David MirkinBy Peter Anthony Holder
© CJAD 800 AM, September 8, 1995.
He was in Montreal for the Just for Laughs 95 festival where he participated in two sold out shows concerning the animated hit. During that time he was interviewed, by Peter Anthony Holder, the evening talk show host on CJAD 800 AM, Montreal. The interview was aired on the program on Friday, September 8, 1995 at 8pm eastern.
CJAD: I know in the past you have done work on live action shows. As a producer, how is it different working with animation?
DAVID: I guess you really....compared to all the live action I've done, you have so much more control, doing animation, literally on a frame by frame basis. You can control what everything looks like, you can control the timing, so it's quite a godsend for a control freak like me.
CJAD:Have you been with The Simpsons since the beginning?
DAVID: No. I was actually asked to join "The Simpsons" when it became a half hour show, but I had other commitments with "Get a Life" and later "The Edge." But once those shows finished up, then I took over The Simpsons. I've been there for about three years.
CJAD: So it was already a hit when you joined onto the show.
DAVID: It was a big hit and I was a giant fan of it. It was probably the only show that I would stop the rewrites of my other shows to go and watch. I thought it was brilliant.
CJAD: Now that's something you could do with the other shows, but as I heard you talking the festival recently, there is a lot of work that goes into putting The Simpsons together and a lot of time is involved.?
DAVID: Yeah, it's probably the most time consuming show in all of television, in the sense that it takes eight months to do one episode and it takes a year and a half to do an entire season of 24 episodes of The Simpsons. So for six months of the year we are actually working on two seasons at once, which is kind of a nightmare.
CJAD: How large of a staff are we talking about, because I know that some of the work is piece-mealed out and done in Korea and it seems like it's a very, very large organization involved.
DAVID: By the time you're finished with all the animators and all the writers and all the production people, you're talking about 300 people. There's about a hundred here in the States and scattered across other places is another 200 or so.
CJAD: Does that differ from the situation when you do live action? I assume when you are working on live action you are basically working on the episode at hand, correct?
DAVID: I guess when I did live action shows I probably had to have like about five episodes in my head at one time. The Simpsons sometimes gets up to about seven, eight, nine episodes in my head at one time. No matter which type of show you're doing, you are working with episodes in different stages of development. The difference is in live action, you pretty much do an entire episode from start to finish in about two months maximum, and really the intense part is all within one month, so you really have a real quick feeling of completion. Whereas The Simpsons, and animation like The Simpsons feels much more like a feature film. There's almost a year, there's eight months of working and honing and fixing and refining. So you can really keep getting the quality higher and higher, hopefully, as you go back and rewrite it all the way up to like even two weeks before it goes on the air, we're still changing lines.
CJAD: Coming in yourself as an Executive Producer in a show that's already been on the air and established for awhile, is there anything that you do to put your own stamp on the show? Has it changed at all in the years you've taken it over?
DAVID: I think there are definitely changes. It's hard for me to absolutely point them out. Other people have told me the show became a little bit more story intensive when I came aboard. The first season was very, very story oriented and very character oriented, but kind of slow moving in the first season. Then the pace kept picking up for the second, third and fourth season, but by the third and fourth season it was going so fast that story got lost a little bit. It was almost a series of events then a strong story. I kind of brought it back and it was something that I wanted to do and Jim Brooks wanted to do. Wanted to bring it back to more of a strong story-character through line and I think we did that. Plus, just naturally the events that the characters when through started to much more reflect my own life in terms of experiences I had or things that happened to me as a kid for Bart or unfortunately things that happened to me as an adult for Homer.
CJAD: Some of the things that I find interesting about the show is the way people have taken to it and also the way sometimes people criticize it and it's all based on the fact that it's all animated. Do people treat it differently because it's animated? And I guess that's one of the things that people have to debate. Whether it's really for kids. Some people believe that cartoons are only for kids, and that's not the case with The Simpsons.
