Few television series have mined our cultural zeitgeist as thoroughly as “The Simpsons.” Throughout 28 seasons, the yellow-hued citizens of Springfield have held a fun house mirror up to almost every aspect of popular culture—with a special fondness for literature.
Since the show’s debut in December 1989, a veritable “who’s who” of literary greats have voiced animated versions of themselves, including Stephen King, Amy Tan, Tom Wolfe, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen, Tom Clancy, Alan Moore, Harlan Ellison and the reclusive Thomas Pynchon.
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The show has also taken humorous pokes at magazines (a grocery store rack features such periodicals as Sponge and Vacuum, Bear Baiter Magazine and Danger Liker), bookstores (Books! Books! And Additional Books! sells the works of James Michener for $1.99 a pound), and the publishing industry (Homer puts together a crew that includes Neil Gaiman to create the next big book series for teens, only to be cheated by an unscrupulous publisher).
The show first demonstrated its respect for the written word in the Season 1 episode “The Telltale Head,” a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Season 2 saw the first Treehouse of Horror episode, which included a recitation of Poe’s “The Raven,” starring Homer as the poem’s troubled narrator and Bart as its titular antagonist. A Season 6 installment parodied the Ray Bradbury short story “A Sound of Thunder,” with a malfunctioning toaster sending Homer back to the age of the dinosaurs. Almost every season has had some sort of literary reference, and often many.
None of this is by chance, observes executive producer/showrunner Al Jean, who has been with the show on and off since the start. An alum of The Harvard Lampoon and National Lampoon magazine, Jean notes that most of the show’s writers were voracious readers in their youth and don’t hesitate to bring their love of literature to work at “The Simpsons.” Many of Jean’s colleagues, in fact, have gone on to find publishing success outside of the show. John Swartzwelder, who wrote many popular episodes, such as “Homer The Great,” has published more than 10 novels, and writer Mike Reiss has penned several children’s books as well as other works.
Fans at heart, the writers on “The Simpsons” are always excited to have a notable author as a special guest. “The most prominent example would be Thomas Pynchon, who has appeared on the show twice,” Jean says. “It was no mean feat to have gotten him, and I actually got to meet him. He was a wonderful guy, and couldn’t have been nicer.” Pynchon agreed to appear (wearing a bag over his head to hide his identity, as shown on the opposite page) because he and his son were big fans, Jean notes.
One of Jean’s personal favorite guests was comic book legend Stan Lee, who regaled the writing staff with stories of his career over lunch. “Growing up in a little suburb outside Detroit, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever be having lunch with Stan Lee,” Jean laughs. “Never did I think I would meet Thomas Pynchon. I’m still pinching myself.”
Crafting a show in which guest voices are so important can be tricky. It’s not unusual for certain episodes to be written with specific authors in mind, while others are a little more open. “What we’ll often do is try for somebody specific and then we’ll have others that we can put in should we get turned down,” Jean explains. “Also, [‘Simpsons’ creator] Matt Groening was in the Rock Bottom Remainders, so he is friends with writers like Stephen King and Amy Tan, which probably helped to get them to do the show.”
A good example of the show’s unique writing process is the Season 18 episode “Moe’N’a Lisa,” which finds newly published poet Moe Szyslak and muse Lisa Simpson attending the fictional Wordloaf Conference in Vermont. According to Jean, that episode was written specifically with Tom Wolfe in mind as a central character, with additional parts filled by Gore Vidal, Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon.
Classics, of course, remain up for grabs next to the contemporaries. In a nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald, a one-hour episode that airs this January parodies the structure of The Great Gatsby.
A LITERARY LEGACY
Jean is unsure whether appearing on “The Simpsons” has ever helped to boost an author’s book sales, but the show’s cultural influence becomes evident when an author who has appeared passes away. “When George Plimpton died, in his obituaries the second credit listed usually was that he had been on ‘The Simpsons,’” Jean says. “Plimpton certainly had many claims to fame. We were one of them … but I would have put us further down the list.”
While “The Simpsons” has provided a lot of laughs for writers in the know, there are also some encouraging messages embedded for those new to the profession. “When I was in high school, I read every great book I could get my hands on,” he notes. “The show’s message would be to read everything you can. We try to put Easter eggs of knowledge about literature, math and science in the show all the time. It’s a key to anyone who wants to be a writer that that’s how we got here.”
Don Vaughan (donaldvaughan.com) is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C., and founder of Triangle Association of Freelancers.