Mike ScullyBy Scott DeVaney
© Daily Radar, Direct Hit, November 2000.
Mike Scully is the man in charge of the funniest sitcom of all time -- and this is his story
The Beatles did it. The Godfather did it. And The Simpsons continue to do it.
Each of the above pulled off the hardest trick in show business: appealing to the masses while retaining the highest level of artistic merit, hailed by the world's harshest critics. Perhaps filmmaker John Waters summed up the Simpsons' allure best when he said "The Simpsons is a great, radical show. That there could be a show for the whole family, at that hour, about that... This never could have happened when I was in grade school. It's a subversive show in the best sense, because parents don't realize what their kids are watching. It's like a sneak attack."
Those "sneak attacks" have been guided the last few years by Mike Scully, the show's executive producer. As the show runner of The Simpsons, Scully is basically responsible for everything. He leads the writers' room on a daily basis and has final say on what storylines and jokes get the green light. He oversees the voice recording sessions and manages the animation as well. Scully first joined the writing staff in 1993, so he knows a little bit about the show's history. Thursday night, Mike was nice enough to give us a call on his car phone as he made his way to a seminar about the The Simpsons on the UCLA campus. Not only can the guy manage the greatest show of all time, but he can give a fantastic interview while negotiating perilous LA traffic. Just before I started the questioning, Scully warned: "If you hear the sound of a car wreck, the interview is over."
Direct Hit: What's the toughest part of your job as show runner of The Simpsons?
Mike Scully: Hmm, probably just trying to get all the writers to decide on where to order lunch.
DH: Can you see yourself ever producing another sitcom after so many years working on arguably the best sitcom of all time?
MS: Well, I hope so, because I have a live-action series currently in development. It's a project starring a great comedian named Robert Schimmel. We actually started developing the show last year, but Robert was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and underwent many grueling months of chemotherapy. Fortunately, Robert's cancer is in remission and hopefully he's beaten it for good.
But, you know, there are certainly different creative challenges when writing for a live-action show versus animation. In The Simpsons we can say, "wouldn't it be funny to do this scene in China," and bam, you just draw it and you're in China. With live action, you don't have that sort of freedom.
As a writer, you really get spoiled on The Simpsons. I tell all of our younger guys to enjoy this while it lasts, because you'll never have it this good again, from a creative perspective. I mean, we don't even need to get network approval before we develop stories. They pretty much leave us alone. A lot of shows can really get suffocated by network meddling.
DH: Actually, you bring up a point that I was planning on asking you about. Has there ever been an instance where you guys really wanted to do an edgy story, but the network stepped in and simply said "no way"?
MS: Not really. But there was one time they looked at an early draft of a script and voiced some concern. It was a couple of years ago -- the episode where Homer and Marge struggle to rekindle some excitement for each other in the bedroom ["Natural Born Kissers"]. After we [writers] established their marital problems, we needed to find a way to resurrect their passion, and we came up with the idea that they get excited by the prospect of getting caught by having sex in dangerous, public places. The network was worried about the overtly sexual theme of the story and I had to promise them that we would handle it tastefully. I think we pulled it off. At the end, Homer and Marge sprint away from a miniature golf course where they were having sex, but no one really catches them in a compromising position.
DH: After all these years, your core audience is pretty much locked into place and extremely faithful. If your ratings remain fairly consistent, how much longer could The Simpsons conceivably stay on the air? What's the biggest obstacle in keeping the show on the air?
MS: You know what's weird? We're actually gaining new, young fans that weren't even born when the show first aired. Regarding when the end will come, you know, I've been wrong so many times before that I've stopped guessing. When I first came on staff, I thought I'd be lucky to experience it for a couple of years before they pulled the plug. Then I thought we were close to the end a few years ago. So, I'm no expert. The biggest challenge for us is consistently coming up with good stories. We've done so many storylines over the years. It's becoming increasingly difficult to find fresh areas to explore.
I go into every season now with a certain philosophy and I share it with the staff: We can't make 22 great episodes. It's just not going to happen. Of course, we try to write 22 great scripts, but there'll inevitably be a few that just don't work as well as we'd like them to.
DH: Well, I can tell you right now that last week's episode where Homer was Burns' personal Prank Monkey will be remembered as one of this season's truly great episodes.
