Five Writing Lessons from ‘The Simpsons’
Art and Experience: Ever wonder how they wrote “The Simpsons”? Let’s go over some lessons from the show together.
The Simpsons is a television show that changed most of our lives. I remember my parents reluctantly letting me watch the show in a cabin and it was the moment I became sentient as someone who wanted to make people laugh. And a moment I know I share with lots of people of my generation.
The Simpsons have been on the air for thirty-plus years, amassing over six hundred episodes. There’s a lot to learn. Thankfully, Al Jean, Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Conan O’Brien, Mike Reiss, and more have talked at great length about their experiences in the writers’ room and how they created one of the greatest animated TV shows in history.
And this excellent video essay by Behind the Curtain collects all of their best nuggets in hopes to offer us a bunch of screenwriting lessons from The Simpsons. I picked my five favorites, so let’s go over them together.
1. What’s it really about?
In the early days of The Simpsons, Matt Groening was certain that the thing that mattered most was developing a show that actually rung true in reality, no matter how insane things got on the screen. The key to this idea was showcasing the family at the center.
Every idea sprung from one mantra:
“How do you live with people you love, but want to kill?”
This would be the show’s theme for every season, and the lighthouse for every great episode.
What is your show really about? How does that drive it forward and get us into the series?
2. Listen to the room
Writing for television is a collaborative effort. In the early days of the show, it was just a bunch of friends writing to have fun over the summer. But the show’s unmitigated success thrust it into a primetime slot and put a lot of pressure on the staff. One of the earliest lessons they learned was to trust each other.
The Writer’s Room is a sacred place. It’s where there are no bad ideas. So when things got tough in the room, they listened to one another, jokes got punched up, storylines were refined, and everyone pulled in together.
We tend to think of writing as a singular journey, but on television, it’s a group effort.
You may not be in a writer’s room, but when you’re working on a pilot or even a feature, it helps to get notes from your friends. When I’m done with a draft, I like to get my buddies together, buy lunch, and go over the script for a few hours to have them help me punch up areas.
The important lesson here is to take notes. Listen. And your script will be better.
3. Go after the moments that never worked (and work till they do!)
Every episode of The Simpsons goes through numerous rewrites. They do a full pass, jokes pass, joke edits, alt jokes, and tweak all the way through the animation. But one thing they don’t do is change what’s working.
When you enter into a rewrite it’s easy to just attack everything, but as you continue to refine you need to stop making changes. This happens to me all the time. I rework scenes and paragraphs that don’t have problems and avoid the ones that do. It can be hard when you’re trying to edit or alter orphaned lines or widows, but outside of that, you want to keep it the way it worked first.
Attack what has never worked. That’s the hardest part. It’s what takes your ideas from good to great.
So when you get back into the screenplay, only fix what needs to be changed.
4. A joke is a mystery story
Writing a joke is like writing a mystery story. You need the setup, the characters, the stakes, and then you need to recontextualize it all to make people laugh. The punchline has to bring the pieces together. The Simpsons is more than the sum of its jokes. In fact, every episode opens with a first act that serves only as the setup for the episode.
But here’s the thing, that setup is a joke.
A joke that gets Bart an elephant, the family a tennis court, or gets Mr. Burns shot.
So when you think about the structure of your episodes, don’t forget about the structure of a joke. Give us new information and let’s go off to the races!
5. If you’ve watched TV you know how it works
Look, you’re reading this website because you want to join the Hollywood elite, or just learn how to write. But chances are, you ALREADY KNOW how to write. If you’ve consumed television since being a small child, you understand three-act structure. You know that you need characters, goals, and a story that has stakes.
The things to learn, you can learn by writing!
Sure, blogs like this one help you nail different aspects of writing, but the story comes from within. You know how to do it…you just have to do it.
BONUS: Follow Sam Simon’s Three Rules
Sam Simon was one of the earliest members of The Simpsons staff and a true humanitarian. He tragically passed away recently, but his three tips for writers are short, brilliant, and necessary. So absorb this content and apply it in all that you do. For my money, this is what writing is all about.
Story above all
Don’t be afraid of the quiet moments
Love your characters