The Simpsons holds a unique place in the history of global television. At 36 seasons and over 750 episodes and counting, the Fox animated franchise has been a steady engine of employment for writers, producers, directors, actors, and other Hollywood craftsmen for more than a generation.
The show’s legacy was greeted Friday morning with a “Simpsons”-themed Writers Guild of America meeting outside the Fox studios, which drew dozens of employees past and present. In the context of labor battles over the future of television, The Simpsons is seen as an example of the kind of labor and type of series that are disappearing in the new age.
“Seeing this turnout definitely makes you feel grateful to be a part of this creative community that’s been making cartoons for almost 40 years,” said Matt Selman, the longtime Simpsons executive producer who organized Friday’s sit-in along with fellow executive producer Al Jean. The WGA has been on strike against the biggest Hollywood studios and platforms since May 2.
“A lot of writers have come through this show and they go on to do great things. If you write an episode of The Simpsons, you’re very lucky because it’s probably going to be on TV as long as there is TV,” Salman said. “So you can really feel like you have A little taste of heirloom. And I’m very fortunate because I feel I have a personal creative legacy. It’s a gift from the universe to feel like you’ve left a small mark on the world of absurdity.”
Matt Groening, creator of “The Simpsons” and the original “Life in Hell” comic strip that inspired the series, was on hand Friday with a picket sign in one hand and some Sharpie markers in the other. He painted some custom graffiti on the picket banners of his fellow WGA members, and used the backs of the WGA’s blue and red jerseys as a canvas as well, to the delight of his fellow clerks.
“I’m a writer. I always think of myself as a writer,” Groening said. “I happen to draw cartoons. But the writing is what it’s about.”
Conan O’Brien was another notable name in the crowd on Friday. He worked as a writer on The Simpsons before moving to late night television on NBC in 1993.
“All of those things show that I’ve been fortunate enough to work on, like ‘Saturday Night Live’, and then ‘The Simpsons’ that really celebrate writing and amplify the importance of writers in so many ways,” O’Brien said. “My career wouldn’t have happened without my job as a writer.”
O’Brien noted the camaraderie between the creators that is often crucial to TV and film revivals. During his time in the sit-down ranks thus 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, veteran showrunner Greg Daniels, who also walked on Friday. Daniels wore a jean jacket from the 100th episode of The Simpsons—a TV artifact worthy of “Antiques Roadshow.”
“I talk to Greg a lot about this. We were very lucky. When we started in 1985, 1986, 1987, we had to be around in this other period,” O’Brien said. in the door and it will be very difficult to make a living. This is what I hear from a lot of young writers that their experience of getting started in this business is much more difficult.”
O’Brien and others feel that the strike is a by-product of the industry’s inability—and unwillingness—to deal directly with structural changes that have made the hiring profile more difficult for writers. “The Simpsons” is one of very few current television shows that produces 22 episodes a year on an annual cycle that provides stability to its creative teams. The new landscape of series with shorter seasons and shorter longevity in general is having ramifications for Hollywood’s creative community.
“The Simpsons,” of course, is an anomaly in any era of television due to its longevity and presence in popular culture. But the concern expressed by many on WGA lines – as well as particularly behind the doors of studios and broadcast screens – is that the business in general is not well equipped to deliver long-running series. Writers’ reunions from long-running shows have only reinforced the sense that today’s biggest hits aren’t built to run five, ten seasons or more—partly because of business considerations and partly because of changes in consumer behavior around on-demand platforms.
“Everything changes so quickly that taking a minute and trying to figure out a way to make this fairer and keep writers able to make a living is really important,” O’Brien said.
(Top photo: Showrunner Greg Daniels wears a jean jacket for The Simpsons episode 100)
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