Mike Scully© Daily TV (The Den), May 20. 1999.
Many, dare I say all, entertainment industry types will tell you if you're going to write for a television show, you can't do better than The Simpsons. Hands down, it's currently the hottest show to write for now that Seinfeld is gone. In fact, even in Seinfeld's heyday, the Simpsons was still arguably the number one choice of television writers.
If you watch the show with a religious intensity akin to The Pope and Catholicism like I do, the answer is obvious. If you don't, then you're probably not even reading this article.
A Simpsons script literally reads like this: set up, punch line, set up, punch line, set up, punch line. You can tell from watching the show it's literally one joke after another, which is much different from a live action sitcom which has more story development.
At the core of this humor is the show runner, or executive producer. His or her job is simple: Don't make a crappy show. The current show runner for The Simpsons is Mike Scully, a Simpsons veteran since 1993.
Mike bursts into his office deep in the ghetto of the Fox lot in LA, slightly late for our meeting. He's the kind of person who, like me, prides himself on punctuality. He apologizes for his tardiness, throws an enormous duffel bag on his desk and looks at my extended hand for a moment before shaking it saying, "I'm Mike."
I doubt anyone considers Mike Scully a good dresser. I myself am often reminded that fashion sense has been lost on me but Mike seemed to have made an attempt to dress snappy somewhere in 1984, then decided to keep the look.
It's weird - writers tend to have a common fashion code, or a code of anti-fashion. This usually entails a T-shirt with an obscure logo emblazoned on it peeking through an unbuttoned denim shirt, jeans, and high tops of the LA Gear, Reebok or Converse variety. This is what Mike is wearing this day.
Thankfully, Mike's writing skills far surpass his sense of style.
Einstein used to wear the exact same suit every day because he thought by eliminating the creative decision of what to wear each day, he could put the saved creative energy towards something of more importance. Let's assume Mike Scully follows the same credo.
Remember that episode of The Simpsons where the family goes to New York? Bart, at one point, finds the office of Mad Magazine and expects there to be a wild circus going on. This is sort of how I wanted to feel visiting the Simpsons offices. But the thing is, in person Mike Scully isn't firing off the jokes. Instead, he seems to recognize the value of his good humor and saves every punch line for the scripts.
His office is nothing to shout about. In fact, my office is far nicer. Why Fox sticks the writers of their flagship program in the very back of the lot in a building older than my dad is beyond me. Perhaps they want to keep them humble. Perhaps they don't want to distract the writers with posh accouterments.
The writing portion of The Simpsons has always fascinated me. I've read countless articles on the animating process and how long it takes and how they send it to Korea to be colored. But I've yet to see a story on the writing, which is the best part of the show.
When all was said and done and the interview was over, Mike Scully was exactly what I expected: a dry-witted, intelligent, somewhat average, Everyman who happens to run the best show on television.
JOHN: So, walk me through the script writing process. How do you choose the script you're going to use?
MIKE: Well, the day starts with me getting in late. Today, we're starting a script. One of the writers had an idea for a show and he had done some work on it himself. He came up with a rough beginning, middle and an end for a story - it had some jokes, it had some joke possibilities and what the characters' attitudes could be in the show, what the concept might be, etc. So he brought that up yesterday and pitched it to the rest of the writers.
JOHN: How many writers are there and how did it come about? Did he just say, "Hey, I got this great idea and you're gonna laugh your ass off?"
MIKE: There're 16 writers and it was an idea that this particular writer was excited about. Sometimes you bang your head against the wall trying to think of a good story idea and nothing comes. But when you get an idea that you think could be a good show, it is exciting because we've done so many episodes and now it’s very, very hard to come up with good, fresh ideas. So if you actually think of one, it's quite a thrill now. So he pitched the story idea to us and we liked it.
JOHN: Can you say if it's a Homer story, a Lisa story, a Bart story?
MIKE:(grinning casually) Uh, it's a Bart story.
JOHN: It's a Bart story. Okay, can you give us some more?
