The Lost Jokes and Story Arcs of “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song”
Bill Oakley was a writer at The Simpsons from seasons 4-6 and an executive producer/showrunner with his writing partner Josh Weinstein from seasons 7-8. They wrote such episodes as “Who Shot Mr. Burns?,” “$pringfield,” “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy,” and “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song.” This last one was the 100th episode of the show, and it went through some pretty serious revisions from pitch to final draft. This is a transcription of a conversation about that specific episode, edited for length and clarity. Also included are the original Story Pitch, Final Outline and First Draft from the writing process (which you can find explained in detail here).
During seasons five and six, when David Mirkin was running the show, Josh and I wrote five episodes each year, so we spent most of our time in our office, writing. Because we were the most senior writers on the show at that point (after Conan left), our scripts usually didn’t get re-written that much; most of the episodes we wrote went on the air very close to the first draft, except with fifteen pages of cuts that often made them very different. I believe “Bart vs. Australia” went on the air very close to what we turned in, for example.
But this episode, from Season Five, had more changes than our normal episode. It changed a lot because there are some story problems which I think are still in the final episode. And you see through the different incarnations of the script, from the pitch, to the outline, to the script, to what aired — the story changes somewhat in each version. And I don’t necessarily think it ever quite got there. I think the story really should have been a 45 minute story, and cutting it to 22 minutes caused it to suffer a little bit.
In retrospect, I think we should have tried to figure out some way to prune out some of the complicated things in the story to make it cleaner. Because what the story really was, in this pitch, was a funny and very clean first act and two subsequent acts that never quite approached the level of the first one. I think the jokes in every version of this are pretty solid, but what happens with Skinner and what he does when he’s gone changes in each draft. And what the repercussions of that are, was that the Flanders and Homer B story got cut entirely in the broadcast version.
(Excerpts are also included within this article at relevant points.)
This episode was not one like “Bart vs. Australia.” The titles of the episodes were often like “Marge vs. the Monorail,” “Marge vs. Itchy and Scratchy,” so it was crystal clear what the central conflict was just from the title. With “Bart vs. Australia,” I think we were just sort of daydreaming and were just like… what could be the biggest thing Bart could be up against? How about an entire continent? And we just wrote down, “Bart vs. Australia.” We came back later and said, hey we could make a story out of this. And we did.
Now, this episode is not like that. It’s not “A vs. B,” and it’s also not like “(Blank) Gets a Job.” You know how a lot of episodes are like, “Bart Gets an ‘F'” or “Marge Gets a Job,” where you know, OK, here’s the premise. This story cannot be described succinctly in one sentence. The core story is Bart’s relationship with Principal Skinner, and it’s about Bart achieving his dream of getting Principal Skinner fired — and then realizing that he misses Skinner and that Skinner is actually a somewhat sympathetic, if unusual, person. And that is the spine of the story.
But there are so many different ways to tell that story — you see how many different ones we tried with the adjustment of those act breaks — and what it is that Skinner’s doing when he’s working and where he is and all that stuff. And it was also designed to be a character piece about Principal Skinner, because we loved writing for Principal Skinner.
So, I think we had this solid first act, which we always wanted to do, where this dog comes to school and it causes mayhem and we knew that that would result in trouble for Skinner. And, well, what kind of trouble is there for Skinner? And you see that this is what changes in the first act between the story pitch and the outline. In the story pitch, Principal Skinner decides he’s going to take sabbatical in the act one break. In the act two break, he’s fired, and then he comes back. But I see the essential flaw in that story, which is probably why David [Mirkin] suggested we change it, is that it’s two steps in the same direction. It’s like he’s out of the school, then he’s fired, then he’s more out of the school. So it’s not really a satisfying plot.
So what was decided in, actually, the pitch out, not the story retreat, is that we’d move up the act two break and Skinner would be fired, rather than the stutter-step of him taking time off. He would be fired at the act one break. You see that act one never changed at all, but then when you move that act one break up you’re like… what the hell is going to happen at the act two break? Well, let’s have him join the army, which was actually just a joke in the pitch. In the pitch, we didn’t say a thing about him actually being in the army until the very, very end, and we didn’t find out that he actually reenlisted in the army until very late in act three. And it was really just one joke. There was one scene at the army base, and then he came back. So instead, he gets fired at the act one break and he joins the army at the act two break. Which is a good adjustment, I think.
But then the additional problem, and you’ll see it carried through every draft including some remnants in the broadcast version, was this B story about Flanders taking over and Homer being the head of the PTA. So it was this complicated thing that was in the pitch, and in the outline, and even in the first draft of the script, where Flanders takes over because he’s head of the PTA. And then Homer, because of the line of succession, rises from Sergeant at Arms of the PTA to head of the PTA, and then becomes Flanders natural enemy. I don’t believe that part of it was even in the broadcast version.
There was just way too much complicated crap. I’m sure that we were facing a horrible struggle because this was such a great opportunity. Imagine Flanders being the principal and Homer being his enemy! But that’s really a whole different episode. And so there were desperate attempts to keep it in. And a lot of really funny stuff that I remember Josh and I just repeating to ourselves in our office and falling in love with got totally cut out. Some of it was actually in that first draft and then all of it was cut for the air.
The reason that that stuff was cut was, number one, for time. Because every script that we turned in had to be cut by 20% or more, just to go to table, and then 10 more percent to be recorded. So in this case, that’s what had to go. It just all had to be sort of stripped out and streamlined for time and for clarity. And I think that was probably wise. On the other hand, that was an attempt to get more Homer into the show. This is still a story where a guy [Skinner] who at that point in the series was not a major character, had a huge percentage of the screen time.
And I remember that this was the 100th episode. It was because that’s where it fell in the order; we did not plan for this episode to be the 100th episode. If we had planned it to be the 100th episode, it would have been about Homer and Bart, not about Principal Skinner. I think it was just because it was the nearest one in the rotation that felt kind of Bart-oriented, that they decided to make it that one so it could be promoted. So since this was the 100th episode, we had to turn up the amount of Bart that was in it, and the Homer stuff just got cut.