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SYFY WIRE Emmy Contender

Emmy Contender: The Simpsons showrunner on Grampa getting woke and how Disney will impact the show

By Jennifer Vineyard
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The Simpsons' Emmy-nominated episode "Mad About the Toy" starts off as a babysitting romp. Then it detours into an exploration of Grampa's only recently remembered past as a toy-soldier model and his repressed guilt about a same-sex kiss, and how his reaction to it got a man fired. Grampa — who is usually just a supporting character on the show, used for geezer jokes — becomes more than his stereotype, and The Simpsons once again handles the issue of homophobia with humor and grace.

Showrunner Al Jean spoke with SYFY WIRE about the episode, Grampa's evolving social consciousness, the episode's #MeToo moments, and the Simpsons' new Disney overlords.

How did this particular storyline come about? Did the original pitch need any emotion lotion?

To be honest, there wasn't any conscious application of emotion lotion. [Laughs] One thing I had thought for a while was about the photo Grampa had on his wall of his ex-wife Mona. I was like, "Why would he keep that? It's such a sad relationship." So when Mike Price suggested that Grampa be the original model for these little army men, and that he had this relationship with a photographer he knew years ago, we thought it's time for Grampa to take down the photo of Mona and put up a photo with the photographer. And that photo stays up for the remainder of the season.

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The end-credit photos suggest they continued the friendship. Or maybe it eventually became something more?

Um, my guess is it's just a friendship. I think Grandpa's way too old to learn anything new.

Well, he does learn a little bit. He becomes more open than he had been in his past.

Grampa's definitely learned a lot. I just don't think he has relationships that are physical with anybody, but they're friends for life. I thought it was a great idea for Grampa to repair this relationship, because the idea of modeling for the toy soldiers was cool and funny, and then it suddenly goes to an emotional area that you don't expect. We're all evolving — you, me, the people that work on the show, the characters that live on the show — and God only knows what we're doing now and saying now that's going to look terrible in 50 years. But you just try to be a better person, and try to be more open and understanding of other people. That's all you can do. And at the same time, we're respecting Grampa's dignity. He's someone who's served his country. But we live in the modern world, and we're just trying to make our way in it, as a good person.

Bryan Batt plays Grampa's friend, Philip Hefflin. Was his casting a nod to his character on Mad Men, Sal Romano, who was also unjustly terminated for being gay? We never got to find out what happened to Sal on Mad Men, but at least Philip ends up with a better life.

Far be it for us to have a better ending than Mad Men! [Laughs] But yeah, it's a reference to that. And you're right — I always did wonder what happened to Sal. I think that was the biggest questions fans had at the end of the show. We certainly put a positive spin on it.

Probably the most science-fiction element of the episode is when Google Home attacks Amazon's Alexa with a laser beam app…

And we have shows coming up where they have even more powers and weapons on them. I don't know that that's not true. [Laughs] God only knows what they can really do. The spying bothers me enormously. Although I have to say, for a while, I've been very suspicious. Like when they had that app that makes you look old, which was just a Russian front, I wasn't surprised. I just now think that when anybody asks me for anything, they've got something up their sleeve.

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How are things going to change, if at all, under Disney? You had an announcement almost spoofing it — welcome synergy! — but will new corporate overlords bring any new restrictions? What if, instead of spoofing Google or Amazon, you wanted to take on something regarding a Disney property?

So far, nothing has changed. It hasn't come up and I don't anticipate any problems. We certainly have taken more than our fair share of shots at Disney, so we're not feeling deficient in that regard. Nobody said stop. Nobody said change anything. We nearly killed Dumbo in that announcement, and they never gave us notes about that! They bought us because of who we were, and they want us to keep doing the same forward-looking humor that we've always done. I think it was inevitable that there was going to be a consolidation, and I'm just glad that we're in a place where we have such a strong support system, but in terms of the show, we're just doing the same show. I see it being the same attitude that we've always had. No changes.

That applies to political humor as well? Because in this episode, when they go to the V.A. hospital, the sign says, "Our draft-dodging president welcomes you."

You know what's funny about that is that of course it does refer to Trump, but we actually thought it was a joke that was good for multiple presidents. People thought it was a swipe at Trump, and it was like, "Hmmm. Maybe you protest too much." But my favorite one… There was one silver lining when Ted Cruz got re-elected, and it was having that sign that says, "Texas: The Reluctant Home of Ted Cruz."

There are two #MeToo moments in this episode. One is referring to the famous sailor kiss at the end of World War II, which addresses how it was a sexual assault with Grampa, and the other is in the office.

People have talked about that original photo from 1945, and when you think about it, it's a guy kissing a woman he doesn't know just out of the blue. So people go, "Wait a minute…" And I see that point completely. And I believe the actual woman in the photo said she wasn't 100 percent happy about it. And the woman in the Mad Men office, she's been there for like 40 years and is now putting mercury in the coffee of her boss! [Laughs] Things have definitely changed. Tress MacNeille did that voice. She's very funny.

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It's a nice contrast to the other sexual references. The zipping up scene, which sounds much more sexual than it actually is …

Zipping up, that's so funny to me, because occasionally I'll be zipping up my wife's dress, and these zippers are insane! I always figure, with the five-year-olds watching at home, almost everything goes over the heads of the kids, all the implied stuff in there.

Like the dishonorable discharge quip…

[Laughs] Yeah. That's probably the most raunchy bit. But it's still a sweet show about army men.

And toys. The toy soldiers, but also Grampa's complaint that toys today might be too safe… Or the modern notion that toys of yesteryear were too hazardous…

Oh, yeah. My father used to sell lawn darts at his hardware store, and now I go, "Oh my God, these are murder weapons!" What could you have thought was good about them? They're like heavy metal spears! But you can't put your kids in a bubble forever. You worry about people who are overprotective and how they'll be able to cope with what might be coming. Bill Maher did an excellent editorial about it, saying that we're going to look so stupid to people years from now. There's no way you're going to be 100 percent right in the eyes of posterity.

And then of course, it turns out the Whiz-Bang Toy Company is a subdivision of a sex toy company…

[Laughs] It seems like an innocuous episode about toys, but there's a lot of adult stuff around the edges.