D’oh! The Very Tall Man visits from Springfield

Most of the students in attendance at last night’s lecture by Ian Maxtone-Graham had heard him before, though they may not have been aware of the fact. As a writer for “The Simpsons,” Maxtone-Graham is both ubiquitous and invisible.

Serious fans recognize the phrase, “Do you find something comical about my appearance while I am driving my automobile?” as uttered by Maxtone-Graham’s cartoon doppelganger – the Very Tall Man – in “22 Short Films About Springfield,” a classic “Simpsons” episode.

Maxtone-Graham spoke for an hour about his impressive vocation in a manner reminiscent of the career day speeches nostalgic students will recall from grade school. But instead of being a podiatrist or stay-at-home mom, he has one of the coolest jobs in the country, and one that no student could ever hope to get in his wildest dreams.

Maxtone-Graham began with a step-by-step description of the “Simpsons” writing process, emphasizing the role of revision and the importance of multilateral input. Every credit that appears in the opening of the show’s first act, be it a producer or a story editor title, refers to someone who worked to revise the script. The writing team is, as Maxtone-Graham described it, “a bunch of people sitting around a table, throwing out ideas.”

As the unpretentiously titled “room-runner,” Maxtone-Graham presides over the activity in the writers’ room. While he concedes that most great literary works are the child of one author, it is his opinion that comedy is best done by committee. The original 50-page script for each episode is drafted by one writer, usually over a three-week period and then submitted to the writing staff for editing.

There is a scene in “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson,” an episode that Maxtone-Graham penned himself, where Bart wanders into the offices of MAD Magazine and is turned away with assurances that nothing crazy ever goes on behind the closed doors of the writing room. After Bart leaves, there is an interior shot of the office in which writers walk on the ceiling with suction cups and chase dirigibles with nets.

Unfortunately, the zaniest things in the “Simpsons” writers’ room, according to Maxtone-Graham, are some crossword puzzles and a rubber band gun. During the initial brainstorming session for each episode, several groups of writers give attention to different parts of the script. Those who drift around idly or shoot rubber bands at each other are often given the undesirable task of coming up with modular jokes, including split-second sight gags and witty messages that appear on the various signs and marquees around Springfield.

The animated one-liners are called “freeze-frame” jokes by the writers because they would be impossible to catch without pausing the episode, and are included for the benefit of the neurotic fans who do so. “We know they’re out there,” Maxtone-Graham said with exasperation. In an upcoming episode the gags include crackerjack video titles such as “Honey, I Touched the Kids” and “Robin Williams Serious Beard Movie Number 344.” The redeeming value of these jokes, from Maxtone-Graham’s point of view, is the touching manner with which they force the “delinquent” writers to “pull their lives together and come up with something.”

After the script passes through the writing staff, the revised draft is again rewritten in a phase called the internal second pass. The script is then given to executive producer Al Jean, who revises it once more with a separate body of writers. Following these readings, the script is thoroughly looked over by the entire cast and recorded from beginning to end, giving voice actors the opportunity to improvise and ad-lib. From there, the script is sent to the animation studio, where the director of the episode oversees the project and returns to the writing staff two months later with an animatic, or blueprint of the episode in its entirety. Roughly 50 percent of this animation ends up on the cutting room floor. In classic cartoons such as Popeye and Steamboat Willie, the animators had control of the show. With “The Simpsons,” however, Maxtone-Graham insists that the writers are the ones who call the shots.

Taking a bit of time to share personal history, Maxtone-Graham revisited his career path and listed his qualifications, noting a stint on National Lampoon, his co-authorship of Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song” and being punched in the face by SNL alum Norm MacDonald. He graduated from Brown in 1983 and began working as a journalist for Press Enterprise, from which he was summarily fired. It was after four years of unemployment, during which he worked under the auspices of National Lampoon as a self-described “comedy double-dipping welfare queen,” that he finally received an offer from the ambiguously-mythical Jack Handey to join the SNL writing team. It was at this point that the door to “The Simpsons” opened. He joined in the eighth season, at the height of the show’s success, without ever having seen an episode.

Now, of course, he has a mental database of Springfieldian minutiae that would put the Comic Book Guy to shame. One of the many clips from “The Simpsons” that he showed during the lecture featured a trivia gem in the form of Homer’s nearly inaudible growling of the word “motherf——-.” Though he was hesitant to identify his least favorite episode, he offered “Lisa’s Date with Density” as a candidate for the best. He did not divulge Springfield’s true location, nor did he give a definitive answer to the perennial puzzle of the relationship between Mr. Burns and Wayland Smithers. But he did mention the tendency of the writers to give minor characters, such as the Sea Captain, vague sexual identities. “In another 10 years,” he proposed, “they’ll all be gay.”

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