This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 390 With Tim Long Writer of The Simpsons.
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #390 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer Tim long, who’s written for The Simpsons TV show, as well as The Simpsons movie, and some of The Simpsons video games. He’s on next week to talk about his new feature film called The Exchange, which is a dramedy about an exchange student who comes to America and lives with a dorky American kid. So stay tuned for that interview. As the final reminder before our final deadline for SYS Six Figure Screenplay Contest, the deadline is July 31st, so only a few more days to get your script entered. If your script is ready, definitely submit now.
We’re looking for low budget shorts and features. I’m defining low budget as less than six figures, in other words, less than $1, 000,000. We’ve got lots of industry judges reading the scripts in the later rounds. We’re giving away thousands and cash and prizes. I had last year’s winners, Richard Pierce on the podcast in Episode #378. Definitely check out that episode. He won the contest last year and was introduced to one of our industry judges who took the script to Mar Vista Entertainment and got the film produced. So check out that episode to learn more about last year’s winner. This year, we have a short film category, 30 pages or less. So if you have a low budget short script, by all means, submit that as well.
And I’ve got a number of these industry judges who are specifically looking for short scripts too. Once again, if this sounds like something you’d like to learn more about, or perhaps enter, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or re-tweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on.
You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast, and then just look for Episode Number #390. If you want my free guide, How to Sell a Screenplay In Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks, along with a whole bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter, and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really, it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide.
So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I am interviewing writer Tim long. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Tim to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Tim: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Glad to be here.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Tim: Oh, I grew up in Exeter, Ontario, which is a very small town in Ontario, Canada, about I’d say 4,000 people. And I guess I was just like a lot of small town kids, I sought refuge in entertainment. My mother was a huge movie fan, so she would drive us into a nearby city almost every Saturday to see movies throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Sometimes not the most appropriate movies for kids, but we’d see them all. And like a lot of children, I also watched just a staggering amount of television. So it just sort of came to me naturally.
Ashley: Got you. Got you. So then you’re growing up in Canada. What were some of the first steps to actually turn this into a career?
Tim: Oh, well, I… it was sort of a gradual haphazard path. As I said, I was always a big fan of comedy, a big fan of [inaudible 00:03:46] a big fan of The Letterman Show. So I went away to college in Toronto and I wrote a humor magazine, a humor column there for the school newspaper. And then I decided at the age of 22 that, what the hell, I moved to New York. Don’t know what gave me the guts to do that, but I did it. I ended up writing for some magazines, including Spy Magazine, which was a pretty big humor magazine at the time. From there I managed to get a job on the staff of the Bill Maher Show- Politically Incorrect. Then from there, I worked in The Letterman Show, including a year as head writer, and then I went to The Simpsons. So it’s been a pretty fortuitous career.
Ashley: Yeah, got you. So let’s talk about that a little bit. So you moved to New York and then eventually get staffed on Politically Incorrect. What were sort of the things that were leading up to that? Did you have an agent by that point? What specs did you write? Was it just purely on your magazine writing, you kind of built a resume writing magazines, and is that maybe a pathway for screenwriters?
Tim: You know, I think that every… I’m sure that one thing you’ve discovered as you’ve talked to various screenwriters, is that every experience is different. My experience was that when I was a Spy, it just so happened to be a time when a lot of late night shows were starting in New York. I’m talking about Politically Incorrect, I’m talking about the original Colin Show, The Letterman Show when it shifted to CBS. I like to say that it was a time when the merry-go-round slowed down just enough for me to get along. I knew a guy named Chris Kelly who’d been a staff writer at Spy. And he went to work for Bill Maher and he suggested that I put together a package. So I watched the show and I wrote a ton of monologue jokes.
I also wrote a few statements of the show that were designed to conform with the sort of thing that Bill was doing at that time. And I think Chris probably was instrumental in getting it under Bill’s nose, and somehow they thought I had enough potential to bring me on board.
Ashley: Got you. Got you. So let’s talk about then, so then you worked Politically Incorrect, you said David Letterman, you’ve been on The Simpsons now for years. Let’s just talk about that a little bit. How did you make those jumps? Once you got in Politically Incorrect, were you then able to get an agent and then the agent was able to get you… did you continue to write specs? Maybe just talk about that transition just a little bit, ultimately landing on The Simpsons. What got you into that?
