Writer who brought The Simpsons to Marfa talks Emmy-winning episode

THE SIMPSONS: When Marge and Homer leave Grampa to babysit the kids, some little green army men trigger a PTSD episode, sending the family on a journey to Grampa’s past to when he was a post-war toy model in “Mad About the Toy”.” THE SIMPSONS ™ and © 2018 TCFFC ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

MARFA — The Simpsons writer Michael Price has never stepped foot in Marfa, but his “Mad About the Toy” script sent the famous animated family on a search for fictional photographer Philip Hefflin that led them straight into the heart of town. The particularly heartfelt episode caught the eye of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and garnered Price his third Emmy win for Outstanding Animated Program on Saturday.

In the episode, which aired in January, Grampa is babysitting Bart and Lisa Simpson when he catches a glimpse of the kids’ green army men toys. He’s sent spiraling through flashbacks – at first believed to be of his time at war, and later revealed to be a photoshoot where Grampa served as the model for the green plastic toys.

The family realizes Grampa was never paid for his modeling, so they head to a modern day, but still-Mad Men-esque, toy company office to collect Grampa’s payment. Instead, it’s revealed Grampa fled without signing the contract, finally reaching the core of the flashbacks: during the photoshoot, photographer Hefflin had mistaken a mutual attraction and kissed Grampa. Back in present day, Grampa learns Hefflin was fired because of it, “for being gay.”

For a cartoon, The Simpsons has always been “this mixture of silliness and ridiculousness and over the top kind of cartoon stuff, with real emotions and real heart and real family at its center,” Price said. He credited Executive Producer James L Brooks for helping take the episode’s storyline through the minefields of homosexuality during the 1940s.

Hefflin had “come from this very closeted existence in New York during the Mad Men era,” Price said. Price came up with the idea to cast actor (and former Tulane University schoolmate) Bryan Batt, who played the closeted Art Director Sal Romano in Mad Men. Price explained that on the show, Romano was outed, fired by Don Draper and never seen again. “In a way it was sort of giving the character Sal the happy ending he never got on Mad Men,” Price said.

When Lisa spearheads a reconciliatory visit to Hefflin, the Simpsons set off to Marfa. Bart pulls out his slingshot to “open carry,” Homer fuels the car up at a pump jack, and the family stops at Prada Marfa before finally reaching town.

To get it right, Director Rob Oliver, animators and writers researched our little art mecca and pulled from their own experiences visiting. The team went as far as to put out a call to Elmgreen and Dragset, the artists behind Prada Marfa, so that animators and writers could nail the finest details of the roadside art installation, down to the stickers that dot the building’s back wall.

But what was Hefflin doing in Marfa? Price had pitched Hefflin’s final destination as Texas, allowing Grampa to believe Hefflin “lives on the far ends of the Earth; he must have a horrible life.” Price noted that there’s a bit of a prejudice against Texas at play there. 

The writer had heard about Marfa first from reading about No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. When he later read coverage about I Love Dick, he realized the remote town was the perfect setting for the episode’s third act. The big reveal when Grampa meets Hefflin is that “he has this amazing life in this amazing city and has fulfilled everything he ever wanted.”

It seemed really perfect for that character to have wound up there, to find his artistic freedom and personal freedom,” Price said of Marfa. “It made us really happy to find Marfa and send him there.”

After Grampa and Hefflin catch up, reconcile and finish the photoshoot they started decades ago, Grampa gives the photographer an amiable kiss in the Marfa studio, surrounded by art and statues inspired by Army-fatigue-wearing Grampa.

Price has worked on The Simpsons since late 2001 and received Emmys in 2006 and 2008 when the show took home awards for Outstanding Animated Program. Though he played a role in both previous wins, this year is different – it’s the first win where he holds the “Written by” and “Co-Executive Producer” credit.

Mad About the Toy” was selected by executives to represent the whole 2019 season when they submitted for awards consideration. The show garnered the Emmy nomination and ultimately took home the big prize. “To have the script I wrote be the one to win does feel really special, and it almost feels like ‘Now I’ve done it!’ It’s such an amazing place to work and I feel so lucky and privileged to work on this great show.”

Though he still hasn’t made the trek to our remote little town, Price says that one of these days he would “really love to go.”