I wrote this article for OC Weekly for which I got to talk to a bunch of Simpsons writers, artists, and crew to ask them what THEIR favorite personal contributions to the show are. Because, hey, isn’t the blogosphere full enough of fans’ opinions?
Also, my pal Stacey Harrison interviewed Alf Clausen and Michael Price, who wrote the 500th episode!
Did you know that I wrote a book on teaching with The Simpsons with my best friend? We’re so lucky that people at The Simpsons and Futurama like it–the book hasn’t sold so many copies, but it has enabled us to visit The Simpsons. Twice. In my book, that’s a win.
It’s true: as if our trip to Fox in January to hear an orchestral recording for the Season 22 episode “Flaming Moe” weren’t enough, in August, my co-author and best friend, Karma, her son Alexander, and I were invited to visit a voice recording for an upcoming episode, “The Spy Who Learned Me.” This trip was a birthday present for the three of us (all of our birthdays are within a week) and a graduation gift for Alexander, who is now a college freshman. We owe huge gratitude to music editor for The Simpsons Chris Ledesma, who put it all together for us. Nicest guy ever– you can read his blog about doing music for The Simpsons here.
In the car on the way to Fox from the hotel, I realized with terror that I had not put antiperspirant on that morning, and looked frantically for a drugstore. Unfortunately, L.A. isn’t like other cities, like Chicago and Tallahassee, where there are Walgreens and CVS stores on every block, so except for a Target that hadn’t opened yet, my only option was to stop at a convenience store. I purchased cucumber-scented Dove antiperspirant for $5. A bargain.
We met Chris and his wife Michelle near the Galaxy parking ramp. I was so excited to meet Michelle, who we would have met in January but she couldn’t come to the recording at the last minute because of a family emergency. But since then, we had communicated over Twitter and Facebook and I knew I’d love her. She writes a food blog and is a health and wellness coach. (I could learn a lot from her!)
And then we were there: in the booth, being introduced to producers, bumping into writers we had seen in January (Mike Price, Matt Warburton, Bill Odenkirk) and some we hadn’t met yet (John Frink). I teased Warburton that he had been wearing the same shirt when we met in January and he said, “I’m like Bart; I only have one shirt.”
We observed from the booth at the Marge Simpson Sound Stage as Dan Castellaneta performed not only the voices of Homer and Grampa but Burns’ lawyer and Santa’s Little Helper as well. We watched with glee as Nancy Cartwright conducted a conversation between Bart and Nelson. (She has to do this coughing thing to prep her voice to do Nelson and then drink a lot of water). We heard Pamela Hayden (Milhouse) and Tress MacNeille (Dolph) do multiple voices. We chatted with Nancy and Tress in the green room and were so impressed with how kind and genuinely interested they were in us and our book, especially Nancy who said that she was going to buy it. We talked about Weird Al with Tress (who is a longtime friend of Al’s and provided the voice of “Lucy” in his song “Ricky”) and I was so happy to be able to tell her in person how much I loved Animaniacs and especially the Warner sister, Dot. (Sadly, she said she doesn’t remember how to do Dot’s voice anymore, but she said positive things about working working on that show). No, there is not photographic evidence and I’ll tell you why: Because they were at work. They were kind enough to chat with us while they were taking quick breaks between scenes. They had not left their homes that morning knowing they were going to meet freaky fanatics, thus we didn’t put them in the position of being asked to be in photos. Of course, they did sign the cover page of the script for us. We didn’t have a chance to talk to Dan because he never got a break, but our friend Chris brought the sheet in for the actors to sign for us.
As a lover of the show, I’m not a giver of spoilers. Being there was a huge honor and I haven’t spilled anything about the episode except what’s already been published in Entertainment Weekly, and I won’t do that here, either. While we were watching everyone get set up, I kept looking for Hank Azaria (I have a crush). Mike Price, a writer I met in January who I have since kept in touch with via Facebook and Twitter, said, “Good day to be here! Bryan Cranston is coming!” (Lady Gaga was there exactly one week later). I did make Mike Price go into the hall with me for a photo because I’ve been having so much fun with him on Twitter that I really wanted a picture together. (Plus, he probably looks pretty much the same every day).
