Marge and Homer not splitting up

Executive producer Al Jean was startled by fans' fury when he said The Simpsons couple would be legally separated

Al Jean (above) says people consider The Simpsons (top) as extended family.
Al Jean says people consider The Simpsons (above) as extended family.PHOTO: FOX
Al Jean (above) says people consider The Simpsons (top) as extended family.
Al Jean (above) says people consider The Simpsons as extended family.PHOTO: FACEBOOK/ AL JEAN

After 26 seasons on air, are Marge and Homer Simpson, one of television's most iconic couples, getting a divorce?

Netizens were livid a few months ago when Al Jean, executive producer of animated TV series The Simpsons, said in an interview with media trade rag Variety that the couple would be "legally separated" in an episode in the 27th and latest season.

Long-time fans of the series who were furious at the prospect took their anger online, prompting Jean to clarify on his Twitter account after the interview was published that his words may have been "misinterpreted" by audiences.

Speaking to The Straits Times over the telephone recently from the United States, the veteran producer admits that he was "startled" by the online backlash.

"I won't say too much else because I don't want to give away anything that happens, but I was really startled by how news of Marge and Homer possibly separating could become worldwide headlines.

"People were completely appalled. Many fans were more worried about that than real problems," he says with a chuckle.

It is a sign of how passionate fans can be of the long-running TV series, which debuted in 1989.

Centred on the middle-class suburban Simpsons family, which includes the couple's three children - son Bart and daughters Lisa and Maggie - the critically acclaimed show has amassed dozens of awards over the years, including Emmys for Outstanding Voice-over Performance.

Jean, 54, started out as a writer on the first season of The Simpsons and was promoted to showrunner during its third and fourth seasons where he did everything from writing episodes to working on the audio.

He left the show after the fourth season but returned to helm it from Season 13.

He says that although he was initially surprised by the recent outrage from fans, he understands why they were so riled up.

"We don't do story arcs in The Simpsons because we want to keep things in such a way that people can watch episodes from different seasons and not tell the difference.

"And there are certain rules you obey, such as Homer and Marge being together.

"People consider The Simpsons as extended family - they take it seriously."

1 Do you take into account fans' opinions about the show when you produce a new season?

I certainly appreciate constructive criticism.

You can't listen to everything that fans are saying because you have to move forward, but it's important to know what they are thinking.

2 Do you think The Simpsons has gained new fans over the years or are they mostly long-time viewers?

Overall, the number (of viewers) in the US for almost every show has declined.

The worldwide audience has certainly grown, so even though it may have declined in one way, it has bloomed in another.

3 Over the years, other animated TV series such as Family Guy have popped up. Has The Simpsons ever felt threatened by their presence?

We never felt like there was a direct competition with those shows. We're just true to ourselves.

I like animation, so I'm glad that there are all these other shows around.

As for Family Guy, it airs on the same network as us, so I think that only helps ratings overall.

4 The tone of The Simpsons has remained the same after all this time, even as other animations get more violent or rude. Do you act as gatekeeper of tone?

Yes, that's part of my job.

When The Simpsons first started, it was considered rather controversial and inappropriate. But now, it's considered even mildly conservative.

But the whole time, we've never thought we had to outdo anybody - we are just doing stories about a family with problems and that's how it has always been.

5 Growing up, were you the funny guy with all the jokes?

No, I was the nerd who was a mathematics major.

My sister was the more reckless one.

A lot of the writers on the show are actually quiet and observant. I think that contributed to us becoming writers in the first place.

6 There are so many jokes in every episode of The Simpsons that it may be hard to catch them all the first time. Is The Simpsons written this way to encourage people to re-watch it?

Yes, absolutely. We knew that people wouldn't be able to catch all the jokes on the first try, but with home video releases, we always wanted to write the episodes so that it's rewarding to viewers.

It's like shows such as Mad Men. There are always clues hidden in each episode that you can catch maybe on another viewing.

7 In May, voice talent Harry Shearer, who was the voice behind The Simpsons' neighbour Ned Flanders, among other characters, caused a fuss among fans when he said he would be leaving the show. He ended up returning in July. Is any voice talent on the show irreplaceable?

Well, we never got to a point where we had to audition anybody new. But yes, I would think that it would be difficult, so much so that we would avoid it wherever possible.

8 How would you like to be remembered?

Probably just as someone who didn't let The Simpsons fans down. I know that I'll always be associated with The Simpsons and I'm very lucky for that, as the show is still going strong after all these years.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

•The Simpsons Season 27 airs on Fox (StarHub TV Channel 505 and Singtel TV Channel 330) on Saturdays at 7.30pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'Marge and Homer not splitting up'. Print Edition | Subscribe