Tim: Sure. I didn’t get an agent until relatively late. When I was in Politically Correct, I had my eye on The Letterman Show because I was so besotted with him as a teenager, and as a young adult, he was pretty much my comedy hero. So it was also a period when he was, he had a weird system in place that was very brutal, but it ended up benefiting me. Which was like, he was hiring a ton of writers, but also firing a ton of writers. I think people were getting like a nine-week try out. So it felt like at the time, that it wasn’t the hardest thing in the world to get on the staff, but it was the hardest thing in the world to stay on the staff. So I wrote a package again that was sort of written according to the specifications of the late show.
So I wrote a bunch of monologue jokes, but also a bunch of segment ideas, and a ton of top 10 lists. And I managed to get them under the eyes of the head writers at the time, who are these guys, Donick Cary and Jon Beckerman. And again, they brought me in and I met Dave, which blew my mind, and they brought me on board for a tryout. By then I had two or three friends hired at The Letterman Show and fired at The Letterman Show, and I just decided, I don’t care if I have to hang on by my teeth. I’m not getting fired. So I remember that was probably the hardest that I ever worked. In the week before I started there, I wrote a ton of material just to think, and then on my first day, I just sort of like vomited it up and pretended that I’d written it that day.
So they were like, “Wow, we can’t believe how productive this guy is.” So I remember people saying that was maybe the best first day anyone’s ever had. And I was like, well, it took me two weeks to breathe all that material. So maybe it was cheating a little bit, but I didn’t care. And I managed to get over the hump, and get myself renewed for another cycle, then another cycle and another cycle. Eventually they start thinking, “Okay, this guy can do the job.” In terms of the getting on The Simpsons again, I mean, if there’s one trend in my career, if there’s one thing that sort of has my main confidence, it’s a tremendous amount of luck. I was done at The Letterman Show. I was just sort of a kind of a 28 year old burnout. I was just like, this job is too hard.
It’s you have to stay up late, and just there’s no time to hone anything. I mean, it remains one of the most amazing experiences of my life and I feel so honored to have worked there, but eventually it does kind of grind you down, the pace of it. So I decided I would sort of go ahead, take a break and maybe do something else. Then I found out that The Simpsons were hiring and I was very lucky in so much as this wonderful guy named Mike Skelly was running the show. And he was looking for somebody at the time who was not so much… you know, they had some real heavy hitters in terms of the story there. They had like George Meyer there and a guy named Ron Hauge and Dan Greaney and a million great screenwriters.
What they really needed was some kind of young idiot who’d come in and like fire off a lot of jokes. So Mike Skelly was looking for that, and so I had an agent by that point. I didn’t get an agent until I was actually on The Letterman Show. But she contacted Mike and said, “Tim is interested.” and Mike said, “Sure, okay.” I didn’t have a spec, but he said… Mike is one of those guys who has great comedy instincts, and so he wants to meet people, he wants to know how they’re gonna get along in the room. So he said, “Well, if you can come out here to LA and just meet with me for breakfast, we’ll see.” So I met with him, and it turns out we had a lot in common. We both grew up in very small snowy towns. And I actually told him a story about one time, snowy days were a really big deal where I grew up.
And one day we woke up and we were… we were told the night before, we were sure that a blizzard was coming. So we woke up the next day, no blizzard. Devastation. We were so upset and we went to school. Then the blizzard started and we ended up having to stay overnight at the school. I didn’t tell that story for any reason other than to provide a little background on me, but he said, you know what? That could make a pretty good episode. And I ended up writing it as a Simpson episode called Skinner Sense of Snow. And after that, I think I probably had the job.
Ashley: Huh, what a great story. I’m curious. I know you’re kind of being humble when you say, “Oh, I’ve been very lucky with my career.” One of the things that strikes me though, is you’re very good at sort of navigating these situations, going into The Letterman. I mean, going into The Simpsons at that point, now, I mean, it had already been going for quite a while, so you were sort of breaking in. And I’m sure they had their own little clique and you had to somehow break into this clique of writers, head writers, et cetera. And there’s always this thing, being good in a writer’s room, and it sounds like you have sort of those social skills to navigate that. But maybe you can give us some tips. How do you be good in a writer’s room?
