The Simpsons Showrunner Al Jean Talks the New Disney+ Day Short

Throughout the history of The Simpsons, Bart has been the prankster and, outside of rare occasions, Lisa has been the do-gooder member of the household, always showing her disappointment when her family engages in seedier activities. More than 30 years into that stretch of idealistic pursuits, an all-new Simpsons short will see Lisa exploring some slightly nefarious activities, showing her how much fun it can really be to be bad. While we shouldn't expect this exploration to be a permanent change for the character, this new "Welcome to the Club" short will be a delightful excursion for both Lisa and audiences. "Welcome to the Club" premieres on Disney+ on September 8th.

The new short is described, "It's Disney+ Day and Lisa Simpson has her heart set on the ultimate princess transformation. After meeting some of Disney's most notorious villains, Lisa is surprised to learn being bad just might be more fun." caught up with showrunner Al Jean to talk the development of the story, future shorts, and what is "mind-blowing" about Simpsons references.

(Photo: Disney+) We've got another Disney+ Day coming up, so with this short, what was the origin, what was the nugget of the idea, other than necessarily that Disney+ Day? How did this whole short end up coming together?

Al Jean: Well, we're always trying to figure out a way to mesh with the Disney universe, and I had thought Lisa could join their princesses. I thought, "You know what would be more fun? Is that she tried to join the villains." So that was the genesis of this. And, really, when you think about it, in these movies, you never remember the prince's name, but you always remember the villain's name, and they're much more relatable, their human ambitions and feelings, and so it was really fun to write and have people sing these characters, and to do animation, in some cases, with people who'd worked on the originals, which was fantastic.

When it came time to figuring out the best villains, the best Disney characters to bring into this short, was that a pretty organic process? Was it throwing out a whole bunch of characters and then whittling it down from there? How did you end up with the characters you ended up with?

Well, we actually teased at the end of the Billie Eilish short, Homer dancing with Ursula, so we wanted to put her in, she has a huge part. And then Tress MacNeille -- Ursula's voiced by Dawn Lewis, but Tress MacNeille actually voices a lot of Disney characters -- so we had to get her in, and she does a bunch in the short. It just was really organic because the voices of those characters, the written voices are so great that it's easy to write for them.

With all of these shorts, whether it be the Star Wars shorts, the Loki shorts -- it's a story focusing on the Simpsons and then you bring in other Disney characters. If you could take a certain group of characters or even just a specific character, especially now that Marvel has the Groot shorts, there's other Disney platforms that are developing shorts, is there a character that you would like to completely take out of The Simpsons universe and completely immerse in the MCU or in Star Wars completely?

If I could write Maggie shorts, because she's a great physical comedian and she hearkens back to Buster Keaton, that would be my dream. But it isn't to say there aren't a million great characters, but there's something pure about Maggie that I just go, everything we do with her just has this otherworldly quality. I mean, whatever. That's not very modest, but that's what I feel.

Since there is all this crossover throughout the Disney family, you've worked on The Simpsons for so long, could you ever see yourself wanting to step away from The Simpsons, even temporarily, to develop something for Marvel, to develop something for Star Wars that was maybe a little bit more authentic and, it could be comedic or whatever, but no Simpsons involved whatsoever?

I've been reading Marvel comics since I was six, and so to have the characters and to do anything with Marvel has been a lifelong dream. Without giving too much away, there's a great Marvel actor who's reprised his role in this short, and he's somebody I would work with anytime. He's the best.

We'll get on the horn with this mysterious figure who has a cameo in this short and then put you two together.

We've only worked through Zoom, but you'll see. And I'm sure you know who he is. He's just the best to work with.

I think it's clear, you take one look at me, between my McBain shirt, I have a Milpool tattoo, The Simpsons is a daily thing in my life. For you, obviously anyone's job is going to be ingrained in their life, but as a fan of The Simpsons, do you find yourself throwing out Simpsons quotes or throwing out Simpsons references, or is it pretty separate, "That's my work,"?

It's bizarre to me, because I'll be reading something else and they'll go talk about, "I didn't say 'boo,' I said 'boo-urns.' And I go, 'Oh yeah, that's right, that was a show we produced.' And I'm astounded, time and again, how little things that were just from our rewrite room have made the vernacular of the culture. I mean, it's mind-blowing. I'll never get over that.

So you personally might not be referencing The Simpsons, but it's almost an inescapable thing that you just can't get away from?

