Late in 1999 I was tasked by my editor at The Sheaf to go and cover the Eric Malling Commemorative Lecture being held on campus in the Place Riel Theatre. Not a hard pill to swallow as the speaker was none other than Simpsons director, David Silverman, in his only lecture appearance that year. He was no longer on staff with The Simpsons at that time but he came down, talked about his time on the show, did some voices, sketched characters for the audience, and then sat down with me for a tête-à-tête after the show.
Chatting with David was fun. He was personable and generous with his time seeing as the interview went a little beyond the few questions I probably needed to whip off a quick article the next day. As a long-time fan of animation, sitting with David was definitely one of the highlights of my time at The Sheaf. The article itself has probably been lost to time [although it’s possible there is an old stash of print copies of the issues I contributed to back home] but I took the transcription of our conversation and quite happily ran it as a feature on Meanwhile….
David Silverman was there for the very beginning of The Simpsons. He was one of two directors working on the show during it’s stint as a series of animated shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show, and continued on with the series once it went on to episodic television. He remained with the show for ten years, finally leaving in 1996 to ply his trade elsewhere. A brief stint at DreamWorks soon led him to Pixar, best known for their computer animated features, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story.
While still with The Simpsons, he took to the lecture circuit, speaking at colleges around the continent about his experiences working on the show. I had a chance to speak with David after what would appear to be his only lecture this year, the Eric Malling Commemorative Lecture, held at the University of Saskatchewan in November of 1999. After a lengthy, and entertaining, evening of Simpsons outtakes, anecdotes and sketches, we sat down to talk about his past, present and future in animation.
MIKE JOZIC: How did you get involved with the lecture tour circuit?
DAVID SILVERMAN: I think what happened really early on is a friend of mine had a radio show in L.A. It was his first program and he wanted me to come on. And, I asked, ‘Is that okay?’ The woman who was the head of publicity came with me and she was impressed by the fact that I didn’t choke on the radio and sound like an idiot, you know? I was able to make fairly cohesive sentences.
So, Matt had been approached by, I think, the same group to do lectures. Matt had done them already. He actually did a lot of college lectures for years, but Matt recommended me and that’s what happened. So, I started, I think, around ‘91 or something, and they had me on fourteen lectures that year. The only thing that has slowed it down is the fact that when I left to go to DreamWorks in ‘96, it became a conflict of interest. I mean, if I was still on the show, it would probably be fine. They’d probably say, ‘Fine, go ahead. Do as many as you want.’
No such luck.
JOZIC: So, you’ve pretty much been doing them every year for awhile now?
SILVERMAN: Yes. I only did one last year, and this is probably the only one I do this year. I don’t know if I can do any more upcoming. I know they want me to. I know they want me to do a couple of others. I love doing them, it’s great fun, but I just don’t know. I think they look at me kind of fishy. ‘Where are you going Silverman? Lecturing, eh? How about this film we have to get done?’
JOZIC: Considering how long you worked on the show, how is it for you to be going back and looking at all this material again now that you’re no longer there?
SILVERMAN: It’s fun, actually. I really enjoy it because I realise that I’m not even part of the show, but I’m still part of what the show is and what the show has become. I guess I always will have that connection to the show. And it’s kind of neat. It’s like the guys who were the original guys that did the Warner Bros. cartoons. They were there and even though they stopped doing it, there’s still a piece of them that’s still tied in with Bugs Bunny. Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Mike Maltese [and] all these other names. So I sort of feel like I’m part of some other icon. I mean, one guy told me that some animation I did of Homer on chilli peppers got him inspired to go into animation. And I think there’s some animation that Ward Kimball did of the Mad Hatter that got me inspired to go into animation, so it’s kind of nice that someone else got inspired by something I did. That makes me feel great.
JOZIC: Sort of passing on the torch?
SILVERMAN: Passing something.
JOZIC: What do you think is the secret to the longevity of the series?
SILVERMAN: I think it’s the fact that every character on that show seems to be firmly devoted to their insane view of the world. And every character has a different insane view of the world, and they’re completely committed to it. I think people really respond to that because, in many ways, that’s how people are. It’s like, everybody has a different opinion about how the world is, and that’s how they deal with it. And it sort of says, ‘Look, everybody’s crazy.’
And Homer, who has, in many ways, become the main character. One of the things that is really great about Homer’s personality is that he’d rather just sit and watch TV rather than do whatever, until something gets under his collar. He gets some bee in his bonnet, and then he will be the most inventive nincompoop about doing it. Like the thing just recently with Mel Gibson’s movie. He couldn’t care less about it, but if he’s inspired to do something, he will be very inventive in his stupidity.
JOZIC: Like selling grease.
SILVERMAN: Yeah, exactly. Or a mountain of sugar.
It’s a very unusual character. I can’t even think of another character like that. It’s not very Munchausen, it’s not get rich quick schemes, per se. It’s not as if he’s going to get rich by them, it’s just that he wants to do it. Just to show them. [In his best Homer voice] ‘Show them all.’
JOZIC: How does it feel to be part of something that has become a fixture of pop culture?
