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'The Simpsons' airs its 768th episode tonight. Here's how its writers keep things fresh

Toward the end of its 35th season, 'The Simpsons' made a move that rankled some fans: It killed a longtime resident of Springfield. (Fox via CNN Newsource) Toward the end of its 35th season, 'The Simpsons' made a move that rankled some fans: It killed a longtime resident of Springfield. (Fox via CNN Newsource)
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Toward the end of its 35th season, “The Simpsons” made a move that rankled some fans: It killed a longtime resident of Springfield.

Larry the Barfly died in Moe’s Tavern, where he’s been a mostly wordless mainstay since the 1989 pilot. Even longtime “Simpsons” fans would be forgiven for never learning Larry’s name –– Homer and the other Moe’s regulars certainly didn’t know anything else about their drinking buddy, as was made mournfully clear at Larry’s poorly attended funeral.

And though Larry made little-to-no impact on Homer and his family over 35 seasons, “The Simpsons” gave him a moving sendoff anyway and even a reason for being. In death, he brings the men of Moe’s together outside of the bar to reaffirm that they do, in fact, like each other — even when they’re not drunk on Duff.

After a winding journey to scatter Larry’s ashes at a waterfall they assume he liked (they barely spoke to the man, after all) and narrowly escaping jewel thieves and a fall off of a cliff, the men return Larry’s urn to the place they’re sure he loved: Moe’s.

“How many people were thinking, ‘I like Larry the Barfly,’ before the episode aired? I would say under 10,” said Matt Selman, sardonic showrunner of “The Simpsons,” in an interview with CNN. “But I guess it’s a testament to the episode that after we killed him, people discovered that they cared about him.”

Episodes like “Cremains of the Day,” which aired on April 21, are part of why “The Simpsons” endures –– it’s still mining depth from characters we’ve known for decades and finding new stories in the corners of Springfield that viewers think they know well.

Viewers have followed the buffoonish Homer, devoted Marge, mischievous Bart, socially conscious Lisa, observant Maggie and their hundreds of eccentric neighbors for more than 30 years. There have been hundreds of couch gags, celebrity guest stars and strangling incidents that have inspired a cultish obsession among protective fans. It birthed a 2007 film that made over half a billion dollars worldwide and rides at two Universal theme parks. Oh, and it popularized the now-booming subgenre of the adult animated comedy.

But the trick to keeping “The Simpsons” relevant and exciting all these years later, Selman said, is to keep the show’s tremendous legacy out of mind as much as possible.

“We have to be honest with ourselves: Most comedic language invented by ‘The Simpsons’ is from its ‘glory years,’” Selman said, referring to the first eight to 10 seasons of the show that many fans and critics consider its best. “We don’t create as many memes and things your dad quotes anymore. I think if we set that as a goal, it would be a very hard goal.”

So rather than dwell on all the milestones his series has set –– it’s the longest-tenured animated series ever and the longest-running sitcom on TV –– Selman and his writers approach “The Simpsons” as if it does not have nearly 35 years of history (and a fervent, opinionated fanbase) behind it: “If the show was brand new today, how would we write it?”

Writers new and familiar keep 'The Simpsons' fresh

Part of keeping “The Simpsons” current requires Selman, who’s written for the show since 1997, to find a balance between the series’ greatest hits and big swings.

This undated frame from the series 'The Simpsons,' shows the popular cartoon family posing in front of their home. (Fox Broadcasting Co.)

It’s what the show’s earliest seasons did well: Classic episodes like “‘Round Springfield” from the sixth season was a bittersweet departure from the show’s antic tone as Lisa mourned the death of her jazz hero, Bleeding Gums Murphy, and season seven’s “22 Short Films About Springfield” traded the show’s typical narrative structure for vignettes about supporting characters like Principal Skinner and Bumblebee Man.

Selman wanted “The Simpsons” to rediscover its experimental streak. So, over the last few seasons, the show has hired new writers who grew up watching it –– people like Loni Steele Sosthand, Cesar Mazariegos and Broti Gupta –– to share the room with “Simpsons” stalwarts like John Frink and Mike Price, who’ve written for the show since the 2000s. There are around 16 writers per season, typically made up of 22 episodes, though this season has just 18 due to the 2023 writers’ and actors’ strikes.

“Whatever it takes to keep the show vital and original, we do,” he said.

There are rarely guidelines for what makes a good episode of “The Simpsons,” but encouraging writers to bring what they love about the show to the fore and try new things has vastly expanded “The Simpsons’” universe and the kinds of stories it can tell.

Recent seasons of the show have followed up the aforementioned classic episodes with spiritual successors that are still decidedly contemporary –– “The Sound of Bleeding Gums” follows Lisa’s tentative new friendship with her idol’s deaf son, while fake hackers derail the metafictional episode “Lisa the Boy Scout” with clips from episodes that don’t exist.

