Matt Selman graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1993. He was Editor-in-Chief of 34th Street and has worked on The Simpsons from 1997 to the present. He worked on such classics as “Behind the Laughter” and the one where Apu has octuplets. He wanted us to mention that he has won three Emmys.
When did you first realize that you were the funniest man at Penn?
Actually, I was more like the 105th funniest person. I was never the funniest — just the most goal-oriented. Where all those Wharton fuckers were goal-oriented about being hired by Quaker Oats or whatever, my goal was to be hired by television. I had my eyes on the prize.
And your job is cool whereas working for Quaker Oats sucks ass.
I guess. You would think that my job is the most fun job in the world, but like any other job it quickly becomes an ordeal. Maybe it’s just me. I can make anything miserable.
You’re playing the video game Simpsons: Hit and Run while I interview you. Have you been playing all day?
I’m not at work because I had some doctor appointments. I told myself I would be effective with my time off, then I decided the best way to be effective was to unlock all the game’s secret vehicles and costumes and bonus levels.
Isn’t it lame that you write for The Simpsons, yet you’re playing a Simpsons game during your free time?
Is this game just an upgrade of Simpsons: Road Rage?
No, this game is really good actually. Me and two other Simpsons guys wrote all of it — the story, the missions, the jokes — everything. For the first game — Road Rage — they just said, “We are ripping off Crazy Taxi.” But for the new game, I said, “We’re ripping off Grand Theft Auto.” I’m really proud of the game. It’s not perfect, but it’s exponentially better than any other Simpsons game.
Well Bart picking up prostitutes wouldn’t be too good.
Well, it’s cleaned up. But Homer can kick Marge and she rolls down the street. In an early version of the game, you actually got points for that. You were rewarded for kicking Marge.
What was your 34th Street experience like?
When I ran it, I tried to make it my own little version of Entertainment Weekly, with minimal Penn references. It was really fun though. I would never give money to Penn in a million years, but I would give money to Street. In retrospect, I wish we had wrote more original material, made it more comedy-oriented. I mean, who wants to read another review of Terminator 2?
We did write a lot of clever puns in headlines and such. I was very proud of our cleverness at the time. When I started working on The Simpsons, George Meyer, who is the svengali of the show, probably the best comedy writer I’ve ever worked with, he told me “Cleverness is the eunuch version of funny.” And I was like, “Whoa.”
What State is Springfield in?
Dudes, you are better than that.
The real answer is nowhere. It’s everywhere, it’s America. Does Penn have waste-of-money classes studying The Simpsons?
I wish, I would take them all.
No, don’t do that. People love to over-intellectualize The Simpsons.
Like those books about the philosophy of The Simpsons?
Yeah — what’s the philosophy? The philosophy is just to be funny. Smart people trying to make other smart people laugh. One of the ways to be funny is to satirize institutions like the government, and religion, as well as family dynamics. The Simpsons satire is so easy to understand, what’s the point in studying it? If I paid $40,000 a year so my kid could watch cartoons I’d kill myself.
What is the best episode that you ever wrote?
It was called “Trilogy of Error.” We have an intelligent viewership and it rewarded them. It was based on the movie Go, and it referenced Run Lola Run. In Go, where there are three stories which are slightly interconnected. In “Trilogy Of Error,” I had three stories interconnect about fifteen times in an extremely complicated puzzle. Making it all hook up and be funny was really hard, but when it worked for the most part, the fans really liked it.
What’s your favorite show on TV?
Right now I like American Chopper, and World Poker Tour. Also the cooking show The Barefoot Contessa – it’s this superfat Hamptons yenta who makes the creamiest most unhealthy foods in the world.
Do you like other reality TV shows?
I don’t like the stuff about beautiful people trying to be famous. Those are for sub-literate morons. I like when shows are about something real and not just stagey hoke-em.
What about the Jessica Simpson Show [Newlyweds].
I do like beautiful girls, but… but I like shows with information in them that I can use in my writing, not just following idiot rich people where producers are telling them what to do. It’s all so staged. If you have any TV production experience, it’s obvious those shows have a team of producers telling the subjects to do crazy things to make the show “wilder.” It’s pathetic.
How did you get your start in TV?
I moved out to L.A. with my friend and co-editor from 34th Street, and we thought we could write together. That situation quickly became untenable. We went our separate ways and I ended up as a lunch-fetcher on Ellen. The writers on that show were super cool and supportive and helped me. And everyone was getting TV jobs back in the early ’90s. It was insane, not like now, where all the jobs have dried up. If any of you harbor dreams of writing for TV, I say give up.
Did you always want to write for The Simpsons?
I did, but I never thought I would… (YELLING) Oh my God, this video game is fucked up.
You’re still playing the game?
I almost beat the Professor Frink level…
Besides video games, what do you do for entertainment?
I try to read as much as I can. Books on tape are incredibly exciting to me. The things that inspire me to write good stuff for The Simpsons are not TV or movies, they are things I read or things I observe from real life — you can do smarter, more well-observed jokes. For example, One of next year’s Halloween segments is a “London by Gaslight” murder mystery, Jack the Ripper-style segment. To be able to cram details from all I’ve read about Victorian London into the scripts is very gratifying.
What did you think of Futurama?
It was really good and really well-written. Family Guy was this horrible bizzaro version of The Simpsons, and Fox put all their support behind it. Whereas Futurama was this really funny, inspired show and they flush it down the toilet. The worst thing you can say at The Simpsons about a joke is that it is Family Guy. It means the joke just pointed out the obvious, and we can do better than just the obvious.
Do you see yourself breaking off of The Simpsons and starting your own show?
I never want to leave The Simpsons because everyone who does regrets it. As hard as it is to keep the standards high — and it is, we drive ourselves crazy trying to keep the show good — we are the only show where the writers have complete creative autonomy, except for maybe HBO. I’m not going to give that up. It’s really hard to create a new show that rewards smart viewers.
What do you do when people see a character like Apu who is a satire of racial stereotypes and think that it is shortsighted and racist?
Apu is funny, because he started out as a stereotype, but we redeemed him by adding levels to his character. He is very spiritual and very intelligent. But he also gouges people at the Kwik-E-Mart. He is one of the purest characters on the show, but also flawed. He plays off the stereotype instead of becoming the stereotype.
What about Willy?
Groundskeeper Willy is just a stereotype of an angry Scottish maniac. No two ways about it.