“I’m SO not going there. What, you want me to crash the gravy train? I’m the luckiest kid to come out of Exeter and I refuse to ruin it.”
Long can be excused for his lack of candor. He has been a writer for FOX’s legendary animated show since 1998 and a producer for the last two seasons. The Simpsons is the latest credit of an impressive career that includes writing for Politically Incorrect and a stint as head writer for The Late Show With David Letterman.
When asked how a kid from Exeter with a BA from the University of Toronto ended up with such high-profile gigs, Long says that “everyone who does OK in their field says it’s a case of talent and luck, and in my case, I’ll humbly say it’s the latter.
“The one common experience that [TV writers] all have is that we were comic enthusiasts as a kid. I didn’t even know what a comedy writer was, but I always watched SCTV, Letterman and Saturday Night Live. You innately figure out how the structure of a show works and what’s funny and what isn’t.”
Long began his comic career in journalism, starting a comic newspaper at his high school and editing the entertainment section at The Varsity, U of T’s student newspaper. This type of deadline-driven creative process is far removed from the more intensive crafting that goes into each Simpsons episode. After a writer puts together a first draft, the other writers “pass it around and chip in even a line and stuff. We do a table read with the actors, and then we add more material after that, and then we get a rough draft with the animation and go from there.”
Since the animation takes about nine months to complete, Long says that the production staff has already completed episodes that won’t air until 2006. In order to keep The Simpsons’ trademark satire topical, Long says that the writers are constantly rewriting scripts even after the animation is set: “We sometimes rewrite jokes based on lip movements.”
The difference between being a producer and a writer for the show is “not much,” jokes Long. Long’s main task is that he has “become the guy they send out to talk to celebrities” and prep them for guest voice appearances. Long recently worked with athletes such as Yao Ming, Michelle Kwan and Tom Brady for an upcoming episode, written by Long himself, to be aired after the Super Bowl.
Another additional task as producer is that Long is somewhat obliged to take a more proprietary interest in the quality of the show as a whole, rather than just specific episodes. Some critics and Comic Book Guy-esque Internet fans have said that The Simpsons has been eclipsed by animated shows like Family Guy, but to Long, “we’re still the funniest show on TV.
“There’s always going to be a certain value in being the new thing. It’s hard to shock anybody with The Simpsons anymore. Nobody is harder on the show than me, since I look at episodes and say ‘Well, that didn’t work.’
“I’m not going to knock [FG creator] Seth Macfarlane since I was at a party at his house and stole two bottles of wine. That guy lives in a mansion; he’s not going to miss them.”
Asked if he feels pressure to live up to past episodes, Long responds that he doesn’t, even though “some of the people on the websites say we should. We just try to make each other laugh. If I can make guys like [longtime Simpsons scribes] Al Jean and George Meyer or [show creator] Matt Groening laugh, then I think I’m in really good shape.”
Long has had his own experience with “the Internet fans,” as his first ever writing credit came in ‘Battlesore Galactica’ frequently hailed as one of the worst episodes in the show’s history. “Dancing jockeys are something that can divide people,” he laughs.
On the other hand, he also co-wrote the self-referential “Behind the Laughter” episode that is considered one of the series’ best.
“That one had a weird metaphysical feel to it, since the characters were someone other than you had thought of them. Marge, for example, was really more foul-mouthed as an ‘actress’ than she was as ‘Marge.’ But that one was a blast to write since it allowed us to be really different with the whole concept of the show. People have said that maybe we should’ve saved that one for the series finale, but who knows.”
This brings up the question that fans have been whispering for the last few years: when and how will The Simpsons end? Long himself isn’t entirely certain.
“There seems to be a strong consensus at the show to just have a normal episode. Given that things never change in Springfield, it would seem unusual to have an episode that concludes things. We’re just starting up the 16th season and we’re signed up for at least one more after it. If I were a betting man (which I am), I think it’ll go 20. I mean, why not, if we’ve gone this long?”
And, finally... where is Springfield?
“The answer to me is obvious: it’s nowhere, but people insist that it has to be somewhere. Of course everyone working for the show secretly knows it’s really Ingersoll.”
Tim Long will speak at The Spoke today at 3 p.m. and at the London Convention Centre Theatre this Saturday at 11 a.m. as part of the Canadian Comedy Awards.