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The Simpsons, Red Hat, and Open-Source Development


What do The Simpsons and Red Hat have in common? Well, almost nothing on the surface.

You might be able to imagine Lisa working on a green-technology, open-source project or Homer going into a panic because his Linux/Unix computer might turn him into a eunuch but that’s a real stretch between America’s favorite dysfunctional family and most popular Linux operating system. That didn’t stop Red Hat from bringing Joel Cohen, the Simpsons‘ co-producer, to speak to the Linux giant’s partners and developers at this week’s Red Hat Summit. And you know what? It turns out there is a real connection between The Simpsons and open-source.

Red Hat somehow resisted the temptation to draw a connection between the Simpsons’ episode, The Last of the Red Hat Mamas and Red Hat. Instead, they used the flimsy excuse that Cohen’s appearance at the trade show that the Simpsons creative team had used RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) to create fast drafts of scenes for 2007’s The Simpsons’ Movie. That’s not much of a real connection between Simpsons and Linux either.

But there is a real link between them. That link is in how both are created.

Cohen explained that while The Simpsons is produced by a small group of dedicated writers who will work on a story for about nine months. During that period, someone will have come up with the original idea but then, “If even 5% of the original script makes it to the screen, that’s a real success.”

Why? Because just like open-source development, the writers/developers are always taking the basic ideas and constantly improving and fine-tuning. It’s not enough to have a great joke, it has to be a great joke that works with the story as a whole, and best of all, an even better version of the joke you started with.

In addition, they writers try to check their egos at the door. Ideas get into the final project, uh episode, not because of who’s idea they are, but because they’re the best idea. Just like in open source, it doesn’t always work that way, but like open source, the goal is always to produce the best possible material.

The Simpsons, according to Cohen, is also successful because its these developers—read writers—that get the final say on the story. Unlike most television show writers, the Simpsons staff isn’t bombarded by network management notes and tweaks. They’re free to do the story the way they want to do it instead of the way middle management wants its done.

The results? Well, The Simpsons is still pretty darn funny and Linux is still constantly improving. As for those other methods of writing and developing? Two titles: Suddenly Susan, a television series Cohen worked on and hated, and Windows Vista. I think the results speak for themselves.

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