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Sam Simon's Fractious Four Years With 'The Simpsons' Changed Television History

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for WGAw

Collaborating on a masterpiece might be heaven, but arguing over credits can be hell. The television writer and producer Sam Simon, who died March 8, was best known as a co-creator of "The Simpsons." Working with cartoonist Matt Groening, producer James L. Brooks, and a boatful of others, Simon was as responsible as anyone for the unique "Simpsons" sensibility, that combination of gleeful impudence and populist courtesy, which has made the show a pillar of global pop culture. Yet Simon’s tenure at the show lasted only its first four seasons, from 1989 to 1993. A tumultuous battle with Groening over the show's direction and its acclaim marked his brief but groundbreaking stint. Without that rocky marriage, "The Simpsons" as we know it might never have been. The final product grew out of their competing designs, as well as their very wrangling.

"Brilliantly funny," Groening said of Simon in 2001, "and one of the smartest writers I've ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced." The dismissal was mutual, going back to the earliest days of the show. In a 1990 interview, Simon curtly defined Groening’s role as “the show's ambassador” rather than a hands-on creator.  "That's a little bit condescending," Groening responded in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, adding, "There's definitely a power struggle here. There's a scramble to claim credit for the show now that it's become successful.”

The Simon-Groening battle follows a familiar pattern in collectively created popular culture: the success of a work often fuels disputes over primary authorship. More than money, arguments of this nature are about fame—custody, even. Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, among many others, collided similarly. In a way, egos drove these arguments. But in another, more accurate way, these were disputes born from the fusion of effort and a vital clash of visions.

Matt Groening came to television as an outsider artist. He went to Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, which he described as "a hippie college, with no grades or required classes, that drew every weirdo in the Northwest." He first made his mark in 1980 with his alternative comic strip "Life in Hell," which ran in the Los Angeles Reader and was later syndicated in other alt-weeklies. Drawn with a Thurber-esque aggressive minimalism, "Life in Hell" brought a punk abrasiveness to the comics. Many of Groening’s early strips were mini-rants about love, work, and family life. "The Simpsons," which debuted in 1987 as a series of shorts on "The Tracey Ullman Show," was an extension of Groening’s essential autobiographical approach to cartooning. The characters even took their names from Groening’s family (his parents are Homer and Marge; his sisters, Lisa and Maggie).

Simon was born in 1955, a year after Groening, and came up on a decidedly more inside track. He grew up in Beverly Hills; his father was a clothing manufacturer and his mother an art dealer. Groucho Marx was a neighbor, one that Simon once saw in bed (albeit fully dressed) with his mom. Elvis Presley once rescued Simon’s dog. After studying at Stanford, where he drew cartoons for the student paper, Simon advanced through television, starting with lowly cartoons like "The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse" but quickly earning credits on shows like "Taxi" and "Cheers," programs for which he worked not just as a writer but also on occasion as a show-runner and producer. He met Groening's outsider status and innate rebelliousness with a career man's shrewdness about how to make a sitcom.

Whereas Groening’s approach to art was personal, Simon’s genius was recognizing the need for a grander stage than the skeletal backdrop of "Life in Hell" and the early "Simpsons" shorts. Simon brought the mentality of a "Taxi"- or "Cheers"-style ensemble cast to "The Simpsons," and built a world around them. A typical non-animated sitcom is severely limited in its background: the characters keep shuffling around in the same living rooms and bedrooms. It was Simon’s insight that animation allowed "The Simpsons" to sprawl across a vast canvas, illustrating new locations and inventing characters through the multifold voice talents of the cast. The Springfield the Simpsons inhabit is a mini-world on to itself, with its own rich mythology and history. Without Simon's vision, Homer might not be a regular among the sad-sacks at Moe's Tavern or have a delightful fiend like Mr. Burns as a boss. Bart might have only his sister and father as foils instead of Principal Skinner, Rod and Todd Flanders, and Comic Book Guy.

Simon’s incessant mapping out of the Springfieldian universe was done in the service of creating a series that could tell many stories. As hilarious as Matt Groening’s early work was, it consisted of strung-together jokes rather than narratives. Simon knew how to construct stories in half-hour TV form, and he assembled and trained the show's writing staff, the core team that would exfoliate a universe from the seeds he and Groening provided. As Chris Turner, author of the definitive book Planet Simpson, noted on Twitter: “Simon recruited much of the Murderers Row of golden-age Simpsons writers—George Meyer, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, others.”

In running the writing staff, Simon could be a grueling taskmaster, as borne out by many accounts in John Ortved’s The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History. “Sam’s basically an asshole—whom I adore,” his assistant Daria Paris told Ortved. Simon all but confessed as much to Vanity Fair: “In the pressure cooker of a TV show, it’s a little bit of a witches’ brew. I completely think I’m capable of being crazy. I probably was crazy when I was doing 'The Simpsons'.” Yet for all of Simon’s abusiveness, he was loved by almost all the writers who he worked with, who are often the most eloquent advocates for his centrality in the show's creation.

The creative friction between Groening and Simon had a political dimension. By depicting an all-American family that was at once loving and rakishly disreputable, "The Simpsons" amounted to a counterculture protest to Reaganite conservatism and its facile celebrations of family values. Its rebuke to the right was open to multiple interpretations. Did it offer an alternative populism or was it altogether anti-populist? No character better embodies that ambiguity, incidentally, than the Yale-educated clown criminal Sideshow Bob, who can sing the entire libretto to "H.M.S. Pinafore" and yet can't keep from stepping on rakes. In shades of Bob, Simon was a well-educated aesthete who made his living as a popular entertainer. He spent his "Simpsons" spoils on art by John Singer Sargent, Thomas Hart Benton, Rodin, Andy Warhol. He also spent his vast fortune on many charities, particularly devoting himself to animal rights.

If Groening provided the populist fury of "The Simpsons," Simon provided the necessary counterpoint: a sophisticated awareness of populism's limits. The brilliance of the show's writing, in fact, was to fuse this contradiction not just into individual characters or episodes, but into single jokes. Take, for example, the Montgomery Burns line, in an episode Simon wrote, when the nuclear plant owner realizes he has lost a governor's race because of the three-eyed (read: irradiated) fish Marge has served him at a photo-op dinner. "This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election," he says, "and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That's democracy for you."

Such polyphonic greatness permeates "The Simpsons," offering not a coherent worldview but a clash of impulses. And at the heart of the show’s contention was the fruitful arguments between its creators. Simon’s tenure was striking in its brevity: only those first four revelatory seasons. Yet the model and spirit its creators established in those early years propelled the show (albeit with inconsistent quality) for more than 20 years since. To build a vehicle durable enough to be driven by many hands over the decades is the mark of a true inventor, a mantle Simon can undoubtedly share with the son of Homer and Marge Groening.