Simpsons’ Al Jean Talks Treehouse of Horror

Halloween is upon us, although it seems like Christmas after my new hero, CRTC chair Konrad von Finckensein didn’t “shell out” yesterday. He took one look at those brazen broadcasters, standing there holding goodie bags open like punk teens on Halloween after 9 p.m., and slammed the door in their face. (I did a round of CBC syndicated radio interviews about the ruling this morning and am back on CBC’s Here & Now at 3:10 p.m.; see my posting on all the sage CRTC decisions, below).
Leave it to The Simpsons, then, to offer their 19th annual “Treehouse of Horror” treat. Sunday’s three-parter includes an homage to the Peanuts gang with “It’s The Grand Pumpkin, Milhouse.” Seems Milhouse, like Linus, is the only one who believes in the “Grand” pumpkin. Simpsons’ showrunner Al Jean says they had to change it from “Great” pumpkin for legal reasons. (Who’s gonna sue, Snoopy?)
I spoke with Jean last summer at the TCA press tour and listened in on his recent Fox conference call. You can read more about his take on the Halloween show here in my CP column this week, which appears in the entertainment section of today’s Toronto Star.
I also spoke with Jean about his career prior to The Simpsons: being a young writer on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. Jean was fresh out of Harvard when he spent one-and-a-half years in the Tonight Show writers room. Instead of the army of writers they have now on shows like David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, Carson’s staff usually only numbered about five. Jean says he never really worked on the monologue, just on those “Might Carson Arts Players” sketches like mind reader Carnac the Magnificent. “In some ways it was a one-of-a-kind thrill–like meeting JFK or something,” he says.
Over the years, people have suggested to me that Carson was hard to read, a bit stand offish. (I’m currently working on a book about the history of late night television). Drew Carey, who, like many stand up comedians, is quick to say he owes his career to his winning Carson appearance, told me last July that the guests were asked after the show to wait behind a velvet rope. When Carson would leave for the day, he would pass by the roped off area, shake hands, grant a last minute “thanks” and be off.
Even Ed McMahon, Carson’s sidekick for 30 years, admits he never really knew the guy and had few personal dealings with him away from NBC.
Jean gives a similar view, suggesting he only met Carson three or four times over his tenure on the show. “He was very polite but he was a very private guy,” says Jean, 47. “I would meet other writers who worked for him in different eras and it was always the same story. He was private, he was…I still think the best who ever did it, but there was a barrier there where you never really knew what the real him was like. People never even knew how he voted, for example. He was pretty good at not letting on.”
Jean knows he’s lucky to have been involved in two iconic TV shows, The Simpsons and Tonight. He says when his three year old son was born, at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, he was distracted by a special hospital channel set up specifically to help people at the hospital laugh. On screen was a Johnny Carson Tonight Show sketch he had written. Says Jean, “That was really kinda cool.”

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