‘Simpsons’ writer shares how the show got away with airing ‘horrendous things’ in rare interview

How did “The Simpsons” get away with some of its less-than network-friendly jokes? One former writer is pulling back the curtain. 

John Swartzwelder, who served as a writer and producer on the long-running animated sitcom from 1990 until 2003, gave a rare interview to The New Yorker, published Sunday, reflecting on his experience with the show and how his team was able to bypass regulations other shows most likely wouldn’t get away with.

“We could show horrendous things to the children at home, as long as we portrayed them being shown to the Simpsons’ children first,” Swartzwelder, 72, said of “The Itchy and Scratchy Show,” a violent “Tom and Jerry”-esque show within the show. 

“Somehow this extra step baffled our critics and foiled the mobs with torches. We agreed with them that this was wrong to show to children. ‘Didn’t we just show it being wrong? And, look, here’s more wrong stuff!’ “

Who else loves “The Itchy & Scratchy Show” like Bart and Lisa? #TheSimpsonspic.twitter.com/NsnQwfZnus

Executive producer Jim Books had struck a deal with Fox that ensured network executives did not get scripts in advance and couldn’t “meddle in ‘The Simpsons’ in any way,” Swartzwelder said, though he noted the writers still received censor notes. 

“All we had to do was please ourselves,” he said. “This is a very dangerous way to run a television show, leaving the artists in charge of the art, but it worked out all right in the end. It rained money on the Fox lot for thirty years. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.” 

Swartzwelder can’t take credit for the creation of “Itchy and Scratchy” though he noted he “certainly did more than my share” of writing those scenes. He does, however, claim credit for use of the word “meh,” which was popularized (but most likely not invented) by the show.


He loved writing the characters Mr. Burns and Homer Simpson and some of his favorite episodes include  “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” “Bart the Murderer,” “Dog of Death” “Homer at the Bat,” “Homie the Clown,” “Bart Gets an Elephant,” “Homer’s Enemy,” and “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment.”

“I know some people think of us as gods, and maybe we are. I’m not saying we’re not gods,” Swartzwelder said. “But we never got a big head about it, because we knew we could be replaced by other gods in about two seconds, anytime, probably for less money.” 

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A former writer for "The Simpsons" is pulling back the curtain. (Photo: 20th Television)

He added: “But I am pleased by the attention. ‘The Simpsons’ did something I didn’t think possible: it got viewers to look at writers’ credits on TV shows. When I was growing up, we looked at the actors’ names, and maybe the director, but that’s it. Now a whole generation of viewers not only knows about writers, they’re wondering what we’re really like in real life. And they want to know what we’re thinking. And look through our windows. That’s progress, of a sort, and we have ‘The Simpsons’ to thank for it.”

Ultimately, Swartzwelder’s goal in the “Simpsons” writers room was to make his fellow comedy writers laugh. 

“That was the audience. Luckily, a lot of other people, both kids and adults, liked the same jokes we liked,” he said. “I like to think that ‘The Simpsons'” has helped create a generation of wise guys, who live in a world where everybody is up to something. If that’s all we’ve achieved, aside from the billions of dollars we’ve made, I’m satisfied.” 

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