Ian Maxtone-Graham

By Catherine Seipp

"A Decade Of 'D'oh!'"
© Mediaweek, December 20, 1999.

It hasn't received as much hype as, say, the Y2K thing. But this month marks another remarkable anniversary: The Simpsons--which was originally introduced as shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987--made its half-hour debut on Fox ten years ago this month. (That first episode, "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," was written by cartoonist Mimi Pond and involved Homer blowing all his Christmas present money at the dog track. But all ended happily when he brought home the losing whippet, Santa's Little Helper, as a pet for the children.)

Not only was the fledgling Fox network transformed by the success of its new animated sitcom, so was television comedy. Freed from the constraints of live-action living room shows, The Simpsons was free to use the more cinematic single-camera technique--a method that's since dominated ground-breaking comedy like HBO's Sex and the City and NBC's Freaks and Geeks.

Because of Fox's structure for selling commercials, each Simpsons episode from the beginning crammed three acts into 22-minutes, just like a full-length play. (Live action sitcoms, even one as densely plotted and character-packed as Seinfeld, are two-acts.) Then of course, there's animation's freedom from physical reality.

"We used to say on The Simpsons, every episode would be a $30 million movie," Josh Weinstein, one of its former showrunners, told me once.

So one day I stopped by the show's headquarters for an inside look at how the show works. Simpsons central is a pleasant little two-story '20s building with a courtyard fountain tucked away in a corner of the Fox lot. Writing room decor includes a "Simpsons, simplified" chart, useful for keeping track of the huge cast of occasional characters.

Also on display that day was an Internet newsgroup item reporting that while the audio line in one episode referred to "the first car to come equipped with Fahrvergnuegen," the closed-caption read that the car was "featured in Diznee's electrical parade."

Actually, the closed captioning didn't mean that the Simpsons team was secretly trying to needle Disney; it's just an example of how sitcom jokes are constantly tweaked in the writing room at the last minute, in this case after the script was already sent off to closed captioning. Simpsons writers use the "Diznee" spelling just in case the line is used and the real Mouse gets mad. They could (theoretically, anyway) point to the script and say, "See? We didn't mean YOU.")

But it's this sort of obsessiveness--which creator Matt Groening has remarked gets annoying--that's satirized in the recurring character of Comic Book Guy, who at one point commented: "Last night's 'Itchy & Scratchy' was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured, I was on the Internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world."

Also decorating the walls of the writing room was an old photo from Studio 54, in which a tall young preppie guy could be seen standing next to Andy Warhol. And beneath that photo was that same tall guy, Ian Maxtone-Graham--still tall and preppie, but now 40 and a Simpsons co-executive producer, who was showing me around.

"You only have to be 40 to be an elder statesman" in comedy writing at this point, as Simpsons alumnus and Futurama showrunner David X. Cohen remarked to me some time ago, so I guess that's what Maxtone-Graham is now--a Simpsons elder statesman.

"What can you do?" he shrugged. "I find it so hilarious when you see the published ages of people and you just kind of roll your eyes and go, 'yeah, OK, you're 34.'"

The upside is that Maxtone-Graham is a triathlete who also swims on the UCLA masters team, and he noted that "the good thing about swimming is every five years you move into a new age group." So now he doesn't have to compete anymore "against those 35-year-old whippersnappers."

Unlike some of his younger, more driven peers--whose typical route to the top of the comedy-writing heap began with a fast jump from The Harvard Lampoon--Maxtone-Graham has a rather full, laid-back life beyond his work. He goes spearfishing and kayaking, reads an enormous amount, cooks elaborate meals on weekends, and almost never watches TV.

His career has been similarly relaxed, even somewhat meandering. His first job after graduation from Brown was as a support diver for an underwater research project; his second was an internship at the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise. His resume since then includes stints at a game show, The National Lampoon, Not Necessarily the News, Saturday Night Live (he co-wrote the Adam Sandler "Hanukah Song")... and somewhere in that path, four straight years of unemployment.

Although Maxtone-Graham had worked on parody issues of his college paper, "I actually saw myself as not being quite funny enough to make the grade," he recalled. "I thought I'd be a journalist and maybe a photographer. I knew a lot of guys at The Lampoon and I thought, 'Well, I'm funny, but these guys are funnier than I am.'" Thus, the internship as a Press-Enterprise copy aide, which Maxtone-Graham desperately hoped would lead to a entry-level job as a real reporter there "and begin that long, slow march towards a decent job on a decent paper."

When he didn't get it, he went to live on the floor of a friend who was writing for the old TV satire show, Not Necessarily the News. The friend suggested Maxtone-Graham write some sample sketches for the show. "Throughout my career every single good thing that's happened has begun with a bad thing," Maxtone-Graham reflected. Years later, when he was at the National Lampoon during its failing, final days, Jack Handey (of Saturday Night Live's "Deep Thoughts" fame) suggested Maxtone-Graham try writing for SNL.

Handey had seen Maxtone-Graham's contributions to Army Man, a legendary and rather surreal newsletter for comedy writers published in the late '80s by George Meyer (now a veteran Simpsons writer and, like Maxtone-Graham, co-executive producer under showrunner Mike Scully.)

"Believe me," Maxtone-Graham said, "being published in Army Man meant more to me than anything." A sample Maxtone-Graham Army Man piece: "Crime Corner: the reason most serial killers are caught is that they can't resist taunting the police by leaving little clues to their identity. That's a mistake I'm not going to make."

The Simpsons is a TV anomaly in that not only has it kept its high ratings and gold standard quality for an entire decade, it is a remarkably benign working environment. This is in contrast, say, to some days on the notoriously up-and-down Saturday Night Live, where Maxtone-Graham once got punched in the face by Norm MacDonald because he'd doused MacDonald's cigarette in the no-smoking writer's room.

The day I visited The Simpsons, writers milled about amiably, chatting with each other and informing me of inside dope like the fact that Homer's famous "D'oh!" never appears in a script. (What does appear: the words "annoyed grunt.") Insulting other people's work in meetings is forbidden at The Simpsons, an unusual rule in sitcomland.

"I've heard nightmare stories from other shows," Maxtone-Graham said. "And often you hear what the show is, and you go, 'Geez, what would be BAD on that show?'"

"I would rather make George Meyer laugh than get an Emmy," Maxtone-Graham said. Meyer, who graduated from Harvard with a degree in biochemistry some 20 years ago, is a revered figure among his peers--"the funniest man writing in television" is a typical description. Connoisseurs of the Meyer sensibility treasure their aging photocopies of the three-issue Army Man. "I'm a big promoter of the cult of Army Man," Maxtone-Graham noted. A brief sample:

Gone, All Gone

Do you still have the adorable crayon drawings you made in kindergarten? I don't. Not a one. Which means that at one point, many years ago, the following thoughts must've gone through my mother's mind: "Hmm, what's this? Oh, I see. It's that irreplaceable drawing by my firstborn son ... the one he proudly brought home from school. I'll just put this in the garbage."

Then, as time went by: "Oh, another one of my child's drawings. What is it that I do with these again? Oh, yes - I throw them in the trash. That's right." Eventually, her brain probably got it down to "Art - Son - Trash." And on the days when my mom was sick, and didn't get around to throwing my artwork away, my dad would do it.

I'm not bitter. I know they had good reasons for discarding virtually everything I ever drew, wrote, collected or pasted together during my one and only childhood. I love my parents. There's nothing I wouldn't do for them.

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Last updated on June 26, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (