Television Comedy’s Humble Genius

In a recent episode of The Simpsons, several points of interest are highlighted on a map of Springfield, the family’s hometown. One of them is an amusing body of water dubbed James L. Brook.

The real James L. Brooks, executive producer of the longest-running scripted show on television, is usually more modest. “Believe me. I didn’t do that,” Brooks insists. “But I don’t deny anybody their fun.”

“I’ve seen people with much worse credits be much more pretentious about accomplishments,” says longtime Simpsons showrunner Al Jean. “He’s probably the best there is at what I do for a living, writing comedy for television and features. But he never goes ‘listen to me, I’m Mr. Mary Tyler Moore and the guy who did Taxi.’ If he pitches something, he wants it to go in if it’s good, and he doesn’t if it doesn’t work. And if someone else pitches something great, nobody’s happier than he is.”

Early on, Brooks wanted to write. “I never thought I could make a career out of it,” he says.

A job as an usher at CBS led to work writing news and documentaries. He got laid off in 1966, but met producer Allan Burns, who gave him a break that led to a script assignment on My Mother the Car. (“I’m the only person you’ll speak to in your lifetime who voluntarily gives that as a credit,” he cracks.) In 1969, he created Room 222 for ABC with Gene Reynolds.

“Reynolds is the one who made me do research. And that’s been something I do on everything since then,” Brooks says. “Not only do you learn stuff, but you meet the people you’re writing about and that gives you a sense of serving a constituency that knows whether you’re full of it or not.”

Later, he and Burns were hired by legendary executive Grant Tinker to create a series for Tinker’s wife, actress Mary Tyler Moore. An early draft in which Moore was an assistant to a gossip columnist bombed. “Anyone other than Grant would have fired us. He stuck with us.”

Brooks says that great bosses may be a theme he wants to address as he accepts his latest accolade, the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Award. Says Brooks of Tinker, who later ran NBC, “He was a businessman and he was ferocious in protecting us, encouraging us.” Several years later, Tinker also ferociously protected another young executive—Tartikoff— whose efforts paid off as well.

Brooks also puts former Fox head Barry Diller on the list.

“He was a tough guy but very prominent in giving me the chance to express myself,” Brooks says of Diller. “You’re talking about The Simpsons, I don’t think it would have happened without Barry. Broadcast News, I don’t think it would have happened without Barry. And I know Terms of Endearment [the film for which Brooks won a rare Oscar trifecta: Best Picture, Director and Screenplay] wouldn’t have happened without Barry.”

Working now at Fox is great as well. “We all come to the table in all humility about this Simpsons thing,” Brooks says. Because of the way The Simpsons has endured and sloshed into consumer products and online games, Brooks deals with lots of Fox folks. Even 21st Century Fox founder Rupert Murdoch has played a part, not only appearing as himself in the series, but lending a “tha-tha-thathat’s all folks” at the end of a presentation video for cable networks. “He’s been pretty sporty with us,” Brooks says.

Fox execs say good things about working with Brooks. “It’s very helpful to an executive’s career to have a relationship with Jim Brooks,” says Gary Newman, chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Television. “He sets a bar of quality that the writers have to shoot for. Jim is very actively involved. He’s at table reads, he gives notes on cuts.”

Brooks is also involved in other aspects of The Simpsons. “We go into meetings saying we’ve got to really think this through so that when Jim does ask his questions we’re going to be able to respond in a way that’s going to give him confidence that he’s partnered with people who know what they’re doing.”

“Jim still protects this thing like it’s a new show and that’s not only for creative excellence but for any sort of brand extension, adds Kevin Reilly, chairman of Fox Entertainment. “He wants a level of excellence, whether it’s a theme park ride or a movie.”

Both execs would welcome another Brooks series. “Any time he’s ready,” says Reilly. “He’s a very creative person and he’s got plenty of energy and incredible relationships around town, so I don’t count it out,” adds Newman. “I hope that if it were to happen we’d be lucky enough to be the ones he does it with.”

Brooks doesn’t spend his time thinking about what’s left to accomplish. “One of the most painful things for me about [accepting the Tartikoff honor] is having to look at my old stuff,” he says. “But sometimes I laugh. The guy did some funny stuff.”

He says he’s currently being humbled by working on a new script. “It’s a movie and I guess at its core it’s the story of a family, but it has a lot of branches.”

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.