On July 29, 2013, I went to Pacific Palisades to interview Sam Simon. The plan was that I’d talk to him and some of his friends and colleagues and write a story about him for Grantland. He’d been diagnosed with terminal colorectal cancer in 2012 and given three to six months to live. I met him near the end of that window. I assumed that by the time I actually wrote the story Simon would be dead. Instead he lived for almost a year and a half and I never wrote the story.
I made excuses, to my editors and to myself. I let my reporting go stale. Eventually Simon’s friend, writer and Grantland contributor Merrill Markoe, wrote a long hangout profile of him for Vanity Fair. You should go read that. You should also go listen to Simon’s appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, which is on YouTube here. It’s a great episode. I made the mistake of listening to it the day before I was supposed to go talk to Simon; once I’d heard it I wasn’t sure I had anything left to ask Simon that he hadn’t already answered.
I arrived at the interview thoroughly psyched out and left feeling like I’d failed to get what I needed. Looking over the transcript today, I see I wasn’t wrong. Simon was doing chemotherapy on a week-on/week-off schedule, but lately the off weeks had been almost as rough as the on weeks, and he was drained. More importantly, my questions were all over the place:
Q: It’s weird, because on the one hand, I very much want to talk to you about television and things of that nature that are sort of like, fleeting, and at the same time, I also want to sort of — I want to have this philosophical conversation …
… about, y’know, what you’re facing and the way that you’re facing it.
There are many things wrong with that question, beginning with the fact that it isn’t a question. I imagine there are many good ways to go about talking to a dying person about dying and/or their career in cartoons; this was not one of them. I had no idea how to talk to Simon about, y’know, the real shit. I could probably have written something self-centeredly self-deprecating about how badly this went, but in this case it seemed disrespectful to go that route. It still does.
Here is what you need to know about Sam Simon, who died at his home on Sunday night: In the late ’80s, he codeveloped The Simpsons with Matt Groening and James L. Brooks. He created many long-running Simpsons characters, including Mr. Burns, Chief Wiggum, and Bleeding Gums Murphy; he hired and oversaw the show’s original writing staff, which included Simpsons writing legends like George Meyer and John Swartzwelder as well as future series showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss. He ran that room during the show’s first two seasons and stayed on through Seasons 3 and 4, generally considered the show’s first golden era. Then in 1993 he left.
His relationship with Groening had been contentious from the beginning. Simon was already a television veteran when The Simpsons happened; he’d run the writers’ room at Taxi at the ripe old age of 27 and written for Cheers. Groening was a cartoonist who’d sold a pitch. The actual Simpsons — Bart, Homer, et al. — were Groening’s creations.1 But it was Simon who built a TV show around them; the tone and sensibility of that TV show were established during his tenure. (If Groening was the God of the Simpsons universe, Simon was at least the Jebediah Springfield.) In the ensuing years, you’d see that sensibility emulated across the TV landscape, on animated successors like King of the Hill and a slew of non-animated shows as well; The Simpsons was deeply suspicious of all institutions but had a boundless faith in individual humans, an ethos that would echo down through The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Community, to name a few. When I suggested this to Simon, he deferred, saying it wasn’t his ethos, it was Mad magazine’s. Maybe — but The Simpsons would do as much to turn my generation into an army of humanist antiestablishmentarians as Mad did for Simon’s, so there’s that.
He’d gone to meet with James L. Brooks about possibly adapting his comic strip Life in Hell for television; realizing at the last second that he didn’t want to sign away the rights to the Hell characters, Groening quickly scribbled some designs for new characters based on his own family while sitting in the lobby outside Brooks’s office.
But when The Simpsons became a runaway hit and a merchandising bonanza, it was Groening who got rich, which rankled Simon. There were also creative differences, but the break was over money. Whether Simon was actually underpaid at the time is open to interpretation. In John Ortved’s oral history of The Simpsons, an unnamed staffer tells a story about Simon opening an envelope sent to him from Fox, throwing its contents on the floor in anger, and storming out of the room. The envelope contained a check for $34,000. But when he left the show, he negotiated what may have been the cushiest severance package in television history, which included a piece of every Simpsons episode past and future, a percentage of the licensing revenue, and a permanent executive-producer credit. His nickname on the series’ Halloween-themed “Treehouse of Horror” episodes was “Sam ‘Sayonara’ Simon.” In a 2007 60 Minutes profile, he told Morley Safer he made “well over $10 million a year” from the show.
“I used to say I don’t get enough money and I don’t get enough credit,” Simon told me, “and now I’m satisfied with the money, and I think I get too much credit for the show. I’ve read a lot of stuff and thought, ‘Well, I didn’t really do that.’ But it’s nice.” (It was not his idea, for example, to make the characters yellow.)
He worked sporadically in television post-Simpsons, cocreating a sitcom for George Carlin (who slammed him as a crazy person after that series was canceled) and directing some episodes of The Drew Carey Show. During the last few years of his life, after his diagnosis, he worked as a consultant in the writers’ room of the Charlie Sheen sitcom Anger Management. “I get more out of it than they do,” he admitted cheerfully. “It’s really good for me to be able to go someplace once a week and have an office and pitch some jokes.”
