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The Welles of Inspiration: Before There Was ‘Mank,’ There Was ‘The Simpsons’

David Fincher’s take on the legacy of Orson Welles is up for 10 Academy Awards, but will it be remembered better than the ‘Simpsons’ classic “Rosebud”? The team behind the episode discuss how it came together and why ‘Citizen Kane’ still looms large 80 years later.

Dan Evans

Exterior. Nighttime.The camera opens on an imposing, ornate metal gate. Looming in the background is a mansion. We enter this foreboding building through one of its top-floor windows. Inside, a man is stretched out in his bed. He’s old and alone and looks to be near the end of his life. You’ve seen this movie before.

He drops the snow globe that was clenched in his hand. It cracks as it rolls across the floor. A concerned visitor enters the room, their body distorted when glimpsed through the broken glass. Then back to the elderly man as he utters that famous, indelible line, “Bobo … Bobo.”

And then, “Oh, it’s you. The bedpan is under my pillow.”

Minus a Wizard of Oz gag and a flashback featuring comedian George Burns in short pants, this is how the classic Simpsons episode “Rosebud” begins. As its title and visual references make clear, “Rosebud” is a tribute to Orson Welles’s revolutionary 1941 film Citizen Kane. It positions Charles Montgomery Burns, Springfield’s villainous nuclear power plant owner, as the sad, isolated billionaire pining for his humble past. But while Welles’s Charles Foster Kane remembered his childhood sled in the final moments before his death, in his old age Burns fixates on Bobo, the teddy bear that his flashback father explicates as, with a ludicrously heavy hand, “a symbol of your lost youth and innocence.”

Bobo ends up in the loving embrace of baby Maggie Simpson—by way of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Adolph Hitler’s war bunker, a submarine expedition to the North Pole, and the freezer at the Kwik-E-Mart. (In an early version of the script, Bobo was also present at the John F. Kennedy assassination.) Maggie’s family must then decide whether or not to return the bear to Mr. Burns, who devises increasingly diabolical plans to get Bobo back once they turn down his money. After 27 years and 614 subsequent Simpsons episodes since it debuted on October 21, 1993, die-hard fans still consider “Rosebud” one of the best half hours of television The Simpsons has ever produced.

“Rosebud” is also part of a long lineage of pop culture that’s paid homage to Citizen Kane, both directly and indirectly. Beyond changing the language of cinema in and of itself, specific shots from Citizen Kane have been copied in the films of master directors including the Coen brothers and Steven Spielberg. Its time-hopping narrative structure has influenced everything from Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon to Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine, and the White Stripes even wrote a song from Kane’s perspective with “The Union Forever.”

The legacy of Citizen Kane once again became a topic of debate following the release of Mank last November. Directed by David Fincher, it follows troubled screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz as he works on the initial draft of Citizen Kane. Laid up in Victorville with a broken leg, he draws from his experiences in 1930s Hollywood with figures like William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, and Louis B. Mayer. Before it was out, experts predicted that Mank would become an awards season favorite, but so far it’s garnered few wins. It was recognized in six categories at the Golden Globes, the most of any film, but lost each time. The camera caught Fincher knocking back a shot after his deceased father, Jack Fincher, lost in the Best Screenplay category to Aaron Sorkin.

This week brought the announcement that Mank is up for 10 Academy Awards, again the most for any movie, including nods for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Gary Oldman, and Best Supporting Actress for Amanda Seyfried. Though it may pick up wins in some of the craft categories, like Best Production Design, victories in the marquee competitions seem unlikely. But there is a chance, that like other Fincher films and like “Rosebud,” the appreciation of Mank will grow in time.

While “Rosebud” shows how Welles’s impact has loomed large in Hollywood for decades, going through multiple cycles of reappraisals, it also found another culture-defining force, The Simpsons, facing a crucial moment in its own creative future. No longer satisfied with just being the best domestic sitcom on television, its ambitions became more daring and less bound by primetime conventions. Citizen Kane represented an ideal guiding force. “I always say if you’re going to steal, steal from the best,” jokes former Simpsons showrunner David Mirkin.

Mirkin began his two-season stint with The Simpsons with a depleted bench of writers. Over its first four years on the air, the show had become a global sensation, but many of the people behind its success had moved on. While most major network shows usually give its staff and creators a two-month hiatus between seasons, The Simpsons operated on an 18-month schedule. That meant no breaks, and for half of the year, the team would work on two seasons concurrently. “I had to rebuild the writing staff pretty much from zero because so many people got burnt out on the show,” says Mirkin.

