General 5-16-2006

EXCHANGE: A conversation with Simpsons’ co-creator Sam Simon and Public TV’s John Forde

A conversation between "The Simpsons" co-creator and executive producer Sam Simon and Minnesota-based "Mental Engineering" host and creator John Forde on creating innovative, ingenious broadcasting... and making enough money to keep it on the air

Sam Simon
John Forde

John Forde and Sam Simon on Money, TV, and the Art of Making Art the<br /> Sells

that most new TV shows have more to do with focus groups and demographic number
crunching than talent or ingenuity, Mental Engineering’s host and
creator John Forde (photo at left)
and The
co-creator and executive producer Sam Simon (photo at right) stand as examples of maverick,
old-fashioned broadcasting success through grassroots audience building. But
it’s getting harder for good shows to find their way to broadcast through merit
alone. Now, major networks are less comfortable taking chances on innovative
, and instead seek out less exciting, but also less risky
of tired formulae
in hopes of recapturing key audiences.

this in mind, a+E sat down with Forde
and Simon to talk about the trouble with funding, how shows get made, and the
dilemma of creating something true and honest in an increasingly cynical
big-media market.


Forde, host and creator of Minnesota-based public television program Mental Engineering is counting on making
it that way, even now. He’s hoping that a combination of talent, wit and
old-fashioned hustle will equal success Simon for his subversively funny,
critically acclaimed show on the national stage. Mental Engineering features an erudite, entertaining mix of
academics and nationally-regarded
dissecting the meaning behind the messages on TV commercials.
With a penchant for irreverent humor and a flair for biting analysis (often at
the expense of big business), Forde would appear, at first glance, to have his
work cut out for him pulling together funding for ME, even on public television given that the biggest PBS
underwriters are often the very corporations that tend to be the butt of the
shows’ jokes.


this in mind, a+E sat down with Forde
and Simon to talk about the trouble with funding, how shows get made, and the
dilemma of creating something true and honest in an increasingly cynical
big-media market.



Q: Sam, do you think it was
it easier to get a subversive, offbeat show on the air when you started The Simpsons on Fox?


I hate to sound like grandpa talking about the good ole days, but yeah, times
have changed. The only shows people talk about now are on HBO—the big networks’
programs are just terrible. It used to be that if it was good, a network would
take a chance on a show, even if its market wasn’t clearly defined. You know
why HBO’s programming works? Their business plan is to hire talented people,
not pay them a lot, and let them do what they want. There’s no reason a network
couldn’t do the same thing.


Q: Sam, why do you think the
major broadcasters tend to play it safe with uninspired, focus-group tested
programs now? What changed?


For one thing, the Federal Communications Commission, in the last four years,
when they started issuing these huge fines for edgy programming decisions or missteps,
it had a chilling effect. Frankly, that whole thing
with Janet Jackson
is savvy enough to know that the Super bowl audience is a family
audience and that it was a huge mistake. They didn’t need the huge fine from
the FCC to take steps to ensure that wouldn’t happen again—I mean, MTV will
never host another half-time show for the Super bowl because of what happened.
But, the fines made it all a much bigger deal than it needed to be and I do
think that has the networks and their affiliates scared. Someone could be
courageous and step in and say, “I’m going to fight these laws.” But I don’t
see many people doing that—Howard
Stern’s producer, before he went to satellite radio, was willing to fight
But I don’t know of anyone brave enough now.


Q: Why aren’t you working in
TV production anymore? Any plans to return?


No (laughs). I don’t know why anyone would work in TV if they can afford not
to. I’m not working in TV anymore for the same reasons I think network
television has gotten so bad. It’s just not interesting to me anymore. The
reason The Simpsons was… The Simpsons was that the only person
who understood the schedules for animation was me, because I got my start in
animation. Nobody in the networks or the affiliates knew how animation worked.
I started as a storyboard artist at Filmation Studios—writing for
one of those shitty (laughing) Saturday morning cartoon shows. You know the
ones in the late ’70s, not Mighty Mouse or
Heckle and Jeckle, but The New Mighty Mouse, or The New Heckle and Jeckle. (laughs,
cringing) Those were awful shows.


got out of animation because I figured, if I’m going to write, I might as well
write for something I like. So I wrote an episode for Taxi, my
favorite show, to the producers, and they bought it. That’s how I met James Brooks (another creator of
The Simpsons)—he was a producer for Taxi. I worked with him on a lot of
things, including The Tracey Ullman Show, where
I was an Executive Producer. And that’s how I became involved in that show’s spin-off,
The Simpsons, which were animated
featurettes, or “bumpers,” on The Tracey
Ullman Show.
Fox wanted us to create a whole series out of those shorts,
and that’s how we started. Actually, I thought it was a horrible idea (laughing
from everyone). I mean, how do you turn this stupid animated “bumper” into a
series? But, working with Jim [Brooks], who I think is brilliant, I agreed to
make the series.