So, while not seeing Hank was a bummer (Yeardley Smith was also absent as she was working in New York, and Harry was also not there that day), seeing Bryan Cranston as Stradivarius Cain was quite the consolation. When he arrived, a producer announced that he was there but that he was “in makeup.” Dan quipped that “someone should tell him this is an animated show,” to many giggles. (Cranston was in makeup because he was filmed doing his lines for the DVD extras). Seeing Cranston looking healthy and with hair was heartening– Cranston is much better looking than Walter White.
We had the honor of hearing the actors do many scenes under the direction of Carolyn Omine, including a particularly hilarious ad lib by Dan as Grampa (I’ll tell you via Twitter when it’s on). Julie Kavner was also asked to ad lib as Marge and, not surprisingly, after all these years, she knows the kinds of things Marge would say as well as Dan knows how to ramble as Grampa or babble as Homer. I was impressed by Kavner’s perfectionism–at one point, she was not happy with the way she delivered a line for Marge and wanted to do it over. (I was also surprised at how tiny Kavner is–although I have seen her in film and in photos over the years, I still picture her as Brenda for some reason). The script for the episode, called “The Spy Who Learned Me” and written by Marc Wilmore, is hilarious (even before the adlibbing) and I don’t know how I’ll wait until May for it to air.
We had to leave when the session was not quite over, but since Cranston had somewhere to be (he had “a hard 1″–yes, there were giggles), we knew we wouldn’t have been able to meet him anyway, and we were excited for what our surprise was going to be– all Chris and Michelle would say is that we were having lunch in Burbank and a surprise afterward. On the way off the Fox lot, we stopped by Matt Groening’s office to drop off a gift for him. Groening was not there, but his secretary allowed us to check out his office, where we saw quite the collection of bootleg Simpsons products, including a case of Duff Beer, various other Simpsons-related beverages in mysterious languages, figures, and toys. There was also a stack of outgoing mail–fans send items for Groening to sign and he sends things back (in self-addressed, stamped packages, of course). I wanted to sit in his desk and snap pics, but I exercised self-control out of respect (and also, I was being supervised).
Next we drove to Burbank where we had lunch and a wonderful chat with Chris and Michelle; they are one of my favorite couples of all time. After lunch, we pulled into the parking lot of Film Roman. They share a building with the Hub, so I made a joke that we were going to meet Kevin Arnold even though my heart was pounding super hard when I realized what we were doing. When we entered Film Roman, none other than David Silverman was there to give us a personal tour. This, my friends, is a rare honor (we were told). Since Karma had arranged this trip (first for Alexander, who couldn’t come in January, then for me for my birthday), I kept asking if I was dying.
We did already have the pleasure of meeting David back in January, but that didn’t make being in his presence any less intense. He was the first Simpsons person we had contact with, he followed us on Twitter and chatted with us before the book was even published. David has been an animator/director of The Simpsons since The Tracey Ullman Show and is the reason the characters look the way they do. He also saved the show when what was supposed to be the premiere back in 1989 came back from Korea looking terrible. David directed The Simpsons Movie and has worked for Pixar. David is also ridiculously dreamy (even Alexander understood, saying, “it’s his eyes”).
David walked us around and introduced us to various people while they were working. I was charmed by the posters placed all around with notes from employees that read things like, “Please sign for my sister’s birthday.” It was awesome (in the real sense, not the 80s’ definition of the word) to have faces to match with the names we’ve been seeing all these years in the credits. I got to say hi to Nikki Isordia, who I met via Twitter. Unfortunately, Erika Isabel Vega, a scene planner I know also thanks to Twitter, was out of town. I would have enjoyed meeting her in person.
We finished the tour in David’s office where he showed us some old and some upcoming clips of things he animated (he’ll still do sequences when they absolutely have to be perfect, like important facial expressions or movements. No one makes the characters move like David). David’s office was warm and I was grateful I stopped for the $5 Dove antiperspirant. Then David drew us each a picture– he cranked out five that were each perfect. Even Chris, who has also worked on the show since the beginning, and his wife Michelle, were tickled to get David Silverman originals. Chris said it was his first! I asked for Lisa, something I kind of regret. I mean, when David Frakking Silverman is drawing a picture for you, you should shut up and take what you get. But, see, from David I have two Homers, a Bart, and a Maggie already and I really wanted a Lisa. So this is the beautiful drawing of Lisa he came up with for me.