MIKE: Umm, no. I'll just say it deals with Bart's future. It's kind of a conceptual story. We'd like to try and find some sort of conceptual show every year, besides the Halloween show. This past season we did a bible story and that was a lotta fun to do. A few years ago we did a thing called the "Simpson’s Spinoff Showcase" which was just a different type of show altogether.
I can't tell too much detail about it because we don't have that much of it done. We're still working on it. I could tell you things today, then by the end of the day they may all change. Because once a writer pitches it, we all give our basic reactions and then start to see where it could potentially go. It takes us two to three days now to really lay a story out. It really eats up a lot of time, but it's usually well spent because it saves us time later on with rewriting the script. We put all our time up front on a story, so when the script comes in, all we have to do in the rewriting process is maybe punch up some jokes and the emotions and build up the concept a little bit more rather than overhauling the entire story and starting from scratch.
JOHN: In the initial pitch when you're shaping a story, you have a writer's assistant in there taking notes?
JOHN: So he or she is just taking notes and jotting everything down?
MIKE: Yup, and that's a very difficult, thankless job because there's a lot of people in the room talking and the jokes and ideas are flying and they're trying to catch every one of them. It's very hard because you have to leave the room at the end of the day and put all those things together and have it make a sense in a coherent structure. They're highly underpaid in my opinion.
So we'll spend today and tomorrow working on the story. The basic concept, like I said, is between Bart and Lisa. We want to make sure they get that as strong as possible. We kind of have the first and second act worked out. The third act is always the hardest. First acts are the most fun because there's very little story. They're kind of free-form pieces.
I always find the first act to be the funniest act in the show because you're not really trying to tell a story yet. You usually get stuck on the third act trying to figure out how to execute it and where to go with it. But once we get it settled, hopefully tomorrow, the writers will go out and write an outline of the story based on everything we spoke about.
JOHN: How long is an outline?
MIKE: The outline will be about 20 single spaced pages. They're very detailed. Then the script itself is about 45 pages. Our outlines tend to be very detailed. Once again, we're trying not to leave a lot to chance story-wise.
JOHN: So, after the outline has been written, what happens next?
MIKE: It'll take about a week to do that. I will get together with a couple of the other senior writers and we'll go over the outline and give the writer notes on things to change, maybe things to cut, some of the things to add and then he will go off and he’ll have two weeks to write the first draft. When that's done, we'll bring it in and we all get back together as a group, the whole staff, and start the process again. For a writer, it can be a painful process.
You bring it in, it's your baby and suddenly there's like fifteen other writers at the table who are like mad animals, just waiting to tear it apart (laughs). The first time you go through it, it's very difficult because you can see a lot of your stuff get cut and changed and you wonder if anything you wrote is gonna stay in or did you just waste about two weeks of your life? The writer has to get involved in the process. If you get involved in it, if the other writers don't like a joke you have, you have two choices:
One, you can just pout and complain that they're cutting stuff. The second choice is to get involved and try and pitch new jokes, that way it's still your material. And that's far more productive than pouting.
Everybody helps each other out, it's a real collaborative effort. That's what's nice about the show. On a lot of shows, you might have ten writers on staff and maybe it's two writers who really carry the ball. Here, we use all the writers.
JOHN: So, after the script has been ripped apart through its various stages, do you yourself then put the finishing touches on it? Or does Matt [Groening] come in and clean up the mess?
MIKE: Well, Matt doesn't get too involved in the scripts. See, at this point, he's very busy with Futurama, so I haven't seen Matt much this past year. Just running one show is such a huge job. It would be impossible for him to be involved on both. That job, the writing part of it, has always been left to the show runners - they make the final decisions on everything.
Before Futurama, Matt would always give his input. He would come to the table with a fresh perspective, not knowing anything of the story or the script and he would give his input. It's always nice to get someone's perspective who’s not already in the middle of the thing.
The final decisions on everything are mine but I don't make them without consulting, without getting the input of the staff. If fourteen writers all think a joke is funny and I'm the only one who doesn't, I always go with the fourteen writers because I figure there's probably something to it that I'm missing. I have a lot of respect for the talent of these people.
Last updated on May 20, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)