“How do you tell a story that hasn’t been told already?” said Sosthand. “The way you do that is by bringing some of your unique point of view to it but also still respecting the world that exists.”

Sosthand, who joined the show in 2020, pulled from her own life for a lauded recent episode about Carl Carlson, one of Homer’s drinking buddies and one of the only major Black characters on “The Simpsons.”

A 2013 episode revealed that Carl was adopted by a White couple from Iceland and later moved to Springfield to pursue nuclear physics. But Sosthand, who is mixed race, wanted Carl to find his roots, so she wrote him an episode in which he visits Springfield’s hitherto unexplored Black neighborhood, which inspires him to learn about his ancestors, who were Black cowboys in the West. Last month, Sosthand won a Writers Guild Award for the episode, beating out three other nominees from the “Simpsons” writers room.

“It’s always great to show the inner life of a character who you didn’t think had an inner life,” Selman said, pointing to similarly revealing episodes about Moe, Rev. Lovejoy and Krusty the Klown. “You unpeel the onion about these goofy people’s inner lives; you find pathos, pain, joy and failures –– that’s one of the luxuries of our universe.”

New episodes embrace the 'Treehouse of Horror' chaos

Instead of one writer going off on their own to pen a script, the creative process is more collaborative now than it has been in past seasons.

Someone might have a “bare wisp of an idea,” Price said, and Selman will jot it down in a notebook or start a discussion with the writers’ room. They’ll finesse the idea together or hold onto something they think might be a thread to follow in a later episode, but a script is rarely the brainchild of just one writer.

“Most of the time, it kind of belongs to everybody,” said Mazariegos, whose first joke made it into an episode that had already been written and animated, when he suggested that Homer send a text with the ubiquitous meme of himself slowly backing into a bush.

To keep the process from getting stale, when Selman became primary showrunner around 2021, he urged the writers to pursue “blue-sky” ideas that before might’ve seemed too out-there. The writers wanted to harness the energy that surrounded the making of the famed “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween episodes, which takes the show in zanier directions, thematically and visually, than a typical episode does, Mazariegos said. (This season’s installment killed off Bart in an alternate version of the classic episode “Cape Feare” and featured a virus that turned everyone into copies of Homer.)

“Every show should be an event in some way,” Price said of the new mindset in the writers’ room. “We’re almost 800 episodes in. How do you make 801 stand out?”

The real world comes to Springfield in recent seasons

Some of the most successful new episodes have put a Simpsonian twist on real-life themes that already feel stranger than fiction. In the 35th season alone, Marge has taken a job at a food delivery ghost kitchen and encourages her coworkers to unionize, Bart turned into an NFT in a “Treehouse of Horror” segment and DJ Crazy Times of “Planet of the Bass” fame turned up to sing a Europop song about tipping culture.

“(Selman is) always encouraging us to think that way –– what are things the Simpsons could do that is engaging with the world now?” Price said.

In this file image released by 20th Century Fox, a scene from the, "The Simpsons Movie," is shown. (AP Photo/20th Century Fox, file)

Price wrote last season’s “Hostile Kirk Place,” a riff on book banning and modifications to the way history is taught in some public schools. Milhouse’s dad Kirk turns Springfield into a dictatorship after he attempts to censor Milhouse’s history lesson.

It turns out Milhouse’s lack of luck is a family curse: His ancestor was responsible for a shoddy gazebo that fell and crushed a happy crowd — an embarrassing fact that Kirk would like excised from Springfield Elementary’s history curriculum.

But there are timeless episodes that could work in any year of the show’s run. This season, Price gave Groundskeeper Willie a starring role in a sweet story about the misunderstood janitor’s lost Scottish love.

“The show is capable of holding all these things in it, which I think makes it still feel like something that you want to watch every Sunday night,” Price said.

This season ends on May 19 with “Bart’s Brain,” in which Bart bonds with a brain in a jar, an episode Selman said feels like “classic Simpsons.” It’s got all the ingredients of early season highlights: The entire Simpsons brood is in the episode, and it balances emotional heft with typical Bart hijinx.

When “The Simpsons” returns in the fall for its 36th season, though, it’ll shift gears once again into the fantastical. Its first several episodes are detours through sci-fi and horror, plus a sequel of sorts to one of the classic episodes named here. (No spoilers!)

The writers are even ceding an episode next season to Ned Flanders, who will finally reflect on the deaths of his wives Maude Flanders and Edna Krabappel, because it’s “never too late to emotionally address a past trauma,” Selman said.

And those are just from the first half of the season.

Some critics have praised “The Simpsons’” current era as a creative renaissance for the show. It’s nice that their hard work has been noticed, Selman said, but critical appraisal of “The Simpsons” is always in flux. Better to mostly ignore the hype and keep doing the difficult but exceptionally gratifying work of keeping “The Simpsons” funny.

“We have been written off many times,” Selman said. “But I think it’s going to be around for a while. I think we can stay relevant.”

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