5 Writing Tips From Simpsons Legend John Swartzwelder
During the 90s, The Simpsons writers’ room was a mecca for up-and-coming comedians.
Legends like Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels, and Pixar’s Brad Bird cut their teeth working on the show. While many notable writers filled the chairs, one name towers above all in Simpson’s lore- John Swartzwelder.
Critics consider Swartzwelder the most prolific writer in Simpsons history. He was one of the chief architects of the show’s golden era. His sense of humor is so unique, writers call jokes in the same vein: “Swartzweldian.”
Despite his reputation, Swartzwelder shies away from the spotlight — a JD Salinger figure in the Comedy world. There are few photos of him, and he rarely mingles with the press. However, he recently sat down with the New Yorker to talk about his time on the show.
As you can imagine the interview was loaded with expert advice about the art and discipline of writing. Here are 5 pieces of “Swartzweldian” wisdom you can apply today.
Get The Hard Part Over Quickly
John Swartzwelder has fifty-nine writing credits on The Simpson — the most in the show’s history. When asked how he wrote with such stamina, he had this to say:
“I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue — “Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done.”
Swartzwelder’s writing process has much in common with fellow comedian Jerry Seinfeld’s, and Bird By Bird writer Anne Lamott’s. Both of whom recommend separating the activities of writing and editing, and producing a first draft as quickly as possible.
Why is this advice so popular?
Writing is diabolically difficult — it requires staring down a blank page, filling it with thoughts, and hoping they fall in exactly the right order.
By comparison, rewriting is easy. Words, no matter how imperfect, populate the page. They may require a tinker or tweak, but you now have something to work with.
The idea is simple enough, but I’ve found it difficult to follow. My ego simply can’t stand seeing my bad writing stinking up the page. Perhaps you can relate?
If so, Swartzwelder has a suggestion to de-personalize the process. Rather than getting stressed over your initial work, imagine a little elf has snuck into your office while you were asleep and done the crappy writing for you. All you have to do now is wake up and fix his mess.
Give Readers A Bang Upfront. And Then Another!
Since retiring from The Simpsons in 2003, John Swartzwelder has self-published 13 novels. While this tremendous output shows a love of the craft, Swartzwelder has some choice words about books.
“Nobody wants to read a book. You’ve got to catch their eye with something exciting in the first paragraph, while they’re in the process of throwing the book away. If it’s exciting enough, they’ll stop and read it. Then you’ve got to put something even more exciting in the second paragraph, to suck them in further. And so on. It’s exhausting for everybody, but it’s got to be done.”
This applies just as much to people writing on the web. The average person on the internet has a smorgasbord of content to choose from — Twitter feeds, YouTube clips, and an assortment of amusing cat memes to gorge on. If you want them to read your work, you need to begin with a bang! And follow it up with another!!
The second hand clicks even quicker on a digital clock. Now more than ever the audience needs reassurance that what they are about to read is worth their time. So don’t hold back! Give the goods up front. Hook the reader early, and they will happily stick around for the rest of the show.
Write Outside Your Field
Prior to landing a job on The Simpson’s staff, Swartzwelder spent years writing ad copy. Some might classify this past work as a career stumble — a detour from his true calling. But Swartzwelder says his days as a copywriter taught him to write in different styles, work with a team, and deliver on a deadline. He states:
“All ad copywriters are expected to write humor or scientific-sounding mumbo jumbo or any other kind of writing, whatever’s needed for the campaign. And they’re expected to write it fast, too, because it’s due tomorrow. Good training, actually.”
Swartzwelder is not the only notable writer who held an odd job at the beginning of their career.
Vonnegut began his career as a police reporter. Hemingway was a local journalist. Kafka spent most of his life working as an insurance assessor and wrote on the side.
While these early gigs aren’t glamorous, they left an imprint on the style of the authors above, and provided a training ground for them to master their craft.
It’s tempting to set lofty goals and laser focus on a particular style- but don’t limit yourself. Especially early in your career, take jobs outside your desired field that give you the opportunity to learn.
Travel Back In Time For Ideas
Swartzwelder created some of the most bizarre and unique Simpsons characters. Banjo-playing hobos, cigarette-smoking ventriloquist dummies, over-the-hill Country Western stars. When interviewer Mike Sacks asks where he got the ideas for these novel characters, Swartzwelder cites old movies and television programs he used to watch:
These old references give me more things to get humor out of, more raw material, than if I just confined myself to the things that happened this week.
I’ve talked before about the appeal to novelty — the human bias towards ideas which appear new. Today’s hyper-connected society has only juiced up this natural tendency.
Social media feeds provide up to the second updates from across the globe, and many writers work overtime trying to keep up. As a result, we ignore the annals of information and ideas from the past.
If you, like Swartzwelder, choose to dig in the past, you will discover a treasure trove of ideas missed or forgotten by the world. Paradoxically, it is often by looking back that we stumble upon our most novel work.
Many generations have lived before you. Take a minute to visit them and their ideas.
Write What You Would Want To Read
When asked how The Simpsons team created a show with such a broad appeal, Swartzwelder let out a verbal shrug and replied:
We just tried to make ourselves, and each other, laugh. Comedy writers. That was the audience. Luckily, a lot of other people, both kids and adults, liked the same jokes we liked.
The quote above tempted me to label the section “write for yourself”, but I’ve always found that advice misleading. It looks nice on paper, but when taken at face value it leads to bad habits — self indulgent writing, ignoring the audience, mistaking public work for a private diary.
That’s why instead I went with “write what you would want to read.” I find these words truer to life, and closer to the spirit of Swartzwelder’s quote.
When you look at the most beloved creative works, few follow a strict formula. Their success is often unpredictable and inexplicable. However, most have this in common — they’re made by talented people creating something they would want to consume.
Let these words guide your own work. Write the jokes which make you laugh. The blog you would find helpful. The novel you would sit down and read. If the work finds an audience, all the better! If not, at least you enjoyed making it.