Multiple Emmy Award-winning producer/writer/director David Mirkin

David began his career in 1982 writing freelance scripts for both television series and movies while working as a stand-up comic in the Los Angeles comedy clubs The Comedy Store and The Improv.

Mirkin’s television career took off when he joined the staff of Newhart, serving as executive producer, writer and occasionally as director from 1984 to 1988. In 1987, he received his first Emmy nomination for a Newhart episode he wrote.

In 1990 Mirkin co-created the cult classic Fox series: Get A Life, on which he was also executive producer, writer and principle director.

In 1992, Mirkin joined Fox Broadcasting Company’s The Simpsons as executive producer/show runner, for which he won an Emmy Award in 1995. He has remained with the show ever since, winning several more Emmys as well as the prestigious Peabody award.

Mirkin has also contributed to the critically acclaimed Larry Sanders Show serving as both a writer and director.

In addition to his continuing work on the Simpsons, Mirkin has also directed two successful feature films — Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion starring Lisa Kudrow, Janeane Garafalo and Oscar winner Mira Sorvino as well as Heartbreakers starring Oscar winners Sigourney Weaver and Gene Hackman. Mirkin Is currently hard at work co-writing the super-secret Simpsons movie.

The four-time Emmy-winning Mirkin was born in Philadelphia but cleverly resides in Los Angeles to avoid a long commute.

AMO: Having worked extensively in live-action TV, do you find working in animation to be very different? Is there a medium in which you prefer working?

Mirkin: The real draw about working in animation is the fact that it’s a “control freak’s” dream. Pretty much any director (and to a lesser extent writer) wants to see things being executed in a certain way. In animation you have the time and control to execute something as you see it precisely as it is in your head. When you direct live action it always comes out a little different to what exactly you envisioned in your head, the weather may be bad, the sun could be in the wrong place, things could be going on in the background that you can’t control.

Where as in animation, I could go back in and change the verizon, move the sun around, make the characters skin tones darker/lighter, and change their expressions after the fact. Even working with actors in animation, you can combine their performances a lot more then you can in live action. You can literally take the first part of a sentence and add some words from the end and really control the timing very precisely. You also have the opportunity to go back a few times to make something as precise to get it exactly right. It’s the closest thing that I’ve ever gotten to vision’s coming out of my head.

These mediums both have their ups and downs. Animation is a very slow process, from the time you have the idea to the time you see it fully executed takes about nine months. That’s a very long time to hold on to your passion and vision through that process. There’s a great attention to detail, which is wonderful. There’s immediacy to live-action films where you have to get it at the moment and it has to work. The energy needs to be up and your cameras have to be in the right place, everything needs to be going right. That kind of excitement is fun, it’s fun to get out of the writing room or editing room and to be doing exteriors, to be on the back of the frame, to be whipping around working with these giant tinker toys.

Working in animation and in live-action both have these enormous draws to them, which is why I have stayed with The Simpsons for all these years. You can always write anything in animation …It’s a budgetless universe. When I decided to send Homer into space I knew it would cost the same as an episode of him sitting on the couch. Where as if I write a joke for one of my films I’ll curse because I know that’s a very funny moment but I know that will cost me 75K to make it happen. The Simpsons is not like that, anything that pops into my head I can do and it doesn’t cost me anything more. It’s very fun to straddle both worlds, and I’m very lucky to be able to do that.

AMO: I understand that you were a huge fan of The Simpsons before you even joined the staff. It must be a dream come true to work on a show that you had so much love and respect for. Is it also intimidating in some ways?

Mirkin: I didn’t watch a lot to TV at the time, but some friends of mine were working on The Simpsons who I worked with on Gary Shandling Show and some other writers I knew and liked with in the past so I checked it out. Needless to say I became completely addicted to it very early on and really liked it. While I was working on Get A Life, it was the only show I really had time to watch which is funny because the guys working on The Simpsons said they were watching Get A Life. I then found out how Get A Life was influencing The Simpsons and how crazy Homer became. The writers on The Simpsons said they got a kick out of the psychotic level of Chris Elliot’s character which steeped it’s way into The Simpsons a bit. I think there was definitely an interaction.

