“The Simpsons” occupies a unique perch in the history of global television. At 36 seasons and 750-plus episodes and counting, the Fox animated franchise been a steady engine of employment for writers, producers, directors, actors and other Hollywood artisans for more than a generation.
The show’s legacy was saluted Friday morning with a “Simpsons”-themed Writers Guild of America picket gathering outside Fox Studios that drew dozens of staffers past and present. In the context of labor battles over the future of TV, “The Simpsons” is seen as an example of the kind of employment and the kind of series that is disappearing in the new era.
“Seeing this turnout certainly makes you feel grateful to be part of this creative community making an almost 40-year-old cartoon,” said Matt Selman, longtime “Simpsons” executive producer who organized Friday’s picket along with fellow executive producer Al Jean. The WGA has been on strike against Hollywood’s largest studios and platforms since May 2.
“A lot of writers have come through this show and gone on to do great things. If you write a ‘Simpsons’ episode, you’re very fortunate because it’s probably going to be on TV as long as there is TV,” Selman said. “So you can really feel like you have a little taste of a legacy. And I’m so lucky to feel like I have a personal creative legacy. It’s a gift from the universe to feel like you have made a tiny mark on the world of silliness.”
Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons” and the original “Life in Hell” panel comic strip that inspired the series, was on hand Friday with a picket sign in one hand and a few Sharpie markers in the other. He drew a few custom toons on picket signs for his fellow WGA members, and he used the backs of blue and red WGA T-shirts as a canvas as well, to the delight of his fellow scribes.
“I’m a writer. I always think of myself as a writer,” Groening said. “I happen to draw cartoons. But writing is what it’s all about.”
Conan O’Brien was another boldface name in the crowd Friday. He worked as a writer on “The Simpsons” before he moved to late-night TV on NBC in 1993.
“All these shows that I was lucky enough to work on, like ‘Saturday Night Live,’ and then ‘The Simpsons’ that really celebrate writing and really magnify the importance of writers in a lot of ways,” O’Brien said. “My career wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for my job as a writer.”
O’Brien pointed to the camaraderie among creators that is often so crucial to bringing TV and film to life. During his time on the picket lines so far, he’s heard horror stories from younger writers about their work experience in recent years. He noted that he recently compared notes with his former writing partner, Greg Daniels, the veteran showrunner, who also walked the line Friday. Daniels sported a “Simpsons” 100th episode jean jacket – a TV biz artifact worthy of “Antiques Roadshow.”
“I talk to Greg about this a lot. We were so lucky. When we started out in 1985, 1986, 1987 we got to exist in this other period,” O’Brien said. “If I was starting out now, it’d be very difficult to get my foot in the door and be very difficult to make a living. That’s what I’m hearing from a lot of young writers is that their experience getting started in this business is so much more difficult.”
O’Brien and others feel the strike is a byproduct of the industry’s inability – and unwillingness — to directly address the structural changes that have made the employment picture more difficult for writers. “The Simpsons” is one of very few existing TV shows to produce 22 episodes a year on a yearly cycle that provides stability for its creative teams. The new landscape of series that have shorter seasons and less overall longevity is having repercussions for Hollywood’s creative community.
“The Simpsons,” of course, is an outlier in any era of television for its longevity and for its presence in pop culture. But the concern expressed by many on WGA picket lines — as well as privately behind the gates of studios and streamers — that the business overall isn’t as well equipped to deliver long-running series. Picket-line reunion gatherings of writers from long-running shows have only reinforced the sense that today’s biggest hits simply aren’t built to go the distance for five or 10 seasons or any more — in part because of business considerations and in part because of changes in consumer behavior around on-demand platforms.
“It’s all changing so rapidly that taking a minute and trying to figure out a way to make this more equitable and to preserve the ability of writers to make a living is really important,” O’Brien said.
(Pictured top: Showrunner Greg Daniels sports his “The Simpsons” 100th episode jean jacket)