John Swartzwelder

John Swartzwelder

John Swartzwelder (b. 1950) is an American comedy writer and novelist, best known for his work on the animated television series ‘The Simpsons,’ as well as a number of novels. He is credited with writing the largest number of ‘Simpsons’ episodes by a large margin (59 full episodes, with contributions to several others). Swartzwelder was one of several writers recruited to show from the pages of George Meyer’s ‘Army Man’ magazine (a short-lived comedy periodical published in the late 1980s; Meyer would also go on to become an acclaimed ‘Simpsons’ writer).

Swartzwelder has been animated in the background of several episodes of ‘The Simpsons.’ His animated likeness closely resembles musician David Crosby, which prompted Matt Groening to state that anytime that David Crosby appears in a scene for no apparent reason, it is really John Swartzwelder. Additionally, Matt Groening has stated that the recurring character ‘Herman Hermann’ (the owner of Herman’s Military Antiques) was originally physically based on Swartzwelder–with the exception of his one arm.

Swartzwelder attended high school in Renton, Washington. He started out with a career in advertising, after which he began writing for ‘Saturday Night Live,’ where he met Meyer. Meyer quit to form his fledgling magazine and convinced Swartzwelder to join him. Meyer noted on ‘Army Man’: ‘The only rule was that the stuff had to be funny and pretty short. To me, the quintessential ‘Army Man’ joke was one of John Swartzwelder’s: ‘They can kill the Kennedys. Why can’t they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?’ It’s a horrifying idea juxtaposed with something really banal—and yet there’s a kind of logic to it. It’s illuminating because it’s kind of how Americans see things: Life’s a big jumble, but somehow it leads to something I can consume. I love that.’ In 1988, television producer and writer Sam Simon, a reader of ‘Army Man,’ recruited both Swartzwelder and Meyer to write for a new Fox animated sitcom he was executive producing: ‘The Simpsons.’

Swartzwelder is a chain smoker. By 1994, with the show’s sixth season, he was granted a special dispensation and allowed not to attend rewrite sessions with the rest of the staff, instead being allowed to send drafts of his scripts in from home so other writers could revise them as they saw fit. This was a direct result of Swartzwelder’s avid smoking coming into conflict with a newly implemented policy banning smoking in the writers’ room. Additionally, his scripts typically needed minimal rewriting compared to those of other writers, with about 50% being used. His longtime collaborators on ‘The Simpsons,’ Al Jean and Mike Reiss, describe Swartzwelder as a huge fan of Preston Sturges (1930s filmmaker known for elevating the screwball comedy) and a lover of ‘anything old timey American.’ This vaguely defined aesthetic presents itself in many of the episodes he has written in the form of wandering hobos, Prohibition-era speakeasies, carnies, 19th-century baseball players, aging Western movie stars, and Sicilian gangsters.

According to Matt Groening, Swartzwelder used to write episodes while sitting in a booth at a coffee shop ‘drinking copious amounts of coffee and smoking endless cigarettes.’ When California passed an anti-smoking law, Swartzwelder bought the diner booth and installed it in his house, allowing him to continue his process in peace. He is also reported to be a staunch libertarian as well as a gun rights advocate, and despite having written many of the environmentally driven episodes, he has been described as an ‘anti-environmentalist.’ ‘Simpsons’ writer David X. Cohen once related a story of Swartzwelder going on an extended diatribe about how there is more rainforest on Earth now than there was a hundred years ago. Fellow writer Dan Greaney has described Swartzwelder as ‘the best writer in the world today in any medium.’

With the exception of his contributions to ‘The Simpsons Movie,’ released in 2007, Swartzwelder has been absent from ‘The Simpsons’ writing staff since the fifteenth season (2003–04), with his last airing episode (‘The Regina Monologues’) actually being a ‘holdover’ written for the fourteenth (2002–03) season. At 59 episodes, Swartzwelder has been credited with writing more episodes than anybody else. Since leaving the show, he has taken up writing absurdist novels, beginning with the 2004 publication of science-fiction detective story ‘The Time Machine Did It’ starring private investigator Frank Burly. The next year he published ‘Double Wonderful, a Western,’ before returning to the Burly character for ‘How I Conquered Your Planet’ in 2006, ‘The Exploding Detective’ in 2007, ‘Dead Men Scare Me Stupid’ in 2008, ‘Earth vs. Everybody’ in 2009, ‘The Last Detective Alive’ in 2010, ‘The Fifty Foot Detective’ in 2011, and ‘The Million Dollar Policeman’ in 2012.

Swartzwelder is a notorious recluse, and rarely, if ever, makes media appearances. At one point, fans of ‘The Simpsons’ on the Internet even debated his existence: when considering his reclusiveness and the number of episodes credited to him, some theorized that ‘John Swartzwelder’ was actually a pseudonym for when writers did not want to take credit for an episode, or for episodes that were penned by several writers in concert. He has also famously not participated in any of the audio commentaries on the ‘The Simpsons’ DVD sets to date, despite being asked multiple times. Executive Producer David Mirkin once invited Swartzwelder to make a brief appearance in a prerecorded bit in which he would be asked if he wanted to take part, to which he would respond with ‘No’ as an ironic punchline, but he refused. During the recording of the 2006 commentary for the ninth season episode, ‘The Cartridge Family,’ show runner Mike Scully called Swartzwelder’s home on the phone. After presumably speaking with him for a few minutes, the man on the other end of the phone ended the call by saying, ‘It’s too bad this really isn’t John Swartzwelder.’

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