These may be trying times, but James L. Brooks has plenty of reasons to smile. The longtime producer of “The Simpsons” recently learned that the show had been picked up for two more seasons, which will bring it to 669 episodes — passing “Gunsmoke” as the primetime scripted show with the most episodes in history.
Meanwhile, Brooks will be the next recipient of the Norman Lear Award by the Producers Guild. And 20 years after he supported Wes Anderson on his debut feature “Bottle Rocket,” Brooks is at it again: He’s a producer on “The Edge of Seventeen,” an acclaimed coming-of-age drama that closed this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and marks the directorial debut of Kelly Fremon Craig.
Of course, like much of Hollywood, Brooks was shaken by the results of the presidential election on Tuesday. In a phone conversation with IndieWire, he reflected on that outcome, as well as the role of “The Simpsons” to comment on the modern political climate and the changing nature of the film industry.
“The Simpsons” predicted the outcome of the election 15 years ago. What do you make of that?
It’s really disorienting and scary. I’ve experienced someone I don’t agree with becoming president, but I never had a moment where I believed that the country wasn’t going to be the same. I’m giving myself pep talks to not disappear into grief and disillusionment.
Do you think “The Simpsons” will be able to deal with this situation?
Well, the blackboard will on Sunday night.
What about in the long term? “The Simpsons” hasn’t exactly been an activist show.
Yeah, that can get you over a red line when you’re doing comedy. People aren’t watching you to see that type of thing.
You produced “The Edge of Seventeen,” which is a directorial debut. In the past, you’ve helped discover other new directors, such as Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe.
We’ve been talking about disillusionment today, but I get inspired by this — to see somebody brand new as a voice, somebody talking in a different way. I’ve seen that happen a few times and it is exciting.
How do you foster new filmmakers?
We chase a dream. I mean, that’s really what it is. You can’t think that way. You chase what was in Kelly’s head. You chase what actors to bring in. You chase every detail. I think studios have to think that way, but it’s a little weird when the filmmakers start to think that way.
How has the climate changed for filmmakers and producers since the eighties?
As budgets get bigger, as tentpoles get more numerous, the big risk of money from the studios is on these pictures. So that is the concentration. It becomes a little harder. It’s not like, “We’ll make this many of these movies at this budget.” It’s one of those “Battleship” movies that are going to pay the rent. So that makes it harder. But it hasn’t made us stop, it will never make it stop and that’s the great thing.
What’s your process for discovering new work?
We have a small group. We can go years without making a picture and that’s fine. At 3 a.m., you want to know why you’re there and why you made it. We only do it when it seems right and it seems helpful. You know, “The Simpsons” is going on right outside the our office. We’re doing that all the time and that’s great.
Speaking of ‘The Simpsons,” how has the identity of that show changed for you, considering how many generations of people have grown up around it?
It’s like serving a religion. It’s not any one person’s deal. When we don’t do it right, we feel awful. We have great creative freedom and we all appreciate it. We appreciate what it’s like to come in and work here everyday. And even though we have new blood coming in all the time, it’s amazing how many people are still here that were there from phase one.
You’re dealing with this fictional American family that is supposed to be representative of modern sensibilities. Would “The Simpsons” be supportive of our country at the moment?
We really bend over backwards not to politicize it. We all talk about what you’re talking about all the time. We’ve all been obsessed with this election, but that’s us not the show. We’ve done some satirical online pieces. It started out peacefully when Trump went down the escalator and Homer went into his hair. That’s how innocent it was when it started.
How do you feel about that piece now?
It was a joke. It was preposterous at the time. It stopped being a joke when the dynamic of him reaching a lot of Americans started. Then people speculated whether he really wanted the job. People speculated that maybe he was kidding. But you have to believe in the country.
The show has been renewed for two more seasons. At this point, is the idea of a 30th season surreal to you?
I thought the ninth season was sort of surreal. It’s never old news. We always appreciate it. It always gives us the opportunity to do something that we’ve we never imagined we’d do. I remember when we we were up all night re-writing the amusement park ride. We also just did a virtual reality piece with Google. We were the first television show to do that. That’s what’s so amazing and I think that’s what keeps us alive. We’re always doing something new.We’re doing our first hour-long special this year and we’re excited about it.
Congratulations on the Norman Lear Award. What is the significance of something like that to you?
The great thing about it is that there are a lot of producers in television. The fact is that television, even before the movies, offered the chance to control our work and to get to do it again when we did something right. So television has always been better to writers than any other medium for a long time.