Writers Guild Award and three-time Emmy Award-winning writer/producer, Michael Price is the Executive Producer and Showrunner of the acclaimed Netflix animated comedy series F is for Family, which he co-created with series star Bill Burr.
Michael is also a Writer and Co-Executive Producer on The Simpsons, having written over 20 episodes of the show, and served as a script consultant on The Simpsons Movie.
Michael walked me through the writing process of The Simpsons and F is for Family, the difference between sequential and episodic storytelling, while reflecting on the horror and hilarity of the seventies.
How has the pandemic changed the way you work?
It was a bit of a learning curve at first, but we’re still sitting in a room together, just now it’s a virtual room. For the most part, the show is being produced in much the same way, just with different technology.
I don’t think it’s affecting the quality of the work we do, but it’s different when you’re in the same room, all laughing and having lunch together. You get a feel for how everyone’s doing.
How does the writer’s room normally work?
It all depends on what aspect of the script we’re working on. The very beginning of a script is developing the idea of it. It’s called breaking the story, when we’re all working together, pitching ideas, directions the story could go. That takes a while, and then the writer is set off to develop what’s called a beat sheet, or an outline, basically the way that the episode should play.
Then that writer goes off, spends a week or two by themselves, writing the first draft. That first draft becomes the building block that we’re working on, to rewrite or punch up.
Looking at the list of episodes that you’re credited with writing, does that mean you wrote that first draft that everyone built on?
Right, correct. So every time on The Simpsons, the person that has the “written by” credit is the person who probably first came up with that story idea and pitched it. We can’t do them anymore, because we can’t get in the same room, but at the beginning of our production year, we usually gather in a big conference room and present our story ideas, one at a time, for the whole group.
If you get assigned to write one of the ideas, you go off and write the outline, break the story with everyone, and then based on notes, go off and write that first draft.
That first draft is like a blueprint, and the final product that gets on television is often upwards of 85% to 90% different, in many ways, than what was what was first turned in.
Does it feel intimidating to write that first draft?
Absolutely. I’ve been there for almost 20 years – I started in December of 2001 – and I was very intimidated to work on The Simpsons, such a legendary show, in that writers room with people I revered.
But every time I write a script for anything,The Simpsons, or F is for Family, for anything, I always feel like this is the one where I’m not going to be able to do it. There’s always that terror of the blank page, where you think, how am I going to pull this off?
Even knowing that the final product that appears on tv will be substantially different from that first draft, it doesn’t matter. I still sweat over every little comma, every single joke, before I turn it in.
The Simpsons has covered so much over the years – how do you avoid revisiting old territory?
It’s kind of like an institutional memory. Al Jean’s been on the show since the beginning, so he has a really good memory of those things and I do too, I just have a weird, steel trap kind of memory for things like that.
We have the 700th episode airing this upcoming season, which is unbelievable. When I first joined, we were starting to work on episode 300. That’s crazy. In today’s atmosphere, with streaming, some shows might only get 3 seasons, of 10 episodes.
It’s inevitable that some things are going to feel familiar, like something that was done before, and we try to avoid that. If it’s something that’s a similar dynamic, we try to find a different take on it, a different way of doing a Marge and Homer story, for example, or we often try to find some characters that haven’t really interacted before.
There’s another really excellent episode that will be coming up this season that really gets into who Sarah Wiggum is – Chief Wiggum’s wife – a very peripheral character. She gets a very excellent spotlight episode coming up this season.
Do you ever consider killing off another major character, like Maude Flanders? Or is it more fun to explore and develop side characters?
There’s something about the nature of the show, which I think is one of the genius things that was baked into it by Matt Groening, Sam Simon and James Brooks at the beginning, is that everything goes back to the way it was at the end of the episode.
So, the last time we had a death of a character, as I recall, was several years ago, and it was Fat Tony, who was then replaced by his slim cousin, Fit Tony. Over the course of the episode, he gained weight, and became Fat Tony again. To me, that’s really fun.
The other genius of the show is that it just keeps moving forward in time, even though the characters don’t age. Homer first went to high school in the 70s, and now Homer went to high school in the 90s. Bart is 10, meaning that when we write today’s episodes, he was born in 2010. Almost every episode, conceivably, could be in any order – it’s all kind of like a Mobius strip.
How did you find working on F is for Family after your experience with The Simpsons?
It’s definitely a different form of storytelling. When we first pitched it to Netflix, we had in mind more of a standard, Simpsons style of storytelling, where each episode was self-contained. But then when Netflix ordered it, they urged us to embrace serialization.
It was challenging at first, but when we started really thinking about it, it became very stimulating. Now I can’t imagine the show that other way, I can’t picture it at all.
