by Ursula Rogers
We had the chance to chat with The Simpsons showrunner Matt Selman and his wife Renee Ridgeley (voice actor, writer) during the 12th season of the ATX TV Festival. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Austin 101: Is there a way you can explain what’s going on with the writer’s strike to someone who is not in the industry?
Selman: I always hope I can explain this articulately. There’s an assault on the fundamental protections on the writers that have made all the tv everyone loves that has made a ton of money for studios and streamers over the years. They’re making writing staff smaller and they’re not letting writers on the set. They’re paying them as little as possible. It is the nature of companies to want to squeeze as much work out of their labor for as little money as possible, but we have to fight back against that because otherwise it’s going to ruin the product. Like it’s not just that they’re going to lose money. They could have easily made a deal, but it’s an ugly situation. This isn’t about the richest people wanting to get richer. This is about people being able to live and literally have this as a career. It just won’t be feasible. People use the word disruption like it’s a good word but disruption kills the host organism. It’s like a virus that infects a host organism. Then, when it leaves the cell is dead. It just moves on to another thing and we saw it with music. We don’t want it to happen to movies and tv. Luckily the writers are unified and often we’re a small enough group that we do have some leverage. It remains to be seen how much leverage we do have. It’s really about not making writing into a gig economy job. I mean no disrespect to people of gig economy jobs. I want those employees to have union protections as well. But the business model of just spending as much money as you can to artificially inflate your stock price, but at the same time crushing labor with no thought of keeping the organism healthy, is not feasible; it’s going to end up costing everyone money. It’s going to kill the host. Don’t kill the host, companies.
It’s not just like wham, we want money, it’s like ‘can this industry survive?’ I guess you could have tv written by people that were already rich that don’t need money. The reason we’re in a sort of golden age of tv now is because you have writers who have crafted these shows beautifully and people have connected with them in ways they didn’t connect in the generation before when everything was on network and it had to appeal to everyone. Hopefully, we’re mentoring, paving the way for new voices in an uplifting way. It’s just really sad that there’s this inherent resentment of the labor force that has created so much magic for everybody.
Austin 101: Do you feel like there are even more issues with getting respect for writers of animation?
Selman: Luckily, The Simpsons is a writers guild show. For some baffling reason, from television history, a lot of animation was considered just kids television and so it was not covered by The Writers Guild. The Simpsons really changed that and now some smart shows for adults are animated, but a lot of these companies are never going to allow their animated shows to have writers covered by the Writer’s Guild and it seems very arbitrary. But again, it’s a question of what battles are you going to fight, right? It’s a bummer that shows like Velma and Clone High are not Writers Guild shows and somehow the companies can just say “oh no, they’re not writer’s guild”. And the producers of that show didn’t have the leverage to make it happen. I’m sure they tried. But animation is the least of our worries right now. Just protecting these fundamental elements of how television shows are made is important so they’re good and make money for everybody. Things we didn’t think had to be put in a contract before, now, have to be put in a contract.
Austin 101: Do you feel like there are certain Simpsons characters that you feel need to be explored more or are misunderstood by viewers?
Selman: That’s a good, really smart question. I think one of the great things about a show as old as ours is that it’s almost our mission statement to go deeper into the side characters. We can afford that. But if you’re doing a new show, you’re like ‘how do we make people fall in love with the main characters? What happens to them?’ We did that with the episode “Carl Carlson Rides Again.” Carl has always sort of been in Homer’s friend group. The writer came and pitched a story to really go deeper into Carl’s backstory he’d never explored before. Carl used to be voiced by Hank Azaria, now he’s voiced by Alex Désert who’s a great actor and has brought great life to the character and in a way that the audience has really accepted. So, what is it really to center a story around his identity search? If we’re not doing stories like that, we’re wasting a great creative opportunity. I was excited that we did that for Carl.
What other characters might we do that for? Well, Lenny at some point. We did a show that was just a road trip with Skinner and Chalmers that I thought was fun because it was like a classic 80s road trip movie and barely had the Simpsons (family) in it at all. That was a fun show. We did a show that really explored the secret life of Chief Wiggums wife, Sarah Wiggums, exploring inner lives of the characters people don’t think of as a great opportunity.
Austin 101: What are some characters that you feel need to be explored more or are misunderstood by viewers?
