'That's the second-biggest arrow I've ever seen,' and I thought, Oh, great, shows are just going to keep getting nuttier and nuttier. I never dreamed that television comedy would turn in such a dreary direction, so that all you would see is people in living rooms putting each other down."
I asked him why TV comedies changed. "One of the main reasons," he said, "is the tyranny of live studio audiences, which I think have ruined television comedy. 'Leave It to Beaver,' unlike most sitcoms today, was not taped in front of a live audience. If that show were in production now and Beaver made some kind of gentle, sweet remark about his collection of rocks, or whatever, that line wouldn't get a laugh from the audience during rehearsal, and it would be cut. With a live audience, you always end up with hard-edged lines that the audience knows are jokes. Audiences hate it when they have to figure out whether something is funny or not -- I think because people have an anxiety about laughing in the wrong place, almost like a fear of speaking in public. That's why the biggest comedy stars tend to be people like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, because audiences never have to guess when they're trying to be funny It's the same as the phenomenon of seeing a joke in a movie trailer. A lot of times, a movie's biggest jokes will be in its trailer, so you may see those jokes five or six times before you see the movie. Then you go to the movie itself, and you think, Oh, no, here comes that joke from the trailer-I guess nobody is going to laugh at it, because it's all played out. Wrong. That joke gets the biggest laugh, like a nuclear blast."
Given this insecurity, the creators of "The Simpsons" took an extraordinary risk: they decided not to use a laugh track: On almost all other sitcoms, dialogue was interrupted repeatedly by crescendos of phony guffaws (or by the electronically enhanced laughter of live audiences), creating the unreal ebb and flow of sitcom conversation, in which a typical character's initial reaction to an ostensibly humorous remark could only be to smile archly or look around while waiting for the yucks to die down. On "The Simpsons," funny lines could be topped immediately by other fanny lines, and the humor could be layered with great subtlety. In an episode written by Meyer called "Homer the Heretic"-- in which Homer skips church on a frigid Sunday morning and then has what he believes to be the best day of his life -- Reverend Lovejoy describes the religion of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who runs the local Kwik-E-Mart, as "miscellaneous." Apu indignantly says, "Hindu! There are seven hundred million of us." Lovejoy smiles at him condescendingly and says, "Aw that's super"-- a quick joke that would have been too delicate to float above superimposed peals of laughter. The success of "The Simpsons" eventually gave more producers the courage to work without a net as well; today, several of the best comedies on TV; among them "King of the Hill" and "Malcolm in the Middle," also have no laugh tracks.
One reason "The Simpsons" has been able to maintain a high level of sophistication in its humor while still appealing to a mass audience may be that the form of the show is one that viewers accept as inherently fanny: it's a cartoon. The animation is disarming. "You could never have had Homer as a live-action character, because his actions would seem too horrifying, and too many people would protest," Meyer says. "People still look to TV characters either as role models or as television friends, but they don't usually have those expectations for cartoon characters. Women used to identify with characters played by Mary Tyler Moore, for example, but you don't find a lot of people saying, 'I really want to be like Bugs Bunny' It gives you some freedom.
"Also, I think we can get away with a little more on 'The Simpsons' because the setup is so traditional. The Simpsons are an intact family unit, which is something you hardly ever see on television anymore. Homer works nine to five, and Marge stays at home, and they have a boy and a girl and a baby, and they live in the standard middle-class house even though it would seem that they probably couldn't afford that house. Their finances are kind of glossed over in the series. But I think it was a smart choice not to go in any really interesting direction with the core of the show -- just to be very traditional, and then make the execution odd and quirky Because people can take only so much before their heads explode."
Meyer caused consternation at "The Simpsons" when, in 1995, he announced that he wasn't going to renew his contract at the end of that season, the show's sixth. He felt burned out by the writing schedule, which, unlike the writing schedules of most television shows, does not include a lengthy summer hiatus. ("There is 'no time off for anyone, ever," John Swartzwelder told me.) Meyer wanted to try his hand at some- thing that might seem both less draining and more intellectually challenging. He talked at various times about writing a movie, or reviving Army Man, or writing a play, or working on a pilot for a television show of his own.
Meyer was also feeling deep personal and emotional pressures. In the early nineties, he underwent a fairly intensive program of psychotherapy, and he says the experience changed his life, although he's not sure how "Psychotherapy is a very mysterious process, and I think it's poorly understood," he says. "I don't think it's primarily about changing your pattern of behavior, or your perception of what's going on. I think it's about rewiring your brain, and I don't think anyone knows how it works. I went through a very difficult period where I was really in a funk, and then somehow I got through it. Maybe it just outlived its usefulness."
A key moment occurred at Fox one day when Matt Groening invited Meyer to have lunch with him and the artist R. Crumb, whose work Meyer loves. Crumb carries a sketchbook at all times, and he let Meyer look through it. "When I gave it back to him," Meyer says, "I thanked him for letting me see his stuff, and he said, with a really sheepish look on his face, 'My life is an open book.' For some reason, that statement was like a trigger in my mind." Meyer spent an entire session with his psychologist during which he would dissolve into racking sobs every time he tried to say that sentence-a session he believes was the turning point in his therapy. "Up until that moment, I guess, my life had not been an open book, and I hadn't had the courage to risk being myself or to put myself out there in an unedited way. It was a very powerful experience. Now I can't sob like that, even as a party trick."
Meyer's colleagues at "The Simpsons" would have been much more upset by his impending departure if they had truly believed that he would stay away for good. And, as several had predicted, he returned almost immediately -- first as a consultant, then once again as a fall-time member of the staff Breaking free of the show was harder than he had thought it would be, he said later. "But I don't feel ashamed of myself for going back," he says. "Maria always told me not to take the pulpit of 'The Simpsons' lightly, and not to belittle it or trivialize it, and she was right, because I am probably never going to be associated with anything that reaches as many people, even if I work really hard for the rest of my life."
That doesn't mean he necessarily intends to stay with "The Simpsons." Several times over the years, he has pitched ideas for new television comedies. None of those attempts have been successful so far, but he hasn't given up, and he is now working on a new proposal, for a half-hour show called "Bang!" "I'm describing it as 'a fusillade of comedy,"' he says. "It's sort of an animated 'Laugh-In,' but flashier and faster-paced." Meyer thinks of it as a direct descendant of Army Man. If his presentation is successful, he will leave "The Simpsons" to work on "Bang!" fall time. (Because of the lead time required for animation, the first episode wouldn't appear for a year or two.) Meyer's possible new project has created anxiety at "The Simpsons." Mike Scully told me that he can't imagine putting on the show without Meyer in the rewrite room. Still, Scully says that he doesn't understand why some television network hasn't simply given Meyer a big pile of money and told him to create whatever he wants. "The networks take crazy risks all the time on really bad shows," he says. "Why don't they take a risk on someone really good instead?"
The issue is complicated for Meyer, too. He loves the rewrite room, but he's torn. Several years ago, he told me, "The bad part about a TV job is that you are always wondering if you are a hack. And for good reason. Writing for 'The Simpsonsí is fun, but in some ways it's too easy. It's more like a craft. I think it's time for me to do something more personally fulfilling. I start to think, How many really funny years do I have left?"
Transcribed by Richard Riegler
Last updated on March 18, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)