It really wasn’t at all intimidating to join this crew, these are guys that I had worked with and written with before. Jim Brooks (a.k.a. James L. Brooks) and I had worked on The Tracey Ulman Show, and he wanted me to come in and take over the show. By that time I had already run The Newheart Show and co-created Get A Life and The Edge, so by then I knew what style I could write and The Simpsons was very much the style that I liked. I also knew that I could take this show in a direction that is more personal to me. I did that, had a great time doing that, and everyone was very receptive to that. Everyone who has come in and been a show runner on The Simpsons since then has put his or her own stamp on it as well.

It was a difficult time to take over the show because a lot of the original staff was burnt out and leaving. So that was the only problem I was concerned about, I pretty much had to build that show from the ground up again. It was exciting but also a big challenge.

AMO: Coming in as an executive producer for such an established a show, is they’re anything you did to put your own stamp on it? Do feel it has noticeably evolved in the years since you were brought on?

Mirkin: What I did at that point is I brought it back to a more story-oriented show. We did more stories about the characters and made the stories more emotional. But at the same time still keeping it surreal and weird but it probably swung back towards those more structured storytelling but still with flash-forwards, flashbacks and weird twists and turns but we concentrated more on character and story. Also in my years we probably swung more towards Homer’s stories rather then Bart’s and the other characters. I also brought forth the supporting characters, I did the first story that was about Apu and other various characters that I was interested in bringing to the forefront.

The fourth season became incredibly fast moving. I absolutely love the fourth season partly because we cut back on the flashback episodes and really developed the story flow.

AMO: With more than 300 episodes aired, did you ever fathom the show would have such a long run? What’s the key to keeping it fresh and relevant?

Mirkin: No, in fact just the opposite … that reminds me of a funny story. We were at a table reading for the 200th episode and I said as a very sarcastic joke, “We’re half way there!” and it got a huge laugh because people just figured that we were much closer to the end, and now it’s fairly certain that we’ll make 400 episodes. It turned out to be nightmarishly true that we had to keep pumping these things out.

AMO: One of the remarkable things about this show is the way you and the other writers manage to pack so many jokes, gags and hilarious lines of dialogue into 22 minutes. I find myself recording each episode and watching it a few times so I won’t miss anything. What can you tell us about the writing process?

Mirkin: It starts with someone coming up with an idea or I as an executive producer might have an idea that I want to do, and I won’t have time to go off and write the first draft of it. Like when I wanted Bart to have a crush on a girl that was nastier then he was or when I wanted Homer to be tempted by another woman away from Marge. I came up with the idea of Homer joining a cult in my car at a stop light three blocks from my house coming home from a re-write at about 2:30 a.m. and I was listening to this a.m. radio station talking about cults throughout the century and I thought that could be funny … Having a cult in town and Homer being the only one in town that wasn’t a member.

So someone will have an idea and as a group we’ll talk about it and beat it out in great, great detail. The executive producer show runner leads all this, where they can say, “I want the first act to look like this, the second to be like that” and we’ll pitch out jokes and story beats. So that often a writer will go away with about 20-plus pages of notes about jokes that were said and ideas that were pitched. That writer will then go away for a full month and write the script and come back, where then I would look at it, and if it needs more work would be sent off for another two weeks after just given a days worth of notes on it. And pitching out a story could take as long as three-five days depending how well it’s going.

Once the script comes in that’s when it’s tabled. It is very typical on this show for the enormous amounts of re-writing. The vast majority of this show is written at the table in a group form. Those re-writes can take anywhere from about five to seven days, sometimes eight. The script is then ready to be read by the voice-over cast on Thursday morning at 10:00 a.m. Then a re-write takes place for the rest of that day…about 11 a.m. to however long it takes.

In the early days of the show, when we were first finding the show and continuing to really move forward with it, that process could take us very late into the night…sometimes by 2 a.m. On Monday we have another read and record and I then edit that recording and take the very best takes out of that recording. From there, I send the tapes to the animators whose been making me storyboards. I make notes on the storyboards and in about 6 weeks we see an animatic. We have a screening which generates a new re-write which takes anywhere from 1-2 days to fix things like jokes that are not working, story ideas that may not be as drawn. We then do a pretty extensive re-write, go back and re-record and then re-animate and that all gets sent to the color artists overseas. When it comes back in the color form about three months later or so we watch that again and do another re-write.

