Sunday marks the beginning of the 28th Season of The Simpsons, which contains the series 600th episode. This week Fox held a phone conference Q and A with none other than The Simpsons' Executive Producer and Showrunner Al Jean. I not only attended the conference call but watched an advance screening of Sunday's episode so I will give you an early review of the episode.  

Q & A

Q: Are you planning anything big for season 30?

A: Well, the cast is signed for two years beyond that, but we haven’t officially been picked up for Seasons 29 and 30.  I think we will be, but that’s just my guess.  So, no, can’t plan it yet, but hoping—fingers crossed.

Q: Do you have trouble coming up with ideas, like character history? 

A: Well, the amazing thing, there’s so many characters on the show that people are interested in, and if you explore their pasts or their connections with each other that haven’t been seen on the show, there seems to be a relatively, an almost infinite number of combinations and plots you could do.  So, it’s hard, it definitely gets harder as the years go by but it’s not impossible and we really love doing it.

Q: Since the “Treehouse of Terror XXVII” is the 600th episode and you have been doing these for years, and have already used references from the horror genre as inspiration already, where did you guys start this year in terms of planning and writing and shaking things up? 

A: We weren’t sure which one was going to be the 600th, and we were just doing a Treehouse show.  It came out, (even by our standards for those episodes which are quite high,) we thought very well.  And so at that point we thought it would be—what was great was the 600th episode will air October 16th, so we could make that the Treehouse and it wouldn’t be out of place. Once we knew it was the 600th, there’s three things we’re doing with it.  There’s a special ending which actually we shot at Comic-Con. There’s a special beginning and there’s a third thing, I can’t say it, but there’s three—the 1st and the 100th episode Bart wrote on the chalkboard, “I will not celebrate meaningless milestones,” so we’ve made sure to really celebrate this one.

Q: Any voices that you can tease for the episode?

A: Yes.  Sarah Silverman plays Lisa’s imaginary friend, and when Lisa starts making real friends, the imaginary friend is so jealous she starts murdering them.  Drew Carey has a cameo, Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, Kelsey Grammar as Sideshow Bob and also Hank Azaria as Frank Grimes, (that wasn’t so hard to get, but he’s back.)

Q: Can you share a little bit about your experience of doing the live episode and are we going to see more interactive programming as we go?

A: It was really cool to do, and the trickiest part of the technology was honestly getting the phone calls in, making sure we had calls and making sure Dan could respond to them.  And what was wonderful to me is I got to see how Dan Castellaneta ad libs, thinks on his feet.  That’s what we get to work with every week, and it was a pleasure to share it.  I think in terms of that animation style, we consciously just did it three minutes long because it’s kind of hard to make it look interesting for much longer than that, and I don’t know that you’re going to have full animated shows much less series that way for a while because it’s just too limiting.  I mean, it would be great because then you could do a live animated show and comment on the events of the day, but I wouldn’t want to see it visually for what the current process is for more than three minutes.  It was great too.  The fans got to call in and we were—it was very exciting.  We really loved doing it.

Q: In regards to diversity in your show, you  have an Indian character on the show, which is great to see, but some are offended by the character.  Can you talk a little bit about Apu, why you made him such an important character?  Also, can you talk about the process of how this character shaped up and how do you think of diversity in an animated show or on TV right now?

A: Well, there’s been a history of diversity of a small cast doing multiple accents and characters, and we’re part of that tradition.  But I will say, I’m aware of what you’re discussing, and I certainly respect people’s opinions.  We did an episode where a critic of Apu, Utkarsh Ambudkar, voiced Apu’s nephew Jay, and voiced many of the criticisms that have been expressed, and it aired this past January.  I think it was a really interesting one, so that was sort of—we like to take our position or make our opinion through what we do on the show and that was the episode we chose for that. 

Q: Where is Springfield?  Do you want to tell which state Springfield is in?

A: We can never really answer it.  I would say just judging by the street names and locations, it’s closer to Springfield, Oregon, where Matt Groening is from in Oregon, than any other Springfield, but the great thing about it is it’s universal.  I grew up in Michigan, and I can totally relate to it.  Anybody, wherever you’re from, has a Springfield near them.

