Friday, August 5, 2011

How we got our first SIMPSONS assignment

Thanks for your Friday Questions. Here are some attempts at answers.

DyHrdMET gets us started.

Can you tell the story of how you got to THE SIMPSONS and came up with this story idea?

My partner, David Isaacs and I were friends with Sam Simon and had worked with him on a couple of other shows. When he became the showrunner for THE SIMPSONS he asked if we would write one. At the time they paid much less than a standard live-half hour sitcom. Because they were animated, the studio was able to get away with paying essentially the same as a Saturday morning cartoon. But we were fans of the show, wanted to help Sam out, and my kids were little at the time and Sam promised them jackets and toys. That’s really why we did it – for the swag.

We came in with some story notions. Most were Homer stories. At the time (early in the run) Bart was the breakout star but we identified more with Homer (Gee. wonder why that is?). I had spent the last three summers broadcasting baseball in the minors so the idea of Homer becoming a mascot for the local team stemmed from that experience. Those goofy guys dancing on dugouts very much exist. 

There are a lot of inside jokes and references to the International League in that episode – shamelessly so.

As I recall, the three of us (me, David, and Sam) worked out the story in a morning. I’m here to tell you, the real creative force behind THE SIMPSONS was Sam Simon. The tone, the storytelling, the level of humor – that was all developed on Sam’s watch.

Writing the script was a blast. I remember saying to David that there was so much you could do with these characters that I thought THE SIMPSONS could go five or even six seasons. They’re on what, year 35?

From purplejilly:

How would someone get to be a freelance script writer? For example if someone had a job, kids, and couldn’t afford to leave that job, but just wanted to write scripts on the side? Has that ever happened? Are there any successful freelance scriptwriters for TV?

I wish I could be more encouraging. But there are very few scribes today making a decent living as a freelance television writer. And if they do, chances are they’re veterans and getting these assignments from producers they’ve worked with before.

The WGA contract requires shows to farm out a minimum number of freelance assignments. But generally producers give those out to writers’ assistants or people they know, or in rare cases, young writers who’ve impressed them enough that they want to give ‘em a shot to see what they can do.

When I broke in (just after the Ice Age) there were smaller staffs and most shows had plenty of slots for freelancers. That’s how most writers got their first break – by getting a freelance assignment and delivering the goods. Now writers often get hired on staff based purely on their spec scripts. It’s a gamble that can sometimes backfire. Much less risk giving someone a freelance assignment. The first eight scripts we sold (including MASH) were as freelancers. But again, this was awhile ago.  The continent of Atlantis was still on the map.  

How you get a freelance assignment? Producers are intrigued by your specs, you have a good agent who talks you to the heavens, or you know the producer in some capacity. It’s hard to do under ideal conditions but almost impossible from long distance. Again, wish I had better news.

And finally, from Paul Eisenbrey:

I have a baseball related question. Specifically, about sportscaster grammar. Every once in a while, just often enough to be disturbing, one of you will say something like "that ball was hit a mile off the bat of Bud Cort", or "That young man has come quite a way at just 24 years of age". "Off the bat of"? "Years of age"? Who talks like that? It's as if Yoda got a gig in the broadcast booth.

Seriously (well, sort of...) is there a book of broadcast grammar that recommends such sentences? Or does stress of having to remember to give a plug every 43.23 seconds cause it? Or is ad-libbing for three and a half hours just very difficult (I couldn't do it, anyway) and sometimes oddball sentences just pop out? Or do you guys have a bet going to see how long you can get away with that sort of grammar before someone complains?

Let me know. In the meantime, it is time for me to make the dinner of Paul.

Grammatically incorrect phrases get repeated so often they just become accepted. Announcers don’t even think of them as oddball. The phrases just evolve.

Back in the '40s and '50s the style was much more formal (Chris Berman would last maybe five seconds) and I suspect phrases like “off the bat of” and “years of age” stem from that era.

Here’s the one that drives me crazy, and to my knowledge, I’m the only one who doesn’t say it. “On the night, Pujols is two-for-three.” It’s not ON the night… it’s FOR the night.” So I always say “For the night”, and for all I know the audience thinks, “That’s just weird. Doesn’t this guy know English?”

What question have you?

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