From Preppie Pranks To Yucks for Bucks
LOS ANGELES — IT'S noon at "The Simpsons," time to get silly - er, busy.The coffee table in the middle of the story room is covered with potato chips, sodas, pencils, and reams of paper. The writers relax on the couches, laughing, teasing each other, waiting for the others. "The room smells of sour potato-chip dip," says Matt Groening, Simpson cartoonist and creator, in his office loading up with scripts for today's read-through. When everyone's there, the door closes. Writing comedy is serious business; the writers say (politely) that outsiders make them nervous. They are a goofy bunch of guys. And they have been goofy since college. Ten years ago, five of the eight Simpsons writers spent their undergraduate days and nights in the dark, medieval "castle" of the Harvard Lampoon at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. There, an elite group of serious comedy buffs cranked out a magazine filled with inside jokes. They threw wild parties where they smashed, rather than washed, their plates. They were reprimanded for tasteless pranks like shooting live chickens from a cannon into their neighbors' g arden party. Today, a couple dozen of these Lampoon graduates have gone west with their special brand of humor - dark, cynical, intellectual, parodying - and found their fortune as comedy writers for TV situation comedies. Why TV? It pays a lot, (writers make between $200,000 and $1 million a year) and they get to work with other funny people. Working at "The Simpsonsis just like it was on the Lampoon. Sitting with your friends, making jokes, being a little collaborative," says Mike Reiss, co-executive producer of "The Simpsons." "Yeah - except we get paid, and we don't have to take exams," adds Al Jean, who has worked in partnership with Mr. Reiss since they graduated in 1981. The two share an office here at the "new writers building," a motel-like stucco building on the sprawling Twentieth-Century Fox lot. It's June, when most shows are in summer hiatus; but writers for "The Simpsons" work year-round. Behind Mr. Jean's desk is a picture of his wife and kid; behind Reiss is a black-and-white glossy of the guy who glorified TV comedy writing, Dick Van Dyke's writing partner, Buddy, played by Morey Amsterdam. "This is unusual for us," says Reiss. "We've been here three years. Usually you're just working year to year, your show gets cancelled, and you get fired." Reiss and Jean wrote for National Lampoon, "Airplane 2," and other TV shows before landing top-dollar jobs on "The Simpsons." If TV-writing jobs were considered second-class - a "golden ghetto compared with magazine or book writing, that appears to have changed. "The talk these days is the best and brightest prefer [writing for] TV," says Jeff Martin, now story editor at "The Simpsons." Before moving to L.A., Mr. Martin wrote for 6 1/2 years in New York for David Lettterman. Other Lampoon grads writing for "The Simpsons" are Jon Vitti and George Meyer. MARTIN says the undergrad Lampoon connection helps comedy writers in two ways: it aids in getting one's stuff read; and being around funny people in college helps fine-tune their humor. "Most of us went from being considered one of the funniest guys at our high school, to the Lampoon, where we said: 'That guy is much funnier than me, or, she is a much more polished comedy writer than I am," says Martin.Yet writing for TV is anonymous: Seldom does one person write a whole show; collaborations make the best shows. Nor do viewers know - or care - who writes the shows. "People just assume [Simpson cartoonist] Matt Groening writes every word and draws every picture," says writer Martin. "But it's stupid to get upset about that. If you want to be famous, don't go into writing." "I want to be rich and not famous," says Kevin Curran, a writer on "Married ... With Children," who has also written for "Late Night with David Letterman" and National Lampoon. We are lunching near the hilltop home he rents from Robin Givens, former wife of boxer Mike Tyson. ("She lived here before she divorced him and could afford a better place," says Curran.) There are some who charge that TV writing is not "art or real writing. To this Mr. Curran replies: "I consider myself a working writer. I don't think of what we do as art. It's one step above seals juggling balls on their noses." The Harvard Lampoon has already made its mark on the literary scene, when three graduates started National Lampoon magazine in 1969. (More recently, Spy magazine was also started with the help of a Lampoon grad.) Moviegoers got their first taste of Lampoon humor with "Animal House," co-written by the late Harvard and National Lampoon writer Doug Kenney. Other TV sit-coms that boast a Lampoon writer or producer include: "Fresh Prince of Bel Aire" (the only show actually created by Lampoon grads, Andy and Susan Borowitz), "Empty Nest,Designing Women,In Living Color," and "Top of the Heap." Many Lampoon graduates started at (and some are still writing for) variety shows: "Late Night with David Letterman,The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," and "Saturday Night Live." The Lampoon is still a mostly male preserve: Few women have been admitted since the organization went co-ed in the '70s. Lampoon grad Pam Norris is head writer for CBS's "Designing Women." Lampoon-to-L.A. writers seem to be shaking things up back at Harvard: Lampoon grads tell of receiving envelopes full of scripts from undergrads who want to work in L.A. Some writers lament the fact that many students now think of joining the 115-year-old Lampoon as a career move, adding to Harvard's ranks of pre-law and pre-med, pre-TV. It's very hard to get into the Lampoon; only about 15 members are admitted by their peers each year, after a long "competition" process. What's so special about the Harvard Lampoon? "Did they say they were special?" says Simpsons' cartoonist Groening [pronounced graining] with a smile. The Lampoon graduates have "a combination of high intellect and really scurrilous cynicism," says Groening, who himself applied to Harvard because he "always wanted to join the Lampoon." Rejected, he went to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. This intellect, says Groening, translates into jokes that even he misses. "My educated friends tell me after a show, 'I really appreciated that reference to Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky. Sometimes I don't even notice the jokes." Lampoon grads bring a wealth of trivial details to their writing. "If there's something obscure we need to verify, like, isn't there a poisonous shrew?... These guys know this stuff!" Groening says. Lampoon graduates will tell you they often put esoteric jokes and references into their shows. For example, one Simpsons show was a parody of the French movie "Manon of the Spring." But what many sitcom writers don't know, critics charge, is how to get laughs without resorting to the lowest common denominator: dysfunctional families, sexism, racism, and stereotypes. Replies Simpson writer Jean: "We try to be educational, to teach kids. The show has a real moral base. If someone does something wrong, something bad happens." But "Married Curran says his show is not out to teach anything. "Most of America grew up in dysfunctional families.... The idea of a nuclear problem-solving family like Cosby is unrealistic. It's an emotional cheat." Comedy is "an exaggeration of a vision," says Curran. "Our characters are designed to make you laugh." "If you can't laugh at other people, then you're left laughing at yourself. And that's no fun," says Michael Ferris, a Lampoon grad who, with fellow alum John Brancato, writes screenplays in Los Angeles. If being a writer for TV is lucrative, being a creator of a sitcom is prestigious. These days many Lampoon graduates are "working on a pilot" they hope will get picked up by a network. Most writers say that writing comedy comes easily to them, perhaps for different reasons. Says Curran: "Some of us started out using comedy to deal with situations. Other people used therapy." Smiling (it's sometimes hard to tell when these guys are serious) he adds: "People who write comedy are an odd bunch of characters." Did he ever imagine, back in his old Lampoon days when he was playing pranks on preppies, that he'd be making half-a-million dollars writing sitcoms in Hollywood? Replies Curran: "I always hoped someone would just pay me that amount of money to drink beer around the swimming pool. I'm very disappointed I have to do anything at all."