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Formative TV Experience No. 5: Magic Is Fun — When You’re Dead!
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how the sausage gets made

Revealed: The Real Smithers!

  • 9/21/09 at 6:37 PM
Revealed: The Real Smithers!

Photo: Courtesy of Fox

I've been reading The Simpsons: An Uncensored Unauthorized History by John Ortved, which comes out in October and is exactly what it sounds like — an oral history, but without the participation of Matt Groening or James Brooks. (Groening, Brooks, Rupert Murdoch, and many others are quoted from various interviews they've done over the years.)

It's hardly surprising Groening and Brooks didn't sit for interviews, given that both of them come off fairly poorly here: Brooks as a genius bastard who screwed over his cancer-ridden lifelong best friend for money, Groening as an amiable lame-o who stole credit for the series despite the fact that he wrote very little of it. The irascible hero in this portrait, at least, is Sam Simon, The Simpsons' original showrunner, who gets credit for much of the flavor of the first few seasons — along with his brilliant collaborative team, including the reclusive John Schwartzwelder, bitterly funny George Meyer, and Conan O'Brien (who used to foam Coke out of his mouth to crack up his colleagues and calls himself "the monkey in the room").

There's tons of juicy stuff, so I'll be quoting from it all week, but buried among the various revelations is the suggestion that Smithers was based on Richard Sakai, James Brooks's enforcer — whom the writing staff nicknamed "Iago at Spago":

The most complimentary adjective I have heard to describe Sakai is 'devoted.' Sakia is generally described as 'crazy,' though one interview subject called him 'smart.' Nearly everyone I spoke to referred to him as Jim Brooks's 'henchman' or 'hatchet man,' and more generously as 'Jim's id.' He was referred to alternately as 'Lurch' (from The Addams Family), 'Darth Vader,' and 'a bad person.' He was also described to me as 'not human,' a screamer, and 'psychotic.' One thing is certain: Sakai believed in Jim Brooks more than anyone else, and from the time he was a production assistant on Taxi, he devoted himself completely to his boss ...

Later Simpsons writers would model the behavior of the sycophantic Wayland Smithers — with his undying adulation of his boss, Mr. Burns — on Sakai, one of the most important figures in The Simpsons' history.

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