How 'The Simpsons' creators added COVID-19 masks to this year's 'Treehouse of Horror'

When the staff of The Simpsons sat down to write the thirty-first edition of the show’s annual “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween anthology in 2019, they knew that the 2020 Presidential election would be the scariest subject they could tackle. That’s why “Treehouse of Horror XXXI,” which airs Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. on Fox, opens with an election parody that’s not for the faint of heart. “We predict what will happen on January 20 if people like Homer don’t smarten up a little,” longtime Simpsons showrunner, Al Jean, teased during the all-star The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror at Paley Front Row 2020. “Amazingly, most of it was written a year ago, and all of it still seems true!” (Watch the panel above.)

Simpsons fans know that the show has a knack for seeing into the future, whether it was predicting President Donald Trump back in 2000 or calling the winners of multiple Super Bowls. But there’s one thing that the writers didn’t predict while writing their own 2020 election parody: that Americans would be casting ballots for either President Trump or Vice President Joe Biden during the midst of a deadly pandemic.

Luckily, the show’s lengthy production process allowed them to correct the historical record at the last minute. When viewers watch the “Treehouse” segment this weekend, they’ll see that Springfield has a coronavirus-era mask policy that everyone — except Homer, natch — abides by. “The masks came later,” Jean revealed, remembering how he asked the episode’s director, Steve Moore, to ensure that Springfield’s assorted citizens masked up. “We said, ‘Put everyone in a mask in Springfield except Homer.’ [The masks] look different on everybody. It was great.”

Hosted by Yeardley Smith, the voice of Lisa Simpson, the Paley Front Row 2020 panel allowed Jean and Moore — as well as executive producer Matt Selman and supervising director Mike B. Anderson — the chance to reflect on thirty years of “Treehouse” antics. The very first “Treehouse of Horror” aired on Oct. 25, 1990, and Jean remembers being uncertain of how viewers would respond at the time. “There was a fear that this is an animated show watched by children,” he recalled. “We were afraid people would be running away. In the first show, I don’t think anybody died. Now we have thousands!” And those are just the ones not wearing masks...

In honor of the 30th anniversary of “Treehouse,” here are some other tales about this horrifically hilarious franchise culled from the Paley panel and the Yahoo Entertainment archives.

“The Raven” is forevermore

Bart as Edgar Allen Poe's Raven in the very first 'Treehouse of Horror' (Photo: Fox/YouTube)
Bart as Edgar Allen Poe's Raven in the very first "Treehouse of Horror." (Photo: Fox/YouTube)

It’s hard to pick the single best “Treehouse of Horror” segment, but Smith has a go-to personal favorite. “I will never forget the parody we did of ‘The Raven,’” the actress says during the Paley panel, referring to the story that closed out the very first “Treehouse” anthology in 1990. “It was so beautifully animated and I just think at that time you hadn’t seen anything like that in animation.” Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment in March, Smith said that the original “Treehouse” still stands apart from the pack in terms of its scare factor. “It was dark,” she said. “It was sort of a parody of horror, but it was much edgier than the current ‘Treehouses of Horror’ that we do. They went to the mat.”

In a 2015 Yahoo Entertainment interview celebrating the 25th anniversary of the first “Treehouse,” David Silverman — who directed “The Raven” segment — said that he was specifically told to make their Poe homage funnier. “[Executive producer] James Brooks was like, ‘You need more jokes in this,’” he recalled. “So he threw out the idea of Bart as the Raven saying, ‘Eat my shorts.’ And I tried to find other places where humor could be added. I had a lot of fun coming up with interesting shots; one of my favorites is the Raven’s point-of-view of Homer as it’s flying around the room.”

Kang and Kodos, sittin’ in a tree(house)

Kang and Kodos appeared alongside Bob Dole and Bill Clinton on an election parody from the 1996 'Treehouse of Horror' (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection)
Kang and Kodos appeared alongside Bob Dole and Bill Clinton on an election parody from the 1996 "Treehouse of Horror." (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp./Courtesy Everett Collection)

Speaking of freaky elections, one of the all-time classic “Treehouse” segments aired a week before the 1996 presidential election that returned Bill Clinton to the White House over Bob Dole. In The Simpsons universe, of course, the real winners were slobbering aliens, Kang and Kodos. (In a more accurate sense, Kang was the winner and enslaved humanity as a reward.) The duo made their debut six years earlier in the “Hungry Are the Damned” segment of the original “Treehouse,” and quickly became popular with both audiences and the animators. “That’s the one I remember watching an early cut of and going, ‘Wow, that’s really funny,’” Jean told Yahoo Entertainment in 2015. “It set the tone for what followed.”

Simpsons cast members Harry Shearer and Dan Castellaneta have voiced Kang and Kodos since the beginning, although Smith believes that they switched parts somewhere along the way. “I believe they’ve swapped. One used to do Kang and the other Kodos and now vice versa.” By design, the aliens rarely appear outside of the “Treehouse” series and their origins — and even their gender — are constantly changing. “I think they were sisters as of last time, weren’t they?” Anderson said during the Paley panel in response to a fan question about how Kang and Kodos self-identify. “I think their preferred pronouns are ‘gleep’ and ‘glorp,’” joked Selman.

Jean, meanwhile, has other concerns on his mind. “If we identify what they are, are we gonna have to recast?” the showrunner said of Kang and Kodos — a knowing reference to this past summer when producers announced that white actors would no longer voice Springfield’s citizens of color in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd.

Next year’s ‘Treehouse’ will feature some parasites

Jo Yeo-jeong in the Best Picture winner
Jo Yeo-jeong in the Best Picture winner Parasite. (Photo: Neon / Courtesy Everett Collection)

Even as they’re preparing to launch “Treehouse of Horror XXXI” into the world, The Simpsons crew is already hard at work making “Treehouse of Horror XXXII,” which will hit the airwaves in October 2021. And next year’s episode will feature a segment inspired by this year’s history-making Best Picture winner from South Korean auteur, Bong Joon-ho. “We’re going to do a segment based on Parasite,” Jean revealed. “So we already have a great storyline that we’re just taking and converting into The Simpsons.”

“Treehouse of Horror XXXI” airs Sunday, Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. on Fox; past seasons of The Simpsons are currrently streaming on Disney+.

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