Please note that this post was contributed by guest blogger Ed Page.
I’ve read this New Yorker Profile of George Meyer about a gazillion times. I love it so much I cuddle with it at night. When I’m feeling blue, I sing to it. Sometimes, when no one is looking, I lick it. If you don’t know who George Meyer is, the following excerpt will clear things up:
Several years ago, Entertainment Weekly ran an effusive review of the television show “The Simpsons.” The review’s author, Ken Tucker, singled out a particular episode as “a masterpiece of tiny, throwaway details that accumulate into a worldview.” That episode was written by Jon Vitti, who at the time was one of the show’s most talented and prolific writers. “The article quoted five jokes from the show,” Vitti told me afterward. “It was extremely flattering except that I hadn’t written any of those jokes.” Everything Tucker quoted from the episode was actually the work of a colleague of Vitti’s named George Meyer. “That kind of thing happens to all the show’s writers all the time,” Vitti said. ‘A show that you have the writer’s credit for will run, and the next day people will come up to you and tell you how great it was. Then they’ll mention their two favorite lines, and both of them will be George’s.”
Meyer began writing for “The Simpsons” late in 1989, a few months before the show’s premiere, on Fox. The credits in recent years have listed him as one of several executive producers, but no title could adequately describe his role. He has so thoroughly shaped the program that by now the comedic sensibility of “The Simpsons” could be viewed as mostly his. Mike Scully, who shares Meyer’s title and serves as the program’s “show runner,” or editor-in-chief, talked to me about Meyer not long ago in his office at Fox. “George is the best comedy writer in Hollywood,” he said. “When I first came to work here, seven years ago, he just blew me away. I had done a lot of sitcom work before, but George’s stuff was so different and so original that for a while I wondered if I wasn’t in over my head.” On other sitcoms, Scully explained, the dialogue is highly predictable, and the same kinds of setups inevitably lead to the same kinds of jokes. “The writers on those shows get to the point where they can almost write scripts in their sleep,” he said. “George completely changed my approach, and I’m a much better writer as a result. People are always asking why ‘The Simpsons’ is still so good after all these years, and, at the risk of pissing off all the other writers, I think I’d have to say that the main reason is probably George.”
In the late eighties, Meyer created a humor magazine called Army Man:
On the side, Meyer published a small, offbeat humor magazine called Army Man, whose subtitle was “America’s Only Magazine.” Meyer created Army Man partly to avoid working on the Letterman script, but in some ways it proved to be the most fulfilling creative project he had ever undertaken. Army Man was at the opposite end of the entertainment spectrum from a network television show. The first issue (there would eventually be three) contained eight typed pages and was written almost entirely by him. He laid it out on his bed and printed just two hundred copies, which he gave away to friends.
Despite its modest appearance, Army Man attracted a surprisingly broad and loyal following. It made Rolling Stone’s Hot List in 1989, and for years it circulated in samizdat on college campuses. “The only rule was that the stuff had to be funny and pretty short,” Meyer told me. “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.” (Meyer is the only person I know who can deconstruct a joke without killing it.)
Army Man eventually became a victim of its own success. Meyer was overwhelmed with submissions, and he hated having to reject contributions from friends. He was also approached by would-be investors, who wanted to take Army Man national or turn it into a television show. He eventually realized that what to him were the magazine’s best features — its small size and its simplicity — were probably doomed.
He also suddenly found himself with much less time on his hands. One of Army Man’s biggest fans turned out to be Sam Simon, who is one of the three original executive producers of “The Simpsons.” That program was just getting under way when the first issue came out, and Simon, who needed to build a writing staff in a hurry, was captivated. He tracked down Meyer and hired him and several of his contributors, including Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti. “Sam got quite a bit of his staff from the list of credits in Army Man,” one of the show’s former producers told me. “In a sense, that little magazine was the father of the show.”
Here are some excerpts from Army Man:
You can make fun all you want, but when a zebra talks, people listen.
“The Nobel Prize! Gee, thanks, fellas!”
“Aw, you’re throwing up like a girl.”
“He’s got coffee lodged in his mouth! Quick, tell him a joke!”
AN AMUSING ANECDOTE
My wife and I rent a small cottage on the shimmering shores of Lake Superior every summer. The rustic little bungalow is made of rough-hewn logs chinked with mud, and the front door opens onto an unequaled vista of towering evergreens and azure water — just the thing to settle the nerves of an addled contestant in the “rat race.”
