You are here

Harvard Math Grad Is "The Simpsons" Lead Writer and Executive Producer

August 10, 2007

As part of the promotional campaign for "The Simpsons Movie", which premiered in late July, Al Jean, the show's head writer and executive producer, was interviewed by Nature. Jean made a few observations not only about comedy but also about mathematics. That's not so surprising when you consider that he's a Harvard math graduate.

"I look at comedy writing mathematically," Jean said. "It's sort of like a proof in which you're trying to find the ideal punch line for a setup, and when you get it, it's a very elegant feeling. It's a little like the feeling I used to get on completing a proof when I was doing maths at college."

Jean and the other writers for "The Simpsons" have often slipped mathematical references into the TV show (for examples, see Simpsons Math and "Springfield Theory"). Jean's favorite mathematical reference occurred in an episode in which shopkeeper Apu, queried in court about having a good memory, says: "Yes, I do. I've memorized pi to one million decimal places." In response, Homer muses, "Mmm . . . pi." — and starts drooling. To make sure that Apu had the correct digit in mind for the millionth decimal place of pi, the show's writers actually checked with people at the California Institute of Technology.

Another episode involved references to a perfect number and to a sum of four squares. These numbers, Jean said, "are all in the thousands, and they're numbers that nobody except a mathematician would, at face value, recognize as anything unusual." Jean's favorite equation was used in an episode "even though," he said, "not all of our audience would necessarily understand it." It was, not surprisingly, eiπ + 1 = 0.

Jean became a comedy writer instead of pursuing math because otherwise, he said, "I wouldn't have been among the top people in my field."

"There were guys I knew in maths who were just the best," he continued. "I don't know if I would ever have achieved what they did, so I'm very happy doing what I'm doing."

Source: Nature, July 26, 2007

Start Date: 
Friday, August 10, 2007