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Q&A: Larry Doyle

Larry Doyle has a cartoonish take on life, having spent three seasons writing on The Simpsons and, before that, three seasons on Beavis and Butthead. But after moving into live-action film writing, the Baltimore native turned his thoughts back to high school and wrote the novel I Love You, Beth Cooper, which went on to win the highly prestigious James Thurber Award, given to the best humorous novel of the year.

While his screen adaptation of Cooper didn’t fare well at the box office, Doyle is undeniably a hot commodity in the literary world. His second novel, Go Mutants!, revisits the high school world with a distinctly different approach: it’s a school full of mutants, whose various oddities and deformities are symbolic of the various maladies afflicting students in the real world of high schools everywhere.

Doyle recently talked by phone from his home in Baltimore about the many aspects of his career and how mutants are really just in need of love and the same things as regular humans.

How did you get into comedy writing?

It’s been a long time now, and the very long story is I’ve been trying to do this since eighth grade. I kept at it in college and was a journalist for a long time. I tried to do humor writing and got a break at 30 by getting into The New Yorker. I got a job in New York, met people who helped me get other jobs and eventually got my other jobs. Almost everything that I’ve done has been a matter of meeting people on my jobs that recommend me for others. It’s just paying your dues. I wasn’t a genius or prodigy, so I didn’t burst out at 21 with a brilliant comic novel. I just kept working and got better at it till I got good enough to get recommended to other people.

What was it like working on The Simpsons?

Working on The Simpsons means you’re in a room, and the one-word answer is it’s terrifying—because there are 12 other intelligent, funny people in the room, and a lot of them are geniuses. We had one guy with Ph.D. in math, at least a couple lawyers and one had been a district attorney. A lot of them came out of Harvard, worked on the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine, did other careers and were drawn back to comedy. You’re in that group, and you’re just like, “I’m gonna be fired—I’m not qualified at all to be here.”

After a while you get comfortable and then eventually feel you can do it better than anyone else there. The show was exactly what people who ran it wanted it to be. There was nobody deciding from above, “we need more potato chip storylines.” The writer in charge of the show with the help of others would come up with the best story they could think of. That’s still the way it’s run and that’s why it’s been on so long.

Do you have any idea why it took so long to put out The Simpsons Movie, and if they’re likely to do another one?

James L. Brooks was the big creative guy who got the show made in the first place, and he takes seven years to write a movie. He got all seven years of writing work in a two-year period done through the team of writers on The Simpsons Movie. They were in there all the time, working on it over and over again. He writes and rewrites and rewrites.

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The biggest problem with a sequel to a Simpsons movie is I thought they wouldn’t be able to do a movie in the first place, because every episode has enough moments that are in an average movie. What are you gonna do with a real movie, assuming you’re not going to turn it into a Disney musical with musical breaks? Who knows what they’ll do [with a sequel]. I’m assuming that if they’re thinking about doing a movie they’ll do something that goes beyond what they did before.

How did you come up with Go Mutants!?

I had several ideas of what I wanted to write next. Cooper was a big success. I gravitated to the idea closest to Cooper, but I wanted it to be fundamentally different. I wanted a science-fiction aspect, but with a much more complex narrative with at least a dozen major characters and 40 or 50 secondary characters, with various plotlines. Beth Cooper had one plot all the way through. So in some ways, it was a partially commercial decision, a continuation of Beth Cooper, with enough differences to move the ball along.

I’m pretty sure the next one will be a grownup book. Go Mutants! has a lot more grownup characters dealt with in more detail than the first book. It was important to me that even the teenage characters are sort of a different type. The main character is not a geek—he’s an outsider but a juvenile delinquent outsider. The first hero, in Cooper, was hapless, and this one is sure of what he wants to do and also very dark. And he has a giant brain.

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