The Simpsons Showrunner Al Jean on Disney Crossovers and The Critic


The Simpsons, for one, welcomes their Disney overlords. And to prove their creative mojo in the post-Fox/Disney merger, The Simpsons recently put out a Maggie-centered short film on Disney+ called Maggie Simpson in The Force Awakens From Its Nap. Featuring all kinds of officially licensed references to, and characters from the Star Wars-verse, the short is fleet, funny, jam-packed with gags, and ultimately heartwarming.

In celebration of the short, and of The Simpsons‘ long legacy in general, I spoke with showrunner Al Jean over the phone. We talked about the cooperation (and fact-checking) from Lucasfilm, the Easter eggs jammed into the short, and the joys of collaborating. We also touched on previous Simpsons pop culture parodies, and unpacked the surprising inspiration from one of the show’s most beloved sight gags. Plus, we got into the legacy and possible revival of Jean’s other animated sitcom masterpiece, The Critic.

And Jean started it all with a pitch-perfect pun about our very website name…

RELATED: ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Star Wars’ Collide in Upcoming May the 4th Animated Short on Disney+

Maggie Simpson in The Force Awakens From Its Nap
Image via Disney+

COLLIDER: Hey Al, nice to meet you.

AL JEAN: Very nice to meet you, and may I say Collider is the perfect place to report this. It’s definitely two worlds colliding in a way I hope people like, and when we were doing it, I was going, “Well, we have a chance to piss off two of the most demanding fan bases in the world, so I better be careful.” [laughter]

To that end, pissing off fan bases, what do you think Star Wars brings out of The Simpsons, and vice versa?

JEAN: Well, we approach things a little differently. The Star Wars movies have always been funny, but they’re more heroic, and we’re always the wise guy making fun of something. But we have a lot in common. We’ve been around a long time. We have, as I say, enormously loyal fan bases, and they and we work really hard to keep things fresh and keep them going. And if you look at something like The Mandalorian, you just go, “Wow.” It’s just such a fantastic expression of Star Wars. It’s totally relevant to now.

I noticed at least one Easter egg in this short: the blackboard in the daycare center had, for lack of a better term, a space language. What are some of the fun Star Wars Easter eggs packed in there that fans should look out for?

JEAN: Well, we put in Aurebesh a message to Star Wars fans. And a little footnote on that: We didn’t have the writing quite correct, so the Lucasfilm people corrected us, helpfully, franchise friendly. [laughter] And we went through it [and added] a cookie jar and a Wookiee jar in the preschool. And there are little things in the corners all the way: The guy building the Death Star, he’s modeled on the Death Star commander from A New Hope. It’s as much as we could fit into three minutes.

Are you able and willing to divulge what the Aurebesh message said?

JEAN: Well, for people who want a spoiler, here it is: “Congratulations, nerds, you figured it out.” And the typo was, we had written “Congratulations, nerfs” by mistake. [laughter] So they helpfully changed the f to a d.

maggie-simpson-star-wars-social-featured
Image via Disney+

Besides Lucasfilm reacting and fact-checking, what were some of the other surprising reactions from the Star Wars creators to this short?

JEAN: Oh, they were really helpful. They pitched the line “No handrails,” they suggested different characters from different eras to use. They asked us not to overuse Grogu, which I understand, Grogu is such an incredibly popular character. And they were really, really helpful with the whole thing.

So you can’t overuse Grogu. What were some other jokes or gags from the Star Wars world that couldn’t fit in, that you’re mourning privately on the cutting room floor?

JEAN: Nothing. Everything that we thought was good stayed in. And what I was really happy about was using BB-8, and the way that David Silverman animated [it], it’s really great because Maggie’s so hand-drawn and BB-8 is so geometric, it’s just a really great visual pairing. And the scene with all the BB-8s in it I really love.

Speaking of visual storytelling, the one thing I really enjoyed about this short, and about the other Maggie-centered shorts as well, is that it is completely silent. And I’m curious, what is the writing process like when you are crafting a purely visual, silent story?

JEAN: Well, I had the idea that she goes to a Jedi preschool, and then I co-wrote it with Mike Price and Joel Cohen. You just think of A, a bunch of funny Star Wars jokes that you can do when in a daycare, and then B, creating a storyline where she makes a friend and then gets into a typical Star Wars fight with her archenemy, and try to tell that story and still be funny and fast. And a lot of it is just going back and forth with the director. We’d say, “Here’s some things you can put in the background, here’s some design ideas,” and then David would always come back with something much funnier than I imagined.

So this is The Force Awakens From Its Nap. Have there been discussions about what Maggie’s Last Jedi or her Rise of Skywalker look like? Are we going to see a Star WarsSimpsons trilogy?

JEAN: I’d love to do another, and we’re working on doing other collaborations with other Disney+ properties. So it’s a really exciting thing to be doing.

Can you share any of those Disney+ collaborations?

JEAN: I’ll say there’s one coming in [the upcoming months].

