John Swartzwelder

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John Swartzwelder
John Swartzwelder Retouched.png
Swartzwelder in a 1992 staff photo for The Simpsons
Born John Joseph Swartzwelder, Jr.[1]
(1950-11-16) November 16, 1950 (age 64)
Seattle, Washington, United States
Occupation Television writer, novelist
Period The Simpsons: 1990–2004, 2007
Novels: 2004–present
Genre Observational humor, surreal humor, black comedy, detective fiction, absurdism
Subject The Simpsons, Frank Burly

John Joseph Swartzwelder, Jr. (born November 16, 1950) is an American comedy writer and novelist, best known for his work on the animated television series The Simpsons, as well as a number of novels. Swartzwelder was one of several writers recruited to The Simpsons from the pages of George Meyer's Army Man magazine. He is credited with writing the largest number of Simpsons episodes (59 full episodes, with contributions to several others) by a large margin.[2]

Life and career[edit]

Swartzwelder was born in Seattle, Washington, the son of Gloria Mae (Matthews) and John Joseph Swartzwelder, Sr.[1][3] He attended high school in Renton, Washington.[citation needed] Swartzwelder started out with a career in advertising,[4] after which he began writing for Saturday Night Live, where he met George Meyer.[5] After Meyer quit and created the magazine Army Man he recruited Swartzwelder to help him write it.[6] Meyer noted on Army Man: "The only rule was that the stuff had to be funny and pretty short. To me, the quintessential Army Man joke was one of John Swartzwelder's: 'They can kill the Kennedys. Why can't they make a cup of coffee that tastes good?' It's a horrifying idea juxtaposed with something really banal—and yet there's a kind of logic to it. It's illuminating because it's kind of how Americans see things: Life's a big jumble, but somehow it leads to something I can consume. I love that."[7] In 1988, Sam Simon, a reader of Army Man, recruited both Swartzwelder and Meyer to write for a new Fox animated sitcom he was executive producing: The Simpsons.[7]

By 1994, with the show's sixth season, Swartzwelder was granted a special dispensation and allowed not to attend rewrite sessions with the rest of the staff, instead being allowed to send drafts of his scripts in from home so other writers could revise them as they saw fit. This was a direct result of Swartzwelder's avid smoking coming into conflict with a newly implemented policy banning smoking in the writers' room.[8] Swartzwelder's scripts typically needed minimal rewriting compared to those of other writers, with about 50% being used.[4] His longtime collaborators on The Simpsons, Al Jean and Mike Reiss, describe Swartzwelder as a huge fan of Preston Sturges films and a lover of "anything old timey American." This vaguely defined aesthetic presents itself in many of the episodes he has written in the form of wandering hobos, Prohibition-era speakeasies, carnies, 19th-century baseball players, aging Western movie stars, and Sicilian gangsters.

According to Matt Groening, Swartzwelder used to write episodes while sitting in a booth at a coffee shop "drinking copious amounts of coffee and smoking endless cigarettes". When California passed an anti-smoking law, Swartzwelder bought the diner booth and installed it in his house, allowing him to continue his process in peace.[8] He is also reported to be a staunch libertarian as well as a gun rights advocate, and despite having written many of the environmentally driven episodes, he has been described as an "anti-environmentalist".[9] David Cohen once related a story of Swartzwelder going on an extended diatribe about how there is more rain forest on Earth now than there was a hundred years ago.[9] Fellow writer Dan Greaney has described Swartzwelder as "the best writer in the world today in any medium."[4]

With the exception of his contributions to The Simpsons Movie,[10] released in 2007, Swartzwelder has been absent from The Simpsons writing staff since the fifteenth season (2003–04), with his last airing episode ("The Regina Monologues") actually being a "holdover" written for the fourteenth (2002–03) season. At 59 episodes, Swartzwelder has been credited with writing more episodes than anybody else.[4] Since leaving The Simpsons, he has taken up writing absurdist novels, beginning with the 2004 publication of science-fiction detective story The Time Machine Did It starring private investigator Frank Burly. The next year he published Double Wonderful, a Western, before returning to the Burly character for How I Conquered Your Planet in 2006, The Exploding Detective in 2007, Dead Men Scare Me Stupid in 2008, Earth vs. Everybody in 2009, The Last Detective Alive in 2010, The Fifty Foot Detective in 2011, and The Million Dollar Policeman in 2012. In 2014, a children's book written in the late 1970s by Swartzwelder and illustrated by David Schutten was published by Green House Books.[11]


Swartzwelder is a notorious recluse, and rarely, if ever, makes media appearances.[4] At one point, fans of The Simpsons on the Internet even debated his existence: when considering his reclusiveness and the number of episodes credited to him, some theorized that "John Swartzwelder" was actually a pseudonym for when writers did not want to take credit for an episode, or for episodes that were penned by several writers in concert.[12]

He has also famously not participated in any of the audio commentaries on the The Simpsons DVD sets to date, despite being asked multiple times. Executive Producer David Mirkin once invited Swartzwelder to make a brief appearance in a prerecorded bit in which he would be asked if he wanted to take part, to which he would respond with "No" as an ironic punchline, but he refused. During the recording of the 2006 commentary for the ninth season episode, "The Cartridge Family," show runner Mike Scully called Swartzwelder's home on the phone. After presumably speaking with him for a few minutes, the man on the other end of the phone ended the call by saying, "It's too bad this really isn't John Swartzwelder."[13]

