So I’m a big fan of John Swartzwelder. Who is John Swartzwelder, you ask?
Well, he’s most famous as a writer for “The Simpsons.” For Americans of a certain age, the cultural impact of “The Simpsons” can’t be understated. Put me in a room with a handful of other men my age, and we could probably have a deeply meaningful exchange involving nothing more than a few knowing glances and a string of Simpsons quotes.
And no man is more responsible for this Gen X lingua franca than John Swartzwelder. Between the start of the show and when he left in 2003, he wrote 59 episodes. To this day, he’s written more episodes than any other writer on the show.
Of the episodes where he has a writing credit, a great many are stone-cold classics—”Bart Gets an Elephant,” “Whacking Day,” “Radioactive Man,” “Homer the Great,” “Bart Carny,” “Homie the Clown”—I might put all six of those in my top 10 favorite episodes, and Swartzwelder wrote them all. There’s been a long-running argument among Simpsons fans about when exactly the show stopped being great and descended into mediocrity. Well, Swartzwelder left in 2003. I say Swartzwelder was “The Simpsons.” The decline can be traced to him leaving the show.
Swartzwelder started out in advertising and had a brief stint at “Saturday Night Live” when the show was in its mid-’80s doldrums. Swartzwelder really made a name for himself when George S. Meyer, perhaps the only other Simpsons writer with a reputation to rival Swartzwelder, started a ‘zine in the late ’80s called “Army Man” that quickly became legendary as an outlet for frustrated comedy writers. (I can hear a chorus of millennials and Gen Z readers now asking, “What’s a ‘zine’“?)
Army Man was the first place Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts” ever appeared, and a whole slew of soon-to-be-legendary comedy writers contributed, including Bob Odenkirk and a huge number of what became the writing staff of “The Simpsons.” If you want to read Army Man, someone scanned it and put it all online. (Note: I and a couple of college buddies spent YEARS in the ’90s trying to get our hands on a copy of Army Man and failed. You punks have no idea how easy you have it.)
Swartzwelder stood out even among the Army Man crowd. Meyer later told The New Yorker:
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.
Even on the staff of “The Simpsons,” where there were probably a dozen absolutely legendary comedy writers, Swartzwelder was pretty much The Man. He was the only guy who got to send in his scripts from home. That was something of a relief to everyone else in “The Simpsons” offices because he smoked so much. When his favorite diner, where he did all his writing, banned smoking in the ’90s, he bought his favorite booth and had it installed at home so he could keep smoking.
He was also, like Ron Swanson, a hard-core libertarian who used to get into arguments with others because of his contrarian takes on environmentalism and other topics. He was a real recluse, which only added to the mystique.
When they started doing commentary tracks for “The Simpsons” DVD sets in the early aughts, naturally he declined to participate. So during the recording of one of the commentary tracks, some of the writers thought it would be funny to call him up. They ask Swartzwelder what he is doing, and he responds, “I’m cooking a steak.” Then he later tries to deny that they are speaking to John Swartzwelder.
There are barely any pictures of the reclusive Swartzwelder online, but it bears mentioning Swartzwelder rocks an impressive ’80s mustache.
Since leaving “The Simpsons” in 2003, Swartzwelder has done nothing except self-publish a series of comedic novels that deal with a private eye and various sci-fi and western settings. They have mostly flown under the radar, which is unfortunate because they are hilarious.
The plots are just an excuse for Swartzwelder to string together amazing one-liners such as, “I was sleeping like a baby—waking up every three hours screaming and crapping my pants.” In fact, Swartzwelder has published a new book this year, The Spy With No Pants. Note that his books do not waste effort on cover art. He’s funny. What else do you need from him?
Anyway, I was Googling Swartzwelder trying to remember something, and saw that someone on a Simpsons message board some years back noticed the similarities between the Ron Swanson character and Swartzwelder. Greg Daniels—the writer who created both the U.S. versions of “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation”—also worked on the early “Simpsons” writing staff.
Over a period of months, two years ago I watched the entirety of “Parks and Rec” on the treadmill at the gym, an activity both Swartzwelder and Swanson would probably mock me for. I found that much of the show — with due respect to Daniels, who I think is brilliant — fell into the category of what, say, people who listen to NPR find “funny,” as opposed to actually funny.
But one thing kept me going—as in continuing to watch Parks and Rec, not “going” on the treadmill—the Ron Swanson character on the show was at another level of humor. Nick Offerman’s portrayal is great, but the aphorisms and one-liners given to him were astonishing:
- “Normally, if given the choice between doing something and nothing, I’d choose to do nothing. But I will do something if it helps someone else do nothing. I’d work all night if it meant nothing got done.”
- “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Don’t teach a man to fish…and feed yourself. He’s a grown man. And fishing’s not that hard.”
- “There’s only one thing I hate more than lying: skim milk. Which is water that’s lying about being milk.”
- “I call this turf ‘n’ turf. It’s a 16-ounce T-bone and a 24-ounce porterhouse. Also, whiskey and a cigar. I am going to consume all of this at the same time because I am a free American.”
- “Crying: Acceptable at funerals and the Grand Canyon.”
- “My idea of a perfect government is one guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke. The man is chosen based on some kind of IQ test, and maybe also a physical tournament, like a decathlon. And women are brought to him, maybe…when he desires them.”
- “The less I know about other people’s affairs, the happier I am. I’m not interested in caring about people. I once worked with a guy for three years and never learned his name. Best friend I ever had. We still never talk sometimes.”
- “Fishing relaxes me. It’s like yoga, except I still get to kill something.”
And so on. If you’re familiar with Swartzwelder, many of these lines at a minimum do an excellent job of channeling his distinct sense of humor. I want to believe that 15 years from now when Swartzwelder dies of lung cancer, we’ll learn he was polishing all the “Parks and Rec” scripts for Daniels.
However, since the message board post on Swanson/Swartzwelder went quasi-viral, other big-name Simpsons writers such as Bill Oakley have publicly wondered if Swanson wasn’t based on Swartzwelder. The official response was from “Parks and Recreation” showrunner Michael Schur, who tweeted, “Swanson has no real-life referent.” Schur added, “Plus, isn’t Swartzwelder like a Whig or something?”
Perhaps it’s me, but I think maybe these comedy writers might not be entirely earnest in their attempt to clear up any Swartzwelder/Swanson confusion. Anyway, I just learned of this rumored connection between Swartzwelder and Swanson. But I’m obviously not the first person to write about it. So why am I doing it now?
Well, millions (billions?) of people have seen “The Simpsons” or are fans of “Parks and Recreation” and Ron Swanson. Yet the vast majority of those people have still never heard of Swartzwelder. If you were one of those people who just finished reading this, well, you’re welcome.