The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder gave his first major interview this weekend, and he did not hold back. Swartzwelder wrote some of the cartoon's most beloved episodes, and some of its darkest as well. He told The New Yorker's Mike Sacks how the infamous episode "Homer's Enemy" came to be.
The Simpsons Season 8, Episode 23, "Homer's Enemy" is considered polarizing among the show's die-hard fans for its dark tone. In it, Homer's good fortune distresses the antagonist Frank Grimes, who ultimately kills himself over the issue. When the episode came up, Swartzwelder said: "Grimey was asking for it the whole episode. He didn't approve of our Homer. He was asking for it, and he got it. Now, what was this you were saying about heart?"
Swartzwelder has written 59 episodes of The Simpsons in total, and obviously contributed to many more. However, he revealed that in the beginning, he did not work with a typical collaborative writer's room like other TV shows, because "The Simpsons didn't have enough money for a full-time writing staff until late in 1989. They've got enough now, of course."
The writer said that he landed his job based on his work on a homemade comedy zine called Army Man in the 1980s, which fell into the hands of The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and his late collaborator, Sam Simon. He said: "The Army Man jokes got me my initial interview with Sam and Matt, which led to my first script assignment, 'Bart the General,' but I wasn't actually hired to work on staff until I'd done three episodes." Among the many legends about Swartzwelder in the comedy world is that his scripts are hardly changed by the rest of the staff from first draft to production — staying at least half intact from his initial version. However, Swartzwelder turned this into a self-deprecating joke, not a badge of honor.
"If those numbers are correct, part of the reason for my higher percentage might be because I always reacted with great dismay, rage, and even horror every time one of my jokes was cut," he said. "The other writers were more grown-up about it when their jokes were cut. And see what it got them. Now everyone is laughing at their percentages."
On his legacy as a whole, Swartzwelder said: "I'm certainly pleased that people still like the episodes I did. I would say that all the praise makes me humble, but, of course, praise does the exact opposite. But I am pleased by the attention. The Simpsons did something I didn't think possible: it got viewers to look at writers' credits on TV shows. When I was growing up, we looked at the actors' names, and maybe the director, but that's it. Now a whole generation of viewers not only knows about writers, they're wondering what we're really like in real life. And they want to know what we're thinking. And look through our windows. That's progress, of a sort, and we have The Simpsons to thank for it."
Swartzwelder's episodes are streaming along with the rest of the Simpsons catalog on Disney+, which is available with a free trial here. New episodes of the series continue to air on Sunday nights at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.