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The Simpsons and the Genius of John Swartzwelder

Jan 4, 2023


If you’re a fan of The Simpsons, then you’re familiar with the diehards referring to the first eight-to-10 seasons (some will say through season 12 or 13) of the show as its long past “golden era.” There are many reasons for this claim, and the numbers don’t lie. Episode ratings were at their highest during this era for a number of reasons, and we’re about to get into why.

The Simpsons were one of the few animated adult sitcoms of their time, so there was little competition. Additionally, audiences were more receptive to satire and cynical humor than ever before. And finally, one of The Simpson’s most prolific writers, John Swartzwelder, was on the staff. Swartzwelder wrote a whopping 59 episodes of the show, and contributed to many more (and let’s not forget The Simpsons Movie) during his tenure with The Simpsons, and his name is synonymous with the meteoric highs of the show’s golden era.
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Related: The Simpsons: The Most Heartwarming Episodes, Ranked

Being at Friendly Odds with the Writing Staff

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While The Simpsons is by no means a political show, they have a lot of underlying political undertones– especially during the earlier seasons. Swartzwelder was known to be a right-leaning Libertarian, NRA type, while the rest of the writing staff during this time were mostly Ivy League-educated, left-leaning Baby Boomers in their 30s. This made nothing sacred, and really elevated the writing to give it mass appeal. The friendly tug of war between Swartzwelder’s scripts, and the rest of the writing staff revising his work made for great political (and non-political humor). Think of those friends you have that you often have a great time with despite glaring differences in fundamental beliefs about how the world works. Simply put, tension just works when it comes to comedy writing, and this is especially true during this era of The Simpsons.

Think about episodes like “Homer the Great”, or “Whacking Day”, and “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”, where nepotism and government collusion drive the plot, and the citizens of Springfield have to react to it. The residents of Springfield are from all walks of life, from working class, white collar, law enforcement, to the Hollywood Elite type. They’re all at odds with each other in hilarious ways, just like the writing staff.

Taking Ordinary Situations and Making Them Larger Than Life

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Only Swartzwelder could take a simple bullying plot and escalate it to full-on guerilla warfare with water balloons spearheaded by a one-armed Vietnam veteran with an ax to grind. The montage of the kids training and preparing for war is something straight out of Full Metal Jacket, and it shows the audience how kids with limited life experience may see standing up to a bully as a life-altering event. The childlike innocence of Bart and his nerdier friends juxtaposed against actual warfare makes the final showdown into a memorable battle Royale that is still talked about to this day, and it’s all thanks to the Swartzwelder touch.

Related: The Simpsons Producer Teases New Movie, Could Go Straight to Streaming

The Golden Era of the Simpsons was a perfect time capsule of societal problems in the ’90s. When it comes to the overt commercialization of children’s entertainment properties, look no further than “Itchy & Scratchy Land”, an episode that ends with an animatronic apocalypse as the family and other patrons of the theme park flee for their lives. And who could forget when the town tries to capture an ever elusive cat burglar in “Homer the Vigilante”, an episode in which Swartzwelder tackles mob mentality, lazy law enforcement, and the potential overbearing presence of a homeowner’s association. Through humor, and absurd escalations, Swartzwelder had his finger on the pulse, and his time with The Simpsons did nothing short of an excellent job in critically turning the mirror on its subjects while showing us the humor throughout all the chaos.

The Mysteriousness of Swartzwelder Himself

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Swartzwelder is a known recluse, doesn’t do interviews, and it’s been a gag throughout the series– most notably, the statue of his likeness in “The Day the Violence Died”. According to the episode’s commentaries, Matt Groening said that Swartzwelder would sit at a booth in his favorite restaurant “drinking copious amounts of coffee and smoking endless cigarettes.” When the state of California passed an anti-smoking law, Swartzwelder purchased a similar diner booth and installed it in his home, so he could continue with the process he knew and loved.

It was also during one of the commentary tapes when the writing staff tried to get Swartzwelder on the phone for a quick interview, but when he caught on to what they were trying to do, he coyly pretended to be somebody else and hung up.

Frank Grimes, I Mean… Come On!

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Any diehard Simpsons fan could tell you where they were when they were first introduced to Frank Grimes (or “Grimey” as he liked to be called), in “Homer’s Enemy”. Words cannot do justice to the final freakout that Grimes has at the end of the episode, and it’s known as one of the greatest moments in the series. While this idea was originally pitched by producer Bill Oakley, it’s Swartzwelder who took the idea and ran with it in this eighth season classic.

He may be a little crazy, and he may walk to the beat of his own drum; but John Swartzwelder, with the help of the rest of The Simpsons writing staff is responsible for some of the most memorable moments of the series. While the show is still going strong in its fourth decade, many still consider the episodes from the golden era to be the best, and we have John Swartzwelder to thank for that.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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