SILVERMAN: In some ways I feel like…I don’t know. I was part of all the people that helped make it, so that’s really cool, but it just exists on its own. And that’s what is really amazing about animation and cartoon characters. Most people don’t know who Ub Iwerks is, and how he was the main artist Disney had, or Freddy Moore and all the people after him who made Mickey Mouse who Mickey Mouse is, but they all know this icon. That’s part of the culture. So, that’s what’s so neat about cartoons. They transcend not only aspects of culture, but even their creators.
JOZIC: So, it’s relatively easy for you to detach yourself from the popularity that the work has achieved because it’s not like you’re an actor on a sitcom and you take none of the spotlight.
SILVERMAN: Right. That’s what’s so interesting about the animation. I can be up here drawing characters and exchanging stories and that’s cool. Dan Castellaneta could be here. It would be awesome, he would do all the voices, like Homer and Barney…great characters. And, the same with Julie Kavner. And the writers could show up and it’s all great, but Homer could never come up on stage. Bart could never come up on stage. And there’s something kind of tantalising about that, and intangible about that. People [get] very excited about coming to the studio, and a friend of mine once said, ‘I don’t know what they’re so excited about. It’s not like Homer and Bart are walking around.’ It’s just people at desks.
And I think that’s what was great about Bart visiting Mad Magazine. He looks at it like, ‘Cool!’ and sees all this stuff going on. And yeah, it would be great if that’s what it was. Because I visited the offices of Mad Magazine once a long time ago, and none of the artists worked there. It was just a depository place. All the artists send their material here, they edit it together and they send it out.
JOZIC: How much are the character’s facial expressions and movements are influenced by the voice actors who play the parts?
SILVERMAN: I would watch Dan sort of screw up his face like this…[screws up face]…and it’s these sort of weird expressions. I’d watch him, I’d watch Nancy, I’d watch Julie Kavner who would really get into it. She would be very active. So, we try to get those mannerisms in the performance.
With Homer, a lot of Homer…actually, I could say I brought a lot of that into it. Because, I think, Homer saying, ‘You’re living in a world of make believe,’ is a defining moment for him. That’s something I just brought to it. And when Homer goes crazy he says, ‘Don’t mind if I do,’ that’s all my weird expressions. I just listened to Dan’s soundtrack, which is so funny, and I know he was doing his Homer doing Jack Nicholson. [back in the Homer voice] ‘What do you think Marge?’ It’s got this sort of slight Jack Nicholson edge to it. So, I tried to get a little Jack Nicholson in the performance.
JOZIC: You showed a lot of outtakes during the lecture, and mentioned that there was approximately 500 minutes of unused Simpsons footage just lying around somewhere that we may never see. Considering the amount of time and money that probably went into producing that footage…
SILVERMAN: I know. I gotta hand it to Gracie Films. Everyone else would say they’re crazy, and maybe they are crazy, you know? Throwing out two minutes of sweat and effort. I don’t know what the price tag is on it. The animation budget is probably close to $500,000, divide that by twenty-two…do the math. [chuckles]
Oh, well. That’s show biz!
JOZIC: After going through what must be an agonising process of editing a show down to fit the twenty-two allotted minutes, how do you feel about the additional cuts that the episodes are subjected to for syndication?
SILVERMAN: They’re painful. They’re hard to watch. That’s why I look forward to them releasing all the episodes on tape or DVD because I think there would be enough of a market for it. There’s enough aficionados that would make it worth their while to have them preserved intact. No, it’s hard to watch.
I remember watching it in syndication. My girlfriend hasn’t seen a lot of the episodes. I’ll be watching and enjoying it and then, “Oh no! You missed it. There was a great button to that joke,” you know? Because so many of the jokes go joke, joke, joke and then another topper. That’s commerce.
[doing an executive ‘bigwig’ voice] ‘This aint art, it’s business!’
JOZIC: Is that why the opening sequence gets shorter and shorter? To make room for more story or gags?
SILVERMAN: Yes, absolutely. The opening title sequence got shorter and shorter and shorter simply because we have more show to show. We’d rather trim down the title sequence. ‘Ah, you’ve seen that. That’s old animation.’ As long as we give you a couch gag, or a blackboard gag. One or the other.
JOZIC: You hear a lot of rock bands and performers who have been around for a long time say that their longevity is a result of not pandering to an audience or trend, but doing what excites or entertains themselves. Do you think that’s one of the reasons the show has been on as long as it has? Just the fact that the writers and directors and everybody involved is more concerned with having fun rather than churning out a hit TV Show?
SILVERMAN: I think so, yeah. There’s a good deal of that. It’s a combination of not wanting to limit yourself, and you also want to have fun with it. Which we’re doing.
Sometimes we establish a few things and we sort of maintain that. So, if we establish this giant mansion that George Bush lived in across the street, which we never should have, I think we sort of referred to it from time to time. Especially if we can get a laugh out of it. I think we get a laugh out of the amnesia that seems to be rampant in Springfield.
I like the episode where Apu gets married and there’s an elephant there and Bart’s like, ‘Oh, I wish I had an elephant.’
