THE SIMPSONS' Matt Selman Reflects on the Show's Big Swings From 'Lisa the Boy Scout' to 'Not It' - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

THE SIMPSONS’ Matt Selman Reflects on the Show’s Big Swings From ‘Lisa the Boy Scout’ to ‘Not It’

May 18, 2023 by  

The Simpsons episode 750

THE SIMPSONS: When the Boy Explorers become co-ed, Bart and Lisa vow to “out scout” each other at the annual jamboree in the all-new “Lisa the Boy Scout” episode of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, October 9 (8:00-8:31 PM ET/PT) on FOX. THE SIMPSONS © 2022 by 20th Television.

For nearly 750 episodes, THE SIMPSONS has told stories about the family next door: Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. (The milestone 750th episode airs Sunday, May 21 on Fox.)

The quintet has been through it all, juggling work problems, familial stresses, money issues, and your run-of-the-mill grounded problems.

But then there are also the bigger things. Going to space. Going to jail. Encountering a maybe-alien. The many, many, many, many, many death threats toward Homer and Bart. (Okay, and the time Maggie shot Mr. Burns.)

The animated series has never been afraid to take big swings, but in recent years it’s become more common for them to lean into format-busting installments.

“I just think it’s super important for a show that’s in its 500th season to always be challenging ourselves to do things that are super creative, fun, and stimulating for us,” executive producer Matt Selman tells Give Me My Remote. “Because if we get complacent, that’s terrible for the show. The audience will feel it if we—the producer-writers—are complacent and aren’t like doing weird stuff, it just becomes a bunch of boring stories. And then the smaller, regular episodes where nothing shattering happens, even those start to feel small too small.”

“THE SIMPSONS is the greatest show in the world, in that you can tell stories in almost any style you want,” he continues. “So if you’re not pushing yourself to always be thinking about other genres, being super experimental, what a wasted opportunity that is…It’s what makes us want to come to work every day, the idea of thinking of something weird and playful and super silly that we can do with this world that people know so well. And we were so well-positioned to do crazy stuff. Like, no one can do crazy stuff—and weird and subversive things—the way we can; this kind of freakish, 40-year-old cultural institution that somehow still exists.”

And while many shows have a lot of creative input from network and studio counterparts, Selman notes the writers primarily answer to series creator Matt Groening and co-developer James L. Brooks. “[They’re] the only people that we really think about, in terms of making sure they dig it,” he says. “But those dudes trust us to make it work. I was a little worried when we did the table read for ‘Lisa the Boy Scout’…[because my thought was] ‘Is Jim going to get this, is this too weird for him?’ But the scenes were funny and the scenes had internal emotional logic, and that’s all he cares about. And, plus, he likes a romantic comedy…which we sort of put in with him in mind, for sure.”

That being said, there is a balance to maintain. “I do think if every episode was exploding the show, someone would make a phone call,” Selman acknowledges. “Like, ‘Hey, how are you guys doing? Are you OK?’”

The writers also have a feel for what simply won’t work on the series, too. “I had a really crazy idea for an episode where there’s literally no plot and we just try to create as many memes as we can in 22 minutes and see which ones stick,” Selman shares. “But I don’t think Jim would like that. For the master of emotional storytelling, to just have a bunch of random 15-second clips of our characters doing silly things, hoping they become internet memes, that’s a big move.”

The season 34 finale, “Homer’s Adventures Through the Windshield Glass,” employs a little bit of format-breaking.

“Tim Long, the writer-producer of that one, and I wanted to do a show where Homer spends most of the show in slow-motion having crashed through the windshield of his car,” Selman shares of the episode, which includes guest spots from Lizzo, Tim Robinson, and Bowen Yang. “[But] I wouldn’t say just wacky or crazy as ‘Lisa the Boy Scout’ or as super genre, [world] explodey as ‘Serious Flanders’ you know, which was like a total shift. But a touch of originality is good.”

