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'Simpsons' Producer On Why They Did A 'Road Trip To Cincinnati'

Courtesy Fox Broadcasting/Screen shot
Principal Skinner (right) and Supt. Chalmers eating at the Clifton Skyline Chili in "The Road Trip To Cincinnati" Nov. 29.

The bowls. Huge bowls filled with chili spaghetti. The Simpsons executive producer Matt Selman was obsessed with the inaccurate depiction of Skyline Chili customers eating from bowls, not plates.

I wanted to talk about the delightful depiction of the Queen City in "The Road To Cincinnati" episode Sunday, and Selman kept talking about the pasta-filled bowls.

Those horrible, massive bowls!

"Oh my God, those bowls are HUGE!" Selman says by phone from Los Angeles, while re-watching the episode on his computer about Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers taking an 800-mile car trip from Springfield to a Cincinnati education convention.

"I'm watching it with fresh eyes now. Oh my God, how did we do that? Maybe they broke all their plates! There was an accident in the dishwasher. All the plates were shattered! And they had to serve it in bowls."

Credit Courtesy Fox Broadcasting/Screen shot

Selman, who started in 1997 as a writer on The Simpsons, says he discovered the error after the animation was completed months ago. It was too late – and too costly – to fix.

Credit Courtesy Matt Selman

"Someone here pointed out that Skinner and Chalmers were eating their chili in bowls, and that's not how they serve it, and I was really annoyed," he says. "I felt like we kind of failed, that we didn’t get that detail right. The chili should have been on plates, and eating it like cutting a piece of a pie with a fork. I mean, the show is so expensive to change, I would get yelled at so bad if I went and opened up (re-edited) the show, put in a retake, re-mastered it and sent it out. Oh my God, that would have cost a lot of money.

"I'll go to my grave over those giant bowls. Those horrible massive bowls! 

The Massachusetts native has never been to Cincinnati. But he hopes to come here one day to sample Skyline. The Simpsons show runner says he chose Cincinnati for the episode for two reasons – it was a plausible Midwestern site for conventions, and its world-famous chili.

Credit Courtesy Fox Broadcasting/Screen shot

Here's everything you need to know about "The Road To Cincinnati" episode from Selman, a chili dog connoisseur:

John Kiesewetter: Why Cincinnati?

Matt Selman: Why not Cincinnati? It's an awesome city. Who doesn't love Cincinnati? You must know that, right? Cincinnati seemed like a good destination for a convention.  It's not going to Paris – no offense to Cincinnati – or to Las Vegas, one of the craziest, most intense, over-the-top super cities of the world. Cincinnati has a real distinctive Middle American personality. It's very believable that there would be an educational administrators conference there.

I have not been there. But I've watched about a million food TV shows about the Cincinnati chili - Guy Fieri and all those food shows where they show you how to make it. Food and The Simpsons go together really well, I always figure. The food thing always motivates a good story.

JK: Why didn't the Simpsons take the road trip?

MS: I wanted to do an episode about the Skinner and Chalmers relationship. That's kind of a somewhat bolder, ambitious thing -- to do a Simpsons episode with almost no Simpsons. I wanted to do a road trip episode with them, a buddy comedy with highs and lows, and bonding and fighting, and all those things you'd see in a classic road movie.

Credit Courtesy Fox Broadcasting/Screen shot
Supt. Gary Chalmers (left) and Principal Seymour Skinner driving to Cincinnati.

JK: Co-executive producer Jeff Westbrook got the writing credit for "The Road To Cincinnati."  How did he write the show?

MS: Jeff wrote the episode and I produced it. We kind of collaborated. Everything we do at The Simpsons is a big team effort. He did some good research, and I was very intent on including chili. Jeff wrote all that funny stuff with Skinner telling Chalmers in the car about the three-way and the four-way, when Chalmers is going out of his mind, thinking Skinner was the worst person in the world to be with on a road trip.

JK: Is it true your writing staff gave Skyline a chilly reception?

MS: We ordered a big giant box of the Skyline chili, and it came in these cans and plastic bags. All the writers tried it. Some people were like, traditionalists I'd say, and did not respond well to cinnamon flavor. I thought it was great. I thought it very interesting. It was a new thing I never had. I liked it a lot.

Of course, having it hot and fresh on a hot dog in Cincinnati is the best. We weren't enjoying it the best way by reheating it.

I think that sweetish, cinnamon-y flavor would be good with the salty of a hot dog. Chili on pasta is a really good idea, but everyone has their own opinion about that. That’s a great thing about chili. It so versatile and you make all the different local variance of it, but you still always know its chili.

Credit Courtesy Fox Broadcasting
Comedian Hannibal Buress provided the voice of Finch, principal of Springfield's gifted school.