MS: Thank you.
DH: I think one of the reasons the show has been as successful as it has over the years is because it evolves. The Simpsons of today is certainly not The Simpsons of 1989. If the show is to, say, survive another three or four seasons, do you forecast any major thematic changes in the show?
MS: Not really. Like I was saying before, it's all about the stories. If we get to the point where we're not coming up with good stories, it's over. But it's hard to know when you've gotten to that point until you're already past it. It's kind of like being an athlete competing beyond your prime. You don't know you're beyond your prime until you start to get kicked around. (Laughing) The American audience does a pretty good job of letting their entertainers know when it's time to get off the stage.
DH: On some level in the back of your mind, you've certainly thought about the prospect of the show's final episode, and if you'll still be running the show when that sad day comes (Scully laughs). What do you feel are some issues that need to be addressed in such a historic episode?
MS: Oh man, I don't know. Honestly, we really don't talk about it that much, because who knows when that's going to happen? (Long pause) But, you know, I think the most important thing is that it should just be funny. I'm not really a big fan of final episodes that try to force some nice and neat little resolution to an entire series where, you know, someone gets married, or gives birth, or a character decides to move out of the house and go to Hollywood. I don't know, I suppose that certainly does work in some cases. Everyone wanted to finally see the war end in M.A.S.H.
DH: We all know that Matt Groening created the lead characters and James L. Brooks and Sam Simon were behind the early development of the show, but who are some of the lesser-known names that you feel really played a major role in creatively shaping the show?
MS: Oh wow. There are so many. From a writing point of view, I'd have to say people like Al Jean and Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti, George Meyer and John Swartzwelder have really contributed a lot over the years.
On the animation side, David Silverman is really an unsung hero. He was a director for us early on and then ended up producing. He's largely responsible for the consistent look of the show and how it developed a better pace than it had during the first couple of seasons.
DH: You know, I've always been curious about that -- how the show retains such aesthetic consistency despite changing directors.
MS: Yeah, you can credit David with a lot of that.
DH: Other than the principal characters, who are your favorite and least favorite supporting characters on the show?
MS: I consider a lot of the "secondary" characters to be pretty vital to the show. I think you need characters like Mr. Burns, Moe and Flanders to make the show complete. If I had to pick a favorite bit character though, I'd have to go with either The Comic Book Guy or Professor Frink -- he always makes me laugh. When Hank Azaria steps up to the mic to record Frink, he doesn't even know what he's going to say half the time. I think his mouth moves a split-second after his brain and he'll surprise himself with some of the things he says. We have lost many great Frink takes because either Hank or myself will just lose it and start cracking up in the booth.
I really don't have a least favorite character. We don't use Hans Moleman much anymore. And Barney's kind of fallen by the wayside
DH: Barney's great! Why's that?
MS: Well, he's sort of the same joke over and over again. And ultimately, he's kind of a sad character. Even in a comedy, when somebody is struggling with alcoholism... well, it's a tough issue. We've actually considered sobering him up for good before.
DH: Interesting. But then you've got the old comedy theory that behind all good humor, there must be a certain underlying level of tragedy. One of my all-time favorite Barney moments was when his film about his struggles with alcoholism wins the Springfield Film Fest and upon winning the award, Barney exclaims that he doesn't even remember making the film.
MS: Yeah, true. That was funny.
DH: Do you have a favorite episode of all time?
MS: Oh, man. I don't know if I could choose just one.
DH: Well, let's say you could only watch one Simpsons episode again for the rest of your life, and you had to pick just one, which one would it be?
MS: Well, I should probably pick one that I wrote so I can keep getting residual checks. No, actually, if I had to pick just one, I might go with "Homie The Clown," where Homer goes to Krusty's clown college. I love that one.
DH: At Direct Hit this week, we've been counting down the "50 Greatest Moments in Simpsons History." Do you have a favorite moment or specific joke from any particular show that never fails to send you into hysterics?
MS: (After some thought) Yeah. I'd have to say it's the scene where Homer attempts to jump the Springfield Gorge on a skateboard to teach Bart a lesson. When he falls down the Gorge a second time after the ambulance wrecks -- that gets me every time.
CAPTION: Everything about this man is funny... Including the mullet.
Last updated on September 22, 2002 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)