Sunday, May 19, 2019

Al Jean…. D'OH!!

I’ve done 5 Sunday ‘profiles’ here of fairly well-known Web folks and wanted to go with something different for the next profile. So I found a mathematician who’s name might not be that familiar to many of you, even though his work likely is familiar.  If the name “Al Jean” doesn't ring a bell then how about the name “Homer Simpson”? Read on….

Al Jean was born in Michigan on January 9, 1961 (before the water there could mess with his brain... uhh, too much), making him over 8 in shaggy dog years. He shares a birthday with Richard Nixon and was born exactly 20 years after Joan Baez (you do all remember Joan Baez, don’t you?… the folk-singing daughter of the uncle of mathematician John Carlos Baez, who writes the blog Azimuth, and who, just to complete the circle, was also born in 1961, as was Barack Obama and Heather Locklear... so much for astrology).
Al’s full name is Alfred Ernest Jean III (not even a hint of comedic ring to THAT), and he has two children, Bart and Lisa… no, no, I have no idea what his children’s names are… but according to the last survey I could find (2018) the greatest probability, believe it or not, would be Liam and Emma (Bob and Mary having faded completely out-of-style, along with Beanie Babies).

In 1977 (while I was probably bussing tables somewhere), Jean tied for 3rd place in the Michigan Mathlete competition. He was a nerd from early on; indeed nerdy enough to go to Harvard at the age of 16 and graduate in 1981 with his BS in mathematics, at which point he apparently asked himself the question, “When will I ever use this stuff?” And his answer was, well, a little different from most…

It was also at Harvard that, with Mike Reiss, Jean honed his comedy chops working at the Harvard Lampoon. Then through the 80’s, instead of math jobs, he wrote comedy for a number of TV shows (including for Johnny Carson and Gary Shandling) before landing a job with an animated sitcom called “The Simpsons” in 1989 — a show not expected to last long that was merely destined to become America’s longest-running weekly TV series ever, D'OH!; yes, even longer than "Married With Children" (who knew!) — in the time since our nation has watched the Republican Party go from George H. W. Bush as President to deranged Donald Trump, the Simpsons have been gracing American living rooms (on the Faux Channel, er, I mean, Fox Channel) — now I’m not sayin’ the Simpsons had anything to do with that evolution (or degeneration) of the GOP, but still, there just might be a PhD. thesis for someone willing to investigate it further.
Anyway, The Simpsons are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year (way more than any current married couples will ever experience, although some car owners with Volvos may be able to relate), and Jean still works there. He says that what he loves about it is that, though it is a comedy show, it has “depth and warmth.” And heaven knows, mathematicians need as much depth and warmth as they can muster (as perhaps Doron Zeilberger would attest to?).

In the third season of The Simpsons Jean and buddy Mike Reiss were promoted to Executive Producers of the show and as Simon Singh put it they would “parachute their own mathematical jokes into episodes," as exemplified here:

And also on YouTube, "Mathologer" has done several videos on math bits in the Simpsons:

In fairness I should note that several of the Simpsons’ writers have strong math backgrounds, and I only picked out Jean because he had been with the Simpsons off-and-on since the beginning and has an actual mathematics degree. Some of the other writers possess mere physics degrees, and for all I know may even believe in the multiverse, LOL (may Karl Popper have mercy on their souls). With all that said, Sean Carroll has yet to write even a single episode of The Simpsons, apparently preferring to put his material on physics ArXiv. Go figure! (By the way, Stephen Hawking, having made multiple appearances on it, once called The Simpsons "the best thing on American television" -- of course, I s'pose some might say that restricting it to 'American television' is setting a low bar).

Jean has received eight Emmy Awards and one Peabody Award for his work on The Simpsons (several of them well-deserved), more, I'm pretty certain, than Pee Wee Herman ever got for Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Jean says that the Simpsons’ character he most relates to is Lisa, no doubt due to her rational, insightful, scientific mind… or, perhaps it’s just a simple case of gender dysphoria.
Anyway, I think Al’s career is itself a good response for whenever that pesky, sugar-infused 8th grader, with head cocked and eyes rolling, indeed asks, in Bart Simpson overtones, “But hey, WHEN will I ever use this stuff?” and you can then reply to the li’l ungrateful, hormone-awash twerp that he/she/they just might use it when they’re a head writer for the longest running, gosh-darn TV sitcom in the history of the Milky Way galaxy (or even the second longest)… or, you might alternatively use it when you’re figuring out how to fly a drone over the Principal’s house and capture some compromising photographs of he and Secretary Sweeney on their lunch hour… or, when you’re trying to scam the elderly, like your grandparents, over your smartphone, out of their entire life savings… there are just SO MANY lovely, practical day-to-day creative uses of mathematics (and we haven't even gotten yet to suppressing the vote in key electoral states/districts -- Republicans will pay you a pretty penny up front for that).

In any event, if you’ve never read Simon Singh’s book about math in the Simpsons it’s one of the most entertaining popular math reads of the last several years. It’s a little slice of nerd heaven, so check it out... at least it should hold you over while you're waiting for someone to explain, in English, Mochizuki's proof of the ABC conjecture.

Al has a Twitter account at @AlJean where you can join his other almost 40,000 6th-grade-level followers. I think Taylor Swift’s cat may have more followers than that, but it is waaaaay more than Donald Trump has if you eliminate all the phony Russian bots following him, and the real PGA members ("Pussy-Grabbers Anonymous") that revere him.

Almost a dozen years ago, when the Simpsons had only been around a mere 18 years, Jean was a guest on NPR's "Fresh Air" here:

...and here's another fine interview with him from a different site around the same time period:

So hey kiddies just keep in mind that demand for mathematicians in the future is expected to soar; it's one of the very best fields to enter these days, with so many areas requiring your talents: actuary, economist, cryptographer, financial planner, operations research analyst, statistician, investment analyst, insurance adjuster, programmer, data analyst/scientist, market researcher, engineer, teacher... AND, of course, comedy writer!!
So when you're sending out those applications to MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, and Pomona College, you may want to also be dropping notes to Seth Myers, Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, and Phyllis Diller's heirs (because eventually you're gonna have to pay all those student loans back!). Just saying....

Anyway, here's hoping The Simpsons are on for another 30 years, because my conjecture is that so long as Bart Simpson doesn't grow up, well then, neither shall I. D'OH!!

Prior Sunday profiles have been of: 


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