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How Sam Simon saved 'The Simpsons' and changed the world

"The Simpsons" is on at 4 p.m. on

"The Simpsons" is on at 4 p.m. on FXX. Credit: AP

Sam Simon died Sunday at the age of 59, and as devotees of "The Simpsons" and historians of "The Simpsons" well know, a key part of their lives is now gone, too.

Simon: Without whom there would be no "Simpsons."

The calculus is very nearly as simple as that. Of course, there would be no "Simpsons" without Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" comic strip either. But Simon was the real straw in this particular drink.

No Simon, no "Simpsons." 

Simon left "The Simpsons" in 1994 after its fourth season — he secured a beneficial contractual arrangement that even A-Rod would have envied — and devoted the rest of his life to rescuing shelter animals and feeding the poor. It was by all accounts a good life and a better one than that which he left behind.

Simon's reputation in the early days was fearsome and well-known to TV writers who followed this suddenly intensely successful show — which not only rescued Fox, but, in some respects, Rupert Murdoch, who was rapidly building News Corp. but had also been caught up in a complicated thicket of debt. "The Simpsons" would ensure that Murdoch would never have to worry again. He had Simon to thank for that.

To anyone who cares to read more about Simon and the creative process that went into the early days of "The Simpsons," I would highly recommend John Ortved's excellent 2009 oral history of the show, "The Simpsons: An Uncensored History," which explores the intense friction between Simon and Groening that was so well-known at the time.

To outsiders, it was also inexplicable, to wit: How could the ongoing battles between Simon and Groening cause so much grief? They were ferocious and one-sided; Simon was tough, demanding, insistent and relentlessly difficult.

In Ortved's telling, Groening was passive-aggressive — and sensitive to the fact that he had no clue how to write a 21-minute sitcom, but assumed that he knew how to craft his own creation better than anyone else.

Simon was forever pulling the show back into the orbit of the brilliant writer's room he had assembled — people like John Swartzwelder, Mike Reiss, Al Jean and so on.

Groening was constantly pulling back, nattering about things they should do, which "they" promptly ignored.

Simon was their leader; Groening was tolerated.

And then, there was this fascinating bit of TV history trivia — Groening was considered a nice guy; Simon not at all. They were oil and water, ice and fire, Homer and Flanders ...

They were naturally antipathetic and yet out of that this strange bond emerged ... "The Simpsons."

Ortved valiantly tries to weave the various strands of authorship, but wisely concludes that the task is not only thankless but ultimately futile. There were many authors in the early days — and "The Simpsons" without Swartzwelder is unimaginable, too — but clearly Sam Simon was first among equals.

As one producer, Wallace Wolodarsky tells Ortved, "Sam opened our eyes to the possibility of what an animated show could be, which is to say we could go anywhere in the world, we could do anything, and that was incredibly liberating coming from live action ..."

The functioning "adult" in this writer's room was James L. Brooks — who, of course, was already a godlike TV figure by the time he got here. After all, Brooks had written and produced some of the best live-action comedies in TV history — like "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Taxi."

But he was apparently less adroit at mediating wars, like the one that had turned hot between Groening and Simon.

Instead, the writers room watched in amazement — possibly in horror — as the Groening/Simon battles threatened to derail this shooting star, which had unseated "The Cosby Show" and changed popular culture in the process.

As Ortved explains: "Matt was not a TV writer and didn't know how to structure his jokes and concepts in a pithy 22 minutes of television. Sam was a master TV writer and openly disdainful of Matt's attempts to include himself in the writing process ... the differences between the two would develop into an all-out war."

That worked for Simon because he was a warrior. As Conan O'Brien's agent, Gavin Polone, told Ortved, "I remember Sam Simon yelling at me and telling me I was a [jerk]. I don't remember anyone ever doing that before." (O'Brien was a producer.)

In various remembrances Monday on Twitter and elsewhere, Simon was recalled as a brilliant creative writer who gave "The Simpsons" heart, soul and possibly even life.

All true but also worth noting another contribution: Sam Simon, who went on to feed the homeless and save dogs, also brought some of the fury to "The Simpsons" that made it so resonant at the time.

"The Simpsons" really was a subversive malcontent that railed against the complacencies of contemporary life — various targets included politics, religion, consumerism and television. It bit and bloodied the hand that fed it, and by association mauled the chief of the company that owned Fox, too.

Simon really was angry, and without that original foundational anger, "The Simpsons" would now be a footnote or forgotten entirely.

In the end, that may have been his most lasting contribution.

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