DAVID: No, not at all. We're really writing a show that has some of the most esoteric references on television. I mean really, really, really strange, odd, short little moments that very few people get and understand. We do that for ourselves. We're writing it for adults and intelligent adults at that. We don't really think too much of kids. We're not thinking about kids as we're writing the show, but the great news is you don't have to write down to get kids. I mean, they're attracted obviously to the colors and the physical comedy and the look of the show gets the kids in there. But they also appreciate a lot of the advanced elements of the story telling. They really do. And it encourages kids to learn the references that they are not getting. That happened to me when I was a kid. I was watching BULLWINKLE, and my parents behind me would laugh at something and I wouldn't laugh. I would turn around and say, "what's so funny?", because I didn't want to miss out on laughs. I love to laugh, so I would like, learn new things so I could get more jokes. We do that on The Simpsons. But it's not for kids. It's for adults, but kids come along and watch it and enjoy it on an entirely different level.
CJAD: Yet having said that, what are some of the things you have been able to get away with because it's animated and conversely what are some of the things you can't get away with because it's animated?
DAVID: You know, I don't know if there is anything we really can't get away with. It's definitely been the other way. Because I kind of done live action shows that have almost been living cartoons at the time and have had much greater fights about that because I have literally blown up real people or rip the heads off of real people. When I do that on a cartoon, they don't give me a hard time about that. We are able to do a much higher level of violence. A much higher level of physical comedy. Much, much darker stories where really terrible things happen to the characters. It would be much more upsetting if it was a live action show. So in that sense, I think that we get away with it because it looks so bright and colorful and cheerful. We could do very, very dark things and everybody goes, "oh, there's another cute cartoon." I mean Bugs Bunny....it amazing. It's a very dark story. Elmer Fudd is trying to kill the main character in a horrendous way again and again and again, but because it's a cartoon, there's enough distance that we can get away with it. And that certainly helps us in The Simpsons again and again.
CJAD: One of the things too about the show is that there are so many jokes, so many gags going through it. Now, I happen to work during the evenings so I don't get to see the show, but I record it and that is a very important feature. Apparently you have to record The Simpsons to get everything that's going on.
DAVID: Yeah, one of the fun things we do on the show and incredibly time consuming things....the scripts are about two times to three times as dense as the normal sitcom is. And it usually takes us about twice as long to write one script as opposed to a normal sitcom. And we just fill it with all kinds of layered jokes. All the signs in the background are usually jokes. Little freeze frame moments. So it is a great show to tape and slow it down and watch, because you'll always see things that you'll missed, because the pace is so fast. And it's also a great show to re-watch because again, things that you missed the first time around. Places where you may have been laughing the first time, because we don't wait for laughs, we just keep going with the jokes....you'll laugh over a lot of other funny lines. I see that happen all the time, even as we did the seminar here. People would laugh over the jokes that would come after. So you can always discover new things in it, which is one of the great reasons I think that it works so well in reruns. But it's extremely layered.
CJAD: The suits in the industry. The people who say that the audience will or will not do this or that are always saying lately that this is the MTV generation and they have no attention span. You really have to pay attention to The Simpsons.
DAVID: We really reward people who pay attention. I mean that's part of what the show is about. We write up to people. There's enormous amount of people out there who appreciate that. But at the same time it's not all people want, so right after we do a very high end reference to Chekhov or something, somebody falls down the stairs, so you're getting every kind of level of comedy happening and I think that's what really works well in TV because people who aren't interested in irreverence are laughing at the people falling down the stairs, as well as people who like the reference too, can't help but laugh at that.
CJAD: What about the guest stars. You have an amazing array of guest stars that show up on that program either playing themselves or other characters.
DAVID: It's been one of my favorite things about working on the show. It's been getting to direct so many of the big, big stars in our industry. We have a huge list of people that would love to do the show and some of them have to wait like up to a year, because we don't like to waste them on a small role. We like to give them a nice, large meaty role so that we can really take advantage of their acting skills. The list has been just amazing. It's been Michelle Pfeiffer, Dustin Hoffman, Winona Ryder, Meryl Streep, James Woods, Patrick Stewart. I mean, the list goes on and on and on. Rock stars, James Taylor, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo. I mean, all three of the surviving Beatles have done the show. I think it's legal. I think I can edit it together and call it a reunion. I'm going to try that (laughter).
CJAD: How do you go about deciding, when you are creating a character for a celebrity, whether they are going to play themselves or in the case of Danny Devito, playing somebody else like Homer's brother or Glenn Close who is going to be playing Homer's mother, correct?
DAVID: Yeah, most of the time, unless there's really something...most of the time the person is really a big time actor. Our favorite thing is to give them a role that is not themselves. And the actor is generally interested in that same idea. They would prefer to play somebody else rather then themselves. If someone is more of a personality, or a rock star or something like that, then we have fun with them playing themselves, if they're not an actor as such. Sometimes these rules have changed, but in general that's a good general rule of thumb.
