‘The Simpsons’ Showrunners: 28 Years of D’ohs and Shows

Nick Murray
TV The Simpsons
TV The Simpsons

It’s easy to associate The Simpsons with its original creator and animator, Matt Groening. His signature appears on almost every piece of marketing, merchandise, and artwork the Fox juggernaut churns out. While he is still listed as an executive producer, Groening only co-ran it for the first two seasons. In fact, over its 28-year history, The Simpsons has had numerous showrunners, all from different backgrounds and comedic pedigrees. Grab a Duff (or a Fudd, if you’re in Shelbyville) and find a creative way to get to the couch because we’re going to explore the ups and downs of each of The Simpsons showrunners.

Seasons 1 and 2: Matt Groening, James L. Brooks and Sam Simon

It’s okay if you don’t remember the first two seasons of The Simpsons. Bart was a walking catchphrase, Homer had a different-sounding voice and there weren’t as many sideline Springfieldians to bounce a story off of. Oh, and Smithers was black for an episode. It was weird.

Three names carried over in the show’s pivot from The Tracey Ullman Show to primetime: creator Matt Groening, superstar comedy writer/director/producer James L. Brooks and producer Sam Simon. Brooks’ relationship with Fox enabled the infamous “no notes” rule—meaning no intervention between the show’s writers and the network executives—which still applies to the show today. His edict that the show must have a familial, emotional background that complements the comedy also lives on.

Simon (who passed away last year) left in 1993 and is responsible for the “voice” of the show. He acted as the head writer and first manager of some of the show’s best scribes—namely John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, George Meyer and the next set of showrunners, Al Jean and Mike Reiss.

Groening is still the bearded, human face for the show and serves as its creative consultant.

Episodes to watch from this era:

Homer’s Night Out, Krusty Gets Busted (directed by Brad Bird!), Lisa’s Substitute

Seasons 3 and 4: Al Jean and Mike Reiss

Al and Mike inherited a show that, in its third season, was really gaining prominence in the pop culture of the 1990s. The duo thrived under that pressure and ushered The Simpsons into its “golden years,” from seasons three to nine.

Al Jean’s name is synonymous with The Simpsons. Not only did he co-run the show with Reiss for these two seasons, but returned as showrunner in season 13…and never left. Much like Brooks, Jean has focused on the dichotomy of comedy and emotional drama that comes from the Simpson family, particularly Lisa. Mike Reiss took on the comedy, specifically gags, and led the writing team for these seasons. Both hired a young’un by the name of Conan O’Brien before he got stuck with a later-hours gig.

Episodes to watch:

Stark Raving Dad (starring a not-so-subtle Michael Jackson), Last Exit to Springfield, Mr. Plow, Marge vs. the Monorail (written by O’Brien)

Seasons 5 and 6: David Mirkin

Along with Jean and Reiss, a lot of the show’s first batch of writers left for newer, brighter pastures. Brooks hired David Mirkin, known for his surrealist Fox comedy Get a Life and the sketch series The Edge. Mirkin was the first solo showrunner for The Simpsons, and his era is punctuated by its embrace of full-out, weird ‘n wacky comedy. Long gone were the days of Bart the “bad boy” as much more focus was given to Homer. Mirkin also had free rein in hiring a new room of writers, including the creators of future animated rivals: Futurama’s David X. Cohen and King of the Hill’s Greg Daniels.

Episodes to watch:

Deep Space Homer, A Star is Burns, Treehouse of Horror V (a fan favorite), Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Parts One and Two)

Seasons 7 and 8: Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein

Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who despite being in their late 20s, had been writing for the show since season 3. With the blessing of their former boss, the duo’s claim to fame was bringing the show back to reality from the Mirkin-sphere and focusing almost wholly on the Simpson family. However, they wanted to have one or two episodes a season that either challenged the show’s format or tackled a subject that, at the time, was controversial. These episodes, to no one’s surprise, remain some of the highest-rated in the show’s history.

Episodes to watch:

Lisa the Vegetarian, 22 Short Films About Springfield, You Only Move Twice, Homer’s Enemy

Seasons 9-12: Mike Scully

The era of Mike Scully is controversial for Simpsons fans. This was the beginning of the end, the last ray of shining light that were the show’s “golden years.” Why? His promotion from writer to showrunner happened alongside a shift in tone for the show, one that favored gags-a-minute over emotion and character. However, Scully did his best and was highly regarded by his writers as one of the best bosses they’ve ever had. In retrospect, Scully had comedic chops that were overshadowed by the fact that he played it safe as an executive and got burned by a loss of talented writers in the middle of his reign.

Episodes to watch:

The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson, Lisa The Simpson, Homer to the Max, Beyond Blunderdome

The iconic couch from the Simpsons show appears on stage in a flashy vaudevillian act surrounded by show girls with headpieces.

When Scully left, Al Jean returned to the show that made him famous (at least in animated comedy). Jean has, through thick and thin, led the show for the past 15 years. Most of the previous showrunners and writers returned for The Simpsons Movie in 2007, but since then, the office of Simpsons showrunner has had the butt imprint of Al Jean and whether or not that’s a good or a bad thing is for diehard fans to decide. Is it time for a new person to hold the yellow paint? Or is it better to let him finish what he’s been doing for more than a decade? That’s another discussion entirely.

Nick Murray
Nick is a Fan Contributor for Fandom. He writes for The Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach Culture and other news outlets. He can be found arguing about The Simpsons, Nintendo, movies, classic sitcoms and why Bambi is just about the best thing in the world.
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