I love that. The nerds will start speculating. And speaking of Disney+, what do you think has changed about the world of The Simpsons in this new Disney merger era?

JEAN: Well, nothing has changed in the way we do the show, and they told us right from the beginning, “We bought you to be you, just be yourselves,” and we haven’t changed the editorial process at all. I’m just grateful because you know that streaming is the future, and it’s going to come down to four or five streamers, that we landed on Disney+, which just has all these incredible things that people want. And when I look at [what’s] trending, I think we’re usually in the top three. And [Disney exec] Joe Earley has been really supportive of doing this short and other projects for them. And so, we didn’t pick where we landed, but I couldn’t be happier.

the-simpsons-couch-gag-social
Image via Fox

This short feels like a pretty natural extension of a lot of the pop culture parodies throughout The Simpsons. What is one pop culture reference or parody you’re especially proud of being able to get away with on the show?

JEAN: I pitched doing “Steamboat Itchy.” And at the time, we were not owned by Disney, and the animators, when they were working on it, called it “Steamboat Lawsuit.” It’s always meant with love. I mean, the Disney cartoons when I was a kid, and the Star Wars movies, that’s the stuff that made me who I am as a writer. And so you’re always being a wise-ass and making fun of the stuff that you love.

There’s one pop culture parody I would love to touch on specifically, it’s in the “Cape Feare” episode. It’s when Sideshow Bob is tricked into singing a full Gilbert and Sullivan opera. I’d love to know the process behind choosing that. 

JEAN: As I recall, [writer/producer] Sam Simon always wanted to have Kelsey [Grammer] singing as Sideshow Bob, and he pitched using Gilbert and Sullivan, one reason being it’s a common thing in sitcoms, because it’s public domain, so you don’t have to pay for it. [laughter] But it also lent itself well to Kelsey’s voice. And then the show was short, so it was originally just going to be a little bit of it, but we just kept going longer and longer and adding the stagecraft, and a UK flag, and him being in the sailor suit, and all that. But it was Sam’s inspiration.

And speaking of going longer and longer, that episode also features the unreal rake stepping gag.

JEAN: Yeah, that was definitely a case where we had three [rake steps], and I was editing it, and I was like, “Still short. All right. Keep going. All right. Keep going.” [laughter] I think finally, we still were 30 seconds short with the episode, but we filled it out, and then people liked all the rakes. So it had an added side effect. That was good.

So that conception of that gag truly just came from a practical place of, “We need to fill out the episode?

JEAN: Well, Sam had said it again. It was an inspiration. There was a famous sequence on Taxi, which basically was the question, “What does a yellow light mean?” And they go, “Slow down.” And then Jim [Christopher Lloyd’s character] goes, “What… does… a yellow light…?” And it goes on and on and on, and it goes on so long that it goes from funny to a little unfunny to extremely funny. And Sam said, “This is a great pattern if you can capture it.” So I had that in mind. But yeah, I think if the show had been longer, it never would’ve happened.

Well, I’m thankful it was a little short. Talk to me a little bit about working on The Simpsons Movie. You’re credited as a co-lyricist of the Spider-Pig song, and I truly adore these lyrics. What is the process like writing these fantastically silly lyrics for Spider-Pig?

JEAN: It was almost immediate. What happened was [writer/producer] David Mirkin pitched Marge looking at the ceiling and going, “What are these pig tracks doing on the ceiling?” And I pitched Homer saying, “It’s the Amazing Spider-Pig.” And then everybody started singing that song, which we all knew from our childhoods as well. It really was written in about a minute. And the funny thing about it was it came very late in the process, I think during the rewrite before the second-to-last screening. And then it turned into this thing where they were using it to advertise the movie, and it was so late in the process. The pig was in the movie the whole time, but the Spider-Pig was very, very late.

Have you talked to anyone who made Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse about Spider-Ham, Spider-Pig, some kind of crossover there?

JEAN: That would be great. I thought Spider-Verse was fantastic when [we] did it on the Halloween show [“Treehouse of Horror XXXI” features a parody called “Into the Homerverse”]. Although I think Spider-Man is the one [Marvel] property not owned by Disney. So that may not be a crossover coming soon, but the Spider-Verse was fantastic.

A still from The Critic
Image via Sony Pictures Television

I do want to ask something non-Simpsons-related. The Collider staff really loves The Critic, myself especially. What do you think the legacy of that show is? And is there a chance of some kind of revival in the future?

JEAN: We’ve talked about it. I know I would love to work with John [Lovitz] again, I talk to him frequently. The legacy, I think, is we didn’t quite succeed, but we showed that you could follow The Simpsons with an animated show — I mean, this isn’t like a hard thing to show — and it could do well, which led to King Of The Hill, which led to the animation boom that we’ve experienced that I love. So I think we really did contribute there.

The Simpsons short Maggie Simpson in The Force Awakens From Its Nap is streaming on Disney+ now.

KEEP READING: ‘The Simpsons’ Legendary Reclusive Writer John Swartzwelder Speaks Out

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