Only real Simpsons heads know the name John Swartzwelder, which doesn’t seem fair: He’s the credited writer of 59 of its most beloved episodes. But that’s partially by design. He’s famously reclusive, without even a decent public picture to affix to his new interview in The New Yorker — an occasion so rare that it’s like Christmas for Simpsons nerds. And Swartzwelder delivered, with an interview that’s frequently as gut-busting as his best TV scripts.
Swartzwelder, who came on-board the show in its early days and left in 2003, discusses his entire career, from his stint on SNL during its infamous 1985-1986 season (the one with Robert Downey Jr. and Anthony Michael Hall) to his work on the comedy magazine Army Man, which also launched the career of Jack Handey. There’s also lots about The Simpsons. Swartzwelder is credited with many of the show’s Golden Age classics: “Dog of Death,” “Homer at the Bat,” “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” “Rosebud,” “Homer the Vigilante,” “Bart Gets an Elephant” — really we could list episodes for a good chunk of the day.
He’s also credited with arguably — well, inarguably, to be honest — the show’s darkest episode: “Homer’s Enemy,” from late in the eighth season. That’s the one where Hank Azaria plays Frank Grimes, the cosmically unlucky crap magnet who quickly comes to despise Homer Simpson, who he sees as being unfairly lucky: He has a big suburban home, a family, he’s been to space, he cooks steaks for dinner parties — all while being a lazy, beer-swilling dope. Throw in its notoriously grim capper and you have one of the most devastating portraits of American idiocy.
But Swartzwelder doesn’t see it that way. When New Yorker’s Mike Sacks says it’s not what co-creator James L. Brooks “might refer to as a ‘lot of heart,’” here’s his response:
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?
The interview is filled with hilarious responses like that, even as he offers fascinating insights into how the show’s writing staff works (or at least used to work). For instance, here’s Swartzwelder talking about how some writers wrote Homer as though he’s more animal than man:
Yes, he is a big talking dog. One moment he’s the saddest man in the world, because he’s just lost his job, or dropped his sandwich, or accidentally killed his family. Then, the next moment, he’s the happiest man in the world, because he’s just found a penny—maybe under one of his dead family members. He’s not actually a dog, of course—he’s smarter than that—but if you write him as a dog you’ll never go wrong.
You can read the whole thing at The New Yorker — and then you can track down some copies of Swartzwelder’s many absurdist detective novels, which occasionally feature time travel as well as incredible titles like Dead Men Scare Me Stupid, Earth vs. Everybody, and The Spy with No Pants.