Mostly, though, he did other things. He amassed an extraordinary art collection, managed the former WBO heavyweight champion Lamon Brewster for eight years, and became a professional poker player. And he gave away money. Lots and lots of money, particularly to animal-rights causes. In 2002, he established the Sam Simon Foundation, which rescues dogs and trains them to work as service animals. He started a vegan food bank in 2011. A boat in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s fleet of anti-whaling vessels bears his name, as does the Norfolk, Virginia, headquarters building of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Toward the end of his life, he began purchasing circus elephants, bears from bear pits, and chimpanzees from shitty roadside zoos, so that they could live out the balance of their lives in animal sanctuaries. After he was diagnosed, he stepped up the process of giving away his $100 million personal fortune. Most of it went to his foundation and the above-mentioned charities, but this didn’t stop individual tweeters from hitting him up for money.
This was the first thing we talked about that day. We sat in his guest house, which happens to be an original “Case Study” house designed by Richard Neutra in 1946; the window faced a garden whose accoutrements included an original Robert Indiana “Love” sculpture and a copy of The Thinker cast by Rodin himself. Simon lay flat on the couch, working his way through a cigar, which he’d periodically get up to relight on a kitchen burner; his immense Irish wolfhound, Gertie, circled the room, and Simon scolded her affectionately every time she gave me a wet-nosed shove.
“People think my favorite charity might be their line of moisturizers, or them getting a house for their mother, or some stupid kid’s college tuition,” he joked. “Like it’s this big giveaway. I mean, that would be a good movie — but the whole thing would be a good movie.”
Then, with the speed and ease of someone for whom dreaming up comedic predicaments is second nature, Simon pitched me the “Eddie Murphy movie” version of his story, in which, immediately after making arrangements to give all his money away, the critically ill guy would suddenly get better.
“I’d be running to my lawyer, going ‘It’s my money! I want my money back!’” Simon says. “And they’re going, No, you can’t touch this, Sam.”
We spoke for over an hour. We probably talked too much about whaling and vegetarianism — part of what Simon liked about being at the center of a media circus was the chance to read a bunch of stuff about animal rights into the public record. He urged me to see Blackfish, a documentary about the abuse of performing whales at SeaWorld, and to watch the PETA video Glass Walls, which he guaranteed would turn me into a vegetarian. Blackfish is devastating; I’ve still never watched Glass Walls. I’ll urge you to watch both anyway; since I wasted some of Simon’s last hours by interviewing him for a story I never ended up writing, I owe him at least that much.
He was the funniest dying person I’d ever met. He found it hilarious that people were praying for him, because he was an atheist, and because the idea of fans asking God to heal the cocreator of a show like The Simpsons was inherently ridiculous: “It must be His least favorite show.” Toward the end of our conversation, his assistant brought him a stack of printed email messages. Media requests from various outlets. He sifted through them and grinned. “I wish publicity cured cancer,” he said.
He didn’t talk the kind of smack about Groening that I was not-so-secretly hoping he’d talk. I’d find out much later from Markoe’s story that there was a nondisclosure agreement in place that prevented him from doing so. But I get the feeling he wouldn’t have gone there even if he could have. He insisted that he wasn’t angry about how things had gone down. How could he be? Maybe money can’t buy happiness. But it can buy an abused circus elephant, and then you can watch that elephant walk on grass for the first time in its whole life. How could creating another TV show ever compare? Especially if you’d already been the architect of a TV show that became a pop-cultural institution?
Which doesn’t mean he didn’t say a few things about Groening. There’s a story, from the early days of The Simpsons. During the first season, one of Simon’s catchphrases in the writers’ room was “thirteen and out.” Fox had ordered 13 episodes of the show; Simon wanted people to focus on making those 13 shows as good as they could be.
“It wasn’t like I said it every five minutes,” Simon said. “Just, like, every once in a while, when we were deciding whether to be a traditional sitcom or animated show or be a little experimental, I would say, ‘C’mon — thirteen and out! Let’s take the chance. It was really a call to creative freedom. It wasn’t, like, ‘Hey, slackers, let’s get our fees for these thirteen episodes and go to Mexico.’ It was meant to be inspirational, more than anything. ‘We get to do the kind of show we want, not what we think the network or anyone else wants. We’re thirteen and out, so let’s have some fun.’ Now, [Groening] was clearly more bothered by that than I knew [at the time], and I think it’s from not understanding what I meant by it.”
“Nobody had done a cartoon show in prime time,” Simon said. “Ever. Even The Flintstones was on at seven o’clock. That wasn’t really prime time. God, they used to have another hour, remember that?”
Vaguely, I said. And there used to be only three networks.
“There used to be three networks. Isn’t it amazing? There’s never been more shit, but there’s never been more good shows.”
I asked him if, given all that has changed since the ’90s, he ever wished he’d kept a hand in television in a more significant way, stuck around to enjoy some of the creative freedom afforded the modern-day TV showrunner.
“Oh, no,” he said. “That’s not my job.”
What do you mean?
“To do good TV shows? No.”
I said, Really?
“It really takes over your life,” Simon said. “It’s a really hard thing to do. You can’t do it part-time, and I just look back on some of my decisions, and deciding not to work full-time was the best thing I ever thought of. So that means that, you know, since I was 35, I’ve done whatever I’ve wanted and done it wherever I’ve wanted, and with a lot of money to spend and stuff. So, y’know, that’s another reason I don’t feel as cheated by the cancer. There wasn’t all this stuff I was waiting to do. I was doing it.”
Thirteen and out.