Nine months! Which, for the record, is the same amount of time it took me to learn how to operate a damn Keurig. (WHY IS IT SO TOUCHY?! THE CUP IS IN! THE CUP IS INNNNN, I TELL YOU!)
So nine months to make a single episode of The Simpsons—which is definitely longer than you'd imagine, since it is the twenty-first century and all. And yet—and here's the real kicker—it only takes a writer two weeks to write the script, which is about forty-five pages long. So what's everybody doing the other eight and a half months? Getting drunk? Playing bocci ball?
Well, let's take a little looksie, shall we?
- First, when the writer hands in the script, it gets read and annotated by the head honcho, noting alllllll the changes to be made. Because there are always changes to be made when it comes to writing, ya'll. Except I'm pretty sure The Simpsons takes it to another level: just wait until you see!
- Next, the script is given to a team of six to eight completely new writers, all different from the original writer, who then all sit together and try to address the notes. (And make even better jokes.)
- Once they've taken it as far as they can (go, go, Gadget brain power!), the script is then passed onto YET ANOTHER TEAM of six to eight writers to polish it even more—which makes this sort of like a giant intellectual orgy.
- Next, the actors come in and do a read-through and—you guessed it—the writers are listening and making even MORE notes, based on how it sounds in context.
- Then they make even more edits.
- Afterward, the cast comes back in and records their lines in the studio—performing each line five times. (And you got saucy repeating the directions to your boyfriend once over.)
- Then, an audio editor picks the best of the five lines, and cuts it all together into the full episode, which would basically be the best podcast ever.
- Then they've got to work with the animators to create all of the visuals—which I am sure is no walk in the park.
- BUT IT'S NOT DONE THERE. Oh no no no. Because once a rough version is animated, all of the writers get in a room once more and I shit you not, DO ANOTHER RE-WRITE, fixing jokes that don't work, tossing out whole scenes and adding new ones. And this is the part I couldn't believe: up to a quarter of the script is changed at this point. A quarter of the script: after they've done all that work and nearly finalized everything with the animation!
- Then, actors have to come back in and re-record all new lines. (RIGHT?) And the animators have to animate new scenes.
- And finally, the writers will all watch it all one more time, putting it through a pretty damn rigorous litmus test: a joke must get a laugh three times from the same group in order for it to stay in. If it doesn't, back to the drawing board.
- Then they do lots of other fun stuff, like record original orchestra music for every episode. Because WHY NOT, WE'RE ON A ROLL.
- And then the show airs and you watch it for twenty minutes. Nine months of work for twenty minutes of laughs.
Fan-fucking-tastic, am I right? So the answer to “what's everybody doing the other eight and a half months?” is simple: they're doing the work. The very hard and laborious work of thinking critically and having standards and killing their darlings in order to go from good…to great.
And I thought that was a nice dose of inspiration for all of us, ya know? Because how often do you work on something and get SO DOWN ON YOURSELF when it isn't perfect and you suck? How often do you come close to quitting because it's taking you forever and you don't think you've got it in you?
The best work takes twenty times longer than you've planned. The best work happens when everybody else goes home. The best work happens when you're poring over the details. And the best work happens when you GET that creating something kick ass doesn't happen on your first attempt: it happens over time, in layers. Day after day, you add to it. And day after day, it becomes better. It has no choice.
If some of the best writers in the world put in nine months for just one episode, how much time might you need to put in to create something great?
Once is for amateurs. Twenty times is for the pros.
More and more I'm convinced that brilliance isn't born: it's built.
P.S. I didn't just pull all of this out of my ass. I read it in a book called Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons, by Mike Reiss.
P.P.S. I don't even watch The Simpsons! How bad do I feel!
P.P.P.S. Speaking of editing, THIS MORNING I AM ON MY WAY TO MEET MY EDITOR AT VIRGIN BOOKS HERE IN LONDON!!!! Yes, I AM shitting my pants, thanks for asking! To all of my UK peeps who sent me awesome love letters of support: I passed along each and every one, and I have YOU to thank for our UK deal. And to the guy who said that he would name a candy bar after me? I fucking love you, man.