Published on March 11th, 2015 | by Clint Davis
In Praise of Sam Simon: The Architect of TV’s Best Comedy
In my house, the early seasons of The Simpsons are gospel. When I was growing up, I spent countless hours watching — and in anticipation of — every episode I could find in syndication.
From the time I was about 10 to 13 years old, this was my schedule: At 5 and 5:30 p.m., The Simpsons aired on Fox 19. At 6 p.m., I’d usually eat my dinner and talk to my parents a little bit. Then, at 6:30 p.m., I’d flip over to Fox 45 (living between two TV markets had its advantages) and catch my final episode of the day.
I credit these shows with giving me my sense of humor. The Simpsons told me what was funny, taught me how to satirize celebrities and do garish impressions of school faculty that would kill in homeroom. It also taught me about the ties that bind us all and stunned me with how much heart a cartoon could have.
I watched and re-watched episodes like “Radio Bart,” “The Way We Was” and “Marge vs. the Monorail.” The episodes I watched in constant rotation — loving them every time — were mostly from the first four seasons of the show. In other words, the Sam Simon years.
When I found out Monday that Simon, who’d been fighting cancer since 2013, had died, the deep love I hold for that series came flooding back.
Along with Matt Groening (the animator who designed and created the Simpson family based on his own) and Oscar-winning producer-filmmaker James L. Brooks, Simon developed and created The Simpsons television series in 1989. Simon left the show in 1993 under mysterious circumstances but his vision is what laid the foundation for TV’s longest-running sitcom, but more, it’s what made it the best half-hour of comedy for the first decade of its existence.
Look around the internet and you’ll find tributes to Simon in the wake of his death. Former writers, cast members and producers all point to him as the Frank Lloyd Wright of The Simpsons. He’s the one that made it outstanding, instead of just another yuckfest about a dysfunctional family.
Simon is credited with assembling the show’s first writing staff — a group that has since become legendary in TV circles. Conan O’Brien, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, Al Jean, Mike Reiss, John Schwartzwelder and Jon Vitti. These aren’t all household names but to comedy fans — and Simpsons worshippers — these guys are icons. All of them hired under Simon’s watch.
He’s credited with creating staple characters like Mr. Burns, Chief Wiggum and Dr. Hibbert. He co-wrote the episode that featured the first appearances of Apu, Reverend Lovejoy and Sideshow Bob (season one’s “The Telltale Head”). Simon also co-wrote episodes that introduced beloved cult characters like Artie Ziff (season two’s “The Way We Was”) and Blinky the three-eyed fish (season two’s “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”).
If that weren’t enough, Simon is also regarded as the guy who wasn’t afraid to give the show some brains. It could have just been The Flintstones of the ’90s, which likely would have suited Fox executives fine but Sam Simon separated The Simpsons by aiming it at adults — real, thoughtful adults — a fact that’s evidenced by the now-classic segment he crafted for the first-ever “Treehouse of Horror” episode in season two.
Matt Groening allegedly said a Simpsons version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” would be too pretentious, alienating the audience. Today, “The Raven” piece featuring Bart as the titular bird and Homer as the man being mentally tortured by it. It’s a primetime cartoon that is as artful as it is representative of the relationships between its main characters.
The 6-minute clip has been used by English teachers to help inattentive kids learn about Poe’s most well-known work. You won’t see Family Guy episodes being taught in public school — that show didn’t have Sam Simon in the writer’s room.
Aside from his work on The Simpsons, Simon spent time producing and writing some of the best TV comedies of the sitcom era, including Taxi, Cheers, and The Drew Carey Show. He also made news recently when it was announced he would donate his entire fortune to charity upon his death. Those millions will now go to various charities, including his own namesake foundation which helps stray dogs and hungry people.
As far as I’m concerned, Simon was a saint.
Sam Simon died March 8, 2015. He was 59 years old.