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Simpsons writer remembers his Huron County roots

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It’s a long way from Exeter to Hollywood, but Simpsons writer and producer Tim Long hasn’t forgotten his Huron County roots.

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“I miss Exeter every day,” he said June 29 from Los Angeles.

Long has been with The Simpsons for more than 20 years. Before joining what is now the longest-running American primetime television series in history, Long worked in the 1990s on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect and was a head writer for the Late Show with David Letterman.

He said working on The Simpsons is beyond his dream job, as his role with the show has exceeded anything he thought would happen in his career, which has included multiple Emmy wins.

Long will soon add another accomplishment to his resume – his movie The Exchange, directed by Dan Mazer of Borat fame, will be released July 30. Filmed in the Ottawa area and taking place in a fictional town, the movie is at least partly based on Long’s childhood in Exeter, and the main character is named Tim Long. In The Exchange, the Tim Long character’s family hosts an exchange student, something that happened to Long when he was a Grade 13 student at South Huron District High School.

“It was really an eye-opening experience, and it was something I’ve always thought about,” he said.

“I’ve always told stories about my experiences and about having an exchange student, and basically, there are a lot of stories where the joke is sort of on me, because I was a lot more naïve and innocent than I thought I was.”

Eventually, an agent encouraged Long to turn the stories into a movie, which he did. After a few drafts, the movie was eventually picked up and it was shot in the Ottawa area in the spring of 2019.

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While there are obviously some real-life inspirations for the movie, Long said, “I didn’t want anybody to think that I was talking about Exeter or about anybody in Exeter, but I felt like the one character who was most similar to a real person was me, so I decided, ‘What the heck, I’ll just name him Tim Long.’”

While the town in the movie is very different from Exeter, there are some similarities, including what Long describes as “the sweetness” of the town as well as the sense of community.

And there are white squirrels.

“There’s a pretty big white squirrel element in this,” Long said, which should please Exeterites.

In another nod to his old stomping grounds, Long said, “The whole time I was writing this movie I thought, ‘I gotta get this movie at the Shipka drive-in.’ I thought if there’s anywhere I could show the movie, it would be there,” he said.

While it was filmed and based in Canada, the movie has U.S. financing and British producers, and Long said he wrote much of the script in England.

Of Mazer, who has worked on several projects with Sacha Baron Cohen, Long said, “I knew right away he was the right guy to direct it, because he’s just terrific.”

The movie was filmed before COVID, but the pandemic ended up delaying the movie’s release by about a year.

“The movie industry is so up in the air,” Long said.

Long’s road to Hollywood was a gradual one, he said, adding, “I’m as surprised as anyone that I’ve lived here for 20 years now.”

Growing up, he always loved writing, and said he was encouraged by some of his teachers in Exeter. He also watched everything he could on television, including Saturday Night Live, Late Night with David Letterman, Happy Days and Canadian shows such as SCTV and Kids in the Hall.

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“I was always very aware that Canada punched above its weight in terms of TV comedy, so that was always exciting to me.”

Long was an avid reader growing up, and remembers reading a story in Rolling Stone magazine about the writing staff on the Letterman show, “and they just seemed like the funniest people.”

Ten years later Long was working on the show, which included time as head writer.

“I just couldn’t believe my luck,” he said, describing his time on the show as “an amazing experience.”

Long is quick to credit his parents Earl and Dorothy, who now live in London, for supporting him.

After attending the University of Toronto he eventually decided to go to New York City where his work included writing for Spy magazine. That was also a time when a lot of late-night TV shows were starting up and writers were needed. A friend recommended to Long that he write for Bill Maher, and he eventually got a 10-week trial on the show.

“I just worked so much, and I would write so much material. And I think a lot of it wasn’t great at the time, but just in terms of pure numbers, I managed to get enough on the air to survive my tryout.”

Of Maher and Letterman, Long said, “Those guys are super smart, and they’re super funny, and they just have a very quick wit. Some people go to school for creative writing, and I feel like I went to school but got paid for it.”

Long has now been with The Simpsons for more than 20 years, and recently made headlines when an episode he wrote, Panic on the Streets of Springfield, raised the ire of singer Morrissey. In the episode, Lisa has an imaginary friend named Quilloughby, who is a depressed singer from the 1980s.

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Long admits the character was in part inspired by Morrissey, and remembers going to see Morrissey with his band The Smiths at London’s Centennial Hall in the 1980s. Long has been a fan ever since, but Morrissey has become a controversial figure in recent years for various political comments he has made in the press.

“As a fan, I do not relish the idea of him being angry at me,” Long said of Morrissey, but at the same time he thinks that “if you’re famous, being made fun of is part of it, and the smart thing to do is to just sort of let it slide.”

But Morrissey didn’t let it slide and blasted the episode on his website.

Long said he is very proud of the episode, describing it as one of his favourites. Benedict Cumberbatch did the voice of Quilloughby, and Long worked with him over Zoom.

“He was so good,” Long said of Cumberbatch, adding of the episode, “The bottom line is that it’s good to get a big reaction, and I was really proud of the episode.”

In addition to that episode, another of Long’s favourites is the first episode he wrote for The Simpsons, called Skinner’s Sense of Snow, which sees the kids trapped at school after a blizzard, which was based on Long’s childhood in Exeter.

Long is well into working on episodes for next season’s Simpsons, which will be the show’s 33rd season. He says a lot of credit for the show goes to creator Matt Groening, and also attributes its longevity to the relatability of the show.

“We’ve all had parents who drive us crazy, and all parents have had kids who drive them crazy, so no one can watch that show and think, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on here.’ I think the dilemmas are very relatable.”

Long remembers when the show first came out and thinking, “This is the funniest show, and then thinking it was just for me because the jokes were so funny.”

Asked who his favourite character to write for is, Long said, “It’s hard to argue with Homer. He’s so funny. He’s such an everyman … He’s got such a good heart, but he’s such an idiot.”

Long said he’s very happy at The Simpsons, and also said he hopes there is more movie work in his future. He said he has fond memories of growing up in Exeter, and once the pandemic ends is looking forward to a visit.

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