Last summer my wife and I were merrily preparing a hearty supper of fresh-caught trout and corn on the cob, when who should wander up but a little old man with a bulging knapsack strapped to his ancient back. He looked like a crusty forest tracker from the days of Lewis and Clark. Hailing us from a distance, he approached our modest lakeside cabin and extended his weathered hand in greeting. Bending forward under the weight of his burden, he whispered something in my ear.
It was an amusing anecdote!
Discouraging news from researchers at John Hopkins: Hope causes cancer.
GONE, ALL GONE
Do you still have the adorable crayon drawings you made in kindergarten? I don’t. Not a one. Which means that at one point, many years ago, the following thoughts must’ve gone through my mother’s mind: “Hmm, what’s this? Oh, I see. It’s that irreplaceable drawing by my firstborn son … the one he proudly brought home from school. I’ll just put this in the garbage.” Then, as time went by: “Oh, another one of my child’s drawings. What is it that I do with these again? Oh, yes — I throw them in the trash. That’s right.” Eventually, her brain probably got it down to “Art — Son — Trash.” And on the days when my mom was sick, and didn’t get around to throwing my artwork away, my dad would do it.
I’m not bitter. I know they had good reasons for discarding virtually everything I ever drew, wrote, collected or pasted together during my one and only childhood. I love my parents. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them.
They taught a dog to catch nuclear weapons in its mouth. It took a lot of training, but it seemed like the way to avoid both computer error and stoned human recklessness. She got so adept at fielding them on the fly that people took to firing off nuclear weapons thoughtlessly, just to show their pique, since they knew in their hearts Duchess would catch them. They wanted credit for the gesture. The earth had a kind of peace for about a decade, but of course the time came, stomach cancer, something from the casings on the bombs, and Duchess died. You would have thought someone would have trained another dog to catch nuclear weapons in its mouth but it was a careless era, and now people were in the habit of loosing the missiles. Did the earth survive? You can find the answer at your local library.
A “LAKELY” STORY
My friend from Michigan says if you pushed all the Great Lakes together they’d be as big as the Mediterranean. I say, why bother?
BRIDE: (QUIETLY, TEARFUL) Ladies and gentlemen… I’m afraid there won’t be a wedding after all. Because, you see… my fiance has… has died.
HECKLER FROM BACK PEW: Louder!
BRIDE: (LOUDER, ALMOST HYSTERICAL) My fiance has died!
ANOTHER HECKLER: Funnier!
THE ROYAL VISITOR
When Prince Charles came to our house, his staff told us that he had decided to have a typical home-cooked American meal. My mom hadn’t counted on this, so each of us had to whip up one all-American dish, quick-like. I chose an easy one — pork ‘n’ beans. But as I tossed the can in the trash, I started to feel a little guilty. After all, baked beans were pretty dull, even for us. I figured I should class them up a bit, so I removed the usual blob of pork fat and replaced it with a nice lean chunk of pork tenderloin, grilled to perfection.
We all huddled in the kitchen as the Prince dined alone. When he had finished the meal, and two cups of Yuban, his reaction was relayed to us by his personal secretary. He found the food “delightful.” His only complaint was that the pork in the pork ‘n’ beans was a bit greasy.
I was furious. Ignoring everyone’s pleas, I stormed into the dining room and confronted our “royal” visitor. I really let him have it.
“You’ve got a helluva nerve, buddy! You come into our house and start giving orders like you’re the Queen of England or something. Who died and made you king? Awwwwwwwww, so the pork wasn’t up to your “royal standards” — Boo-hoo! That’s the saddest story ever told!
“I’ve got news for you, pal. Most people never even see any pork in their pork ‘n’ beans! The most they can hope for is a hunk of pork fat! So if “Your Majesty” didn’t find it “acceptable” that’s just too damn bad. Because that’s the best we have to offer, and we aren’t about to apologize for it!”
The Prince was stunned. Clearly, no one had ever dared speak to him in this manner. For a moment, his jaw worked soundlessly in his crimson face. Then he sprang out of his chair and got me in a headlock. I tried to bend his fingers back, but he was much stronger than I’d imagined. He tightened the grip on my windpipe until my head swam and I passed out.
When I came to, I was still in the headlock, only now the Prince was kneeing me in the face. Desperately, I grabbed at his hair, only to feel a stab of pain as his teeth sank into my thumb. I could feel myself starting to black out again. Why wasn’t my family helping me? As I began to lose consciousness, the awful truth finally hit me.