Mirkin wasn’t part of the crew that turned The Simpsons into a phenomenon. He joined the show after running the bizarre Chris Elliott vehicle Get a Life and the failed sketch comedy show The Edge, both on Fox. Before the start of the fifth season, Sam Simon, the pugnacious original showrunner, left his supervising position at Gracie Films, the show’s production company. His contentious relationships with Simpsons creator Matt Groening and some of the executives at Gracie, including company founder James L. Brooks, were unsustainable. Much of the show’s writing staff, which Simon put together, decided that after the fourth season, it was time for them to exit as well. Mirkin thought he could center his team around Conan O’Brien, at the time a young and beloved Simpsons writer. Then O’Brien unexpectedly got the job to replace David Letterman as the host of NBC’s Late Night show. To help retain some of the show’s foundational talent, Mirkin set up deals with George Meyer (the only Simpsons writer to become the subject of a 12-page New Yorker profile) and the enigmatic John Swartzwelder, where they would only have to come into the office once or twice a week.

Mirkin also had ideas about the overall focus of the show. While young wiseass Bart Simpson had been the central figure and the prime merchandise mover, Mirkin wanted to shift the attention to Homer, the bumbling and increasingly brain-injured father. He also hoped to explore the already-deep assortment of Springfield’s side characters even more. Some traditionalists, both inside and outside of the show, thought Mirkin pushed The Simpsons in too fantastical directions. The key moment they cite is “Deep Space Homer,” the only episode that Mirkin has a sole writing credit on, where the lovable doofus becomes an astronaut. “The fourth season is the one that everybody points to as the high-water mark in terms of the show finding its voice and figuring out this balance between the sensitive, heart-warming family humor and then this wild, over-the-top cartoon comedy that you can only do in animation,” says Dave Itzkoff, a culture writer for The New York Times. “‘Rosebud,’ which is a fifth season episode, pushes it even further in terms of the outrageousness.”

As the early seasons progressed, the writers turned more often to films for inspiration, which would alter the overall tone of the show. Season 4’s “Marge vs. the Monorail,” which borrows from The Music Man and Irwin Allen’s disaster movies of the 1970s, is also considered a classic episode. In John Ortved’s book, The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, show veteran Brent Forrester says of its significance, “The Simpsons was not initially cartoony. The first few seasons, it was an animated show about a family that was highly realistic. The conventional wisdom is that the show changed after the monorail episode, written by Conan O’Brien. Conan’s monorail episode was surreal, and the jokes were so good that it became irresistible for all the other writers to write that kind of comedy.”

Mirkin would steer into this approach with “Rosebud.” For a TV show ostensibly marketed toward teenagers and young men, a prolonged parody of a 50-year-old movie may not seem like a good fit, but Mirkin saw the possibilities in it. “There’s some showrunners that are like, ‘Oh, we can’t reference that because the people don’t know it, that’s too obscure,’” he says. “I’m saying the more obscure the better.”

Though “Rosebud” would become the fourth episode of that season, it was the first that Mirkin worked on. The ones that preceded it were holdovers from the previous era. Swartzwelder approached Mirkin about doing a backstory for Mr. Burns where Homer would have to decide between the emotional needs of his youngest daughter and the financial needs of his family. It was perfect for Mirkin’s designs for the show.

Swartzwelder is a mythic figure in comedy circles. From 1990 to 2003, he amassed 59 writing credits on Simpsons scripts, the most of anyone in the show’s history. He also never gives interviews—including the one requested for this story—and there are few publicly circulated photographs of him. Mirkin describes Swartzwelder, who is tall and known for sporting a bushy mustache, as looking like a character from a Preston Sturges film. “Particularly a hobo,” he clarifies. These days Swartzwelder writes absurd detective novels that are part of his Frank Burly series, which feature titles like The Time Machine Did It and The Spy With No Pants. The only instance when Swartzwelder participated in an audio commentary for a Simpsons DVD set is when Mike Scully—a writer who became the showrunner for Seasons 9 through 12—ambushed him with a brief phone call at home as they discussed Swartzwelder’s episode “The Cartridge Family.” He was in the middle of cooking a steak.

Swartzwelder was crucial in shaping The Simpsons sensibility, and his temperament matched the job requirements. “You’re looking for people who do not normally fit into things,” Mirkin says of the show’s writing staff in those early years. “The point of view The Simpsons arrived at is very much of an outsider of society—looking back at society and hating it and putting it down, and pointing out that the world is a mess and that we’re all idiots. And that’s OK. We can still navigate our way through it, but let’s not pretend we’re not all idiots and let’s not pretend things aren’t a complete mess.”

