PTM Interview: Napoleon Dynamite Producer Mike Scully Talks ‘Lisa on Ice’, His Legendary Hockey Episode of The Simpsons
January 9, 2012 1 Comment
When it comes to hockey episodes of American television shows, there’s The Simpsons “Lisa on Ice”, and then there’s a load of gloriously terrible misfires. The show (which aired November 13, 1994), a satire of hockey violence, sports parents, and well… dozens of the other regular targets the show has skewered over 23 years, is damn near perfect in striking a balance between fall-down funny (seriously, why does Marge have Milhouse’s teeth?) to heart-warming (the scene at the end where Bart and Lisa give up their hockey rivalry), it’s everything that makes the greatest episodes of the show, well… so great.
So on Thursday it was my pleasure to talk to the writer of the episode, Mike Scully. Mr. Scully still works part-time on the show, and ran the series as an Executive Producer for seasons 8-12. He now currently writes for both The Simpsons and Parks and Recreation, both of which are covered in this interview, but is also spear-heading a cartoon adaptation of the 2004 cult classic Napoleon Dynamite, which premieres Sunday, January 15th with two episodes at 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. ET on FOX. Mr. Scully was nice enough to give me some time out of his busy schedule, and in that time we not only covered Lisa’s aptitude for hockey, but how the show comes up with references in the internet age, Springfield vs. Pawnee, and why a Napoleon Dynamite cartoon might just be a brilliant idea.
Steve Lepore: Growing up, what was your hockey background?
Mike Scully: I grew up in West Springfield, Massachusetts as a fan of an AHL team called the Springfield Kings, who were a farm team for the LA Kings at the time. I was a rink rat who used to get chased around by Eddie Shore [laughs], who was a legendary maniac. Me and my friends would hang out and watch the team practice, and the players would try to give us free sticks and pucks. Then Eddie Shore would come running down screaming, making us give everything back, then chasing us out of the arena [laughs].
SL: Going back to the one thing I wanted to talk to you about from The Simpsons is of course, “Lisa on Ice”, which is still one of my favorites ever. Was the idea behind it simple, like “let’s do a hockey show”or was there anything else behind that.
MS: Well, basically, I got there at the beginning of Season 5, and I was the only hockey fan on staff, and they had already done a baseball show, possibly two, and I think they’d done a football show. You’re always looking for story ideas, so I had pitched the hockey thing as a funny conflict between Bart and Lisa, and we justified Lisa having these catlike reflexes from always having to defend herself from Bart, and it just kind of went off and running from there. We got a couple of great, classic sequences out of it with Homer enjoying pitting the two kids against each other and him flicking the light on and off [laughs].
SL: One of the things the episode deals with is, to be honest, bad parents and bad sports parents. When you were growing up, had you dealt with parents like that in your own experiences?
MS: Yeah. Not in my own parents, but you would see one or two parents every game. By and large, most of the parents were real supportive, but there were always one or two who would take it a little too seriously, and maybe be fueled by a couple of beers. Just kind of forget what the point was of the game. There have also been kids’ sporting events with occasional fights in the stands.
SL: Obviously you go and write the first draft of the script, and then it goes to the room and gets re-written. Were there any hockey jokes pitched by other writers that weren’t big hockey fans that you felt sketchy about, sort of like if you had pitched a joke about math or physics that might not sit well with writers whose interests were in those subjects?
MS: They didn’t want it to be too inside hockey. Being, unfortunately, the least popular of the major sports, they wanted to make sure the show was very relatable to the audience, but we put a few in. In my first draft, I think I had included a guest star part for Wayne Gretzky, which unfortunately during the rewrite process somehow managed to get cut. Which I was upset about. I would have loved to have stacked the deck with, like, Gretzky and Bobby Orr and Esposito and my lesser-known favorites that were heroes of mine growing up.
SL: That’s too bad. The episode was probably – looking back at the airdate – it was not long before FOX tried to turn hockey into a cartoon.
MS: Exactly. A couple years later they would have totally been on board on doing that and really loading it up with guest stars, but it just didn’t work that way. But it was a fun episode to do. I think it might’ve been my second script that I wrote for the show. It was a lot of fun to do. And, hard for me to believe that was like, 18 years ago [laughs].
SL: I know there’s been a couple of other references to the sport, but did you ever attempt to do another hockey episode?
MS: No. Actually, never tried to do another one. I think we felt like we’d already done it.
SL: On to a more general question about the show. Pop culture has become really fractured in the age of the internet. Has this made it harder for the writers to do the more reference-heavy [episodes] of the shows earlier years?
MS: No, not at all. We have not changed the way that we write the show for internet or YouTube, we write the shows exactly the same way.
SL: You’re a Kings season ticket holder, right?
MS: Actually, not this year because my work schedule got so crazy that I wasn’t going to be able to make a lot of games. But a lot of times I’ll realize I can go to the games that day. Like, at 6 o’clock, I finally realize I can leave the office, and I do a lot of day-of-game ticket purchasing. I was a season ticket holder for 10 years.
SL: You picked kind of the wrong 10 years to be a season ticket holder now that it’s getting better.
MS: Oh, tell me about it [laughs].
SL: In general, have you noticed it getting better in terms of attendance over the past few years?
MS: Yes, definitely. There’s some very rabid hockey fans in LA, and very knowledgeable, too. I think a lot of them are east coast transplants, who still love the game. There’s some people who just come out only when their team is in town, like the Red Wings. It’ll seem like half the arena is filled with people in Red Wing jerseys. But yeah, LA’s got a pretty solid hockey fanbase. Considering the way things were for many years when the team was not performing well, there’s some genuine hope for the future there and some excitement. We hang in there!