When the series returns in the fall, THE SIMPSONS will do another docuseries-type episode, “kind of like the Elizabeth Holmes documentary-type show,” Selman previews. “We’ve done documentary episodes before…so this is not [entirely new]. But the flexibility we have and the comfort the audience feels with our characters in our world is such a huge creative advantage. A lot of shows couldn’t do that.”

“Or there was a show we did a couple of years ago, where almost all of act one was just this incredibly slow, sad story about how the Sea Captain spent his entire life looking for treasure and got it stolen from him because he didn’t pay enough attention to his wife,” he recalls. “Which I thought was great. That’s the thing I want to do more…a weird, sad short story in the beginning that isn’t really connected to anything, but it’s just a fun way to do a side character story without doing an entire episode about the Sea Captain, which might be hard.”

“If we’re not doing these more surreal, experimental shows, what a colossal waste of an opportunity, a waste of creative freedom,” he concludes. “Don’t waste creative freedom. You don’t get it that much.”

Here, Selman looks back at a few of the more notable episodes from the past few seasons.

The Simpsons Fargo homage

THE SIMPSONS: When a ruthless debt collector comes to Springfield, Homer and Ned’s lives are sucked into the artfully violent world of prestige TV in part one of the “A Serious Flanders” episode of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, Nov. 7 (8:00-8:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX. Guest voice (top) Brian Cox. THE SIMPSONS © 2021 by 20th Television.

“A Serious Flanders (Part 1 and 2)” (Season 33, Episodes 6 and 7)
Told in the style of a prestigious crime dramedy, Ned’s decision to donate found money to charity has wide-reaching consequences.

“Well, it was in early lockdown, and I finally got to watch FARGO,” Selman recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is so cool. These drama writers get to have all the fun. They got to do all these kind of goofy tricks of time jumps and indulgent flashbacks; [play with] music and tone and tension-building stuff.”

As the story expanded, “we just realized we couldn’t do it in one [episode],” he says. “I thought of almost trying to do it in three or four, but I think two was right. There were certainly a lot of crazy stuff we wanted to try that we didn’t get to do. But the writer-producer, Cesar Mazariegos, he killed it so hard on that show about killing.”

In addition to recruiting prestige TV vets like Brian Cox, Cristin Milioti, Timothy Olyphant, Chris O’Dowd, and Jessica Paré as guest voices, “we just made all these lists of, what are the funniest tropes of streaming prestige dramas that we can have fun with, and still [keep] one foot in our universe, too?” Selman recalls. “And certainly FARGO was the main inspiration, but if I just had happened to maybe watch BREAKING BAD at the beginning of lockdown, maybe it would have been more like BREAKING BAD. Although doing BREAKING BAD with Flanders as the guy would have been sort of obvious.”

The Simpsons middle class musical

THE SIMPSONS: After Bart humiliates him at church, Homer finally teaches his son to admire his dad — until a visit from a magical, singing janitor changes everything they thought they knew in the all-new “Poorhouse Rock” episode of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, May 22 (8:00-8:30 PM ET/PT) on FOX. Guest voice Hugh Jackman. THE SIMPSONS © 2022 by 20th Television.

“Poorhouse Rock” (Season 33, Episode 22)
Bart finally starts to admire his father—only to realize, thanks to a singing janitor (voiced by Hugh Jackman), the life that Homer has provided for his family is no longer attainable by modern standards.

“I have to give the credit to Tim Long, who wrote and produced that episode,” Selman says. “He said he wanted to do a show about the American middle class; all these protections have sort of been eroded. There’s an article in The Atlantic magazine about how the Simpsons’ lifestyle doesn’t really exist for many people anymore, where it used to be very typical of a blue-collar husband, who had a lifetime career with union protections that would provide for his family in a comfortable middle-class way.”

“Even when THE SIMPSONS premiered, it was a little bit out of time,” he continues. “The dad going to work and the mom staying home, it was already like a little bit of an old-time sitcom fantasy premise in 1989, let alone 2022. So [after the article ran], Tim decided let’s do it with a song.”

