"Bart the General" "Bart the General"

Want to make it big in tv comedy writing? Aim to create jokes that you find funny, avoid monkeys, and — if possible — install a diner booth in your home.

John Swartzwelder
John Swartzwelder.

These are among the pro tips provided by John Swartzwelder, onetime Simpsons supremo, in an unprecedented interview with The New Yorker (read it here). Swartzwelder wrote 59 episodes of the Fox sitcom — more than any other writer — between the late 1980s and 2003, coming up with many of the show’s most memorable storylines and jokes. (My favorite Simpsons gag of all time, the Soviet cartoon Worker and Parasite, is one of his.)

Swartzwelder enjoys a very high standing among comedy writers but has kept a low public profile, avoiding interviews. He’s now made an exception for The New Yorker, answering (via email) the magazine’s questions about a career that has ranged from advertising copywriting to self-published novels.

Reflecting on the success of The Simpsons, Swartzwelder points to the creative freedom the team enjoyed from the start: “This is a very dangerous way to run a television show, leaving the artists in charge of the art, but it worked out all right in the end. It rained money on the Fox lot for thirty years. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.”

When asked how the team wrote episodes that appealed to all ages, he replies: “We just tried to make ourselves, and each other, laugh. Comedy writers. That was the audience.” He later says, “The Simpsons did something I didn’t think possible: it got viewers to look at writers’ credits on tv shows.” And indeed it made a star of him, worthy of a New Yorker interview.

The article is worth reading for its observations on the show’s history and the craft of comedy writing — and as a very funny bit of writing in its own right.

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