The next day, we had been invited to a Futurama table read, but sadly, it was canceled the week before because of an actor’s scheduling conflict. But our friend Josh Weinstein still took some time to walk around with us and get coffee. He gave Alexander a bag of swag to bring to college, including a poster that he signed. Josh signed my Futurama Season 5 package for me. We were introduced to David X. Cohen, which was a delight for me, and several other Futurama writers.
We brought Alexander back to the Simpsons bungalow and forced him to pose for pictures with the donut and Santa’s Little Helper. I saw Mike Nobori through the open door and we chatted with him a bit. (He’s a writers assistant and wrote the delightful Season 21 episode “To Surveil With Love”). We could hear the writers watching and talking in the writers room and I wanted to go in and ask for my tin back (I had sent cookies to the writers a couple months before) but had the sense not to do so.
I hope my tone portrays a person who, although she is laughably poor, feels stupid lucky. (If I were religious, I’d call myself “blessed”). I realize I am so incredibly fortunate–how many people get to see how their favorite thing in the whole wide world is made? This is better than 10 visits to the Lakefront Brewery Tour. And how many people get to write a book with their best friends, a book that makes all this happen? How many people get to meet the writers, music composer and editor, and actors who create their favorite show? I thought we had reached our Simpsons zenith when I got my first Twitter @ reply from David Silverman, and since that day, it’s gotten more and more amazing and incredible. I think, too, the fact that everyone at the show is so warm and kind (and at Futurama, too), makes it all even more delightful. I do think Karma and I do kind of deserve the benefit of meeting our heroes, as it’s not like the book’s sales are making us rich, nor has it gotten us terrific teaching gigs or job security . . . but I wouldn’t trade our visits to The Simpsons for lots of money, I must say.
If you’d like to see Karma’s take on the same event, see the column she wrote about it last week.
For those of you not in the know, my BFF Karma and I wrote a book called The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield. It was published last year by McFarland Publishing. Not only is this the gleaming accomplishment in my life so far, but it has also led me to meet some amazing people.
In July, I received an email from Josh Weinstein, who used to be a Simpsons writer and show-runner, telling me he had just ordered our book from Amazon and was excited to read it after seeing the course syllabus (adapted from the actual syllabus Karma uses at UC-Davis in her Simpsons course) that was printed in Pop Candy, where I was a guest blogger for Whitney Matheson while she was on vacation. Josh and I have been emailing since, and he hopes to be able to visit Karma’s Simpsons class in Davis in the coming months. Josh Weinstein might be the nicest, humblest, awesomest TV writer on the planet.
A couple months later, Karma and I both received an email from Chris Ledesma, music editor for The Simpsons, telling us he loves our tweets. (You, too, can follow Chris on Twitter). You can’t imagine how that made us feel! He said he hadn’t bought the book yet, but he planned to, and if we ever wanted to be his guests for an orchestral recording session for the show to let him know. (We found out later that Grammar Girl podcaster and author Mignon Fogarty told Chris about us over email, so we thank her in part for this wonderful opportunity).
What do you think we did? We let him know that we would LOVE to be his guests. Who would turn down such a generous offer? Since MLA was planned for Los Angeles in 2011, we decided to double up our trip to Los Angeles with business and pleasure (tax write-off, babies!) — MLA (we are both part of the Margaret Atwood Society, whose business meeting is held during the MLA conference every year) and a Fox visit. And I sent a book to Chris as a pre-thank you that I signed for him. In my inscription, I apologized that the book doesn’t talk all that much about music, but, in the words of Marge Simpson, “Music is none of my business.”
Finally, after a nice visit to my parents’ place in Arizona (I know, I know, I thought I was boycotting AZ, too) it was L.A. trip time. Karma and I landed at LAX within an hour of each other, and my very good friend Justin picked us up. He and his fiancee, Kathy, allowed us to stay over at their place. We had a fun dinner with an adorable server who we overtipped. I was still blissfully ignorant of the fact that I was getting sick (I was telling myself that my sore throat was simply due to the dry Arizona air and not drinking enough water).
That night I slept terribly and Friday morning I awoke to a full fledged cold. I took handfulls of the cold medicine Karma always brings with her, and we got in the car. Our visit began by meeting Josh Weinstein at 10:00 at the Futurama trailer (where we swiped authentic Matt Groening doodles off the table in the re-write room).
With Josh, we walked around the lot a bit and saw such highlights as Conan’s old office door and the outside of Matt Groening’s office. Karma was certain she got a smile from Shia LeBeouf, and I believe her, even though I didn’t notice him at all.
