Four-time Emmy Award-winning producer and writer Carolyn Omine is the only woman on The Simpsons writing staff. She took some time to chat with Ms. about outshining sexism, channeling her inner Lisa and finding the humanity in her characters.
What is it like being the only woman on the writing staff?
For the most part it’s pretty good. I would say that 90 percent of the time I feel like one of the guys and life for me is the same as it is for them—but there are times—I think that anytime you are the only thing anywhere, it’s a little lonely. TV writers are usually pro-women’s rights and they want to see more women on staff. But being a minority has been a constant through my journey with comedy. There weren’t as many women trying early on, but I feel like that’s changing quite a bit, it’s going to achieve parity. Our show kind of suffers from being an older show where people don’t leave so we don’t often hire new people.
Why do you think it’s so uncommon to see female writers in animation TV programs?
Animated shows tend to be more raunchy. Not that women can’t write raunchy, but there’s a particular male personality—that likes raunchy comedy—that is sometimes threatened by women. And they have reason to feel threatened: This is a very tough business. It’s very competitive and that contributes to all writers feeling worried about job security and how they are currently performing. Some of it is male ego, but women writers also feel threatened by other writers – male and female. Everybody is worried about their job. What I always say to women is: fight sexism, mentor young women, go to the marches—but when you’re in the writers room don’t dismiss every conflict as sexism. Compete as if sexism doesn’t exist. If someone is speaking over you, figure out a way to find your moment to speak or find a calm way to say “can I finish?”
You have to do your job well in spite of sexism, because I have never seen a sexist or a racist stop being sexist or racist because they got called on it. But I have seen attitudes change when someone is so good their talent can’t be ignored.
What do you find challenging about your job?
When everybody is re-writing your script it can be a painful. It’s hard because your work feels precious and it’s difficult to be helpful coming up with alternatives when you already thought about that area over and over when you were writing the script.
What writers inspire you and why?
There was a writer on our show named John Swartzwelder. Now he self publishes books, you can get them on Amazon, and they’re so dense with jokes, such a unique perspective. Another Simpsons writer I found inspiring was George Meyer. His jokes can be one line but it creates a whole back story. I love Rod Sterling and Paddy Chayefsky. They’re both great writers and they both thought that TV was going to be much bigger than movies. They thought it was a much more intimate medium. I feel like right now, TV is finally coming around to actually being that thing that Rod Sterling and Paddy Chayefsky said it would be.
What is the most important aspect of building a great character?
We tend to base them off people we know. If it’s real, it will make the audience feel: “I have that exact same relative,” or “I know someone like that.” Our actors are also important contributors in creating characters. The actors add humanity. We give them lines and they find the motivation and reality and bring it back to you and you realize, “okay—now I see the kindness of Moe, I see the tragedy of Moe.”
Who is your favorite character?
I love Homer. John Swartzwelder used to say “never make Homer dumber than a dog.” So he can be pretty dumb, but he’s lovable. He just wants what he wants.
Talk to us about Lisa.
It’s funny because Yeardley Smith, who voices her, is very protective of Lisa. All of our actors genuinely love their characters. I remember something didn’t turn out well for Lisa at the end of an episode and Yeardley was like, “It never works out for Lisa, why is that, why do the writers like to be so mean to her?” I actually think that Lisa is the character that the writers—myself included— relate to the most, even though she’s a girl and most of the writers are men. The struggles that Lisa has—being the smarty pants in a world where that’s not appreciated and where everybody thinks that the dude on the skateboard is cooler than the person who knows how the lights work—the reason why things don’t work out for Lisa, is because the writers are working out their own frustrations.
Our writers are not like Homer or Bart—they weren’t little trouble makers. They were all Lisas. So it’s fascinating that she’s female and she embodies the struggle of the intellectual in this world.