CJAD: Back when the show first went on the air and it became a massive hit, the merchandising started. Also what came about that time is the brouhaha concerning Bart being the bad boy and schools not allowing children to wear Bart T-shirts to class. How do you answer to all of that? I mean, it's just a television show, isn't it?
DAVID: One of the greatest things that every happened to us in all the Bart brouhaha was "Beavis & Butt-Head" and "Ren & Stimpy." I mean, they took all the attention away. Bart came out looking very well behaved after these various cartoons. So now he's considered to be a role model, I think. But you know, it's the same thing. I don't believe in any kind of censorship of those kinds of things. Bart is a completely and totally recognizable character. If parents want to try and protect their children from seeing a character like that, they can't, because the minute the kid walks outside the house, they'll run into a Bart, either in school or in the street or whatever. And it's much better to deal with him on the air. We don't aggrandize him. Bad things happen to Bart. It's a very real show in that sense. He's a wise guy, but then he does get in trouble for it. He does have problems with it. But it's a true real character. It's an observation of what's going on. I believe that anything that's going on in society, that it's very healthy to deal with it on television and to make comments about it on TV. I think that oppression of things that we don't like is very, very dangerous, because I think that's what really makes them the most exciting to children. It's when they think, "oh, that's really forbidden, and really weird." Then they get more excited about it and they make a bigger thing about it then they should, so I think it's important to portray everything and not have any kind of censorship.
CJAD: The show is going into its seventh season now?
DAVID: It's going into its seventh season. September will be the beginning of our seventh and we are guaranteed through the eighth season so there will at least be two more seasons of The Simpsons and then we'll see.
CJAD: We're talking about a show that's animated and there hasn't been a successful network animated show, I guess since either "The Flintstones" or "The Jetsons".
DAVID: It's really "The Flintstones" that has come close going this long. I mean that's really the only other comparative success story at this point. And we've had "The Flintstones" on the show. They were very nice to come and visit us. I was very appreciative.
CJAD: Why do you think it took so long? I guess almost, if not more then 30 years for animation to reappear in prime time?
DAVID: Because it's very, very difficult and there had to be a new version of it for adults, because even though "The Flintstones" kind of works for adults, it's not really as sophisticated as it needs to be in this day and age. So it kind of had to be reinvented, and even at that, because of the success of The Simpsons, so many people have tried to mimic that success, because it does make a lot of money, it's very successful. But it's really hard to. You have to spend the money. This is a very expensive show. It cost $1.5 million per episode, whereas other sitcoms cost anywhere from $600,000 to $800,000 per episode. So it's a big commitment for a network to make. You have to spend the money to attract the writing talent, because it's all in the writing. It's all in the execution. You've gotta attract the best animation talent and that talent pool is very, very thin out there. So it's really hard to gather together the kind of people together that Jim Brooks was able to attract and do the show. And anytime people try and redo it, they've had problems for that exact reason. It's just hard to get this kind of group of talented people to do this kind of work.
CJAD: We're going through a period right now where a lot of stuff taken from television is finding its way on the large screen. Do you ever foresee a Simpsons movie, either animated or live action? They did it with "The Flintstones."
DAVID: They did it with "The Flintstones." Well, there's always a lot of pressure on us to do a Simpsons feature. That pressure is constant. It's the same problem with the talent pool. We're all busy. There are very few people who can write The Simpsons. That can animate The Simpsons. We're all busy doing the show. So I don't think you are going to necessarily see a movie until the show is done it's production and some people are freed up to do it, that could actually do a good job, because we are very quality conscious. You know, we're trying to do very high quality work in everything that's associated with the show. That's all part of what Jim Brooks cares about. I care about. It's important to us. But the one think I can guarantee, is that eventually there will be a Simpsons movie. And there will be a Simpsons Broadway play. And there will be Simpsons Ice Capades shows because I can guarantee that 20th Century Fox will wring every dime out of the franchise sooner or later.
CJAD: One of the things that is so endearing about the show, as you mentioned earlier is the pace. The fact that there is so much going on very quickly in that program and as you witnessed at the shows you did here in Montreal for the JUST FOR LAUGHS festival, when you have an audience seeing it live they miss a lot because they're laughing. Will you have to change the pace of a motion picture if you do it on the large screen and will that take something away from The Simpsons?