Outside the Simpsons buildings, we bumped into Ian Maxton-Graham (ridiculous fans will know him as a very tall man who inspired a character from “22 Short Films About Springfield”) and Bill Odenkirk.
At Moe’s Bar, Josh bought us coffee, who, in addition to being an incredibly nice guy, was co-writer of some of our favorite episodes, such as “Bart vs. Australia” and “Sideshow Bob Roberts.” Now he is co-executive producer of Futurama, and if you haven’t been watching it lately on Comedy Central, for shame! You’re missing out; they’re doing some of their best work.
At 11:00, Josh left us in the capable hands of Chris Ledesma, the music editor of The Simpsons and, after all, the reason we were there as he had invited us to observe a recording session for the show. We had a nice lunch with Chris and toured important points of interest to the Simpsons fanatic, such as the Marge Simpson ADR Stage (where Bones was being recorded at the moment, so we couldn’t enter). I quipped “You mean Angel could be behind that door?”
Chris also took us to the Fox store where we picked out swag (at very reasonable prices). Karma got her son a hoodie, I got a t-shirt, reusable canvas shopping bag, and some groovy Homer magnets (pictured below). Chris remarked “Oh, I need a new antenna topper” as if we were at Target and he was mentioned he needed paper towels. I got one, too, for the record. I chose Blinky.
Next, we stopped by the writer’s room, where we saw Bill again and met Joel Cohen, Rob LaZebnik, Brian Kelley, Matt Warburton, Mike Price, and finally Michael Nobori, who wrote the recent hilarious episode “To Surveil With Love.”
[Aside about Michael: I've been chatting with another pop culture lover, Matt, over Twitter. Matt knows Michael, so I took this opportunity to ask Michael if I might end up in a body bag or in pieces in the Pacific should I have lunch with Matt alone. "Nah," Michael said, "You should be fine." With that glowing endorsement, I did meet Matt and had a lovely time.]
While Karma and I were tempted to plop down at the writers’ table and pitch some story ideas and/or yank out our cameras and get super gooey fangirlish, we somehow restrained ourselves and exchanged pleasantries. As both of us have “Simpsonologist” on our business cards, we shared our cards, passing some out and leaving more on the table. Somehow the conversation veered towards hamboning. (I actually think Karma brought it up). At some point I asked, “Who in here are we NOT yet following on Twitter?” Mike Price announced that we weren’t following him, and he pulled out his smart phone and followed us on the spot. (We are now following him as well). Another question was answered: who writes the tweets for Homer Simpson? (There are several Homers on Twitter, but one of them is a verified account). The answer:
the tweets are mostly written by Joel. Joel Cohen, Mike Price,and Jeff Westbrook write them (but Mike says Joel’s posts are funniest).
We were touched at how absolutely kind everyone was to us– we’ve often worried that the minds behind The Simpsons might see us as bottom-feeders piggybacking on the popularity of the show for our own gain, but that has not at all been the case. Everyone we’ve talked to involved with the show (with the exception of Fox legal, of course, who one writer referred to as “the ruiner of all fun”) has been very cool to us. In the case of Chris, he told us with reverence and wonder about how everything lined up for him to have his job, (from way back before his Tracey Ullman Show days) and I think he is just as awe-filled about the whole organism that is The Simpsons as we are. I think when the people involved with the show learn about our book, they appreciate that what we’re doing with our book is out of a place of immense respect. Plus, our book is original educational material and is not simply a rehashing of all the movie references on the show like so many seem to be, or, in the case of John Ortved, writing a book that comes from a place of bitterness, gossip, and cruelty. (I hated the Ortved book. You can read my review of it on Amazon). Our book talks about how the show can and should be used in various classes, which is a huge compliment to those who write and create the show, and I think the writers get that. Josh definitely does, as so many of his episodes are on our syllabi. And the fact that my email address is a nod to one of his jokes helps, too. (My email address is “marzipanjoy” and Josh came up with Uter’s candy, Marzipan Joy Joys).
