Without hyperbole, The Simpsons is a top-contender as being “The Funniest TV Show of All Time.” What show is as endlessly quotable over 25 years after it first premiered? Even today, modern memes mirror events happening in the news (Ant Overlords; Snowpocalypse’s 0 death-count to mock a media overreaction to everyday events).
When the show began, there were three people responsible for its birth: Matt Groening, James L. Brooks and Sam Simon.
Matt Groening knew cartoons. James L. Brooks knew how to tell a story. Sam Simon bridged the two worlds by using cartoons to tell a story that was laden with humor, heart and the ability to tell stories that no other medium on television could do. The Simpsons could tell huge stories live action couldn’t, because of production costs, and appeal to an incredibly broad audience just by being as funny as it could possibly be. Watch an episode of The Simpsons and try to count how many gags there are in just one scene.
It wasn’t enough that the show be funny, though. Sam Simon, as The Simpsons showrunner for its first two seasons, insisted that the humor come from the characters. A joke just for a joke’s sake was a cheap laugh, and not in standing with what he wanted to help create.
Ken Levine, writer of the “Dancin’ Homer” and “Saturday’s of Thunder” episodes of The Simpsons said, “Comedy is all about character, not just a string of gags. In The Simpsons, the characters are motivated by their emotions and their foibles. ‘What are they thinking?’—that is Sam’s contribution. The stories come from the characters.”
Brad Bird, former director for the show and such movies as The Iron Giant and The Incredibles called Simon “the unsung hero” of The Simpsons.
Matt Groening, however, has said of Simon, “…brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I’ve ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced.”
Groening and Simon had, of course, made up since then, and the quote had less to deal with how they viewed each other as coworkers and colleagues, but in how much hard work, stress and general unpleasantness can be necessary to creating something as deep and original as The Simpsons. An average scriptwriting sessions consists of a basic pitch, developing the story, creating gags with the entire writing team (making sure to allow the humor to evolve from characters as opposed to non sequiturs), a polishing to finish the script and then rigorous rewrites. Many writers from the “golden era” of The Simpsons have agreed that, while the end results were spectacular, the actual process of writing a script was hellish. Conan O’Brien, in his Serious Jibber-Jabber interview, calls it, basically, a bunch of guys sitting in a room in depressed silence wracking their brains for jokes.
The level of sheer storytelling that goes into each episode is awe-inspiring. Consider an episode like “Last Exit To Springfield” and just how many of the jokes aren’t just funny, but amazingly funny. This one episode has Homer mistakenly thinking Mr. Burns wants to have sex with him, a room full of monkeys and typewriters (“The BLURST of times? You stupid monkey!), Homer punching Lenny in the back of the head and, of course, “Dental Plan. Lisa needs braces.” Not to mention the movie references that are actually used to progress the plot, and not parody a preexisting work just for a joke’s sake–you have Lisa reacting to her braces a la The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman followed by a hallucinogenic tour of The Yellow Submarine and Mr. Burns reacting to his fiendish plan akin to The Grinch.
None of this would have been possible without Sam Simon. Hell, none of it would have been possible without Matt Groening or James L. Brooks, either, but Sam Simon brought a special workmanship to the show that perfectly blended animation and adult humor to tell ageless stories about family and love and harsdhips, and just allow a viewer to explore the huge microcosm that is Springfield.
In 2012, Sam Simon was diagnosed with cancer. He was given only a few months to live. He survived for several more years and became very active in philanthropic endeavors. He died yesterday and left his fortune to charity. He will be missed by millions of people.