He had bought them off with his enormous wealth!
Eighteen months ago, doctors at Mercy Hospital told Manny Hofstedter he would never walk again. Sadly, they were right. Hofstedter is still in a wheelchair. The good news is that his three doctors will receive the prestigious Lundberg Prize for Diagnostic Excellence.
WHY I LOVE AMERICA
Why do I love America? Well, maybe “love” is a little strong… I mean, I think it’s a good country. Definitely. But a lot of that is ’cause I was born here, and haven’t seen that many other countries. Canada and Mexico, that’s about it. I hear Sweden is really great. Man, I’d move there in a second. Just don’t have the bucks.
If you thought you had trouble with stage fright, think about a bullet. It waits and waits in the dark until it gets that tap, and then boom — it’s showtime!
THE TRUE STORY OF WHAT HAPPENED TO ME
I remember I was hammering on a fence in the west pasture when Papa approached. He was carrying a letter or something in his hand, and he looked worried.
I continued to hammer as he came toward me. “Son,” he said, “why are you hammering on that fence? It already has plenty of nails in it.”
“Oh, I’m not using nails, Papa,” I replied. “I’m just hammering.” With that, I returned to my hammering.
Papa asked me to stop hammering, as he had some news. I did stop hammering, but first I got a couple more hammers in, and this seemed to make Papa mad. “I said, stop hammering!” he yelled.
I think he felt bad for yelling at me, especially since it looked like he had bad news. “Look,” he said, “you can hammer later, but first –”
Well, I didn’t even wait to hear the rest. As soon as I heard “You can hammer,” that’s what I started doing. Hammering away, happy as an old hammer dog.
Papa tried to physically stop me from hammering by inserting a small log of some sort between my hammer and the fence. But I just kept on hammering, ’cause that’s the way I am when I get that hammer going. Then, he just grabbed my arm and made me stop.
“I’m afraid I have some news for you,” he said.
I swear, what I did next was not hammering. I was just letting the hammer swing lazily at arm’s length, and maybe it tapped the fence once or twice, but that’s all. That apparently didn’t make any difference whatsoever to Papa, because he just grabbed my hammer out of my hand and flung it across the field.
When I saw my hammer flying helplessly through the air like that, I just couldn’t take it. I burst out crying, I admit it. And I ran to the house, as fast as my legs could take me.
“Son, come back!” yelled Papa. “What about your hammer?!”
But I could not have cared less about hammering at that point. I ran into the house and flung myself onto my bed, pounding the bed with my fists. I pounded and pounded, until finally, behind me, I heard a voice. “As long as you’re pounding, why not use this?” I turned, and it was Papa, holding a brand-new solid-gold hammer.
I quickly wiped the tears from my eyes and ran to Papa’s outstretched arms. But suddenly, Papa jumped out of the way, and I went sailing through the second-story window behind him.
Whenever I hear about a kid getting in trouble with drugs, I like to tell him this story.
Here’s something from Army Man that was written by Ian Frazier:
MY IDEAL WOMAN
I want to describe for you my Ideal Woman. My Ideal Woman has slim hips, powerful thighs, sinewy calves, a narrow waist, a flat stomach with taut lines of muscle, a broad, powerful chest, wide shoulders, bulging biceps, jack-hammer-like forearms, a bull-like neck, and a drooping, veined pecker with a livid, velvety fire-helmet top — an opalescent drop of pre-cum winking at the droop-lipped meatus slit — and two pendulous balls heavy with hot bloatum. Call me a dreamer, if you will, but I believe my Ideal Woman is out there, somewhere, and I’m not going to stop looking until I find her.
When Army Man suspended publication, Meyer sent subscribers the following letter, dated July 22, 1990:
I have some news for you, and I’m not going to sugar-coat it. I might varnish it… no, I’m not even going to varnish it. Army Man is suspending publication.
Many of you will brand me a deserter, or even a coward. But since I moved to L.A. to work on “The Simpsons,” I just can’t find the time. America’s best-loved grotesques have their ugly fangs in me and won’t turn loose.
Many thanks to everyone who contributed money and matÃ¯Â¿Â½riel. If we keep up our morale, we can regroup and fight again.
To paraphrase Gen. Douglas MacArthur, “I shall, if circumstances permit, and no one objects too strenuously, return.”