Over these first four seasons, we move from September of 1973, to Halloween in 1974, so we see these characters grow and expand in this world, move forward in time. They’re still carrying grudges from what happened in season 1.
Is it difficult to write that like that, when you’ve got all these layers of past events?
Very much so, but it’s been a great challenge. We’ll start every season with so many ideas of where we want to go, so many things we want to do. Then it largely falls on myself and the rest of the writers to figure out how to make it all fit into 10 episodes.
I like to make every episode have its own identity, its own shape, even though we’re telling a season-long story arc. I never want episodes to feel like a series of scenes to get to the next episode – I always want them to have some kind of unifying theme.
And this past season, we had our first real standalone episode, with Rosie, played by Kevin Michael Richardson. We love him, and we developed all of these great characters in his orbit. We knew we had a big story to tell for him, and as we were plotting out season four, we wanted to give him more time. So we just said well, just give him a whole episode – thankfully Netflix was on board with it.
It slotted right into a good time in the season too, where we were taking a little breather from the main action, and getting ready to gear it up for the last few crazy episodes. It worked out perfectly, and that was one of the episodes that I’m most proud of.
How did F is for Family come to be?
Bill [Burr] had often talked about wanting to maybe do small animations, sort of along the lines of the original Simpsons shorts. He talks about how he would tell stories from his childhood, the bullying he went through and the way his father yelled at him, threatening him to put him through a wall and, you know, the way things were back then.
When he was a younger comedian, he’d tell those stories and get a big laugh from everybody. As he got a little bit older and his audience got younger, he’d tell those same stories and they’d groan, they’d say, “That’s so sad.” Bill felt that by putting these stories in animation, he could frame them in the way that he remembered them, being funny.
So that’s where I came in. I had a somewhat similar upbringing to Bill, little different family dynamic, but similar part of the country, round about the same time. So we had a meeting, and we just shared stories about what it was like being a kid back then, how you could run out in the morning, come home at dinnertime, get in all kinds of trouble without your parents knowing about it, not wear seatbelts, all that crazy stuff.
We hit it off and started working on developing the idea together, and it’s been a great partnership ever since – I really can’t say enough great things about him.
I think the show does a great job of depicting the flaws of the past, in a fun way, without being overly condemnatory or nostalgic.
We try to present things in the way we remember them. Animation, by nature, leads to a heightened, distorted version of things. But the show is true to the way people talked and the way things were.
This past season, it was interesting to me to do a thing about how the character of Sue, played by Laura Dern, was delivering a baby, and there’s a scene where the doctor explains that they’ll deliver her baby using “Twilight Sleep.”
It was this barbaric way, in which, as I understood it, mothers went through the unbearable pain of childbirth, but the drugs didn’t take that away – they’d just make them forget. It led to possible psychotic reactions, the women were literally strapped down to a bed during delivery. I saw people writing about it later saying, “that can’t be true,” but it was.
If we get to season 5, we’ll be dealing with a new baby, and how people dealt with that back then. I’ve been doing research about that, wondering if there were even car seats. I don’t think there were – not the way they are now. I remember my younger brother had this baby seat, kind of similar to what Maggie has in the title sequence of The Simpsons, with a little fake steering wheel – that was made of metal! If there was an accident …
It’s funny, people around my age will sometimes say, “Kids today are too soft – we went through all that, and we’re fine.” And yeah, we made it. But a lot of people probably didn’t.
Has your writing style changed, with the sequential storytelling of F is For Family?
It’s a different kind of writing, it’s deeper and more emotional. Getting into some hard feelings. It’s opened up a new level in me, the stuff that I thought I could write, and my approach to writing.
I can see, possibly, in the future, tackling something that’s a little more real and dramatic in The Simpsons. That’s not to say that the Simpsons don’t experience real emotions, but just to go a little deeper. It’s been fun to do that.
What’s so great about The Simpsons, the world those guys created, it can encompass so many different things. There can be an episode where Homer goes to space, or just a simple story of Skinner and Chalmers going on a road trip.
It would be interesting to try to do another episode that’s really small and grounded, maybe just focus on Homer and Marge, or something. I think the show can absorb that, and that next week do something big and crazy, with Moe, or Krusty the Clown.
What do you think about all the fan-created Simpsons content out there?
Oh, it’s incredible, it’s crazy to see how much is out there. To see all the memes, it’s amazing to see the relevancy of this thirty-year-old show. We’ve done some references to that, some meta things – there was an episode where Bart showed a GIF on his phone, that famous shot of Homer, walking backwards into the hedges.
But you never know what’s going to become a meme. I can’t remember the name of the episode now, but that newspaper clipping of Grandpa, titled “Old Man Yells At Cloud” – I remember being in the room when that joke was pitched, everyone thought it was funny, and here we are, so many years later, and it’s everywhere.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.