John Swartzwelder, Sage from “The Simpsons”
It’s been almost twenty years since lone, mysterious and almost mythical writer John Swartzwelder left “The Simpsons”, and yet, to date, one of the biggest compliments a “Simpsons” (or all) writer has to date. other comedy writer) can receive is to have a joke called “Swartzweldian”. Meaning: A joke that comes out of nowhere. A joke that no one else could have written. A joke that almost seems like it’s never been written, like it’s always been around.
Take the following joke, a favorite among writers and fans of “The Simpsons,” which appears in “Homer Against the Eighteenth Amendment” Season 8, when Homer stands on top of a stack of barrels, in front of a pawnshop, and toast a gathered crowd: “Alcohol.” The cause and solution of all problems in life. “
Swartzwelder has been considered “one of the greatest comedic minds of all time”. He is notoriously private and never grants interviews. There are few photos of him, although he did make animated cameos as background characters of the “Simpsons” – once. as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. His voice can only be heard on one comment from the “Simpsons” DVD writers, for “The Cartridge Family” (Season 9, Episode 5). Ambushed over the phone, while cooking a steak at home, he seems pleasant and courteous but eager to end the meeting, which lasts one minute and twenty-four seconds.
Some facts seem certain. Swartzwelder was born in 1949 in Seattle. He worked for a few years as a copywriter in Chicago. He applied, but never got, a job with “Late Night” and had an uncomfortable interview with his host, David Letterman. He worked on “Saturday Night Live” in 1985, during a particularly difficult season, before being hired four years later at “The Simpsons”, in part on the basis of his contributions to a little-known comedy zine. He went on to write fifty-nine episodes, more than any other writer in the history of the series.
Swartzwelder’s specialty on “The Simpsons” was conjuring dark figures from a strange, ancient America: banjo-playing hobos, cigarette-smoking ventriloquist models, 19th-century baseball players, tailed carnival kids. rat, and without pants, singing the ancients. After leaving the show, in 2003, Swartzwelder wrote and self-published the first of his thirteen novels, all but two of which feature one of the finest creations in print comedy: Frank Burly, incompetent private and occasional time traveler. None of the books are longer than 160 pages; all are wrapped, like a dense star, with more material than physically possible.
Recently, over the course of a month and a half, I corresponded with Swartzwelder by e-mail. He patiently answered most of the questions I asked him about writing the best jokes in the best episodes of arguably the best comedy of the last century. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When I asked if you were attending, you said that you usually wouldn’t, but that The New Yorker your name has always held a certain magic for you. Did you grow up reading the magazine?
The New Yorker was the home of many writers I loved when I was growing up, including my favorite: Robert Benchley. Benchley was wonderfully funny when he wanted to, and he didn’t seem to be working at all. All he and his Algonquin Roundtable friends seemed to do was play silly games and try to make each other laugh, occasionally leaving the party to write a Pulitzer Prize winning story. After ten years of wasting their talent like this, they had all gotten rich and famous, won every award you can think of and created The New Yorker. The lesson for me was clear: comedy writing was the way to go. The simplest job on the planet.
Do you still consider writing comedy the easiest job on the planet?
No sir. I do not.
Beyond Benchley and the Algonquin crowd, what were your comedic influences?
Steve Allen was my first comedy hero. He was effortlessly funny. And while the adults around me crawled home from work every night, pretending it was the end of the world, Allen could apparently sleep all week, get out of bed on Sunday afternoons, walk around the studio and make children. with his friends and the public and maybe Elvis Presley for an hour. Then it was “Good night, everyone,” and I went back to bed. It really impressed me.
You sound like you’re looking for a lazy career, yet your reputation is as one of the most productive comedy writers in television history. Wasn’t it so much an easy career as being in charge of your own destiny?
You put your finger on it. The biggest appeal of writing is that, theoretically, you can do it anywhere. I imagined myself surfing in Australia while crafting the plot of my next bestselling comedy novel, or sending my latest joke off the top of a mountain. That’s what it looked like to me when I started. In real life, however, most of the time you have to train in an office and chain yourself to a desk.
What attracted you to Benchley’s writing? When I read your books, I mostly remember SJ Perelman – in both cases there is a madness and an absurdity, the possibility that a joke could be taken anywhere, even at the expense of the plot or realism. And Perelman was so adept at poking fun at the pulp style of detective writing, which we see in your Frank Burly books.
Perelman was great. Benchley actually wrote the same kind of crazy stuff as Perelman, and he did it just as well, if not better, but he was a lot more laid back about it. Perelman crammed every joke he could think of into every sentence and tirelessly tweaked his pieces until they couldn’t get any crazier. There is a story that a friend called him while he was writing something, and Perelman said, “I’ll call you back when I finish this sentence.” He called back the next day and said, “OK, what do you want?”
When I first read Perelman, it was completely over my head. Half the words he used didn’t exist in the real world, as far as I could tell – and I was twelve, I was there. I thought one of us was crazy. Later, when I started writing for a living and picked up a few more multi-syllable words, I checked it again. I’ve been a fan ever since.
How was such a career even a possibility for you? Did you know any comedy writers? Did you even know someone who knew a comedy writer?
I never knew comedy writers when I was growing up, nor heard of anyone in town trying to make a living that way. So it was an unusual choice for me. And because it was unusual, it was hard to know where to start. When I told people I didn’t want to wear cement for a living, I wanted to write a comedy and be a national treasure instead, I got weird looks. Some people suspected that I was stupid. Others were sure of it.