John Swartzwelder, the prolific, admired and reclusive comedy writer best known for his work on The Simpsons, spoke about his life and career in his first major interview, published in The New Yorker on Sunday.
Swartzwelder worked on The Simpsons between 1989 and 2003, writing 59 episodes, far more than any other writer in the show’s long history. His credits on The Simpsons include a litany of classic episodes, and the list of personal favorites Swartzwelder gave in the interview serves as a solid primer: “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” “Bart the Murderer,” “Dog of Death,” “Homer at the Bat,” “Homie the Clown,” “Bart Gets an Elephant” and “Homer’s Enemy.” (Asked about the latter episode, in which Homer obliviously but assuredly drives an upstanding new colleague, Frank Grimes, insane, Swartzwelder joked, “Grimey was asking for it the whole episode. He didn’t approve of our Homer. He was asking for it, and he got it.”)
Swartzwelder’s jokes — succinct, simple and just the right amount of absurd — were so singular they spawned an honorific compliment: “Swartzweldian.” When asked what he thought of the compliment, Swartzwelder seemed flattered enough, but said the term was “the most awkward-sounding word in the English sentence.” The next moment, when asked to describe his sense of humor, he replied, “Swartzweldian.”
Swartzwelder worked as a writer on Saturday Night Live for one season in the mid-Eighties, while he also spent time in advertising (he now writes and self-publishes comedic novels). But it was his work on a little-known comedy magazine, Army Man, that got him the interview with Simpsons creator Matt Groening and producer/writer Sam Simon. He praised executive producer James Brooks for securing a deal with Fox that prevented the network from meddling too much in the show and allowing the writers to run wild. He also spoke about how animation allowed The Simpsons to be more subversive than other programs on TV at the time, citing the excessively violent “Itchy and Scratchy” segments.
“We could show horrendous things to the children at home, as long as we portrayed them being shown to the Simpsons’ children first,” Swartzwelder said. “Somehow this extra step baffled our critics and foiled the mobs with torches. We agreed with them that this was wrong to show to children. ‘Didn’t we just show it being wrong? And, look, here’s more wrong stuff!’ ”
Elsewhere, Swartzwelder spoke about how he always enjoyed writing Mr. Burns episodes and said he thought The Simpsons’ third season was its best individual season. He also confirmed showrunner Mike Reiss’ claim that Swartzwelder wrote Homer as if he were a big dog: “Yes, he is a big talking dog. One moment he’s the saddest man in the world, because he’s just lost his job, or dropped his sandwich, or accidentally killed his family. Then, the next moment, he’s the happiest man in the world, because he’s just found a penny — maybe under one of his dead family members. He’s not actually a dog, of course — he’s smarter than that — but if you write him as a dog you’ll never go wrong.”
Swartzwelder spoke a bit about his reclusiveness as well (while there are few pictures of him, he was drawn into an episode as a David Crosby-looking figure in a psychiatric hospital in “Hurricane Neddy”). He confirmed that he got permission to work from home after Season Four, not because — as long rumored — he wanted to be able to smoke, but for a far more simple reason: “I didn’t want to go in to work every day anymore. Getting old, I guess.”
Swartzwelder offered some insight into his writing process as well, saying, he would often rush through a first draft, pack it with filler jokes and pattern dialogue, but come out with a script nonetheless. “Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written,” he said. “It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.”