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John Swartzwelder, Sage of “The Simpsons”

It’s been nearly twenty years since the reclusive, mysterious, almost mythical comedy writer John Swartzwelder left “The Simpsons,” and yet, to this day, one of the biggest compliments a “Simpsons” writer (or any comedy writer) can receive is to have a joke referred to as “Swartzweldian.” Meaning: A joke that comes out of nowhere. A joke that no one else could have written. A joke that sounds almost as if it were never written, as if it’s always existed.

Take the following joke, a favorite among “Simpsons” writers and fans, which appears in Season 8’s “Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment,” when Homer stands atop a stack of barrels, outside a pawn shop, and delivers a toast to a gathered crowd: “To alcohol. The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”

Swartzwelder has been deemed “one of the greatest comedy minds of all time.” He is famously private and never grants interviews. Few photos of him exist, although he did make some animated cameos as background “Simpsons” characters—once as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. His voice can be heard on only one “Simpsons” DVD writers’ commentary, for “The Cartridge Family” (Season 9, Episode 5). Ambushed by phone, while at home cooking a steak, he sounds pleasant and courteous but eager to finish up the encounter, which lasts all of a minute and twenty-four seconds.

A few facts seem certain. Swartzwelder was born in 1949 in Seattle. He worked a few years as an advertising copywriter in Chicago. He applied for, but never got, a job at “Late Night,” and had an uncomfortable interview with its host, David Letterman. He worked at “Saturday Night Live,” in 1985, for one particularly rocky season, before being hired four years later at “The Simpsons,” based partly on his contributions to a little-known comedy zine. He went on to write fifty-nine episodes, more than any other writer in the show’s history.

Swartzwelder’s specialty on “The Simpsons” was conjuring dark characters from a strange, old America: banjo-playing hobos, cigarette-smoking ventriloquist dummies, nineteenth-century baseball players, rat-tailed carnival children, and pantsless, singing old-timers. After leaving the show, in 2003, Swartzwelder wrote and self-published the first of his thirteen novels, all but two of which feature one of the most wonderful creations in printed comedy: Frank Burly, incompetent private eye and occasional time traveller. None of the books run more than a hundred and sixty pages; all are packed, like a dense star, with more material than seems physically possible.

Recently, in the course of a month and a half, I corresponded with Swartzwelder via e-mail. He patiently answered most of the questions I asked him about writing the best jokes in the best episodes of arguably the best comedy of the last century. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When I asked if you would participate, you said that you typically wouldn’t, but that The New Yorker name has always held a certain magic for you. Did you grow up reading the magazine?

The New Yorker was the home of a lot of writers I liked when I was growing up, including my favorite: Robert Benchley. Benchley was wonderfully funny when he felt like it, and he didn’t seem to work at all. All he and his Algonquin Round Table friends seemed to do was play silly games and try to make one another laugh, leaving the party occasionally to type out a Pulitzer Prize-winning story. After ten years of wasting their talent like this, they had all become rich and famous, won every award you can think of, and created The New Yorker. The lesson to me was clear: comedy writing was the way to go. Easiest job on the planet.

Do you still consider comedy writing to be the easiest job on the planet?

No, sir. I do not.

Beyond Benchley and the Algonquin crowd, who were some of your comedic influences?

Steve Allen was my first comedy hero. He was effortlessly funny. And while the adults around me were dragging themselves home from work every night, looking like it was the end of the world, Allen could apparently just sleep all week, roll out of bed on Sunday afternoon, wander over to the studio, and kid around with his friends and the audience and maybe Elvis Presley for an hour. Then it was “Good night, everybody,” and back to bed. This made quite an impression on me.

You talk as if you sought out a lazy career, and yet your reputation is of being one of the most productive comedy writers in television history. Was it not so much about an easy career as being in charge of your own destiny?

You’ve put your finger on it. The biggest appeal of writing is that, theoretically, you can do it anywhere. I pictured myself surfing in Australia while working out the plot of my next blockbuster comedy novel, or mailing in my latest joke from the top of a mountain. That’s how it looked to me when I started. In real life, however, most of the time you have to drag yourself into an office and chain yourself to a desk.

What was it about Benchley’s writing that appealed to you? When I read your books, I’m reminded mostly of S. J. Perelman—in both cases there’s a wildness and absurdity, the possibility that a joke can be taken anywhere, even at the expense of plot or realism. And Perelman was so adept at mocking the style of pulp detective writing, something we see in your Frank Burly books.

Perelman was great. Benchley actually wrote the same kind of crazy stuff that Perelman did, and he did it just as well, if not better, but he was much more casual about it. Perelman crammed every joke he could think of into every sentence and polished his pieces relentlessly until they couldn’t get any crazier. There’s a story that a friend called him up while he was writing something, and Perelman said, “I’ll call you back when I finish this sentence.” He called back the next day and said, “O.K., what do you want?”

When I first read Perelman, it was completely over my head. Half the words he was using didn’t exist in the real world, as far as I knew—and I was twelve, I’d been around. I figured one of us was nuts. Later on, when I had started writing for a living and picked up a few more multisyllable words, I checked him out again. I’ve been a fan ever since.

How was such a career even a possibility for you? Did you know any comedy writers? Did you even know anyone who knew a comedy writer?

I never knew any comedy writers when I was growing up, or heard of anybody around town trying to make a living that way. So it was an unusual choice for me to make. And because it was unusual, it was hard to know where to start. When I told people I didn’t want to carry cement for a living, I wanted to write comedy and be a national treasure instead, I got some odd looks. Some people suspected I might be stupid. Others were sure of it.

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