Renee: Well, certainly, I could just speak to the character that I had portrayed on The Simpsons, Dr. Wendy Sage, who’s not a doctor at all because she’s a hypnotherapist. Your question is exactly why I wanted to see a one-breasted cancer survivor on the Simpsons because, 100,000 women go flat every year. 200,000 of them have mastectomies. Some of them rebuild their breasts and some of them don’t; or like me some of them do and it turns out to be a disaster and you’re like ‘oh my health is more important than having breast milk’. I’m an advocate in that world. I go to medical conferences and educate myself. I educate others on health risks and their options. Advocacy starts local and my local is the Simpsons (because of Matt). I said, what about putting a flat woman on the Simpsons? One-breasted women say ‘I had cancer’. Her body says, ‘I treated myself for cancer and I’m alive because of it?’ It’s unlike other cancers; breast cancer is a very visible cancer, right? I thought when I was diagnosed,’oh my gosh, everyone must be dead because I don’t see women without their breasts’.
The great Audre Lorde (poet, activist, breast cancer, warrior) had this powerful message that still resonates with women today.
If we’re going to eradicate this scourge, we must start with women with mastectomies that must be visible to each other because we, as survivors, as community and people, have gone through that poison. Slash and burn. We’re the ones who will raise our voices and say something needs to be done. So I’m doing my little bit of carrying on Audre Lorde’s legacy. There’s a famous photo of her rocking her uniboob. I hope that she would think it was brilliant to see this character. (Renee was wearing a shirt that showed uniboob women). She represents so many women.
Austin 101: How do you find sincerity in the humor yourself?
Renee: I certainly laugh at my own journey. I couldn’t at the time I was going through it. I was older when I had a mastectomy and breastfed my children. I try to remind myself that my body is an instrument on an ornament, and that was a beautiful, sacred part of me that was taken away. So I think when people are really in it, some people have that ability to have dark humor, to laugh through it. I don’t know that I had it because I was in so much pain from my reconstruction. They literally rearranged muscles in my body and the pain was excruciating and traumatic. But once I was able to repair the muscles and later get implants removed (they made me sick with a rash and fever), I healed and could laugh at it.
We can find silliness in this thing that has a part of my body that’s been kind of neutralized for health reasons, you know? So, I love finding comedy in it. And the fact that women in this breast cancer community call themselves uniboob. Women with unilateral mastectomies, endearingly say uniboob, flatties, and the flats. Let’s live life big and large and I think that’s how we can find the comedy in the tragedy. Just like grief and joy.
Austin 101: So like with the body positivity movement, how do you find your people and how do you find the beauty in your body?
Renee: My body is not defined as beautiful or normal. But in terms of the healing, that all came from my community; all of it came from women who had gone through the journey before me. And Wendy’s people I connected with on social media. I connected with them online and then I met them in person. And so, that’s where my healing has been. I would say to anybody who’s struggling with their body, there’s someone like you out there and there’s someone who’s a little bit further in their journey than you. Listen to them, ask them those questions, and just be around them. Because when I go with my friends to breast cancer events and we take our shirts off, we’re like, ‘we fucking rock this!’
Austin 101: In terms of celebrity and musical guests, how does the show decide who to cast and has anyone declined?
Selman: Well Bruce Springsteen turned us down many times.
So we don’t just sit around thinking ‘Oh, we would love to do a show with Bruce Springsteen’. We had an idea. It has to come to the story. Someone told us Lizzo wanted to do the show. We obviously love Lizzo, and she’s a huge Simpsons fan and knew all the inside jokes when she came in. The story still kind of comes first. I don’t love it when the person just comes in and plays themselves. If we have Tom Cruise, we wouldn’t want him to just play himself. You would want him to play a motivational speaker or something that’s kind of in his wheelhouse, but still acting. The luxury of being able to pick famous people and amazing musicians is great.
Austin 101: So how do you feel about the cultural impact of The Simpsons within animation and how do you feel about the current landscape of adult animation?
Selman: You know, it’s funny. I feel like sometimes everyone working animation was raised on the Simpsons, myself included.
There’s two full generations of animated shows. I’m the first generation. I watched when I was in college. Then the next generation watched it when they were in middle school. And now, another generation that watched it when they were in elementary school. All those people have grown up to make their own amazing shows. There was the first generation of Simpsons, not spin-offs. That shows animation can be smart and emotional and real and dark and messed up for a smart, cool audience, right? Like South Park and King of the Hill. Those shows were like the first generation. Then there’s Bob’s Burgers and all these other ones. There are so many great kids shows on Adult Swim and Cartoon Network. Those creators were also raised on the Simpsons and that was like their base layer of what animation can do and they’ve taken that and gone in a million different interesting directions. Like Gravity Falls, which is a show our family loved and then Steven Universe, which I haven’t seen as much but has a huge fan base. All these shows are just fantastic.
Austin 101: Who would you want at an animation panel for ATX TV Festival next year?
Selman: I would love to have Rick and Morty or whatever the cool new show is that I haven’t even seen.
The Simpsons is the longest-running primetime scripted show in television history which just aired it’s 750th episode and season finale on May 21st.
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