Former Simpsons showrunner Josh Weinstein on the inspirations behind new Netflix series Disenchantment
The co-creator of Matt Groening's latest animation says Monty Python's The Holy Grail, Rick and Morty and BoJack Horseman all informed their new comedy
20-odd years ago, Disenchantment co-creator Josh Weinstein – who worked as a writer and then showrunner of The Simpsons between seasons three and nine – presided over some of the most memorable moments in the show's rich history, including the Who Shot Mr Burns two-parter, and the now infamous Steamed Hams segment (which sees Principal Skinner absurdly convince his boss, among other things, that the fire in his kitchen is in fact the Northern Lights).
The internet was in its nascent stages – but, as he tells it, as much a source of anxiety as it is today.
“You literally had to dial-up to get on to the internet,” he says ,“and already people were saying ‘worst episode ever’, and saying The Simpsons has gone downhill. In season four!”
Social media was a long way off, but the dialogue surrounding the show that they came across on forums was surprisingly negative, despite sky-high ratings. It inspired in part, Weinstein tells me, the season eight episode in which network executives of The Itchy and Scratchy Show try to re-invigorate the cartoon with the introduction of a “dog with attitude”, called Poochie.
Fast forward nearly a quarter of a century, and the iconic cartoon is still on air – Weinstein left in 1998 – and he's about to work with Simpsons creator Matt Groening for a third time, on this occasion co-creating a Netflix series about the misadventures of a medieval princess and her other-worldy pals.
The internet is perhaps more toxic than ever, but it is also the most fertile ground for creativity that we have.
It has given Groening and his team the opportunity to break free of the shackles of broadcast television, and explore darker themes with more intricate, long-term plotting. They’ve been able to tell longer stories – episodes stretch between 25-35 minutes. But some things are better left alone.
“In our earliest draft of the first episode, we had characters saying “s***”, and it just didn’t feel right in the Groening universe,” Weinstein tells me. “As a fan of those shows myself too, I don’t want to see Matt Groening characters saying ‘oh f*** you’ or anything, it’s not right.”
That said, they’re not afraid to explore darker themes, given the opportunity. The series follows Princess Bean who, aided by her personal demon Luci (Eric Andre) and elf pal (Nat Faxon), is on a journey to find some meaning in her privileged life as a royal. This leads her, at one point, to try out a number of jobs before settling on executioner, as Noel Fielding’s jovial killer takes her under his wing.
Blood is shed casually and brutally throughout the series. It’s the only significant tonal difference between that and its predecessor, Futurama, which Weinstein also worked on. “It goes a little darker and deeper in terms of emotion and stuff,” he says.
Having spent years working on modern day and future-based TV series, the duo relished the opportunity to explore the comedic potential of the medieval age, the bleak reality of which is often the basis for the best jokes.
“Matt grew up reading loads of fantasy novels, and I grew up loving legends and mythology and medieval history, so it was a good combination,” he says. While he cites Monty Python and the Holy Grail as an inspiration, he adds that they didn’t want to retread old ground covered by a rich grain of fantasy parody series and films.
“People should not expect it to be a non-stop parody show. We hope that we’ve created our own world in which these stories exist, and there might be an occasional parody along the way.”
Instead, he reveals that he has been looking at the current standard bearers of modern animated telly – namely BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty – for inspiration.
“When I was growing up, the only cartoons you had were like Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo, and to me they weren’t that great,” he says. “And people who are now in their 20s and 30s – like [Rick and Morty co-creator] Justin Roiland and Alex Hirsch [creator of Disney animation Gravity Falls] – grew up with shows like The Simpsons and South Park that were already incredibly funny and much smarter.”
“So, I think that the people who’ve grown up watching those shows have evolved past people like Matt and me, where they’re funnier, they’re better at storytelling and they’re not afraid to embrace emotion unironically.”
In other words, they inspired these young guns only to be inspired by them in turn later.
But despite significant advances in technology in the years since Weinstein began working in the industry, he says that the process hasn't changed much, as they continue to strive for Groening's signature hand-drawn aesthetic. Each episode takes roughly ten months to produce, and he describes the process as an "assembly line" that he oversees, making tweaks and changes along the way as required.
This involves multiple iterations of scripts – which are written by individuals or pairs of writers, and then chopped and screwed by the entire writing staff – followed by storyboarding, examination of coloured edits from the animators, and soundtracking by the music team. Groening and Weinstein sit in and direct the voice actors as they record their lines, and make further changes to the script as the animated edits come through.
"The process was well established starting on The Simpsons and we do it the same way," Weinstein says.
The Simpsons itself hasn't evolved much in the past three decades either, and, in recent months, Groening has come under scrutiny for not moving along with the times.
In 2017, Indian American comedian Hari Kondabolu fronted a documentary called The Problem With Apu, in which he assessed the negative impact that stereotypes perpetuated by the Simpsons character – voiced by white actor Hank Azaria, who has been a constant presence throughout its 29-year run – have had upon people of south Asian descent.
Groening shrugged the criticism off, saying that "it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” His response didn't go down well.
Weinstein is reluctant to wade into the conversation as he feels – nearly 20 years out from working on the show – that it is not his place, but he admits that the documentary "opened his eyes".
"I saw that documentary and I think it's extremely well done, and I get the point that they’re making," he says. "I think the public totally has a right to respond, and so does Matt, and The Simpsons, and I feel like it's not my business, but I saw the documentary and I totally understand… it opened my eyes to an issue."
And while the keyboard critics haven't exactly disappeared in the years since Weinstein's stint on the show in the 90s, his attitude towards the world wide web has softened significantly with the advent of social media. Not only has he been able to watch classic Simpsons clips take on a new life – a search for "Steamed Hams but" will throw up dozens of bonkers, fan-made iterations with slight tweaks to the original clip such as 'Steamed Hams but it's directed by Quentin Tarantino' – he has also opened up a dialogue with the fans. He now uses his Twitter account to share trivia about decades old Simpsons episodes, which tend to go down a treat, regardless of the length of time that has passed.
"It's only in the last eight years or so with the internet and Twitter and all that we finally get to talk to fans of our episodes. So for us it's delightful, and it's exciting to think that somehow we influenced people, even if it's in this weird niche Steamed Hams culture – we love it."
Disenchantment season one arrives on Netflix UK on Friday 17th August