Al Jean is executive producer of The Simpsons, the longest running sitcom in the US, which was created by Matt Groening. He has worked on the show as a writer since its inception in 1989, became showrunner from season three and was made executive producer in 2001. Jean and Groening will be at MIPCOM to celebrate the success of the Twentieth Century Fox-distributed series.
What brings you to MIPCOM? Was it the lure of the south of France or did Fox force you?
A bit of both. We’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the show so Matt is getting an award and Matt and I are giving a presentation of where we’ve been and where we’re going. There might be some special guests; Homer might join us.
The Simpsons is the longest running primetime series in the US – is that something you think about?
I might think about that only nine or ten times a day. We’ve done over 460 episodes so it’s always harder to come up with fresh ideas for episodes. But I’d be lying if we didn’t feel justifiably proud about that.
How do you keep the show fresh?
We look at the problems that a family faces now rather than 20 years ago. The characters don’t age, which helps, and there is a group of characters that is so broad that it makes it easier. I don’t want to say that the show will last forever but there’re seemingly infinite possibilities.
The show takes some time to produce, how do you make the episodes relevant?
We’re reading episodes now that will air in May 2010. We don’t do jokes of the moment so for instance we wouldn’t do any jokes about the confirmation of [the US Supreme Court justice] Sonia Sotomayor. We would feature storylines about foreclosures, the difficulty of buying pharmaceutical drugs and marriage troubles, things that are still relevant.
How long do you see the show continuing?
We’re in the middle of production for season 21 right now. The cast is signed on for two more seasons so we’re pretty sure it will continue until then. After that it’s that equation of revenues versus costs. We’ve been very good at keeping costs down, going digital, which means that things that previously had to be redrawn or sent overseas are [simpler]. I’m also a very frugal person.
Are you aware of the international popularity of the show?
We’re well aware of it and it’s extremely important. It’s one reason that the show is still on air because of the international revenues that the show brings in. The US TV industry has become fragmented so there’s no question that the international revenues are just as important as domestic revenues. We write the show to appeal to worldwide problems. We live in the US but the issues are universal. I’ve been to London and all over the world and it’s extremely gratifying to see how popular it is.
How did the movie change things?
The movie changed the process, it was high def and some of the processes in the movie were then switched over to the show. It was the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done professionally.
Are you considering another movie?
Nothing’s in the works but I’d like to do another one. It might make more sense to do it after the series has ended.