The background: Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder on comedy
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John Swartzwelder is not a household name, which is partly his fault. The old one The Simpsons The writer is as famous in comedy circles for his distinctive joke-writing as he is for his reluctance to be interviewed. But recently The New Yorker caught him by posting the first big interview with the man who produced some of the The simpsons’ least repeatable and most memorable jokes.
You must not be a fan of The simpsons (or comedy) to enjoy the interview, which chronicles Swartzwelder’s journey from writing commercials to working on television’s longest-running animated sitcom. He also provides insight into his approach to writing for television and for the page. âNobody wants to read a book,â he warns. “You have to grab their attention with something exciting in the first paragraph while they’re throwing the book away.”
Although Swartzwelder did not attend Harvard, many of his colleagues did. More than 30 Harvard alumni have written for The simpsons, including the series’ first two writers, Al Jean ’81 and Michael Reiss ’81. TO Harvard Review, we’ve covered our fair share of comedians, all with unique approaches to their work. I like our 2009 article on Andy Borowitz ’80 (written by former associate editor Craig Lambert ’69, Ph.D. ’78), which describes Borowitz’s transition from a highly successful television writer to a “solo-practitioner humorist”. Younger siblings may particularly enjoy the play; Borowitz traces his comedic prowess to being the youngest of three.
Lambert also wrote a great article on Ian Frazier ’73, who happens to be one of my favorite writers. An inventive author of humor and non-fiction, Frazier also holds a patent for a bag-snagger, which catches waste from trees. His New Yorker The piece on invention is typical of Frazier, turning a seemingly mundane story into something imaginative, thoughtful, and fun. “Word unique gets used vaguely or carelessly, âcolleague Mark Singer told Lambert,â but Sandy is truly an original. A funny note: Frazier, at least in 2008, was writing all of his work on an Olympia typewriter. âI like to revise and retype,â he explains in the article. âA lot of bad writing is because people don’t have to retype. I like to retype.
Most recently, I wrote about Karen Chee ’17, a writer for Late night with Seth Meyers. His education in acting was surprisingly methodical. As a child, she took detailed notes while watching television, trying to figure out what the writers were doing. In college, she forced herself to write 10 jokes a morning. âIt took a long time,â Chee told me. “But I really felt like I was training a muscle or building a muscle that wasn’t really there.”
For a more comprehensive history of comedy at Harvard, check out this article, which discusses Harvard’s influence on Saturday Night Live, The national pamphlet, Late Night with David Letterman, and yes, The simpsons. “Harvard’s impact on television, movies and magazines is incredible,” remarked National Lampoon founder Rob Hoffman ’69, MBA ’72. “There’s practically a Harvard Mafia out there.”
~ Jacob Sweet, Associate Editor