Swartzwelder in a 1992 staff photo for The Simpsons
|Born||John Joseph Swartzwelder Jr.|
February 8, 1949
Seattle, Washington, U.S.
|Occupation||Television writer, novelist|
|Period||The Simpsons: 1990–2003, 2007|
|Genre||Observational humor, surreal humor, black comedy, detective fiction, absurdism|
|Subject||The Simpsons, Frank Burly|
John Joseph Swartzwelder Jr. (born February 8, 1949) is an American comedy writer and novelist, best known for his work on the animated television series The Simpsons. Born in Seattle, Washington, Swartzwelder began his career working in advertising. He was later hired to work on comedy series Saturday Night Live in the mid-1980s as a writer. He later contributed to fellow writer George Meyer's short-lived Army Man magazine, which led him to join the original writing team of The Simpsons, beginning in 1989.
He worked on The Simpsons as a writer and producer until 2003, and later contributed to The Simpsons Movie. He is credited with writing the largest number of Simpsons episodes (59 full episodes, with contributions to several others) by a large margin. After his retirement from the show, he began a career as a writer of self-published absurdist novels. He has written more than eleven novels, the most recent of which, The Squirrel Who Saved Practically Everybody, was published in 2019.
Swartzwelder is revered among comedy fans; his colleagues have called him among the best comedy writers. He is famously averse to press.
Swartzwelder was born in Seattle, Washington, the son of Gloria Mae (Matthews) and John Joseph Swartzwelder, Sr. He attended high school in Renton, Washington. Swartzwelder started out with a career in advertising. He sent a joke submission to the writers of Late Night with David Letterman in 1983, which he signed but left no address. Writer Jim Downey traced Swartzwelder based on the Chicago postmark on the card via phone books at the New York Public Library. After he contacted Swartzwelder's mother in Seattle, she redirected him to her son, who was then working at an advertising agency in Chicago. Downey described Swartzwelder's interview as "one of the most spectacularly awful in history," as it consisted of him entering David Letterman's office without permission, and discussing the state of television (that it was "all shit") while smoking and drinking. He was not hired for Letterman, but Downey did bring him to work on Saturday Night Live (SNL) beginning in 1985.
At SNL, he shared an office with Robert Smigel, and met George Meyer, who later proved instrumental in hiring him for The Simpsons. During his time at the program, he became known for writing odder material. He was fired from the program in the summer of 1986, which Smigel attributed to the network's pressure on show creator Lorne Michaels to make personnel changes. Meyer subsequently quit SNL and created the magazine Army Man, recruiting Swartzwelder to help him write it. 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, 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.
By 1994, with the show's sixth season, Swartzwelder 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. Swartzwelder's scripts typically needed minimal rewriting compared to those of other writers, with about 50% being used.
In 1996, Swartzwelder created and produced his own pilot presentation for Fox titled Pistol Pete, which was designed to spoof western films. Starring Stephen Kearney, Mark Derwin, Lisa Robin Kelly, and Brian Doyle Murray, the pilot was shot using crew from the television series Gunsmoke at Swartzwelder's insistence. John Rich, veteran television director known for The Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family, and Gunsmoke, directed the pilot, which was shot at Veluzat Motion Picture Ranch. Fox eventually passed on the pilot. It eventually surfaced online in 2014.
According to Matt Groening, Swartzwelder used to write Simpsons 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. 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 Simpsons, 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. In 2014, a children's book written in the late 1970s by Swartzwelder and illustrated by David Schutten was published by Green House Books. Swartzwelder self-publishes his books.
Swartzwelder has been referred to as a staunch libertarian, as well as a "hard-core conservative." He is reported to be a gun rights advocate, and despite having written many of the environmentally driven episodes, he has been described as an "anti-environmentalist". David Cohen once related a story of Swartzwelder going on an extended diatribe about how there is more rain forest on Earth now than there was a hundred years ago.
Swartzwelder is notoriously reclusive, 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. Comedy writer Mike Sacks described Swartzwelder as the "Thomas Pynchon of the comedy world."
He has also famously not participated in any of the audio commentaries on 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 minute, the man on the other end of the phone says, "It's too bad this really isn't John Swartzwelder." Scully and the others laugh, reply "Bye, John," and then after he has hung up, Scully comments "I know he's gonna sue us."
In 2016, a Twitter account for Swartzwelder appeared, and was subsequently confirmed to be an official account by several of his former Simpsons colleagues, including showrunner Al Jean, writer Carolyn Omine and music editor Chris Ledesma. The account only tweets excerpts from Swartzwelder's books.
Swartzwelder is revered among comedy fans. Fellow Simpsons writers have been effusive about his writing and impact on the show. Matt Selman wrote an article for Time about Swartzwelder, extolling him as "one of the greatest comedy minds of all time. He is the comedy writer whose words makes (sic) the best comedy writers in the world laugh out loud." George Meyer said that, "Even among comedy weirdos, he stands out. He's irreplaceable." Fellow writer Dan Greaney has described Swartzwelder as "the best writer in the world today in any medium."
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 was originally physically based on Swartzwelder, with the exception of his one arm. Some of the episodes in which Swartzwelder has appeared include:
In addition to having his likeness animated into the show, various references to him have been slipped in, such as his name being used in "freeze frame" jokes.
|1985–86||Saturday Night Live||Writer, 18 episodes||Appears as himself in episode hosted by John Lithgow|
|1989–2003||The Simpsons||Writer, 59 episodes, story editor, consultant, producer|
|1996||Pistol Pete||Creator, executive producer, writer||Unsold pilot for Fox Broadcasting Company|
|2007||The Simpsons Movie||Writer||Additional credit for lyrics on "Spider Pig" and "Springfield Anthem"|
I actually shared a room with this guy John Swartzwelder, a legendary Simpsons writer.