Originally, Long suggested they do a one-act song, but Selman encouraged them to push it further: “Let’s have a song, stop, go to commercial, and come back to more song,” he recalls. “So that was actually good. The table read for that was easy, because all we had to do was hit play, and play all the mock-ups of the songs.”

There was one element to the planned episode that didn’t make the cut, though. “We thought it’d be funny [if we had] Homer hate-spend an entire paycheck in front of Bart,” Selman shares. “Bart doesn’t understand what an adult is. Originally, there was a montage of Homer spending an entire week’s paycheck in front of Bart, almost in an angry way: forcing him to go to the amusement park, forcing him to eat a giant sundae. ‘I’m going to make you watch what all this money can buy in one day.’”

“But then Jim thought that was too crazy, so we simplified it,” he continues. “And he just showed him the money. And then Bart went and saw how little Homer did, and thought, ‘Wow, this is a great job.’ [But originally] there was a montage of, like, Homer getting his car detailed and getting it undetailed, all this crazy stuff. It would have all been funny, but the replacement was good about just earning Bart actually admiring Homer for the first time…only to have it all be taken away by the reality of modern economic degradation.”

The Simpsons show-ruining clips

THE SIMPSONS: When the Boy Explorers become co-ed, Bart and Lisa vow to “out scout” each other at the annual jamboree in the all-new “Lisa the Boy Scout” episode of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, October 9 (8:00-8:31 PM ET/PT) on FOX. THE SIMPSONS © 2022 by 20th Television.

“Lisa the Boy Scout” (Season 34, Episode 3)
The Sunday, October 9 episode of THE SIMPSONS arguably started normal-ish, as Lisa decided to join the boy scouts…only for the feed to be “hacked” into, as a duo threatened to ruin the series with show-ruining clips and outtakes if their demands weren’t met.

“I always liked the [season 7 episode] ’22 Short Films About Springfield,’” Selman says. “I said, ‘Can we do another one like that, but different? Not just cutting around [to quick stories about characters].’ [And] we actually have another one, sort of similar to that, in the works for next year.”

“This is obviously crazier [than ‘22 Short Films], because it was all deliberately canon-exploding, even though I’m on the record as not being a huge canon guy…as long as the characters don’t change, that’s the canon,” he continues.

But finding the right mix of things that could be considered “show-ruining” was tough in itself.

“Brian Kelley, who produced that episode, and Dan Greaney, who wrote it, really worked hard on brainstorming all these silly little sketches,” he says. “And the one that was [something] that we’d always had in our back pocket: the idea of Marge being secretly Selma’s daughter. Which you never do for real in the show—people were mad about Skinner wasn’t Skinner…that would be like, holy shit. That’s a big one. But at the same time, that’s a funny little dramatic story. It’s something you do see in real life.”

And, as Selman points out, “that was the sort of thing where if it was on the show, it would ruin the show. So what other things can we think of that are like that? We certainly have a giant list of ones that didn’t make the cut for various reasons. They either felt more like a Halloween story or didn’t ruin the show enough or were just too complicated. And then we found ways to categorize them and sort them. We were reordering them at the last minute to try to [figure out] what’s a good one to explain the premise, like Lenny being a hallucination of Carl’s…that was a good one to explain the premise.”

The episode wasn’t just format-busting—viewers were also surprised to discover what was in store due to the vague episode title and logline.

“The tricking [viewers] element, we committed to that really later in the whole thing,” Selman shares. “The original title of that episode was ‘Love, Hacktually,’ kind of a Richard Curtis-type love story of this Hugh Grant type and his work romance with the other cyber-terrorist. But then our writers’ assistant, Nick Dahan, at the last minute reminded us that originally we thought of, ‘Why don’t we just have a decoy title that would have been the title of the real show, if there was a real show?’”

And with that, viewers got (delightfully) surprised. “If you can achieve bamboozling, that’s a fantastic achievement, from a producer-writer perspective,” Selman says with a laugh. “Because it’s hard to bamboozle the modern audience these days. They’re pretty savvy and there’s a lot of spoilers out there…so it is a great achievement.”