“Rosebud” wasn’t the first time a Swartzwelder script drew a connection between Kane and Mr. Burns. In the second-season episode “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” (which Swartzwelder cowrote with Simon), Burns, who is running for governor, holds a political rally in front of a giant poster of his face, an echo of Kane’s gubernatorial run. When Burns loses, he feebly attempts to destroy the Simpsons’ living room in the same way that Kane trashed a bedroom after his second wife, Susan Alexander, leaves him. Other allusions continued through the years. In Season 4’s “Marge Gets a Job,” which is credited to writers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, Burns’s infatuated assistant Waylon Smithers performs a tweaked version of the movie’s song-and-dance tribute to Kane. Over an Instagram direct message, Oakley explained that the writers room, led by Mike Reiss and Al Jean, told them to include it.

Though Kane and Burns share the same first name and unmatched fortunes, there are also significant differences between the two. Besides the fact that Kane is a physically imposing figure and Burns can’t even win a tug-of-war with a baby, a key part of Kane’s trajectory is that he was once a champion for the working class. Burns holds no such sympathies. In the “Rosebud” flashback, when Burns is offered the choice to live with a “twisted, loveless billionaire” or stay with his caring birth family, he ditches his meager surroundings in an instant. “We made sure to show that Burns very quickly jumped at the opportunity to make the money choice over the emotional choice,” says Mirkin. “We wanted to make it clear that there are people like that. There are people that from a very, very early age are just ruthless and coldhearted.”

“Rosebud” may have had additional unintended effects on the extended Matt Groening universe. The episode ends with a flash-forward to the year 1,000,000 A.D. Earth has descended into a Planet of the Apes–esque dystopia. A once-again abandoned Bobo is recovered by Burns, his body a robotic skeleton and his head floating in a jar. “This is one of the things that inspired me to do Futurama,” Groening said on the episode’s DVD commentary. “Watching it, I went, ‘Oh cool, heads in jars. Let’s do that.’”

Decades removed from its series debut in December 1989, it can be hard to contextualize just how different The Simpsons was from not just everything else that was airing in prime time, but all other American animated television shows. Cartoons were made cheaply and with little sophistication. It hadn’t always been that way, and The Simpsons took inspiration from shows from bygone eras like The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends and Looney Tunes, which would include references and self-aware gags aimed at adults. But these nods to older viewers also had an appeal for curious youngsters who wanted in on the jokes. “It would make it so you watch the thing again and again,” says Mirkin. “You learn new things. The experience would get deeper and deeper, and burrow further into your brain.”

David Silverman and Wes Archer’s history animating The Simpsons went all the way back to the show’s beginning as interstitials on The Tracey Ullman Show. Between the two of them, they have 50 director credits on Simpsons episodes, and Silverman served as the show’s supervising director before helming 2007’s The Simpsons Movie. Even in the first season, they were incorporating cinematic visuals, like the end of “Life on the Fast Lane,” which Silverman took directly from the Richard Gere and Debra Winger romance An Officer and a Gentleman.

As the years went on, the animators would sometimes look to specific movies for inspiration, even when they weren’t mentioned in the script. Archer says for Season 2’s “Three Men and a Comic Book,” he studied John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur when staging Bart, Milhouse, and Martin’s treehouse fight over their shared copy of Radioactive Man no. 1. “Most TV viewers were not expecting a cartoon to have the directing ideas we deployed,” says Archer. “There was never any danger of appearing to just rip off a shot or appear predictable. Our shots were always adapted and recreated in our show style, and it was quite a lot of work.”

While writers can now directly insert links to YouTube clips into their scripts to explain what they want to mimic, early on The Simpsons animators had to do more of the legwork. “In those days we had to procure VHS tapes to scan through,” says Archer. “Other ideas that germinated from watching source material might make it into an episode’s layout.”

That was the case with “Rosebud,” an episode Archer directed. Some of the Citizen Kane callouts came directly from Swartzwelder, while others were conceived of by the animation team. “When it came to ‘Rosebud,’ we really went in,” says Silverman.

Archer now considers Welles “overrated as a filmmaker,” while Silverman describes seeing Citizen Kane in a high school English class as a transformative experience. “When I saw it, it just completely opened up my eyes the same way that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring opened up my ears when I first heard it,” he says. “To this day, I marvel at its staging, its use of shots.”

But even with its high-minded origins, one of the most cherished moments in both “Rosebud” and Simpsons history arrives when Homer sits down at the kitchen table in the middle of the night and eats 64 slices of individually packaged American cheese as Burns and Smithers try to surreptitiously steal Bobo. Then, at the most inopportune moment, the would-be thieves’ suction cups fail and they crash from the ceiling onto the floor. “We had times we tried to emulate Citizen Kane visuals, and there’s just some times where it’s straight up proscenium comedy,” says Silverman. “You put on your Orson Welles cap, and then you put on your Buster Keaton cap.”

