This time last week, you’d be forgiven for having never heard of Sam Simon, who passed away this week at the age of 59. Simon is credited as being the unsung hero of The Simpsons, present during the writing and production of their first full season back in December 1989. He is said to have been the one who developed the show’s sensibility, despite quickly locking horns with their creator, Matt Groening.
Ken Levine, one of the writers on The Simpsons, said that Simon was the real creative force behind The Simpsons:
“The tone, the storytelling, the level of humor – that was all developed on Sam’s watch, [and] brought a level of honesty to the characters” and made them “three-dimensional”, adding that his “comedy is all about character, not just a string of gags. In The Simpsons, the characters are motivated by their emotions and their foibles. ‘What are they thinking?’ – that is Sam’s contribution. The stories come from the characters.”
If Sam Simon was so instrumental in developing the tone and depth of what Time Magazine called the best TV show of the 20th Century, then why was he compelled to leave after writing only 13 episodes?
There were some creative differences – natch – but it’s also apparent that he had troubles of his own. In a 2001 interview with the New York Times, Groening described Simon as “brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I’ve ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced.”
But in the man’s own words, Simon just “wasn’t enjoying it anymore”:
“Any show I’ve ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy. I hate myself.”
Soon after, when Simon worked on “The George Carlin Show”, it became apparent that Groening wasn’t simply sour over having the spotlight taken off him. Carlin confessed to having a negative relationship with Simon, going so far as to issue a general disclaimer for sitcom creators: “[A]lways check mental health of creative partner beforehand.” In his autobiography, Carlin said:
“The biggest problem, though, was that Sam Simon was a fucking horrible person to be around. Very, very funny, extremely bright and brilliant, but an unhappy person who treated other people poorly.”
There are any number of positive things to say about Simon – his enduring animal rights campaigns, and millions of dollars in charitable donations, to name just two – but for me his apparent mental health issue should be of equal interest.
What is it that makes writers depressed – or perhaps the question should be, what is that makes depressed people write?
It’s no secret that there’s a trend. Off the top of my head, famous names who attempted or succeeded in suicide include Ernest Hemmingway, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Jack London, Raymond Chandler, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson, all of whom who join the ranks of severely depressed painters, poets, comics and actors who felt unable to continue despite their success and adoration. Are all writers depressed? Of course not, but there’s compelling evidence for a pattern.
Discouraging is the association of poor mental health with creativity. Who hasn’t imagined the clichéd writer tapping away on his typewriter, smoking with a drained bottle of whiskey beside him, contemplating the rope? A character in the 2012 film “Seven Psychopaths” deftly illustrates the perceived fatefulness of it when he tells depressed screenwriter Marty that “of course” he has a drinking problem:
“ONE: You’re a writer. TWO: You’re from Ireland … You’re fucked!”
I’ve been asked by more than one girlfriend whether I can only be creative when I’m in a low mood. This is a common claim amongst creative types, who assert that their best work is produced during their most depressed periods. I wondered if the same was true of myself back during my university years, when I wrote Half Discovered Wings (published only a mere six years later). Looking back, it’s clear that much of my poetry and short fiction from that time was morose, self-absorbed drivel (but that can be the only expected output from creative writing course at that age – ask any English teacher).
The serious ramifications of this trend in writers are obvious: that some maintain a state of unhappiness to spur their creative output, believing that it’s the key to their success; and that because it’s “expected” of a creative type, others are less inclined to intervene. Having seen some of the worst outcomes of these scenarios, I sincerely hope that it’s not a common truth.
Perhaps the sudden interest in Sam Simon will do more than rehash his old dispute with Matt Groening. It would do well to increase public awareness of mental health issues, which remain belittled and dismissed by many, including leaders of the National Health Service (here and here). In any case, the entertainment industry has recognised a genuine talent who has gone unsung for too long.