Mike ScullyBy Gail Mitchell
© Ultimate TV, January 24, 1999.
"There's a common misconception that executive producer is not a creative position. That you're only looking over the budget and things like that. My primary - and favorite - function is writing the show."
It all started with a strange-looking yellow family.
Little did anyone know that a 30-second short on the "Tracey Ullman Show," featuring a quirky and colorful blue-collar family, would become the longest-running primetime animated series in history – and primetime's current longest-running sitcom. Now in its 10th season, "The Simpsons" is still surfing on a strong wave of popularity.
This year alone, the Emmy Award-winning and trend-setting series – created by cartoonist Matt Groening – has welcomed such diverse guest voices as Kim Basinger, Alec Baldwin, Jerry Springer, Ron Howard, and musical group the Moody Blues. And in 1999, the show will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Since its regular series debut on January 14, 1990, "The Simpsons" has also opened the door to a new generation of animated series, including "South Park," "King Of The Hill," "Dilbert" (UPN) and the upcoming "Family Guy" (FOX) and "Home Rules" (UPN).
Mike Scully, who works with fellow executive producers Groening and James L. Brooks, joined "The Simpsons" at the start of its fifth season. The former stand-up comedian and joke writer talks about his experiences below.
UltimateTV: Describe the show's production schedule.
Mike Scully: We start coming up with show ideas around December 1. Then we start writing the scripts. Around the middle of March, the actors come in and we record the shows; we record from the middle of March to Thanksgiving. Then we take three days off and start coming up with stories for the next season. We're at a point now where we're doing new shows, still working on scripts, and in heavy production. Since we have shows in various stages of animation, we're juggling three or four episodes at the same time. One show may be in storyboards, another one in black & white animation, another one in color, and we may be recording the voices for another one – it's all going on at the same time. All told, each episode takes six to eight months to produce.
UltimateTV: How does the show manage to stay topical?
Mike Scully: (Laughing) Sometimes we try and guess what the next trend might be. Other times, we'll change a joke shortly before a show airs; we can put new words into the characters' mouths. But we try not to be too topical because we want the shows to have a long shelf life.
UltimateTV: Where do you get the inspiration for the storylines?
Mike Scully: From a lot of places, including stories we read in the newspaper. But a lot of them are actually drawn from the writers' own lives, particularly the Bart and Lisa stories. A lot of the kid-related stories come from the writers' childhoods.
UltimateTV: What comes first: the celebrity voice or the storyline?
Mike Scully: We usually have the character first and then we think of a certain person who would be great and get the script to him or her. Once in a while, celebrities will let us know they're interested in doing the show, and we'll find a way to do a show for them.
UltimateTV: How did you get started in stand-up?
Mike Scully: After dropping out of college, I suddenly realized at the age of 25 that there was not going to be a career in riding around with my friends. So I moved out to California in 1982 and started doing stand-up comedy in local clubs and writing jokes for other comics like Yakov Smirnoff. And all the while I was writing sample TV scripts and trying to get those read.
Ultimate TV: Were any of your sample scripts produced?
Mike Scully: (Laughing) Oh, hell, no. It's a hard process. You've got to have a pretty thick skin because there's an awful lot of rejection. You also have to believe a lot in yourself because you have a tremendous amount of people telling you that you can't do it. And you have to discipline yourself to write a sample script because there's no money involved. For instance, I'd write my scripts at night or on the weekends because I had to work a day job to pay the bills. Also, don't expect anything to be handed to you … unless your father owns the studio.
UltimateTV: You also did audience warm-ups for various TV shows. Which ones?
Mike Scully: They're all gone now and none of them were big hits. So I don't know if anyone will remember … I can't remember some of them. But there was a show called "What A Country," where I was also on the writing staff. And there was "Grand." It was a fun thing to do.
UltimateTV: So how did you make the leap from stand-up to "The Simpsons?"
Mike Scully: (Laughing) Well, stand-up left me; it told me to sit down. I've always enjoyed the writing side more than the performing side, and the audiences seemed to agree with me. So I concentrated on writing at that point, focusing exclusively on sitcoms. I had already worked on a few live action shows , all of them very forgettable. And I wanted to work on a quality show. Fortunately, one of my scripts made its way to James L. Brooks's company Gracie Films, which owns "The Simpsons." I met with Richard Sakai, who's the President of Gracie Films. And he sent me over to meet David Mirken, who was executive producer of "The Simpsons" at the time. And he hired me on staff. I've been here for six years now, getting ready to start my seventh.