Q: Any exciting news on The Critic?  Are we going to see something?

A: Nothing new, but you never know.

Q: How did you manage to keep the look and the feel of the show consistent over the years?

A: Well, it’s always been based on the hand-drawn style of Matt Groening, and obviously there have been changes, but mostly since Season 2, as you say, it’s been pretty consistent.  We had a consistent style sheet, and we had background packages that we relied on after that point.  We had to change, obviously, for HD, and there’s a lot more information.  We used to do things where you’d have like cartoonist squiggles for writing, and you can’t do that now.  You have to actually have some joke and write out what’s being said.  But mostly we have just this fanatical animation crew, the directors and the storyboard artists and the designers who really know the show, and we were always trying to make it so that you believe these are real people.  The way Matt had created the designs, they’re so—I would say what’s genius about them is that even like a 7-year-old can draw Bart, and as soon as you see the drawing and you know it’s Bart.  And they’re very expressive and very simple drawings that convey a world of information.

Q: Great.  And there’s been so many milestones seen on the show throughout the years.  Are there any that stand out especially personally?

A: Well, the beginning was really special.  The 400th ironically, it just so happened to be the last episode before The Simpsons Movie came out so that was a time that was a lot of work but also memorable, and I think 600 is great.  I mean, there’s only one other scripted show that’s every gotten this far in the US— Gunsmoke, and to get this far is really, I have to say it, we’re proud of ourselves. 

Q: You created a lot of destruction in Springfield, in the premiere.  All the destruction and all the chaos that’s going on, does that in any way reflect the chaos that’s going on in the country right now with the political situation?  Are there going to be any upcoming political episodes?

A: Well, we do some things that are based on politics, but it’s hard with our lead time.  We have an episode coming up, actually after the election, and it was originally pitched without a political context.  It was that they start a for-profit university in Springfield, and we thought well, it would be great if it was Burns’s University once we heard about Trump University and then the ideas kept springing forward.  But I think even if Trump loses, this idea that a rich man starts a university to make money is still going to be something people are going to be aware of, those private colleges aren’t going away, and it’ll still be funny, so it’s that kind of thing we do.

Q: What can you tell us about Amy Schumer’s guest appearance coming up? 

A: She’s across all three animated shows on this Sunday on premiere night on FOX.  Because this is something where all three of us were going to do a musical themed episode and going to try to get the same guest star and went for a woman who is funny—Amy Schumer fits most of those qualities.  We said a good character for our plot would be Burns’ mother in the past and kind of the source of this unhappiness that he has that’s haunted him to the present. So she recorded it over the phone, and she was very funny.  It’s not a huge part, but that was because, we didn’t have the actress until a little late in the process since she would be in all three shows.

Season 28 Advance Review

I have been watching The Simpsons since it began as a skit on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987.  It appealed to all ages then and continues to do so today.  I watched Sunday's premiere, "Monty Burns Fleeing Circus," early and it is excellent (said while alternately touching my fingertips to each other.)  As Al Jean said in the interview, Amy Schumer is joining the 3 animated series in the Sunday evening lineup and in The Simpsons she will be playing Burns' mother in a flashback.  

The couch scene is especially great for anyone who might know the answer to the question, "What time is it?" The plot consists of a major unnatural disaster which is not started by the usual culprit.  The town goes to Mr. Burns for help but he has 1 condition.  This flashback gives us insight into Burns and why he is so unhappy and mean.  I love when they go into a character's past and really deepen our understanding of the character. We also see the other talented residents of Springfield (Oregon?) Look for a little Blues Brothers tribute in the episode.  

The episode is very funny, touching (to a point) and makes good use of their guest star. Hopefully we will see Schumer return again in her role.  

Some of the other episode titles for this season are the following:

Friends and Family, The Town, Trust But Clarify, A Father's Watch, and The Caper Chase

The Simpsons "Monty Burns Fleeing Circus" premieres this Sunday, September 25th at 8 o’clock p.m. and the 600th/"Treehouse of Horror XXVII" episode will air on October 16th.