I think you’re really asking me is “Why was The
so good?” Not to get down on the network or studio too much here…
I think it’s because they had no idea what we were up to. No one there knew
animation, so they pretty much left us alone. The first time they saw the show,
it was done. It’s especially funny to think that Barry Diller, an executive
I admire very much actually, saw the first episode and hated it. I remember he
said, “How many of these did we order?!” (Simon smiles ironically.) But it’s
interesting that they still got behind the show. Even then, though, people were
already trying to tame the show. “Does Bart really have to do that?” Even if they had doubts, they had
to run it because we had an air date already, and it would take another 9
months to make any changes they wanted. So, we got to do the kind of show we
wanted to mainly because nobody knew enough about animation to stop us. I think
that was also part of what made the show a success, too.


was pretty new then—they didn’t have a “Standards and Practices” department
yet, you know? We could take some chances that you couldn’t really take now. That
kind of freedom on the networks didn’t last long, though.


the time we got to the last season of The Drew Carey Show, we
were having all kinds of problems with “Standards and Practices” and lawsuits.
It finally came down that we weren’t allowed to say anything negative about
cars. (laughing ruefully)




Because they didn’t want to piss off their automobile sponsors for the show. Of
course, on The Simpsons, how could
you even do the show if you worried about that kind of thing? The show depends on it. I don’t know a comedy
writer, myself included, who wasn’t profoundly influenced by Mad Magazine.
We were all shaped by this attitude that assumed “everyone is lying to you;
people are self-serving; people make stuff up to get you to buy thing—don’t
believe what they tell you.” That was
the crux of Mad and it’s funny. It’s
funny to poke holes in that commercial culture. I think that’s what Mental Engineering is about, too, isn’t
it John?


God, I hope so!


Q: In which arena do you guys
think there is more freedom?


I just want to go someplace where I can talk like I want to talk. And maybe that’s
satellite broadcasting at this
point. The interesting thing about satellite is these executives have all been
around the model of HBO and they’ve seen it work. Before HBO took off, the
conventional wisdom was “No one’s going to pay
for TV!” And folks have said the same thing about satellite radio: “No one’s
going to pay for radio.” But these
guys have seen it actually work at the same time that the traditional networks
have seen their shares collapse. So I’m really thinking the model can work for
something like Sirius
radio, too.


Q: John, did the subject
matter of Mental Engineering lead you
to go with public television?


FORDE: Yes, absolutely. The essence of the show requires that we use the
commercials without permission. If we were on commercial TV, we’d have to get permission,
and that would change the tenor of what we could do in analyzing them. Public
TV has a much stronger Fair
claim [than commercial TV], and that’s the primary reason we’ve gone
that way.


Q: And are you marketing it
to public television as educational programming as well?


Isn’t that exactly what we are? It’s like a sugar donut with a little malignant
spore of education hidden in the center (everyone laughing). Viewers don’t even
know they’re eating it… But the stations that drive me crazy keep saying
“there’s just no educational value in it.” How can they not see it?! … You
know, I think it’s because the educational aspects of it are in small, easily
digestible chunks, surrounded by an entertaining show. I think PBS is looking
for explicitly “instructional television.” We had the opportunity for long-term
funding by Free
Speech Television
, but they passed because we’re “not telling people what
to do.” (snorts) It’s maddening. For PBS, we’re too
strident; for Free Speech TV, we’re not strident enough.


Q: Do you think Mental Engineering’s irreverent analysis
of corporate advertising makes it harder to get sponsors? Why should they give
you money if you’re making fun of them?


It’s the most public show on television; it’s on the side of the viewers.
People will watch us dissecting commercials and say, “That’s what I think,
too!” I think someone with vision will be able to see that the straightforward
honesty of the show can rub off on its sponsors. For those brave enough, it
could be a really shrewd marketing move to underwrite the show.


Q: Does it just come down to
money then? Is it possible to do honest art, the way you want to, without being
beholden to the financial interests (whether through corporate grants and underwriting
or advertising)? You need whatever show you’re working on, whether for public
or commercial broadcast, to be self-sustaining, right?


I have to say, I see all this stuff as pure commerce. It wasn’t really about
“art” for me when I started out. I just wanted a job. (laughs)


Catherine (Executive Producer of ME
and John’s partner) keeps impressing upon me, that point [where the show is
self-sustaining] is next week. (He laughs,
then pauses.) There are two revenue models: one where
you kiss their ass and the other where you kick their ass. You just have to be
so popular that it’s like a shakedown—make it so they can’t not get in on it.


Q: So you just have to be so
good that sponsors have to fund your
work? How do you find the platform from which to reach your audience?


You have to work really hard to reach people. We went to a hundred cable access
channels, and then, from there, got enough viewer support to approach their
local PBS affiliates. We just need to reach a critical mass of viewers,
stations, and advertisers. We’re exploring creative ways to fund the show, and
looking for a certain type of investor that can see the potential. We’re going
to put sponsorship spots [for Mental
] on eBay this week and see what happens—15 second impressions
on a national audience, and we’re starting the bidding at $5000. We’ll see…


Q: What’s your vision for Mental Engineering, John? Where do you
want it to go?


I just want to do it. I want to build the audience that’s natural for it so I
can keep doing it. Maybe not a lot of people realize it, but I think what we’re
doing is a work of art—it’s educational and I think it qualifies as art. We
just want to make what we want, and trust that the right people will get it.
That’s been our philosophy.



John Forde is host and creator of the nationally
broadcast, Minnesota-based PBS program Mental
which airs advertising spots and analyzes them with a
roundtable of academics, social psychologists, marketing professionals, and comedians.
The show is broadcast from the St. Paul Neighborhood Network cable access studios
in downtown St. Paul
for $400 per episode and is being carried on over 100 PBS stations nationwide.


Sam Simon is co-creator and executive
producer of the iconic and iconoclastic The
as well as The Drew Carey
Show, The Tracey Ullman Show,
and a number of
other hit TV programs. He’s retired from TV for the moment, and is working with
his friend, Norm MacDonald, on a new show for Sirius satellite radio. He is also
a frequent guest commentator on Mental