Sam Simon: Writer and producer who started out on 'Taxi' and 'Cheers' before making his name as co-creator of 'The Simpsons'

Simon was regarded as a master of sitcom script structure and punchline set-ups

Sam Simon was the often overlooked but instrumental co-creator of The Simpsons. Diagnosed with terminal colon cancer in November 2012, twice divorced and with no children, he vowed to spend his remaining time giving away his fortune to animal rights and conservation causes. They had become his main interests after his acrimonious departure from the show in 1993.

The Simpsons is the longest-running scripted prime-time US series, having surpassed Gunsmoke and Law and Order. Simon earned $20-30m annually from merchandise royalties. Simon, who had worked on Taxi and Cheers in his 20s and was regarded as a prodigy of sitcom writing and producing, essentially retired from show business at 38. Because he had been gone from The Simpsons for so long, Simon was overshadowed by his co-creators, James L Brooks and Matt Groening.

Simon was regarded as a master of sitcom script structure and punchline set-ups and helped shepherd The Simpsons through its formative years after it launched on Fox in 1989. A prototype of the characters had appeared in small doses on The Tracey Ullman Show in the late 1980s. "Whatever makes the writing staff laugh, we put in the show," Simon once said. "That's why it's very smart and very vulgar."

According to John Ortved's book The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, Simon's most indelible contribution seems to have been the assembly of the original writing team, many of whom stayed in place for years. Simon earned the respect of colleagues for his mordant wit. He also supplied crucial insights on characters. The Homer from the Tracey Ullman skits, for example, was a mean-spirited and angry; Simon helped transform Homer into a lovable Everyman dolt with terrible parenting skills.

He was also pivotal in imagining the larger Simpsons universe. "He brought a broader perspective to it," Wallace Wolodarsky, one of the show's original writers, said. "He made it bigger than just the family. What's such an important part of The Simpsons is the world of characters it exists in."

Above all, Simon tried to keep the show firmly grounded in the rules of normal sitcom "reality." When Groening wanted Marge Simpson to let down her towering blue beehive and reveal rabbit ears, Simon torpedoed the idea. And when he felt there had been too many "cheap shots" against the nuclear power industry, he issued a directive: "No more three-eyed fish."

Although regarded by his supporters as a creative visionary, Simon could also be a polarising force. His often dismissive, biting style could send writers streaming out of his office in tears, and he complained bitterly about feeling underpaid and underappreciated. Groening said Simon was "brilliantly funny and one of the smartest writers I've ever worked with, although unpleasant and mentally unbalanced." Simon did not disagree, and said that working in television brought out the worst in him: "Any show I've ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy, I hate myself."

The son of a clothing industry executive, he was born in 1955, and raised in Beverly Hills. One of his neighbours was Groucho Marx. He showed early cartooning talent but was rejected from an introductory drawing class at Stanford University, the professor telling him, "You'd be taking the space of a student who has talent."

Majoring in psychology, he became a cartoonist for the campus newspaper and various San Francisco papers. Graduating in 1977, he became a storyboard artist for a studio that made cartoon shows such as Fat Albert.

His breakthrough came in 1981 when he submitted an unsolicited script to Taxi, the sitcom starring Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch about a group of cab company misfits. He was hired as a full-time writer and then script overseer until the series ended in 1983.

From there, he wrote for the wildly popular Cheers for its first three seasons and wrote the script to the 1991 film comedy The Super, starring Joe Pesci as a slumlord ordered by a judge to live in his own building.

After leaving The Simpsons, Simon periodically worked as a director on The Drew Carey Show, an executive producer on The George Carlin Show and host of the short-lived poker series Sam's Game for Playboy TV, and was a consultant on the FX channel's comedy Anger Management. He also managed the world heavyweight boxing champion Lamon Brewster and often appeared as a guest on Howard Stern's radio shows. His marriages to the actress Jennifer Tilly and Playboy Playmate Jami Ferrell ended in divorce.

In recent years, Simon had been primarily devoted to philanthropy. His Malibu-based foundation gave to charities such as Peta and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. His Malibu estate became a sanctuary for dogs rescued from shelters and trained to serve as companions for the deaf. "Thanks to Bart Simpson," he said, "I have a pretty good life."

Samuel Michael Simon, director, producer and writer: born 6 June 1955; married 1984 Jennifer Tilly (divorced 1991), 2000 Jami Ferrell (marriage dissolved); died 8 March 2015.

© The Washington Post

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