David M. Stern [Interview]

 

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Oh, do we have a great one for you fine reader(s) today! We have been fortunate to get some words from several television and film writers over the years, and today is definitely not an exception. In fact, we may have outdone ourselves with this one. Today we have the wonderful David M. Stern, a writer who has done some of the most influential work in the last 4 decades. His work ranges from starting off on The Wonder Years, moving on to The Simpsons (yes, the god damned Simpsons!), then to Ugly Americans, and so much more. He is seriously a genius, and we are so happy to have him on the site.

And to make things even better, I called in some help from a dear friend, and host of the Four Guys Drinking podcast, Scott Lawrence. Scott has a big ole brain just crammed with Simpsons knowledge, so he was the obvious choice to ask to throw us a few Simpsons related questions. So please enjoy a wonderful collaboration of questions with the amazing David M. Stern.

When did you decide to join the bloodthirsty business of television? What was your drive and motivation? And was it always writing that you wanted to do primarily?

My mother got me a journal when I was around 10 I think and I really took to it and began to appreciate the power of the written word very early. My brother Danny made it as an actor in Hollywood when I was around 13 and he would send me scripts he was auditioning for or parts he got along the way. Some scripts were incredible, some were award winning. But my favorites were the terrible ones because I’d read them and think ‘I can do better than this crap!’

You career was really kickstarted with your work on the first few years of The Wonder Years. Was it at all nerve-racking to become part of something so grand, at such an early stage in your career?

The Wonder Years was a total miracle job. I had only been in Hollywood for a few months. I met Neal and Carol, the creators through a mutual friend at the Circle Bar in Santa Monica. They knew I wanted to be a sitcom writer and they had already created Growing Pains. We really just hit it off on a personal level. They read a couple of the spec scripts I had written and gave me advice and notes. And then they told me that one of the ways they had made it in Hollywood was that they sent funny letters once a month to any producers they had met. I remember Neal asking, ‘how many funny letters do you ever receive from random people?’ The answer was zero. So it was great advice on how to get yourself noticed in a positive way and I took the cue and began sending them funny letters. Neal appreciated the effort and we began to pal around a bit, playing basketball together and stuff. Then a few months later, I was up at my brother’s house and saw the pilot for The Wonder Years, written by my new friends, on his desk. I snagged the script, xeroxed a copy and made it my religion. It was to this day, the best pilot I ever read. And at the tender age of 23, it was about the perfect show for me to write. I read it a hundred times and then I wrote a spec Wonder Years off that script as quick and well as I could, which was about 6 weeks. It was about Kevin’s first jr. high school dance. When I sent it to them, the show hadn’t even been cast yet. Long story short is that they really liked it. We went through a bunch of rewrites and things got a little hairy there for a little bit, in that I didn’t know if I would be able to cut it as a rewriter, which is really the job as a professional screenwriter. But, alas, I got it right finally and that episode become the 6th and final episode of the first season. The rest as they say, is history.

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What would you consider your greatest achievement during your tenure on The Simpsons?

I had a lot of proud moments on The Simpsons. Writing the season premiere of season two, “Bart Gets An F” was a real highlight. For a long time it was the highest rated Simpsons episode ever as it was the first time the show went up against The Cosby Show on Thursday nights. “Kamp Krusty” which was the season 4 premiere was another highlight. “Duffless”, which was the last episode I wrote on my first tenure with the show was also a highlight as I think it may have been the closest a first draft of mine came to the aired episode. But my favorite of all may have been “Principal Charming” about Skinner falling in love with Patty. That was a tough storyline but it came out really good and I inadverently created two characters in that script that still get a lot of play – Groundskeeper Willy and Hans Moleman( who was I believe originally named ‘Kindly Elder Gentleman.’

Did you every believe that The Simpsons would have the staying power that it has had?

Nope. I don’t think anyone did.

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A generation has grown up watching The Simpsons. What kind of impact do you believe it may have had on the way they live their lives?

Well, I think the simplest answer is that most people now understand and appreciate how cool animation is. That you can make comments in primetime using animation that never would have flown in a live action series. I also think that a lot of the satire of The Simpsons had, until that point, been only available late night. On Letterman and SNL. It brought that brand of sharp, cutting social commentary to primetime. Now it is mainstream.

What was it about 5 On With Alan Whiter that made you want to develop it for TV, as Ugly Americans?

Nice reference! Everything about it. Loved those shorts. Great, simple animation, I loved Devin Clark’s drawings. And the simple concept of monsters living among us in modern Manhattan, just accepted and kind of dumb and gross like everyone else. That essential comment of that series, I think, really dictated where I took the series on a much larger scale. That if Zombies and Werewolves did exist, society would quickly normalize them and soon they’d just be more everyday shmoes on the streets, trying to make a living and get laid and generally being stupid and common and flawed like everyone else.

This is an insanely personal question, which may not really have an answer, but I have to ask. I am a HUGE fan of Kurt Metzger. Did you hire him for Ugly Americans and/or what was it that he did that landed him that gig, which he was absolutely incredible at doing?

Anne Harris at Comedy Central brought him in. She is an amazing talent and knows everyone in New York. I didn’t know him or anyone else at the time. But as soon as I heard him I knew he was my Randall. I had to go to the mat for Kurt a little as he had no experience of any sort on VO work and there were others who were favored for the role, including Pete Holmes who went on to do a ton of amazing and hilarious voices for us. But I insisted on Kurt. He’s so great man. He owned that role. Brought a TON of his own stuff to the character. We’d write great stuff for him and then I’d tell him to riff on it in the booth. 3 out of 5 times, we’d go with his take on whatever it was. He was the perfect Zombie. I recently had an amazing dream about him being a zombie that I emailed to him.

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So what is up in your world now? Anything you’ve been working on that you’d like to plug?

Just wrote my ninth Simpsons, “Kamp Krustier”. Other than that just hustling for work man. Nothing to brag about at the moment. Soon though.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

Norm Macdonald’s memoir – Based On A True Story. He’s the funniest I think. Him and Louis [CK].

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About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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