Meet John Swartzwelder: The Reclusive Weirdo Who Made The Simpsons Great
John Swartzwelder has broken his silence in a first ever interview with The New Yorker.
John Swartzwelder is a curious figure.
Though he has worked as a writer on a number of failed sitcoms and one of the worst seasons of Saturday Night Live, few images of him can be found in the wild. The only well-known recording of his voice is of an awkward, ambush of a phone call.
When it was made illegal for him to smoke in his favorite coffee shop, he installed diner booths in his home so he could keep up his routine. Now in his 70s, his most public activity is sharing excerpts of his self-published detective novels through a nearly anonymous Twitter account — with no profile picture or banner image. He is also arguably the individual most responsible for one of the greatest achievements in the history of television — the golden era of The Simpsons.
While that wouldn't be an easy argument to win — and figures like Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, George Meyer, and Sam Simon might seem like more obvious contenders — the fact remains that The Simpsons is a show whose success or failure has always depended on the quality of its writing. And no one else has written as many episodes of The Simpsons as John Swartzwelder.
"Grimey was asking for it the whole episode. He didn't approve of our Homer." — John Swartzwelder
59 episodes to be exact. And, among them, some of the most memorable in the show's history. If you can conjure memories of Krusty faking his death, Mr. Burns losing his teddy bear, Milhouse becoming a movie star, Bart getting an elephant, the Simpsons fighting off Itchy and Scratchy robots, Homer working for a high-energy Bond villain Hank Scorpio, Homer becoming a Krusty impersonator, Homer bootlegging beer inside bowling balls, or Homer driving Frank Grimes insane, you have John Swartzwelder to thank.
A self-proclaimed recluse, the combination of his prolific contributions to the show and his avoidance of the public eye has even led some Simpsons fans to speculate that "John Swartzwelder" is merely a pseudonym attached to episodes that couldn't be properly attributed to any one writer. But no. He is real, and he has just recently broken his silence.
It turns out that his famous reluctance to be interviewed had a weakness of combined prestige and nostalgia, and The New Yorker had the right combination to win Swartzwelder over for his first major interview, which was published over the weekend. As Swartzwelder put it: "The New Yorker was the home of a lot of writers I liked when I was growing up, including my favorite: Robert Benchley."
The Simpsons Writer So Good Nobody Believed He Existed (Let's NOT Hop On a Call)www.youtube.com
Now that Swartzwelder has ostensibly become a generation of Simpsons-viewers' favorite writer, it's fitting that he would return to the venue that inspired him, to share some insights into how he got there — including why he pursued writing in the first place: "All [Benchley] and his Algonquin Round Table friends seemed to do was play silly games and try to make one another laugh ... After ten years of wasting their talent like this, they had all become rich and famous, won every award you can think of, and created The New Yorker. The lesson to me was clear: comedy writing was the way to go. Easiest job on the planet."
This interest in pursuing the laziest approach to work was apparently a major motivation for Swartzwelder early on, but as interviewer Mike Sacks noted — given the incredible amount of work Swartzwelder has done in his career — the appeal was perhaps more about defining the parameters of his work life, rather than avoiding work altogether. "That's how it looked to me when I started. In real life, however, most of the time you have to drag yourself into an office and chain yourself to a desk."
Still, if there was one show on Earth that was suited to his sense of freedom, it was The Simpsons, where Fox executives had waived their right to interfere, and the writers were therefore free to do as they pleased. In Swartzwelder's words, "we just tried to make ourselves, and each other, laugh. Comedy writers. That was the audience."
But by the show's fourth season, Swartzwelder had proven himself a valuable enough asset that he could start making demands. He received special dispensation to work from home, and by the eighth season his reclusive nature had become so infamous among the show's staff that his likeness was included in the episode "Hurricane Neddy" as an anti-social resident of a mental hospital.
His zeal for self-determination is likely also what led him down the path of self-publishing with his detective novels starring clueless, hardboiled P.I. Frank Burly. While Swartzwelder did initially pursue traditional publication, he eventually saw the merits of going off on his own: "If you want to write your book with multiple misspellings, badly misplaced commas, and juvenile bodily-function jokes, your publisher (that's you!) is with you a hundred per cent on that. He'll back you up all the way. It's the kind of control writers dream of having."
But apart from being a role model to introverts everywhere, Swartzwelder also has some insights to offer into his writing process. He swears by the value of rushing out a shoddy draft as quickly as possible, then spending the bulk of his energy and effort on rewrites.
As for how he approached writing for a character as iconic as Homer Simpson, Swartzwelder thought of it like this: "He is a big talking dog. One moment he's the saddest man in the world, because he's just lost his job, or dropped his sandwich, or accidentally killed his family. Then, the next moment, he's the happiest man in the world, because he's just found a penny—maybe under one of his dead family members."
Just not this big talking dog...
He also had an interesting perspective on how a writer can preserve their creative vision through a collaborative process. While most Simpsons writers reportedly saw around 75% of their original scripts scrapped or altered in the final product, Swartzwelder is said to have maintained about 50% of his material in the episodes he wrote — a difference which he attributes to his immaturity: "I always reacted with great dismay, rage, and even horror every time one of my jokes was cut. The other writers were more grown up about it when their jokes were cut. And see what it got them."
While it's been nearly two decades since he wrote for The Simpsons, his contributions remain integral to some of the best seasons of television ever produced. And for all his modesty, Swartzwelder is aware of the impact he and his colleagues had on people who grew up learning about the world through a cartoon sitcom:
"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."