SL: You currently work part-time on Parks & Rec. Do you think there are similarities between the shows, in that they both have these vast universes in Springfield and Pawnee and these large amounts of semi-regulars you can just call on for a joke?
MS: Yeah, it didn’t really happen intentionally. We kind of stumbled into adding these small part characters and these kind of odd-ball people. When it would work out, we’d just want to be able to see them again and use them in other episodes, and the more you do that, the more you expand the universe of the show. Suddenly, we realized that this is getting kind of like Springfield. Where we have the local newscaster, or a cop, or the guy in the sewage department. We started bringing people back a couple times a year, like the crazy citizens at the town meetings, certain ones we try to use: there’s one we just call Angry Red-Faced Man. We use the same actors. It kind of happened by accident.
Then the rivalry with the town of Eagleton wasn’t designed to resemble Springfield/Shelbyville, but in hindsight, we realized that was kind of what we had done. It worked out great, since then we’ve kind of embraced the Simpsons comparison. We actually had Dan Castellanetta (voice of Homer) on the show this year playing the host of an NPR show. It’s kind of fun, we kind of enjoy the comparison. If you’re going to be compared to something, why not The Simpsons?
SL: Is Parks & Rec also similar to The Simpsons in that the town itself is also a character on the show?
MS: Oh yes, absolutely. As the show has evolved and grown, Pawnee has become a character. There’s a book out right now that’s really funny, it was put together by [Parks & Rec Executive Producer] Mike Schur and some of the other writers, with tons of trivia and history about Pawnee, it’s a really funny read.
SL: Finally, onto Napoleon Dynamite. It’s been a few years that movie took the world by storm out of nowhere. While I’m sure you’ve gotten this question before, why adapt the show for television now?
MS: About two and a half years ago, I had a meeting with Jared Hess, who wrote and directed the film. He had decided he wasn’t going to do any sequels to the film. The studio had been asking him for quite a while. When a movie hits like that, the very first thing they want you to do is crank out, you know, ‘Napoleon 2‘, ‘Napoleon 3‘, ‘Napoleon 3D‘. He just felt like he had nothing fresh to add to what he did the first time. What was unique and special about the first movie, you can’t really repeat it, because the audience will come in knowing what to expect, and that’d take the fun out of it.
He’d been toying with the idea of doing it as a live action series, and then kind of stumbled on the idea of animation because he always felt there was this kind of rich world inside of Napoleon’s head that they didn’t get to explore in the film. Things you can do in animation that you can’t do in live action. He decided he wanted to go that way, and we met and we hit it off, and we started going about making it an animated show as a transition from the film. We’re real happy with the way it’s come out.
SL: We’ve seen a few more animated series premiere recently, and it takes a while to get a consistent comic tone correctly on these shows. With the film as a backdrop, was it easier to come up with the right tone of the comedy on the show?
MS: Well, it certainly helped that we had these very distinct, unusual characters already in place and we knew where they lived and what type of town it was. We had the original cast’s voices as well, so we knew what they sounded like. Then we had to figure out how to, for animation purposes, change it. The pace of the film and the style of the film would not translate well to animation. We knew we had to kind of pick up the pace, have more visual things going on, really kind of blow up the world of Preston, Idaho to show all the things you couldn’t show in the movie, to kind of go bigger with some of the stories.
For instance, there’s an episode where Napoleon gets a job working at a liger-breeding facility, which is a real thing that there actually is one in Idaho. So you actually get to see ligers, and he accidentally causes a liger invasion of Preston. It would be hard to do in animation. Not a lot of working ligers in town [laughs].
SL: I’ve heard it sounds like more of a King of the Hill style in that regard, than say Simpsons or South Park.
MS: In some respects, yes. Definitely an element of King of the Hill with the pace of The Simpsons.
SL: You obviously have the people from the original movie on board, do you look at the show being set as in a different universe from the movie?
MS: It’s definitely set in the world of the movie. The characters look like themselves, and the house is the same, and the school, we tried to recreate that world. Basically, the landscape of Idaho is all similar. Storywise, it allows us to establish more places in town – restaurants, police station – things you’d find around town that weren’t in the film. It’s very true to the tone and spirit of the film, while having the pace and feel of an animated show. I think it’s going to fit really well between The Simpsons and Family Guy.
One of the fun things about the film, I remember the first time I saw it with my kids. I came out and we were all laughing and quoting lines. You walked out of there and you immediately had a half-dozen catchphrases after seeing it once. You also had no real sense of when the movie took place. You felt like, is this happening now or is this set in the 1980’s?
SL: I thought that too. I originally thought the early/mid-90’s, then there’s that performance of the Backstreet Boys song at the end that I knew was from at least this century. It’s kind of timeless in a way.
MS: Yeah, and there’s like, a Cyndi Lauper song in it. So I thought that was kind of fun, and were trying to do that in the series. It won’t be kids running around with cell phones, texting. Kip still works on his big old desktop computer and they have a dial-up modem. We want to kind of keep that timeless, small-town feel to it.
We used to introduce technology very grudgingly on [The Simpsons]. Then, we’d introduce something in one episode and then it’d be gone again [laughs]. Even now, we still are aware of whether somebody’s on a cell phone on the show, but we prefer not to, if we can figure out a way not to. We don’t want Bart and Lisa sitting there texting, it’s boring to watch and we’d rather hear them talk. Unless we do an episode where Lisa gets hooked on texting, which I’m sure we will do at some point.
That’s the thing we’re trying to do with Napoleon as well. We’re really trying to stay away from pop culture references that sometimes can quickly date your show. When you see something repeated three or four years from now, and half the people you’re talking about are dead [laughs].