‘You did have an elephant, Bart. Don’t you remember? His name was Stampy, you loved him very much.’
[despondently] ‘Oh yeah.’ [laughs]
It’s great because it plays on everything. And the absurdity of how you could possibly have all these adventures.
JOZIC: You also mentioned in your lecture how it takes about nine months to complete each episode.
JOZIC: Is that still the standard, or has the time involved in producing each episode improved over the years? Nine months seems like a long time for one episode. A far cry from the Bakshi Spider-Man shows that were pumped out every two weeks.
SILVERMAN: Well, most animation does that. I imagine Futurama has a similar schedule, and I know that King of the Hill has a not-as-generous a schedule. That’s what happens when you order the animated series. You have to order thirteen episodes. You don’t want to take a chance on twenty-two. But you have to at least order thirteen, that’s pretty much the standard.
JOZIC: You mentioned Futurama there, and I was curious to get your feedback on the new series.
SILVERMAN: I think it’s really funny sometimes, but sometimes I think it hasn’t quite found a real tone of character that The Simpsons had. I look forward to seeing more episodes. I think it’s beautifully done and I think it’s going to fly. I think it’s nice.
SILVERMAN: How much storytelling is the director responsible for in each episode, or is it pretty much the writer’s show?
SILVERMAN: Oh, I think the writers run the show on the story point, so you have to be writer driven to get it done. Even in that sort of schedule.
JOZIC: I read in a magazine a few years ago that The Simpsons was the hardest show on television to write for due to it having more jokes-per-minute than any other show. How much credence would you give that sort of statement?
SILVERMAN: Yeah, I guess so. That’s why writers sort of get burnt out. They can’t take more than two or three seasons of it. So…I’m in with that.
JOZIC: During the lecture you also mentioned that one of the concessions James Brooks made when pitching the show to FOX was that the network was to have a limited amount of control into what actually gets put on the air. How much of that has changed, especially considering the overwhelming popularity of the show over the years?
SILVERMAN: It’s still pretty hands-off. I think if they ever get that meddlesome, that’s when Jim Brooks will step in and get involved. He’s not really involved that much except when it comes to the issue of censorship and being pushed around. So, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t changed. At least, if it has, I don’t know about it. It certainly wasn’t a problem when I was there.
JOZIC: What were your animation influences?
SILVERMAN: I think what I said before. The early days of Warner Bros. cartoons were very inspiring. I didn’t see a lot of Disney stuff because it was hard to see back in the early sixties. But when I would see that it would be inspiring, too. The beauty and some of the energy of the faster paced stuff that I mentioned. The mad tea party, which was mostly Ward Kimball’s doing. A lot of Ward Kimball animation, whenever I could see it, was very inspiring. Rocky and Bullwinkle for the humour and the pacing, timing, and the editing. The early days of Hanna-Barbera with very early Yogi Bear.
I got more inspired, though, by comic strips. Walt Kelly, you know, Pogo. Peanuts in the beginning days. Well, not the beginning days because I wasn’t there, but sort of throughout the sixties was very inspiring. We had a collection of all the books. But comic strips had a bigger part in inspiring me. And then later, Herman was a big inspiration for me. Jim Unger was the first of the pack of single-panel cartoons.
JOZIC: Do you have any favourite episodes?
SILVERMAN: Ones that I’ve done I have a place in my heart for. I really kind of like “Blood Feud” because of it’s establishing of Lisa’s character, and “Homey the Clown” because it was so much fun to do. But other favourite episodes…there’s so many of them. The “Monorail” episode is one of my favourites. The “Lisa on Ice” episode…
Oh! The “Three Men and a Comic Book” episode. That’s one of my very favourites from the second season. Almost every episode in the second season is really good, but the “Three Men and a Comic Book” where they’re fighting over a Radioactive Man comic is where we introduce the Comic Book Guy. It’s a great episode.
”Lisa’s Substitute” is another great episodes. “Old Money” was an episode that I did that I really liked where Grandpa has a girlfriend and she dies in the first act. [chuckles] That’s where you meet Professor Frink for the first time.
JOZIC: Somebody once said to me that The Simpsons would be great if it wasn’t for those family values bits at the end.
SILVERMAN: I’d tell him, ‘Fuck you.’
SILVERMAN: I guess so, but I think that the stuff is good. I like it. I didn’t think it was family values being tacked on, I think it is actually worked into the show pretty good.
JOZIC: Well, The Tracey Ullman Show stuff was always a little nastier.
SILVERMAN: I just think that if you have a lot of black humour, you get away with a lot of it, but you have to care about the characters. If you don’t care about the characters, then ultimately, the show won’t last for ten years.
JOZIC: Why did you leave the show when you did? Was it just time to move on?
SILVERMAN: I just felt it was ten years and I just waited to see if there were other things I could do. I had an offer to direct an animated feature. Well, that’s probably something that I should see what it’s about. And that was at DreamWorks and that wasn’t working out. But, at the same time, I was being courted by Pixar. I liked the idea of working at Pixar, so that’s where I am.