The Simpsons It tribute

THE SIMPSONS: When an evil, shape shifting, unfunny clown starts eating the children of Kingfield, Young Homer and his friends must band together to destroy it, or die trying in the all-new “Not It” episode of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, October 23 (8:00-8:31 PM ET/PT) on FOX. THE SIMPSONS © 2022 by 20th Television.

“Not It” (Season 34, Episode 5)
After more than 30 “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, as well as several one-off Halloween-adjacent installments, the animated comedy devoted an entire episode to a “Treehouse”-like homage to the Stephen King classic book “It.”

“Everyone loves Halloween,” Selman points out. “If we said, ‘Let’s do four Halloween episodes every October,’ [Fox would] be like, ‘Great!’”

“This was all about pandering,” he continues. “How can we pander to everybody? To the network? Pander to the studio? Pander to the audience? It’s a mash-up. The mash-up is not the highest form of writing, but it is satisfying. It’s like candy, you know? And we did work hard on the ‘Not It’ one…if you write towards the tattoos people already have, that’s a good idea. So a lot of people have tattoos of Krusty as It…let’s write that. We know people like it.”

“But also it’s so much work,” he allows. “And that sequence of the end of the fan contest with all the series of Krusty [as Pennywise, that fans submitted to be included in the series]. That was great…[but] if our environment were regulated as well as fan contests, global warming would not be a problem.”

And, of course, trying to adapt the “It” story is in no way easy, either. (The recent feature film adaptation was split into two full-length movies.)

“It’s a great story; it translates to our world so perfectly,” Selman acknowledges. “But you couldn’t do it in a seven-minute segment [as part of ‘Treehouse’]. We could barely squeeze this one in; we had to cut so much stuff.”

“To me, the most important thing was for us to try to do what Stephen King does well,” he continues. “Which is in addition to crazy horror stuff where you just can’t stop turning the page, [it’s telling] stories of adolescent fears and loneliness and rejection and how adults’ lives never turn out quite the way they want—those are big themes in all of the Stephen King books.”

In THE SIMPSONS’ version of the tale, “for all the clown monster mayhem, [it was] as much the story of young Comic Book Guy having a crush on young Marge, and then young Homer kind of taking his place and that feeling of rejection,” Selman says. “I know it’s not like the deepest thing in the world, but, to me, that was the most important thing. [We were exploring] the feeling of being with the kids’ feelings on that and not just horror, horror, murder, murder murder.”

The Simpsons family vlog homage

THE SIMPSONS: Through a series of YouTube recommended videos, the story of the rise and fall of The Simpson Family Vlog is revealed in the “My Life as a Vlog” episode of THE SIMPSONS airing Sunday, Jan 1 (8:00-8:31 PM ET/PT) on FOX. THE SIMPSONS © 2022 by 20th Television.

“My Life as a Vlog” (Season 34, Episode 12)
The family became YouTube influencers, moving into a fancy new house, complete with an entirely new lavish lifestyle. But, as the episode progressed—via related videos on YouTube, in a screenlife form of storytelling—the dark side of their fame emerged.

“The writer of that, Jess Conrad, and producer Carolyn Omine, they really did a great job,” Selman praises. “I think they came up with that idea… Earlier, we’d almost done an entire episode that was more of a mystery in that area, like that [John Cho] movie [SEARCHING] about dad [searching for his daughter]…And Carolyn and Jess figured that out pretty well.”

Like “Lisa the Boy Scout,” “That was certainly one where it was really hard to pick and choose what fun YouTube shows all the different Springfielders have secretly going on in their lives,” Selman says with a laugh. “It was hard to not say every single character has their own dumb YouTube show, but still tell the story, which is just a simple story of the family achieving that kind of YouTube family fame and becoming a vlog family.”

“Those YouTube blog families, they’re very successful, but it’s not good for their life,” he continues. “That one was certainly super fun and was like Carolyn and Jess’ baby. I could have watched a whole episode of just the Lenny and Carl show, experiencing them as Joe Rogan-type idiots talking about insane stuff. I could have watched so much of that.”

THE SIMPSONS, Sundays, 8/7c, Fox


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