April 23, 2013

The Simpsons @ SCA

Writers/Producers of TV’s Longest-Running Animated Series Discuss the World of Comedy

By Valerie Turpin

From left: Tom Gammill, Tim Long, Matt Selman, Max Pross and Professor Benjamin Wright








In the 20th century, the standard way of getting hired as a television writer involved writing a spec script and hoping an executive would like your work. Now, writers and comedians are using previously unconventional outlets like YouTube and Twitter to get their work out to a major audience. On April 17th, Simpsons writers/producers Tim Long and Matt Selman and writing/producing comedy team Tom Gammill and Max Pross (Seinfeld, Futurama) visited SCA to discuss their careers and how anyone who wants to work in comedy can thrive in the digital age.

Being a comedian today means utilizing the Internet and social media. “If you want to be funny, there’s a lot of ways to be funny now,” explained Gammill. “If you want to get a job as a comedy writer, start off tweeting, because writers get recognized.”

“That’s really the biggest change in the thirty years we’ve been in the business,” added Pross. “When we started, the means of production and distribution were out of the reach of anyone except for the three major networks. They would cost a lot of money and the cameras were expensive. Now, anyone in here can go to BestBuy and get everything they need to make a full feature for half a grand, really. And as for getting the stuff out there, there’s YouTube, which didn’t exist when we started. There’s no reason you can’t make and show to the world whatever you want.”

Critical Studies Professor Benjamin Wright moderated the Q&A as part of his course, LOL! New Approaches in Film and Television Comedy (CTCS 464 – Film and Television Genres). As part of the Comedy@SCA initiative, the course focuses on what exactly makes comedy funny by examining different modes of comedy, from its origins in vaudeville to present-day mockumentary, parody, comedian and cringe comedy, to give students a broad knowledge of the subject. The course has screened Animal House (1979), Annie Hall (1977), Airplane! (1980), Borat (2006) and Bridesmaids (2011) among others and hosted a Q&A with director Jon Landis (Animal House, Trading Places) earlier this semester.

Not the only Simpsons team members to visit SCA this semester, Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning director and longtime Simpsons writer/producer James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, The Mary Tyler Moore Show) joined acting coach Larry Moss earlier this month for Professor Barnet Kellman’s workshop on directing actors in comedy.

Equally essential to a successful career in writing includes the ability to effectively promote your work and yourself. Explained Selman, “A huge part of your job is not just being able to write well and amusingly, but to be a skilled salesman of your work, because you’ll constantly be having to pitch it to both your peers and executives or people who are hiring you. You have to be a salesman to get the job, and then you have to be a salesman to keep the job.”

What has remained constant throughout the changing times has been the resilient spirit and drive to be successful. said Long, “It’s some combination of luck, talent and crazy drive that’s close to being pathological but not quite is your best bet.”

More than any other piece of advice, the panel urged students to take advantage of new technologies and to follow their own passion in the industry. “If you just write the stuff that you actually like and think it’s funny and get it out there, some simpatico person who thinks it’s funny may be in a position to help you,” said Pross. “It’s just getting it out and distributing it yourself, which I think is so much easier now with YouTube and the web.”

“The great stuff always finds an audience somehow,” said Long.