UltimateTV: What does your job as executive producer entail?
Mike Scully: As executive producer, you're basically the final word on everything from the scripts to the music, sound effects, and animation. You're basically responsible for everything – and you get to decide where to go for lunch. However, I don't make any decisions without the staff's input. We have great staffs in all the departments from animation to writing. So I don't want to make it sound like a dictatorship.
There's a common misconception that executive producer is not a creative position. That you're only looking over the budget and things like that. My primary – and favorite – function is writing the show. As a writer there's no show more fun to write than "The Simpsons."
UltimateTV: How many people are on staff?
Mike Scully: I've heard it's around 500. Sometimes the show will have a party … I'll go and won't know half the people there. But I know I work with them. It's a very spread-out show: Half the animation is done here; the other half in Korea. We also have a 60-piece orchestra that scores the show every week with new music. And there are about 16 writers on staff. It adds up very quickly.
UltimateTV: What's your take on the current state of TV?
Mike Scully: I love television. But it's very uneven. There are a lot of shows that have become successful, and I don't understand why. Similarly, there are shows I like that aren't as successful. For instance, I think "Everybody Loves Raymond" is one of the funniest shows on TV. It's hysterical, the writing is great, and it has a terrific cast. Yet it wasn't nominated for an Emmy last year. But if I was going to go into live action, that's the type of show I would love to do.
UltimateTV: What do you think about the current proliferation of new animated shows?
Mike Scully: I have mixed feelings. It's great for the genre to show "The Simpsons" was not a fluke and that the public will embrace a prime-time animated show, provided it's done well. When "The Simpsons" first hit the air, there was a rush on the networks' part to get animated shows going: shows like "Fish Police" and "Family Dog," which just weren't that good. A mistake was made; networks assumed everybody wanted animated shows. When in fact everybody just wanted good, funny shows.
That's been corrected this time. "King Of The Hill" is a funny show, "South Park" is a funny show. I saw a five-minute presentation of the "PJ's," a new show with Eddie Murphy coming on in January, that was very funny. So in that respect, the increase in animated shows is good. The downside is that it spreads the animation talent pool very thin. We used to have our pick of whoever we wanted in town. Now that there are a lot more opportunities for animators, it's become much more competitive for shows to get the best people. The other downside: Some shows will fail, and you hope the networks won't make the mistake of thinking the animation fad is over. These programs have to be treated like live-action shows. Some will succeed, some will fail. And usually more will fail, but it's certainly no reason to stop doing them. The genre is hitting its stride.
UltimateTV: Is there a full-length "Simpsons" film on the horizon?
Mike Scully: I would love it. There are a lot of financial particulars to be worked out among a lot of parties that I'm not part of. But outside of financial, one of the reasons we haven't done one yet is we don't want to just slap it together and throw it out there because we know the audience will come. We really want it to be good and to maintain the series' high quality standards. We wouldn't want a bad movie to taint the memory of the series; we don't want people to feel ripped off. And while we're doing the show, it would be very hard to find the time to do the movie.
UltimateTV: How many more years does "The Simpsons" have?
Mike Scully: Some shows bow out at the height of their popularity, but we have a different approach (laughing). We want to hit rock bottom, stay on three more years after that, and then wait till America starts a petition to get us off the air. We're currently in season 10; I think there are two more seasons left in the show. At that point we would have almost 275 episodes, which is pretty amazing when you consider most shows are lucky to hit 100. "The Flintstones" went to 166. Right now we're the longest-running current half-hour show on TV. The ratings are still good, and we're still proud of the show. There's always a danger of staying too long at the party, so we hope we have the sense to get out when the time is right.
UltimateTV: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Mike Scully: In the motion picture retirement home watching reruns of "The Simpsons." I don't know … who knows? I just want to be associated with things that I can be as proud of as "The Simpsons." I like working in comedy. It's a personal thrill to be working for Jim Brooks because for a comedy writer, he's the man. To have the opportunity to work for him and Matt Groening is a real kick. My wife Julie Thacker and my brother Brian also work on the show as writers. We have a lot of fun together. And we almost trust each other. You spend so many hours working, it's nice to surround yourself with people you really enjoy being with. It may never get as good as this again, so I want to savor it. I'm not interested in being David Caruso.
Executive Producer: "The Simpsons"
Last updated on June 15, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)