Mr. Burns’s disastrous birthday celebration in “Rosebud” features a performance by the Ramones, the foundational New York City punk band. They start by telling the crowd that the gig sucks and end it by calling Burns an old bastard. It’s an inexplicable booking for the party and was an untraditional one for a hit TV show in 1993. When it aired, it symbolized a broader shift in who and what was being championed in pop culture. “In the ’90s and into the 2000s, the kids who had grown up with all that cool, edgy underground stuff of the ’60s and ’70s were now in these positions in companies where their influences was what was forming the new entertainment,” says CJ Ramone, the band’s bassist at the time and a huge fan of The Simpsons.

In turn, the outlook of that entertainment molded subsequent generations. Itzkoff of the New York Times grew up watching the early seasons of The Simpsons and considers it the go-to layer he uses to understand the world. His Twitter feed is filled with screengrabs from episodes that comment on the news of the day. “Rosebud” isn’t one he usually pulls from, but there is a moment in it that he’s often found applicable for our current times. Homer goes to Burns Manor to negotiate a price for Bobo’s return. Just after Burns says he can’t pay him much of a reward because he’s “strapped for cash,” the ceiling collapses under the weight of his gold coins, jewels, and fur coats. Without missing a beat, and with a crown resting on his head, Burns remarks, “As you can see, this old place is falling apart.”

“That is a perfect moment of in-your-face hypocrisy when it comes to money and resources,” says Itzkoff. “You can imagine how that is applicable in a lot of contemporary situations when someone is holding out on you.”

Orson Welles may have been a part of old Hollywood, but it makes sense that the same people at The Simpsons who would revere the Ramones would appreciate his transformational approach too. “From the time [Welles] was young and off Broadway, he did projects that were not the mainstream fare,” says Ray Kelly, the operator of the long-running web resource Wellesnet. “He was very much the prototype independent-filmmaker maverick. He was a showman too, he understood getting an audience’s attention.”

The innovations and approaches of Welles have attracted artists for decades. “It’s the genius factor,” says Philip Hallman, the curator of the Screen Arts Mavericks & Makers Collection at the University of Michigan. “I know that word gets bandied about a lot, but this guy before the age of 40 had really accomplished what so many people want to do. And yet he did it.”

Still others find Welles fascinating for what he didn’t accomplish, despite his obvious and pronounced abilities. “Rosebud” features a fantastic performance by Harry Shearer, who voices both Mr. Burns and Smithers. Aside from his long-running radio program Le Show, Shearer is an actor best known for his films with Christopher Guest. Shearer declined to be interviewed for this piece, but in a conversation with the website IGN from 2000, he said that his fantasy role would be to play Welles. Asked why he finds him intriguing, Shearer replied, “Missed opportunities. Wasted talent.”

Citizen Kane was legitimately sabotaged by Hearst and the apparatuses of the movie industry when it was released. Over the course of his career and until his death in 1985, Welles would see some of his movies changed without his input or left unfinished. That hasn’t dissuaded new waves of fans from finding him over the years; in fact, his complicated legacy and the allure of what could have been has probably made him even more interesting.

In the fall of 2018, Netflix put out The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’s posthumously completed final film. At that point, Kelly had run Wellesnet for nearly 20 years. With this landmark release, he started to think it might be time to shut down the site. The Other Side of the Wind was the last major work from Welles. All Kelly could foresee was a future of anniversary posts. Then in the summer of 2020, Logic released his album No Pressure, whose first and final tracks sample radio specials that Welles made in the 1940s. Kelly started getting emails from fans of the rapper who found his site and wanted more information. Then came Mank. “I have to admit that I thought interest would start to wane, and it hasn’t,” he says.

As for what Welles would make of these often unexpected tributes, Kelly recalls an interview the auteur gave to Playboy in 1967, “He once said to Kenneth Tynan, who was a great theater writer in Britain in the ’60s, ‘I have to be successful in order to operate. But I think it’s corrupting to care about success, and nothing could be more vulgar than to worry about posterity.”

The Simpsons may be the best cartoon to celebrate Welles, but it isn’t the only one. He’s been referenced in adored kids shows like Animaniacs, Tiny Toon Adventures, and Phineas and Ferb. There are plenty of paths to Welles, and many people have found their way to him through talking lab rats and jokes about nosebud. Is that a happy ending or a sad ending? As Marge Simpson might say, it’s an ending. That’s enough.

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

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