Who doesn’t love The Simpsons? America’s longest-running social satirical sitcom.
I sat down with Executive Producer and Writer, Matt Selman and his wife Renee Ridgeley to discuss his long running career and how he shaped America in his own way.
“You are the closest thing that comes to a hero because what you’ve written has been heroic, a finger on the pulse of American society. Your humorous writing as a social psychologist reminds me of George Carlin in another genre. As an ex-pat who lived in Europe for twenty years, it’s been fascinating to watch the progression of American society and its micro and macro politics through the eyes of the characters of The Simpsons. All issues have been covered, from racism to health, billionaires and how they operate, women’s rights, breast cancer, etc.”
“The DNA and mission statement of this show,” says Matt, “it’s the job of the show to hold up the Springfield society and reflect America in the macro universe of characters in small-town mid-American life. If you don’t do that, you drop the ball.”
“What’s your fire, Matt? Is it social injustice? What sparks your fire?” this inquiring mind wanted to know. Maybe it’s an issue that makes you angry. Writing a story in an angry tone is unnecessary, but it’s something small that could become a Simpson’s story when plugged into the Springfield universe; it turns into a good episode or Simpson’s version of that particular issue. It enables you to approach a subject from every direction, from the characters’ perspective, so it’s not one-sided.”
And that skill takes someone with an awareness of their heart and intellect, a connected and integrated presence, something Selman has in spades. His wife, Renee Ridgeley, who joined the conversation, smiled. Selman glanced at her and said, “I don’t think Renee would say I wake up every morning with a surge of rage for social issues.”
Renee adroitly added, “The writers hear what’s going on; it could be something in their family, and certainly, I’m here for that reason. As someone who survived breast cancer, we created this character with one breast to raise awareness.”
It did not go unnoticed that her tee shirt had three female Springfield-like characters, with one breast each. “Matt saw my anger, and we drew upon that for an episode. Anger is a great motivating force for social change!” she stated, to which Matt agreed.
Matt spoke about corporate charities and how he created a satirical twist on The Simpsons. “We had wanted to start our charity for breast cancer. Writers and other creatives were in the room. We all had experience with giving to charity. One of the writers would buy frozen food, cooks it, and bring it to a homeless shelter as an act of goodwill. There was no organization behind her. I told her I’d give her some money for that. I asked her, what’s your charity?
“You can give me money,” she said. “Wait, what? It’s not tax deductible; there’s no organization?” Matt asked. So much of how we donate and think of charity is about saving money for ourselves. It’s built into our thinking, the kickback we get, Matt realized through the experience with his colleague. At the end of one show, Mr. Burns is at a fancy banquet $10,000-a-table event and is the truthteller. He gives a speech. Instead of having a million micro charities, the solution would be to give it all to the government, and they would solve the problem.”
Of course, that’s idealistic, but it is how some European countries operate—the current system, global warming, for example. Thousands of charities have their infrastructure, fundraisers, events, and campaigns.
I stated, “Our democracy in the USA and worldwide is currently in danger and eroding.” I asked Matt, in that worldview, how would the Simpsons approach the topic?
It’s a tricky question. The show shows the humanity of people who might be different than you, or I might feel. A variety of worldviews and beliefs is what makes the show work for everyone. I have empathy for the characters in the show. People know the show is pro-democracy and the good dream of America!
What about the writer’s strike and how that affects the show? “Well the writers are like a mineral to be mined, and they should be paid accordingly. Without writers, there is no show, no shows. It sucks because everyone says, ‘We’re partners and teammates,’ but they’re not. It’s unfortunate. It’s not even the money. It’s philosophical – the labor should not have any agency.”
“It’s corporate feudalism,” I added. “Yeah, it’s a bummer. The Hollywood writing community is not asking for a lot; they just want their fair safety net so that it can continue to be a profession that doesn’t get to where people can’t afford to do it unless they’re already rich.” That is, I added, how, sadly, the rug of corporatism has covered many people underneath it.
There’s no middle class. Writers on staff and producers on set are why The Simpsonshaves lasted so long. If you grind it down to the minimum wage, it’s an existential nightmare.
Changing the subject, I wanted to know his relation to Charles Schultz and Peanuts. Peanuts was, in its heyday, a social commentary similar to The Simpsons in our time. “We visited the house in Santa Rosa a long time ago. We have a Peanuts fan on our team. We did a panel at the Schultz Museum. As a kid, I had all the books, and many writers, including myself, were influenced by comics, cartoons, anime, and comic books like Peanuts laid the groundwork for our worldview.”
In closing, everyone wants to know how long The Simpsons will air. Matt’s positive take made me chuckle, “I hope to see little rooms of writers everywhere writing scripts for Simpson-like shows. And that our show continues, in whatever form – current or one as yet unimagined.”
Photo (l to r): Matt Selman, his wife, Renee Ridgeley, and Elise Krentzel