Welcome once again to "On the Futon With...," a new (hopefully) weekly feature where I sit down and talk TV with some of my favorite people in the industry, all the while trying to give the impression I'm not some overgrown fanboy.
THIS WEEK'S GUEST: "The Simpsons" co-executive producer Don Payne.
When you ask what Don Payne does for a living, chances are you're going to smile at his response. Whether it be as a writer and co-executive producer on "The Simpsons" or the screenwriter behind the upcoming feature "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," he's got every fanboy base covered. I recently had the chance to grab a meal with Don where we talked about the process behind "The Simpsons," our mutual love of "Battlestar Galactica" and making the move from TV to features.
Brian Ford Sullivan: Let's just start with the basic stuff - how'd you get involved with "The Simpsons?"
Don Payne: I had been writing with a partner, John Frink, and we�d been bouncing around to different shows every year - which is kind of the norm - and the last show that we'd worked on together was a short-lived show called "The Brian Benben Show," which was fun, it was a great staff. It only lasted about three episodes and it was gone.
BFS: That was the one that was replaced by "Becker" right?
DP: Yes it was - that's right. So usually on the last day of a show when it's canceled, when you get the official word - you all go out to a restaurant and get drunk and say good-bye and figure out what your next job is. So we were doing that and on the way there, a writer on the show who used to work for "The Simpsons" named Jace Richdale said, "you know, I hear they're looking for a couple guys on 'The Simpsons' would you be interested?" [Pause.] "Um, yeah we'd be interested. What the hell?" [Laughs.] So he made a call to the showrunner at the time, Mike Scully, who read our spec script that we had used as our calling card to get various jobs, and he responded to it and set up a meeting with us and liked us and he hired us. And that was eight years ago. Then when Al Jean took over the show he kept us on staff. When we went into the office for our first meeting, Scully said, "I have to warn you, you know, this show is probably only going to go a couple more seasons." That was eight years ago. [Laughs.]
BFS: So what was your initial experience on the show like?
DP: I was a huge fan of the show. It was a surreal thing. Jace, at one point... they delivered his Simpsons Emmy to him at the [Benben] office, and it was really cool to see this Emmy sitting there, I had never seen one up close. [Laughs.] And he was so over it because he had won them before and was like "big deal." But I remember my partner took home the styrofoam box it came in. [Laughs.] But yes it's grandiose, it's surreal. The first time you sit at a table read and hear the voices coming out the actors - the multiple voices, them talking to each other, singing in different voices, it's really amazing. It takes about three months then the novelty sort of wears off. [Laughs.] But it's good to have guests come in and watch because you relive that amazement you had.
BFS: So what about the creative transition - you were writing sitcoms now you're doing animation, was it hard to shift gears like that?
DP: It was a different process certainly because on a live action sitcom, you read the script on Monday, you're shooting it Friday and it's on the air two and a half to three weeks later in some cases. It's better to have nine months to fix things, to revisit it along the way [Laughs.] Although sometimes you'll go, "didn't this air already? Wasn't this two seasons ago?" You lose track. [Laughs.] But it gives you kind of a chance to sit back and fix problems you might not have had the time to do in a live action show.
BFS: Could you walk through the process a little? Does Al break the stories then pass it on to the room? Or is it because it's such a surreal show, things sort of snowball into episodes from the room?
DP: Well, here's sort of what happens. A writer will usually come up with an idea for an episode. Every year we do a story retreat, although obviously you can pitch things outside of that, and if Al approves the story you'll sit down with the room for three or four days and break out the story, you know, basic structure - first, second and third act - pitch out some jokes. And then [the writer] will take the notes from that session and go and write a very detailed outline - about 17-20 pages. And then you'll come back and get notes on that from Al and a couple other executive producers. And then you'll go out and write a script, the first draft. That takes about two weeks. After that you hand it back to the room and it's everybody's. It gets rewritten, over the course of the process, about 15 times I think. I mean there are times you look at the first draft of a writer�s script and the final draft that appears on the screen and there's nothing [in common]. The overall story structure is usually the same, but the individual lines have changed completely.
BFS: So what was your first script?
