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!
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?)