DAVID: You know, I think the pace will change a bit, because just the idea that you're doing.....it's not that we would necessarily wait much longer for the laughs. We would do a little bit. You do that through test screenings and stuff. Woody Allen and Mel Brooks do that all the time and Jim Brooks as well. You'll cut the movie for test audiences so that you can have an idea, so you don't lose too much. But you still kind of keep it overlapping so that the laughs overlap. But just in general, doing a 90 minute story, you'd have to slow down the pace a little bit, because if you just kept up that same kind of pace that you have in The Simpsons for 90 minutes, the ultimate effect would be a bit numbing. So what we would probably do would be a show.....and we've done this even in the half hour....a show that gets much more emotional and slows down in places to really do character and stuff. We would probably have a little bit more of that in the movie, mixed in with very, very fast long sequences of fast intense stuff. But then, you know, pacing is very important and it changes a little bit in a 90 minute feature versus a 30 minute show.
CJAD: We can't finish this without mentioning the rabid fans the show has, especially the so called computer nerds. They are out there. If you look on the Internet, there is Simpsons this and Simpsons that. There is a lot of talk about The Simpsons. And they are very possessive of the show and they can also be very critical of the show. Do you pay any attention to that at all?
DAVID: Well the one thing you learn.....we kind of scan it now and again. You know I would say that there are so many people on the computer talking about the show, it frightens me. There are way, way too many people in these countries that have way too much free time on their hands. It's very scary. There's probably as much going on on the computer about The Simpsons as there is about "Star Trek" which I don't know what that says about us in terms of being where it's at. It's kind of frightening. But what you find, and you know, we'll scan it very quickly, is there is never a consensus. That virtually....and this is the same thing in all the years I've done this running into people on the street....everyone will have a certain show that comes on and somebody will say, "that's the worst show ever" and then another group will say "that's the best show you've ever done." So every time, no matter what show we do, there's a whole bunch of people who say, "that's the worst show I've ever seen", "that's the best show I've ever seen." You never can find a consensus. Everybody has there own likes and dislikes. And one of the things that makes me know we are doing a good job on The Simpsons is that it changes so much every week. Sometimes it's a romantic comedy. Sometimes it's a family comedy. Sometimes it's an action adventure. Sometimes it's science fiction. Sometimes it's an underground story. It's a "Twilight Zone" kind of thing. Horror. Any kind of form we write and different people like different styles. So people are always saying, "oh, that's a good show because that's the style I like," and "that's a bad show because that's a style I don't like." But that's why we change it all the time. We don't want to get caught in one single formula. So as long as there are people that are hating shows that we're doing, we know that we are doing it right.
CJAD: One of the things you also do very well are the parodies.
DAVID: We love doing parodies and that again is one of the fantastic things about doing animation. It is that basically it is budgetless. When I would do live action, I would do certain amount of parodies in that, either in a sketch show or in "Get a Life" or something like that, and you had to worry about how much the set was going to cost, how long it was going to take you to shoot it. But here we can do parodies shot by shot, just like a movie. If The Simpsons was live action, many weeks it would cost $50 to $100 million dollars to do an episode. If we were up in space or if we're in the center of the earth, or if we're doing a parody of "Mad Max" or "The Fugitive" or something, we could literally do it on a frame by frame basis and also parody the music exactly, so it's a great, great experience as a director to be able to get in there and mimic these things and kind of recreate them.
CJAD: Last question before people start going into withdrawal. You mentioned that this is the seventh season coming and you're signed for an eighth. Does that mean the end of The Simpsons on television or is there is a possibility that it could go on after that.
DAVID: Well I think at the end of the eighth season, we'll all have to sit down, make sure the show is still fresh. Make sure that's it's not repeating itself or falling into a formula and you know, if we feel if we're too burnt out and everybody is too tired then that's going to be the exact time to put it to bed. Just at eight seasons of the show. Unless they offer us a huge amount of money to keep going. We'll have to see what happens. It's very possible that we'll still have energy after eight seasons, but hopefully it will always be a decision of quality, to make sure we are not lowering the quality just to make a little bit more money.
CJAD: David Mirkin, thank you for talking with us.
DAVID: I had a great time Peter, thank you very much.
Last updated on October 10, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)