DP: I had a writing partner at the time, and we've since amicably split - he's still on the show, I'm still on the show. But at the time we had pitched a story about Krusty finding out he had a daughter from a liaison he had, [who was eventually] voiced by Drew Barrymore. That was the first one we wrote but the first one to actually air was a Halloween trilogy segment that dealt with dark, twisted fairy tales. Including the ones with John, I've written about 13 episodes. I'm working on one right now too that's due at the end of this week. But it's a great process. On a lot of shows you hand in a script and you worry because you think it's going to get dumbed down and ruined but on "The Simpsons," the staff is really talented - Al's a really smart guy - you know your script is never going to get worse. At worst it's going to be different but almost all the time it's going to get better. It's a good group of people to work with. The bar is really high. When I first walked in there, I think it took me two years to feel completely comfortable pitching freely in the room.
BFS: Now that you've done animation, is that something you'll continue to pursue or would you be willing to go back to sitcoms? Or do something complete different like dramas or single-camera shows?
DP: Well I'm really interested in doing features right now, that's where my attention is. Not that I wouldn't love to come back and do television. If I had a good animation idea I'd love to that, sure. But I think I might want to something more like a single-camera genre show. I really like "Heroes." I think it's a great show. "Battlestar Galactica," obviously.
BFS: So where did the feature bug come from?
DP: I studied film at UCLA - I got an MFA in screenwriting from there - so that was my goal originally. I started working with my writing partner, who was actually my boss at UCLA when I worked at the Media Laboratory. And one day we were both trying to write individually so I said, "why don't we pool our resources and write together and see what happens?" And he mainly wanted to do TV and I wanted to do features. And we just kind of got a break with television first. So I�ve had the feature bug from the beginning.
BFS: Was "Benben" your first show then? Or was it "Hope & Gloria" I think?
DP: It was "Hope & Gloria." [Pauses, then laughs.]
BFS: Was that a no comment? [Laughs.]
DP: No, not at all, without the showrunners, Cheri and Bill Steinkellner, hiring us and opening the door for us, we would have never gotten an agent, we would never have gotten on the long path we took to be on "The Simpsons," and I probably wouldn�t have a screenwriting career right now. So I'm grateful for the opportunity they gave us.
BFS: So "The Simpsons" has been on for 18 years - does it feel like that long from your perspective?
DP: Well, I've only been there eight years. [Laughs.] It certainly gets harder and harder to come up with stories. You know, there are only so many ways for Homer to prove himself to be a good husband and dad. But stuff is always happening in the world, you find new characters to pair together, and we always seem to find a way to put new twists on things.
BFS: So do you think it will run forever? [Laughs.]
DP: I don't know, I would have thought it would have ended earlier than this. Like I said before, [when I was hired] they said there were only a few more years left to go and that was eight years ago. I'll never say never, I'll ride this train as long as I can. I love the show. It's good, it's good to be working on a show that when you tell people what you do they immediately smile. It's a Pavlovian response to "The Simpsons." And it has nothing to do with you, there's just a lot of goodwill out there around the world [for the show]. It's a lot better than telling people you work for "X" show and they either stare at you blankly and say they've never heard of it or awkwardly change the subject and/or walk away.
BFS: Isn't "I don't really watch TV" the thing most people say when they don't like your show? [Laughs.]
DP: That's another one, yeah. [Laughs.] You get that a lot from film executives also. But there's just a lot of film snobbery [towards television]. Good writing is good writing. There�s no reason a good TV writer can�t be a good film writer. And there are great films out there, but there are also terrible films.
BFS: I always feel like if you put someone in front of a multiplex or put someone in front of a television, they'll have a better chance of finding something good...
DP: ...on TV. Yeah. I watch "Battlestar." I watch "The Office," Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, "Doctor Who," "Heroes." Friday night is just my big "geek-gasm" on Sci Fi. [Laughs.] "Heroes," "Doctor Who" and "Battlestar" - you can't get a better cross-section of different kinds of science fiction.
BFS: And lastly, have you seen any early cuts of "The Simpsons" movie?
DP: I haven't seen it but I'm really excited to see it. I'm told the process has been a lot like the show, with a room full of writers. I'm sure it'll be great. I just hope I get a free ticket, that's all I want. [Laughs.]
NEXT WEEK'S GUEST: "Criminal Minds" executive producer Ed Bernero.