Well, the funny thing is, people reference it to me, and I honestly, I do sometimes take a break where I go, "Wait, was that us? Oh yeah, that's right," because it's this weird thing where it's in my brain as work, but it's now something everybody knows. I mean, that choo-choo-choose me Valentine. That's a real Valentine I did, again, I wish I'd saved, in third grade.

Speaking to the tenure of The Simpsons, more than 30-plus years of Simpsons content is out there. I don't know if you've heard this, I know that there's some people who prefer the early seasons to the later seasons. I don't know if you've come across any of these people?

I have, but the bar seems to move the later people are born. And, obviously, I have a big stake in all the seasons, but we're nominated for two Emmys this year, and the episode, which I didn't have much to do with, that's nominated for the series is fantastic. I think it's as good as anything we've ever done. And quite objectively I say that. We're also nominated for a short and that's a thrill, too, for the Billie Eilish short. So I can't be objective, but I know we work as hard and we care as much as we ever have.

I guess that's what I'm curious about is, and it sounds like you touched upon that, is there are people who've been lifelong Simpsons fans who are maybe just in their 20s, or in their teens or whatever, who grew up with it. It sounds like you're not really ever looking to the past and thinking, "Let's try and replicate this sense of humor," and you're just constantly trying to push forward, and whoever's along for the ride is along for the ride.

I'll quote a comment I read online, which is one of the funniest things I'd ever read. Somebody was really mad about some development in the show, and really, really mad. And somebody wrote back, "Dude, you should see a therapist." And he said, "I did. And she said I was right."

Well, you don't often hear, "I read a comment online and it was funny."

That made me laugh so hard.

You talk about objectively looking at the series, but speaking subjectively, Milhouse is my favorite character. Do you have a favorite character or do you feel like that's picking your favorite child?

Well, besides Lisa, actually, it's Comic Book Guy, not just because who I'm talking to, but because the character was created by Jeff Martin. I grew up in a world with comic book guys who were extremely grouchy. I read this comic buying thing that said, "Ask your dealer if you can go examine his collection," and I did and the guy goes, "No way." I was like, "Why are these guys really mean, I'm just a kid?" So the fact that it's a character and it's somebody people really seem to relate to is fantastic.

In that respect, whether it be Lisa, whether it be Comic Book Guy, do you find that you have to be selective because if it was up to you, it might be a Lisa and a Comic Book Guy, every single week, as the stars of an episode? Do you find that you have to use your favorites sparingly knowing that maybe other people love different characters or would you really give Lisa and Comic Book Guy their own spinoff?

Well, spinoffs are weird, because the show is so great as it is, I don't know if you want to dilute it. I mean, at the moment at least. But I'll give you an example. Yeah, Lisa and Comic Book Guy are my favorites, but I just wrote a script where Flanders inadvertently goes to work for Fat Tony, and I love doing that. I love writing for Flanders, Harry Shearer, and Joe Mantegna as Fat Tony. Those are two totally different characters, and the universe of Simpsons is so big that you really can avoid repeating yourself.

Coming up is one of my favorite traditions, which are the "Treehouse of Horror" episodes and the Halloween episodes in general. This year you're doing an IT-inspired full-length tribute. Are there other horror properties or horror worlds that you could ever see The Simpsons devoting an entire episode to? Because obviously with IT, I can just assume there's going to be a whole bunch of Stephen King in that realm using IT as the gateway, but is there another realm that you could devote a whole episode to?

Well, IT, in my opinion, is maybe the one that people have wanted the most. And I'm glad the writer, Cesar Mazariegos, did a great job making an episode out of. It's really faithful to the book, honestly, which has two huge sections and it follows that structure. So I'm really happy that people are going to get their wish and I think they're really going to be happy with what they see.

In that realm, the "Treehouse of Horror" opens up the opportunities that it's not just, "Here's a horror story," but it gives you an entry point of the Spider-Verse or what have you. Is there something that you personally love that you've really wanted to be able to develop into a "Treehouse of Horror" segment, but you haven't found the right entry point quite yet?

We've used a lot. The most fun, to me, are the ones that don't have any direct antecedent. We did one a few years ago where, I think the idea was Joel Cohen's, about Homer eating himself. It wasn't based on anything, but it was so gross. We had to put an extra warning on the episode. So that was one of my favorites that we've done in recent years.

The Simpsons' "Welcome to the Club" premieres on Disney+ on September 8th.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.