If you’re a new writer in that writer’s room, what can you do to get in the favor of the head writers and the other people that are on staff and not get into these sort of petty jealousies? You always hear the stories of SNL, that it’s a real dog fight to get your skits in, and I think we all probably would wanna avoid that. But how do you get in the situations where you can kind of move along in these careers and get along with everybody and be good in the room.
Tim: I think that’s a really good question, and I think it’s different everywhere. I mean, places like Letterman back when I worked there, or SNL, I think there was an expectation that you needed to produce right away. And that’s a level of pressure that’s kind of hard to fathom. At a place like The Simpsons though, are a lot of half-hour shows. It’s best to take a deep breath and just observe at least for the first week I wanna say. Maybe two weeks. You know, you’ll get a lot more done if you just say, okay, what is succeeding in this room, what is the dynamic of this room, what do people expect from me? I mean, I would say that in most half-hour rooms, if you’re a novice, if you’re at the staff writer level or even the story editor level, you are not expected to speak up all the time.
You are expected to show up on time. That’s extremely important, because you see people who like on the second day, they wander in 20 minutes late, and that is what I would call an unforced error. Show up, make sure you’re paying attention. Don’t look at your phone, listen to people. Then when you’re not… like be sniper, I would say. If there’s an opportunity for a joke and they’re like, “We need a little joke in this character,” jump on [inaudible 00:12:00]. Pitch, don’t pitch too much. Like don’t drown out everyone, but really think through your pitch and then give it your best shot. If you get picked, seriously, if you’re a first, a novice writer and you get a joke noticed your first day, I mean, a single joke, you’re a legend. And don’t be… and also, there’s just so many things. There’s people who talk too much, don’t be negative. I feel like if the joke go off the story path that you’re pursuing, if it bumps with something else, it’s similar to something you saw on television a couple of weeks ago or something that’s in the show’s history, don’t be the one to point it out, because then you’re just gonna be like the bum master. Or don’t point out problems, create solutions.
Ashley: Got you. Got you. Yeah. Excellent advice. So let’s talk about your new film, The Exchange. Maybe to start out, you can give us a quick pitch or logline. What is this new film all about?
Tim: He decides that he’s going to import himself an exchange student, because he thinks that he’s an exchange student from France, and he thinks he’s gonna be his sort of intellectual soulmate and that they’re gonna be best friends. He assumes that they’re gonna be so similar that they’re gonna read a lot of French existentialist books. But it turns out that the kid he gets as an exchange student, is kind of a handsome sex-crave maniac, who could not be more different from him, and their adventure’s ensued.
Ashley: Where did this idea come from? What was sort of the genesis of this story?
Tim: My life. I think that I had, an exchange student, he’s very different from the character in the movie, but he was very handsome and very popular. Way more popular than I ever was. He commanded the attention of a lot of girls, which I emphatically did not. I would say that, the thing I have to tell people, is the only character who’s really similar to anyone in real life, is me. I was that big a dork, and I was just, I was [inaudible 00:13:51]. And I looked back on myself and sort of, I kind of slapped my forehead, but I’m also kind of, have fond memories of that naïve kid who thought he was so smart, but had a lot of lessons to learn.
Ashley: So let’s talk about your writing process a little bit. Where do you typically write, when do you typically write? Especially something like this, this is outside of sort of your staff duties on The Simpsons. Do you write this on the weekends? Is this sort of like moonlighting, are you doing spec scripts in addition to the writing that you’re doing in television?
Tim: Yes, all of the above. I tend to be, I hear a lot of people talk about how like they wake up at six in the morning and they’re gonna have a coffee, and they won’t stand up until they’ve finished three hours of writing or a thousand words or whatever. I am not like that. I have a ragged approach. I will wake up and do six minutes and then go get my coffee. I will lie down the floor and do eight minutes. I will grab 10 minutes on the weekend between lunch and a movie. One thing that I’ve noticed, is that I just, I don’t have a huge attention span, so I have to write when the mood strikes me. And I know that, and I sort of allow myself to just do a little bit of work before I get up again.
Again, I’m not one of the people who can stare at a computer for two hours. Some people can, and God bless them, but I’m not that guy. And so, yeah, I just grab time whenever I can.
Ashley: Got you. So on this one with The Exchange , how much time do you spend outlining, doing index cards, making outlines, versus how much time are you actually in final draft cranking out script pages?