References on The Simpsons[edit]

Swartzwelder's animated likeness, from the episode "Hurricane Neddy"
"Free John Swartzwelder"

Swartzwelder has been animated in the background of several episodes of The Simpsons. His animated likeness closely resembles musician David Crosby, which prompted Matt Groening to state that anytime that David Crosby appears in a scene for no apparent reason, it is really John Swartzwelder.[14] Additionally, Matt Groening has stated that the recurring character Herman was originally physically based on Swartzwelder, with the exception of his one arm.[15] Some of the episodes in which Swartzwelder has appeared include:

  • In "The Day the Violence Died", Swartzwelder is one of the "surprise witnesses" called by Lionel Hutz while Bart goes to the Comic Book Guy's store to get the framed Itchy drawing.
  • In "Bart the Fink", he is one of the attendees at Krusty's fake funeral with Kermit The Frog on his arm.
  • In "Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily", his likeness appears on an equestrian statue outside the county courthouse.
  • In "Bart After Dark", he can be seen as one of the clients watching the show in the burlesque house.
  • In "The Front", the Itchy and Scratchy writers are all caricatures of The Simpsons writing team at the time, one of whom is Swartzwelder. Also, Lisa pulls out a book titled "'How to Get Rich Writing Cartoons' by John Swartzwelder".
  • In "Hurricane Neddy", he can be seen poking his head out of the door to his padded cell inside the Calmwood Mental Hospital, and then quickly closing it. Later in the episode a sign reading "Free John Swartzwelder" can be seen briefly (behind Barney Gumble) during the fanfare of Ned Flanders' release from the same hospital.
  • In "A Fish Called Selma", a picture of him can be seen among the first group of celebrities on the wall of the restaurant Troy McClure takes Selma to.
  • In "Thank God It's Doomsday", he can be seen on the blimp behind Krusty before it crashes.
  • In "The Fight Before Christmas", he appears as one of the Nazi officers attending the movie "Dummkopf" in Lisa's World War II fantasy sequence.

In addition to having his likeness animated into the show, various references to him have been slipped in, such as his name being used in "freeze frame" jokes.

  • During "The Front" Bart and Lisa are seen reading a fictitious book titled "How to Get Rich Writing Cartoons" written by John Swartzwelder.
  • The episode "Burns, Baby Burns" features a "Mt. Swartzwelder".
  • In "Dog of Death", Santa's Little Helper is shown wandering through Swartzwelder County.
  • In a 25th season episode, his name appears written on the surgical cast of a guest character, among other names they "would have liked to come visit".


The Simpsons episodes written by Swartzwelder


  1. ^ With George Meyer, Sam Simon and Jon Vitti
  2. ^ "Bad Dream House" segment
  3. ^ With Sam Simon
  4. ^ Contributor
  5. ^ "Attack of the 50-Foot Eyesores" segment
  6. ^ Teleplay, story by Bob Kushell


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ "Episodes by writer". The Simpsons Archive. Retrieved 2007-07-01. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c d e A. O. Scott (2001-11-04). "How 'The Simpsons' Survives". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-07-27. 
  5. ^ Rabin, Nathan. "Robert Smigel interview". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 2007-08-11. I actually shared a room with this guy John Swartzwelder, a legendary Simpsons writer. 
  6. ^ Finley, Adam (2006-03-03). "In the Limelight: John Swartzwelder". TV Squad. Retrieved 2007-05-03. 
  7. ^ a b Owen, David (2000-03-13). "Taking Humour Seriously". The New Yorker. 
  8. ^ a b Groening, Matt (2006). The Simpsons The Complete Eighth Season DVD commentary for the episode "Grade School Confidential" (DVD). 20th Century Fox. 
  9. ^ a b Cohen, David X. (2006). The Simpsons The Complete Eighth Season DVD commentary for the episode "The Old Man and the Lisa" (DVD). 20th Century Fox. 
  10. ^ Scott, A. O. "John Swartzwelder". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-05-03. 
  11. ^ "Humor Novels By John Swartzwelder". Kenny Dale Books. Retrieved 2007-05-03. 
  12. ^ Groening, Matt; Jean, Al; Reiss, Mike; Lapidus, Adam; Moore, Rich (2004). The Simpsons The Complete Fourth Season DVD commentary for the episode "The Front" (DVD). 20th Century Fox. 
  13. ^ Scully, Mike; Swartzwelder, John (2006). The Simpsons The Complete Ninth Season DVD commentary for the episode "The Cartridge Family" (DVD). 20th Century Fox. 
  14. ^ Groening, Matt (2005). The Simpsons The Complete Seventh Season DVD commentary for the episode "Bart the Fink" (DVD). 20th Century Fox. 
  15. ^ Groening, Matt (2001). The Simpsons The Complete First Season DVD commentary for the episode "Bart the General" (DVD). 20th Century Fox. 

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