Former Futurama and The Simpsons writer Josh Weinstein took the time out of his day to answer our (admittedly occasionally fanboy-ish) questions about his current projects and the ways of the showrunner...
STARBURST: As you worked on The Simpsons for a number of years we’d be remiss in not asking you at least one Simpsons-related question. So, what is your favourite episode that you worked on?
Josh Weinstein: That’s a hard question ‘cause there are probably 5 episodes I’d rank as my favourites that I worked on: definitely “You Only Move Twice” but also “Marge Be Not Proud”, “Summer of 4’ 2”, “Who Shot Mr Burns (Parts 1 & 2)”, “A Fish Called Selma”, “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy”, the Poochie episode, help, I’m going to end up listing every episode. But my very favourite episode of all time? Probably “Mr. Plow”. Or maybe “Marge vs. The Monorail”. Or…
Conversely, what is your least favourite?
There honestly aren’t any I dislike, though there are a couple we did where I wish I had the chance to redo some jokes! In fact, there’s one joke I really wish I could redo, but I won’t say what it is. It’s in a great episode but it makes me cringe every time I get to it. Ugh, next question!
Several years after you left The Simpsons and Futurama, you have brought the ways of the American showrunner (such as the writing room, which we don’t really see a lot of in the UK) over here with Strange Hill High. What prompted you to bring Strange Hill High to the UK in the first place?
I didn’t bring Strange Hill High to the UK - it brought me to the UK! Strange Hill High was created by the brilliant and hilarious Kat Van Henderson and I was brought on board to help bring it to life and serve as showrunner. From the second I saw the original designs and read the premise, I knew I had to do this show. And it’s been the best experience in my 25-year career. It’s something that’s never been done before, being made by people who may be the most talented people ever to make a show. And that’s not an exaggeration. I’m continually blown away by what we’re able to do and the skill with which it’s done. And while certain of my “American” ways might be good - like having the writing room for when we generate story ideas and the way I was taught to run a show on The Simpsons - that’s great, but there’s a spirit of creativity that I find at CBBC and in the UK TV business that’s totally unique. From the beginning, we’ve been encouraged to be as creative and weird and funny as possible. I also think there’s a great history of animation in Manchester and we’re inspired by that, as well (I’m obsessed with Postman Pat!) I may sound like a Matthews-style goody-goody here, but the UK has a tradition of comedy and humour that’s unequalled in the world. LA’s one of the least funny places on earth. I like to be with funny people. So working on Strange Hill High has been one of the true pleasures of my career. I would like to move to England in a few years.
Was there a teething process as the writers adjusted to a different way of working?
Not really. From what they tell me, they really like it (and we just get together when we’re brainstorming ideas, then we all go off and write our own episodes and, which are then turned into me and my friend Andrew Burrell at the BBC we then hone them into finalised scripts). Writing can often be a solitary process (and when you’re locked away on your own or with a partner writing a script, that’s a good thing. Sometimes I lock myself away for 48-72 hours straight of just writing) so it’s nice to get together with a group of writers to spitball ideas and develop stories and jokes together. A lot of times, we’ll come up with a story idea that none of us would’ve ever been able to come up with on our own. For example, we had spent a good hour working on a story - one that we ended up not using - but in the midst of that session, one of the writers blurted out, “What if that teacher were a were-teacher?” and that sparked the whole Mitchell-turns-into-a-were-teacher episode. That idea could only have come after about an hour of pulling our hair out over another story. Part of the key to running a rewrite room is to let things flow but also guide it along because you never know where a brilliant idea will come from and once you hear it, then you need to jump on it and see if it makes a good episode. But you’ve got to have a totally open mind. I also have to say that the writers we have on Strange Hill are just brilliant and hilarious. When you get those type of people together - along with the brilliant folk on our production team - it’s like lightning in a bottle where we’re all encouraging each other and it’s like a great comedy commune like The Simpsons is and Futurama was.
You work with stars of British television such as Caroline Aherne and Richard Ayoade. What kind of creative input do your stars have in each episode?
We get to work with some of the funniest people in the UK, so if they want to ad-lib a line, that’s fine by me. Like I said, you never know where a great story or joke might come from. It could come from anyone on the show. The best comedies, in my opinion, come from a group of like-minded people working together. And we all love Strange Hill High so much that I think it really shows. But to answer your question more directly, yeah, it’s a thrill to work with people I’ve idolised for years. And that’s both with actors and writers. There are people like Emma Kennedy, who we originally hired as just a writer - because I loved her writing - but she was with us while we were developing the show and she so sparked to the character of Becky, and was so crucial to bringing her to life, that we knew from the earliest stages she had to be the voice of Becky, but we didn’t tell her right away so it wouldn’t go to her head! I’ve also got to give a big shout out to our other actors because Mitchell is truly Ben “Doc Brown” Smith and I feel like nobody else in the world would be as good or funny as he is. He was our first choice for the character and we were thrilled when he said “yes”. Ben and Emma have both also written hilarious episodes. And our other actors - John Thomson, Jonathan Keeble, Marc Silk and Melissa Sinden are just some of the best and funniest actors ever - when we’re going over the soundtrack, there are so many lines that are funny because of their line readings. I’ll play those lines over and over again, chuckling deliriously.
How challenging is it working with hypervynorama?
It’s something that’s never been done, so we all dove in having no idea but certain we’d figure something out. So it was a cool learning experience for all of us. That’s the exciting thing about doing what’s never been done - there aren’t any rules. So along the way, everyone discovered neat little tricks to making this work. No one had ever combined traditional puppetry with modern CGI and stop-motion in quite this way before and it all works together really well - we still have that cool traditional puppetry and stop-motion feel while getting the best of modern effects. Like stop-motion, this is very time consuming. We film just a few minutes of footage a day. But it’s so worth it. It’s like playing in an awesome world of magic miniatures.
There have been two seasons of Strange Hill High so far. Do you think the show is nearer its end than its beginning, or do you think it can run and run?
I think this show could go for years without us ever running out of new stories and jokes to tell. There’s always something new and amazing we discover we can do with our puppets and the sets and the world of Strange Hill. And it’s only in the second season that we really start to get epic in scale. The more used to all the technical aspects we get, the more innovations we discover. And our team is always up for every challenge, so we’re really just limited by our imaginations.
Have you been surprised by the audience reaction to your show?
I’m really happy that the audience loves the show as much as we do. While we were making the first season - before anyone else saw it - we all felt, “Wow, I think this could be something amazing” and it’s neat to have that confirmed. This is a real labour of love. I also think the characters are really great and have a lot of depth - people definitely connect with them.
What has been the proudest moment of your writing career?
This. That we could write something totally new and have it work (thanks to everyone on our production team) is incredibly gratifying. And that the audience is responding so positively is great. This also has as much to do with the look of the show and our awesome actors as it does the writing - it’s like all these different parts somehow work together (just like our puppets themselves - they look very simple on the outside, but inside, there are actually complex mechanisms to enable them to move so smoothly).
What other projects do you have on the table?
I’ve also been writing for Gravity Falls since Futurama ended. I love that show. I was an obsessed fan of it before I started writing for it. And I’m also developing a new animated show (very hush hush) but Strange Hill High is my biggest love.
Strange Hill High is out now on DVD.