One of the reasons it’s so jam packed is because we always after any slow part of the show, anything that is not working, we have nine months from start to finish to get it right to fix it and get it as good as it could possibly be. So that’s why it’s so jam packed, because there’s so much time and energy over the nine months to fill every space with something funny and background jokes things you need to freeze frame on your VCR. We really reward people for paying attention that’s part of the goal to have lots of layers not only because it’s fun to watch it the first time but it makes if fun to watch it again, again and again.

AMO: When it comes to guest stars, I think The Simpsons has used about everyone in Hollywood and I understand that you direct all your guests’ voice-over work. Could you share one or two of your favorite moments from these sessions?

Mirkin: Almost everyone in Hollywood, there’s still a few people out there! I actually have a huge list of people bothering me to be on the show all the time and it’s always a matter of finding a part that’s worthy of the celebrity. We try not to just waste somebody and hold him or her for their perfect character to play.

I really loved directing the actors it was a great collaboration and the they all were a lot of fun to work with. I think the things that are amazing are when Hank Azaria. or Dan Castellaneta. does some great adlibs. Dan particularly gets into the character of Homer, now and again some of the bad ways he says things is literally him channeling Homer and making a mistake the way Homer would make a mistake and we just leave it in. There was a time when we were recording the voice over for the episode when Homer goes to college, during the episode Homer accidentally starts a fire in the house trying to burn his high school diploma yelling “I am so smart,” “I am so smart, ” then he spells “s-a-m-r-t… I mean…s-m-a r t.” Dan spelled it wrong and he wasn’t supposed to, he was just in the Homer mind set. As Dan acts out Homer he loses about 30 IQ points you see his eyes glaze over as he does it and is such a real channeling of a moron. So when he spelled “smart” incorrectly was a perfect joke that wasn’t written and it was a mistake that he made in character.

AMO: We all remember a few months back when the voice cast went on strike. Did that cause any lasting rifts in the Simpson’s family? Did you take part in the negotiations or have any influence on their new contracts?

Mirkin: No I don’t think so at all because we all (and I think everyone feels the same as I do).

The cast of this show is invaluable, irreplaceable and so much a part of the success of this show. This show is the perfect collaboration of writing and performing and you can’t take away either. The writers are as special and important as the acting. It’s been an important goal of Jim Brooks to keep what we call the “key” writers involved in the show since the early days and that is very important to the success of the show and it’s the same with the actors.

There’s a mutual admiration that goes both ways. The actors have been very kind in recognizing the writing and in the exact same way I certainly adore these actors and they’re so talented and funny. One of the reasons it such a pleasure to direct them is because there always improving on the writing and making it funnier then it is on the page. That’s what you always have to look for, I do that with any cast I’m dealing with, I look for actors that are going to improve upon the writing, not by changing the line but the attitude in which they deliver it. We’re of alike mind and think the actors deserve everything they can get.

The negotiations are between FOX and to an extent Gracie Films and the actors. I get involved in a few things but mostly you want to keep your energy for the creative pursuit and not get to caught up in the numbers.

AMO: We hear that another character is going to come out of the closet this season. Any hints?

Mirkin: All I can say is by the time The Simpsons is over every single character on the show will be out of the closet. There won’t be a single person whose sexuality has not flip-flopped.

AMO: While we understand that your work on The Simpsons movie is classified, we can’t help but beg for any morsels of thoughts, plans or ideas that you and the other writers are kicking around. How about it?

Mirkin: We are very very sworn to secrecy on that. All I can say is that all the “key writers of the show” (Those of us who have been there from the beginning) often don’t get to work together. We all still work on the show but on different days. George Meyer may be there on one day, and I’m there the next. It’s not typical for financial reasons for someone like George and I to be working in the same room together. The thing that’s great about the movie is that we are back in the same room together. Sitting and working in the same room with all these talented writers really crates a particular kind of chemistry that we don’t get to experience all the time … and it’s been great.

AMO: Do you have any other projects lined up? Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Mirkin: I see myself…dead! Ha! Ha! No, just kidding I never know what’s coming up, I’m developing a couple more feature films and don’t really know if I’ll work on any other TV shows. People periodically come to me and ask me to do something really weird, (which is all that I’m interested in doing) and I’ll write it, sometimes even shoot it, and they say, “that’s too weird!”

AMO: Can you get me a date with Jennifer Love Hewitt?

Mirkin: Nah … I’m busy dating her. lol