JK: I always thought the Simpsons lived in Springfield, Ill., near the center of the United States. My readers point out that Springfield, Mass., is 803 miles from Cincinnati. So that's where the Simpsons live?

MS: That was not our intent. Our intent was just to baffle and frustrate people as always, because Springfield is everywhere in America. I love to say that it's in every state. Springfield has a part of America in all of it. And all of America has a Springfield in it. Springfield has a Grand Canyon. It has an ocean. It has an Upper Peninsula. It's by the Salt Flats. It has a North Shore. It's everything good and bad about America.

Credit Courtesy Fox Broadcasting/Screen shot

JK: The Cincinnati establishing shot – the riverfront with the Roebling Suspension bridge, riverboat, barge and skyline – was fantastic, and very accurate. Was that from your research, or your Korean animators?

MS: It's all our animators. They're great. All the creative parts of the animation and designs are done in Los Angeles. The part that's done in Korea -- not that it isn't important -- is the execution of the creativity. We send them a very specific blueprint of how everything should look done by American artists, and then they execute all of the 24 frames per second, and all the coloring.

If we visit a place, and we don't have fun holding up the Springfield mirror to that place, then we failed. You know? I did a show in which the Simpsons went to Boston – I'm from Boston – and I went full bananas on that one. I wish I could have given Cincinnati that full treatment.

JK: Of all the chili parlors in town, why did you chose the Clifton Skyline in Cincinnati's gaslight neighborhood?

MS: The animators did that. I commend them for having found that. It certainly has a classic American old-school charm. I loved it.

We love to honor American originals, and that's one of the funnest things about what The Simpsons do, to put our 'Simpsonfy' on an original, classic, unique American beloved institution, and certainly Skyline Chili is one.

Credit Courtesy Fox Broadcasting/Screen shot
After a dispute with Skinner, Chalmers hitched a ride in a spaghetti truck headed to Cincinnati.

JK: It was fun hearing some of the WKRP in Cincinnati music in the show. Are you a WKRP fan?

Definitely! I was pretty young when that show was on, and I watched it in syndication. I have a lot of admiration for the creator of that show, Hugh Wilson. He's a great writer. That was the smart, hip, cool of its day.

We did use a few seconds of the WKRP opening theme in the establishing shot (for Cincinnati) when Chalmers arrives at the convention center in the spaghetti truck. But I didn't use the lyrics, so it's not that easy to identify without the singing.

And as Skinner and Chalmers are eating chili at the end, I used that one chunk of the opening lyrics, 'Maybe you and me were never meant to be, but baby think of me once in a while.' Which does kind of describe the Skinner-Chalmers relationship. They're never going to be best friends, but they're getting along now.

Credit Courtesy Fox Broadcasting
Chalmers and Skinner relax at a bed and breakfast on their way to Cincinnati.

JK: It was cool how you used the WKRP closing theme, with the gibberish lyrics, for the closing credits.

MS: We actually designed our closing credits to match that WKRP style from the late '70s and '80s, for the names of the actors. The Simpsons aren't really in this episode, but the Simpsons actors play other parts. So we show the regular Simpsons actors as, like, the Sheriff (Dan Castellanetta); the voice of Marge (Julie Kavner) was the emotional support turkey; Lisa was an Improv Shakespeare actor; and we had our guest stars. That was just a fun little thing to do at the end of the show.

Credit Courtesy Fox Broadcasting/Screen shot
Julie Kavner voiced the emotional support turkey seen on the Air Cincinnati jet before Chalmers was removed from the plane after his panic attack.

And here's another fun thing about doing this show. It was exciting to air this around Thanksgiving, even though it was not explicitly a Thanksgiving episode, because the turkey drop episode is like the most famous WKRP episode. It does to me sort of feel that a road trip is kind of a Thanksgiving-y thing. You know what I'm saying?

JK: The episode was terrific, and Cincinnati looked beautiful. Congratulations on a job well done.

MS: Well, thank you. I'm glad the city responded in whatever way they felt seen by The Simpsons, because we've been around for a long time (32 seasons).  It's fun when we have a shoutout to a place that they still get excited.

Credit Courtesy Fox Broadcasting/Screen shot
Yeardley Smith provided the voice for the woman in the Improv Shakespeare troupe.

JK: Sounds like you need to do a road trip to Cincinnati.

MS: When this (TV season) gets over, I'm going to go on a -- what do they call it? – a chili crawl. Where I’m going to eat all the different chilis. I'll drag my kids along, too. What's your favorite? I like a chili dog, or a coney.

Hopefully I could go to Skyline – not as a hero, but at least meet the team and say hi to everyone, and, you know, have a little Simpsons chili party.

But those huge bowls! Dang it! Maybe I can't go there now.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.