Prince almost started a funky sexual revolution in Springfield.
We learn as much in Springfield Confidential, original Simpsons writer Mike Reiss’ 2018 book about his life working on history’s greatest TV comedy. Throughout its 30-season run, only three or four fully completed scripts were eventually scrapped, according to Reiss.
One of those happened to star Prince.
The brief, unrequited Prince-Simpsons relationship began while Simpsons co-creator James L. Brooks was developing his 1994 film I’ll Do Anything.
“It was intended to be a musical at first, and the original music was written by Prince,” Reiss says of I’ll Do Anything, speaking by phone from New York City. “That’s what brought James L. Brooks and Prince together. But it turned out not to work as a musical—all the musical numbers were cut.”
Still, Brooks’ brush with the Minnesota-born superstar inspired an idea: What if Leon Kompowsky—a psychiatric patient who believes he’s Michael Jackson (and is voiced by Jackson) in Season 3’s “Stark Raving Dad”—returned to Springfield? Only this time Leon is convinced he’s Prince?
“He would have this very benevolent, Prince-like effect on the whole city,” recalls Reiss, The Simpsons’ longest-serving writer. “They’d be dressing more flamboyantly, embracing their sexuality. And we’d obviously have songs and performances by Prince. So it was a lovely idea.”
Two young freelancers, Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk, were tasked with crafting the episode, which was slated to run during Season 5 in 1993-94. A fresh-faced writer named Conan O’Brien would handle the re-write.
O’Brien, who’d go on to create fan favorites like “Marge vs. the Monorail” and “Homer Goes to College,” was new to the job, but he was immediately identified as a talented script doctor. John Swartzwelder, author of a record 59 Simpsons episodes, noticed the gangly rookie hammering out work, Reiess laughs, and he remarked: “I saw the new guy working in his office; he looks like a dog being punished.”
“Conan had just come on staff,” Reiess says, noting that O’Brien quickly became a “powerhouse voice” in the writers’ room. “And we had him sit in his office for about a week, joking up and polishing up [the Prince script], adding the Conan touch.”
“Homer, Marge. I don’t have presents for you,” Prince says as he bestows parting gifts to the family. “But the full spirituality of my love is yours forever.”
To which Homer, clearly frustrated, responds: “C’mon—we fed you!”
There’s even an erotically charged moment... with Marge’s laryngitic sister Selma.
Armed with a killer script, The Simpsons team only needed the Purple One to sign off. The immediate feedback? He loved it. Prince’s manager only requested slight changes, most of them dealing with wardrobe details, Reiss says.
There was one massive problem, however: Prince had read an entirely different script. In a baffling coincidence, a writing team with zero affiliation to The Simpsons had also shipped over a Prince-visits-Springfield story, one that apparently delighted Prince.
“The first thing we did, is we looked at their script and—at least to our tastes—it was unusable,” Reiss says. “Then we sent him our version, and that was it: He just rejected it.”
Reiss theorizes that Prince likely bailed because he’d have to voice a character that once belonged to Michael Jackson, his intense rival. (Jean’s script teaser also reveals a potshot at Graffiti Bridge, Prince’s critically bludgeoned 1990 film.) "Prince didn't want to play second fiddle to MJ," Jean adds.
In fact, when Jackson read a rough draft of “Stark Raving Dad,” he only objected to one joke, according to Reiss: a reference to Prince.
(The episode was pulled from syndication last week after the Leaving Neverland documentary re-publicized child abuse allegations against Jackson.)
While likely bummed by Prince’s rejection, Deitchman and Rusk would go on to long careers writing for TV and film. That O’Brien kid did OK for himself, too. And two decades after rebuffing The Simpsons, Prince would appear in an extended cameo role for another Fox program, Zooey Deschanel’s The New Girl.
Striking out on Prince proved to be a rare celebrity guest setback for The Simpsons. Among the many, many music icons who’ve done TV’s longest-running scripted series: Johnny Cash, appearing as a psychedelic space coyote; Sir Paul McCartney, acting as Apu’s vegetarian pal; James Taylor, singing sweetly as Homer’s swarmed by ants in outer space; and James Brown, belting out “I Got You (I Feel Good)” at Springfield’s ill-fated Do What You Feel Festival. And those are just prime examples from the classic era. (Apparently personalities as far-flung as Lady Gaga and Ted Nugent show up, separately, in Season 23.)
One music giant who has never gone yellow: Minnesota’s other prized musical export, Bob Dylan.
“No, it’s funny, we’re all fans—we’re all fans of Prince, too,” Reiss says. “It is strange, as far as I know, we’ve never even approached Dylan.”
Any chance Bob visits Springfield, since The Simpsons was just renewed for Seasons 31 and 32?
“I’ve seen him in concert,” Reiss chuckles. “I worry about making out what he says.”