The Context: Simpsons Writer John Swartzwelder on Comedy

Sharing some of our best work on comedians and their craft

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This is the second post of "The Context"—a biweekly series of archival stories—offering our readers a useful background to some of the most important (or most fun!) subjects in the news today. We hope you enjoy it.


John Swartzwelder is not a household name, which is partly his fault. The former Simpsons 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 lured him in, publishing the first major interview with the man who produced some of The Simpsons’ least replicable and most memorable jokes.

One doesn’t have to be a fan of The Simpsons (or comedy) to enjoy the interview, which recounts Swartzwelder’s path from writing advertisements to working on television’s longest-running animated sitcom. It also gives insights on his approach to writing for television and for the page. “Nobody wants to read a book,” he warns. “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.”

Though Swartzwelder didn’t attend Harvard, lots of his colleagues did. More than 30 Harvard alumni have written for The Simpsons, including the show’s first two staff writers, Al Jean ’81 and Michael Reiss ’81. At Harvard Magazine, we’ve covered our fair share of comedians, all with unique approaches to their work. I like our 2009 feature on Andy Borowitz ’80 (written by former deputy editor Craig Lambert ’69, Ph.D. ’78), which describes Borowitz’s transition from an eminently successful television-writer to a “solo-practitioner humorist.” Youngest siblings may especially enjoy the piece; Borowitz traces his comedic prowess to being the youngest of three.

Lambert also wrote an excellent feature on Ian Frazier ’73, who happens to be one of my favorite writers. An inventive author of humor and nonfiction, Frazier also holds a patent for a bag-snagger, which grabs trash from trees. His New Yorker piece about the invention is typical Frazier, turning a seemingly mundane story into something imaginative, thoughtful, and fun. “The word unique gets used loosely or carelessly,” his colleague Mark Singer told Lambert, “but Sandy is truly an original.” One fun note: Frazier, at least as of 2008, was writing all of his work on an Olympia typewriter. “I like to revise and retype,” he explains in the article. “A lot of bad writing is because people don’t have to retype. I like retyping.”

More recently, I wrote about Karen Chee ’17, a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers. Her comedy education was surprisingly methodical. As a kid, she used to take detailed notes while watching TV, trying to figure out what the writers were doing. In college, she forced herself to write 10 jokes per morning. “It took a really long time,” Chee told me. “But it really felt like I was training a muscle essentially or building up a muscle that wasn’t really there.”

For a more comprehensive history of comedy at Harvard, check out this feature, which discusses Harvard’s influence on Saturday Night Live, The National Lampoon, Late Night with David Letterman, and yes, The Simpsons. “The Harvard impact on television, movies, and magazines is unbelievable,” remarked National Lampoon founder Rob Hoffman ’69, M.B.A. ’72. “There’s practically a Harvard Mafia out there.” 

~Jacob Sweet, Associate Editor


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