Know how we’re always talking about the need for writers to be able to get along with everybody, especially suits and stars, not necessarily in that order? Well, it wasn’t always that way. Here’s a unique remembrance of a unique and very, very talented writer, as volatile as he was creative. We think it’s safe to say that Sam Simon never went down without a fight, right to the very end:
Sam Simon’s Fractious Four Years With THE SIMPSONS Changed TV History
by Jeet Heer
ollaborating on a masterpiece might be heaven, but arguing over credits can be hell. The television writer and producer Sam Simon, who died March 8, was best known as a co-creator of “The Simpsons.” Working with cartoonist Matt Groening, producer James L. Brooks, and a boatful of others, Simon was as responsible as anyone for the unique “Simpsons” sensibility, that combination of gleeful impudence and populist courtesy, which has made the show a pillar of global pop culture. Yet Simon’s tenure at the show lasted only its first four seasons, from 1989 to 1993. A tumultuous battle with Groening over the show’s direction and its acclaim marked his brief but groundbreaking stint. Without that rocky marriage, “The Simpsons” as we know it might never have been. The final product grew out of their competing designs, as well as their very wrangling.
“Brilliantly funny,” Groening said of Simon in 2001, “and one of the smartest writers I’ve ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced.” The dismissal was mutual, going back to the earliest days of the show. In a 1990 interview, Simon curtly defined Groening’s role as “the show’s ambassador” rather than a hands-on creator. “That’s a little bit condescending,” Groening responded in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, adding, “There’s definitely a power struggle here. There’s a scramble to claim credit for the show now that it’s become successful.”
The Simon-Groening battle follows a familiar pattern in collectively created popular culture: the success of a work often fuels disputes over primary authorship. More than money, arguments of this nature are about fame—custody, even. Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, among many others, collided similarly. In a way, egos drove these arguments. But in another, more accurate way, these were disputes born from the fusion of effort and a vital clash of visions.
Matt Groening came to television as an outsider artist. He went to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, which he described as “a hippie college, with no grades or required classes, that drew every weirdo in the Northwest.” He first made his mark in 1980 with his alternative comic strip “Life in Hell,” which ran in the Los Angeles Reader and was later syndicated in other alt-weeklies. Drawn with a Thurber-esque aggressive minimalism, “Life in Hell” brought a punk abrasiveness to the comics. Many of Groening’s early strips were mini-rants about love, work, and family life. “The Simpsons,” which debuted in 1987 as a series of shorts on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” was an extension of Groening’s essential autobiographical approach to cartooning. The characters even took their names from Groening’s family (his parents are Homer and Marge; his sisters, Lisa and Maggie).
Simon was born in 1955, a year after Groening, and came up on a decidedly more inside track. He grew up in Beverly Hills; his father was a clothing manufacturer and his mother an art dealer. Groucho Marx was a neighbor, one that Simon once saw in bed (albeit fully dressed) with his mom. Elvis Presley once rescued Simon’s dog. After studying at Stanford, where he drew cartoons for the student paper, Simon advanced through television, starting with lowly cartoons like “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse” but quickly earning credits on shows like “Taxi” and “Cheers,” programs for which he worked not just as a writer but also on occasion as a show-runner and producer. He met Groening’s outsider status and innate rebelliousness with a career man’s shrewdness about how to make a sitcom.
Whereas Groening’s approach to art was personal, Simon’s genius was recognizing the need for a grander stage than the skeletal backdrop of “Life in Hell” and the early “Simpsons” shorts….