Tim: I would say that it’s about, the relationship is probably two thirds to one third. I would say I spent way more time outlining than I did actually writing the script. I was very fortunate in this respect. This story was born because of a spoken word essay I read at a sort of a comedy event. It was for charity actually. Writers were asked to tell real life stories about their upbringing. And I told the story of my exchange student, and my wonderful agent at CAA, this woman named Ann Blanchard, she managed to get it into the hands of a producer who they might have worked with previously. And he said, “We should develop this into something. What is it? Is it a movie, is it a TV show?” We very quickly decided it wasn’t a TV show, so we started to talk about it as a movie.
So I started to… I’m not really an index card guy. I’m more of a treatment kind of guy, maybe just because of my background in magazines, I still [inaudible 00:16:13] and places like that. I like to prose it out, as I say. I like to create like a five or 10 paged document that says exactly what the story’s about. And I did that again and again and again and again, and I kept sending it off to this producer in England. So basically, I’d send it off at night and wake up the next morning and he’d send it back to me with tons of red lines over it. So I’d have to redo it, to rethink it and redo some pieces and the like. Eventually we got into a place where we felt we could pitch it to some financiers, which we did. Luckily we had one company buying.
Ashley: So this is just a treatment. How long is this treatment? It’s like a five page, a 20 page? How long is this treatment that you used to pitch to this company?
Tim: Probably like 10 pages. I think that probably, it’s the kind of thing that you wouldn’t wanna… because if you’re pitching it orally, people’s attention span doesn’t tend to be much longer than 20 minutes, I find. You can sort of like, I’ve gotten really good over the years working with The Simpsons that in my outside, I was looking at people’s eyes and thinking and realizing, and seeing that they’re thinking about lunch, or they’re thinking about their car or about the fight they had with their spouse. So you really wanna hold them. So I would say, trying to… you wanna make sure to fill in all the details and give them a sense of the richness of the story, but other than that, I would make it the shorter, the better.
Ashley: Got you. You mentioned that two thirds of your time is spent creating these treatments, one-third in actually writing the script. I’m curious, why make the decision to go in and pitch the treatment? Why didn’t you decide to write the whole script and start sending out the script? It sounds like by doing this very detailed treatment, you were quite close to actually having a completed draft of the script. Is there some benefit to just doing the pitch with a treatment versus having a full script for them to read?
Tim: The reason that we did it that way, was because I was working with a producer, and he felt like the best approach was to go pitch it to these companies and get some money first of all. I mean, it’s always best to get some money before you start writing. Not a ton of money, but just a little bit of seed money to make you feel like, okay, you’re on the right track. Also there’s a feeling, sometimes with certain producers in certain production companies, it’s better not to write the spec. It really depends on the circumstances, but sometimes they wanna be involved in the creation from the foundation. And sometimes when you write a spec, even if it sells it, they’re gonna… and even if they really like the script, they’re gonna tear it down and rebuild it. So we were lucky enough to avoid that step.
Ashley: Got you. Got you. So, Tim, I really appreciate you coming on the show. How can people see The Exchange? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be?
Tim: Yes. On July 30th, it will be available on screenings, including on Apple TV, and it is going to be shown on select screens, at least a few screens in New York and Los Angeles.
Ashley: Okay, perfect. Perfect. Well, Tim, I really appreciate this fantastic interview. Good luck with this film.
Tim: My pleasure. Thank you, sir.
Ashley: Thank you. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.
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As a bonus, if your screenplay gets a recommend or a consider from one of our readers, you get to list the screenplay in the SYS Select database, which is a database for producers to find screenplays and a big part of our SYS Select program. Producers are in the database searching for material on a daily basis, so it’s another great way to get your material in front of them. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend from one of our readers, your screenplay will get included in our monthly Best Of newsletter. Each month we send out a newsletter that highlights the best screenplays that have come through our script analysis service.
This is a monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material, so again, this another great way to get your material out there. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants. On the next episode of podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing writer, director, Michael P. Blevins, and actor producer Ford Austin. They just did a horror feature called Digging to Death. We talk about that film and how they were able to put that together. They both have a world of experience, both in acting obviously and writing, directing, but also in producing.
So really interesting episode to really hear how producing takes place and sort of at this level, how you can put projects like this together. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s our show. Thank you for listening.