It was creeping up on 2:00, so Chris took us over to where the music happens. We got the see the orchestra area and noticed music stands with sheet music that the musicians were just seeing for the first time that day. This music was for the episode “Flaming Moe,” to air on January 16. (This was January 7– very fast turnaround indeed!) The episode will feature Scott Thompson (of The Kids in the Hall) reprising his role as Grady ["Three Gays of the Condo"] as well as Kristen Wiig as a substitute music teacher and Alyson Hannigan as her daughter). Next, Chris brought us up to the booth where we met the venerable and adorable Alf Clausen. Somehow, shaking the man’s hand seemed not enough, so I told him I just really wanted to hug him. Wordlessly, he opened his arms to receive my hug (the first of many that day).
Chris brought his copy of our book and showed it to people when he introduced us, and Karma had a chance to sign the book, too. Not many people have both of our autographs in the book — just people who were at our launch party and just a few that were mailed, such as Al Yankovic (who gave us permission to reprint his lyrics in the book). I don’t even have Karma’s auto in my copy!
The music began and we were stunned and impressed at how quickly the musicians got the music and how few takes it took for Chris and Alf (yes, “Alf.” I tried to call him “Mr. Clausen” and he wasn’t having it) to get what they wanted. We were also surprised the episode wasn’t quite done at that point– there were times when the footage on the screen was still in storyboards. The show is a machine; they know what they’re doing. Maybe you’ve never noticed the music before; if you haven’t, that means that the music is doing its job. Alf’s music suits the show so perfectly and works to create the feel of the scene that it’s actually perfect if it’s not noticed. Sometimes the music isn’t background but is part of the plot, and you will notice, I’m sure, the piano music in this episode that is made in the style of an old silent film. (At that point, Chris called down to the conductor that the music should sound more “upright and less grand.” And in the next take, the piano sound was definitely the brighter, looser sound that you expect to come from an old upright piano). An hour or so into the session, there was a small break and Alf asked if I needed another hug. I did. I didn’t want to let go, and he said, “You just let me know when we’re done.”
When the recording was over, Chris let us choose some sheet music that he signed for us. Karma brought her journal and had everyone sign inside her journal; I had brought the booklet from The Simpsons Season 7 (when Josh Weinstein was showrunner) for Josh to sign, and had Alf sign it as well. Karma and I were sad to go. We walked outside and turned our cell phones on (they had to be powered completely down so as to not interfere with the recording equipment) and I found a text message from David Silverman, the director of many brilliant Simpsons episodes (such as “Mother Simpson” and “Krusty Gets Kancelled”) and The Simpsons Movie.
[Aside about David Silverman: David was the first person involved with the show that Karma and I had contact with, thanks to Twitter. One day when I was working on the book, I tweeted "This linguistics chapter is kicking my ass" (or something equally eloquent) and David responded “I would so fail your class.” When I saw that David was following Simpsonology on Twitter (and after I stopped jumping up and down, squeaking, and was calmed down enough to call Karma to tell her to get online NOW), I sent him a DM and we began a friendship of sorts. He answered several questions during the book writing process. You may have noticed that he is thanked first on the book’s acknowledgments page.
David was not able to come to Fox during the day as he had meetings elsewhere, but he was able to meet all of us at a bar called The Tar Pit that evening. (David did the drawings for The Tar Pit’s menu, and because of that, he is welcome there anytime. But once you meet David Silverman, you’d welcome him to your place anytime, too. He is funny, warm, and remarkably handsome, you know, for an animator. Or whatever).
At the bar, Karma and I supplied him with paper and pens and he doodled for us. Below is the one he did for me, held onto my fridge by the magnets I bought at the Fox store. Sadly, his doodle did not stand up well to the chaos that is my purse.
I joked with David about my holiday card– he had sent one last year, so I was wondering why I didn’t get one this year. He said “I think it’s in the mail,” and I responded with “Yeah, my mom told me the big lies. It’s in the mail. The package is on the truck . . .” (I didn’t supply the third, which is R rated). When I got home Wednesday night, amongst the bills and junk, indeed, my new year’s card was there.
Karma left L.A. on Sunday evening, and I had a few more days in L.A. to spend with Justin and Kathy (both of whom, by the way, caught my cold. I am the best house guest EVER).
Wednesday night, I came home to cloudy, gray, dirty Chicago and cried. The only feeling I can compare it to is when I finally saw Bon Jovi for the first time. I had looked forward to it for so long, and then in the car on the way home, I was let down. Not because I didn’t love the concert, but because I felt like I’d never experience anything so awesome ever again. (Of course, I have experienced things at least as awesome as my first Bon Jovi concert, but do you know that feeling that life will never be that amazing again?)