Loni Steele Sosthand AB '88 is currently a Co-Producer going into her third season on THE SIMPSONS. Prior to that, she was partnered with Jim Hope as Consulting Producers on Nickelodeon's COUSINS FOR LIFE. Loni has written for various multi-cam family comedies including LAB RATS, DOG WITH A BLOG and BEST FRIENDS WHENEVER. Loni also co-created, co-wrote, and co-produced KATRINA, a half-hour dramedy pilot for The-N (Teen Nick), executive produced by Warrington Hudlin. Loni is a graduate of Harvard University where she wrote a novel for her honors thesis. In addition to her writing life, Loni lives in Santa Clarita with her husband, a Stunt Coordinator/Stuntman, her ten-year-old triplets, two dogs, and one very abused minivan.
Q: Congratulations on your recent trailblazing episode of The Simpsons, the first-ever episode featuring the use of ASL and the show’s first-ever deaf voice actors. How did you end up as a writer and executive story editor on the show?
Well… it was the summer of 2020, and our family, like most, was in the thick of pandemic related stress. My husband is a Stunt Coordinator and performer so his work is dependent on productions happening, and they were barely coming back. The few that were would require him leaving us for months of quarantine apart. Our triplets were going into the third grade and we were scrambling to figure out how to best assist their “at-home” schooling. Though I’d written on several multi-cam comedies over the years and built up my writer’s room experiences, I wasn’t staffed at the time. With three kids, a mortgage, grocery bills and so much uncertainty, I began doing some on-line writing tutoring and started a graduate program in Psychology, finally initiating the Plan B career. I hadn’t given up on my dreams, but I couldn’t just sit around and count on some out of the blue miracle like Al Jean and Matt Selman, the showrunners of The Simpsons reading my material (submitted by my agent), offering me a meeting and hiring me. Then, in a merciful twist of fate, that is what happened.
Q: What inspired the storyline of your episode “The Sound of Bleeding Gums”?
When I became a The Simpsons' writer, I really wanted to tell a Bleeding Gums Murphy story because I loved that character so much from when I was a kid. I’ve long been a jazz fan, and those early episodes with Bleeding Gums had such a delightfully bluesy sense of humor. Of course, in pitching any idea for the thirty third season of The Simpsons there is a great challenge to do something new, while still honoring the legacy of the show. So, in brainstorming ways to explore Bleeding Gums’ character with a fresh take, we talked about how Lisa might have missed out on some aspects of his life and not known her hero as well as she thought. That’s where the idea of her meeting his son, Monk Murphy, who happens to be deaf, came into play. My brother Eli was born profoundly deaf, and so it excited me to get the opportunity to pay witness to some aspects of the deaf experience in the Simpsons world, something that hadn’t been done before. My brother got a cochlear implant in his twenties and I was with him when he heard sound for the first time. There were many moments surrounding that miraculous change in his life that were full of bluesy humor that fit into the tone of those early Bleeding Gums episodes.
Because of my brother I was sensitive to how we represented this deaf character and knew we’d need a deaf voice actor for the role. When we were still in the outlining phase of the episode, I told Al Jean about John Autry II who I had in mind to play the role of Monk Murphy. I’d work[ed] with John over a decade earlier on a pilot I did for Nickelodeon when John was still a teenager. John uses total communication, meaning he both signs and uses oral speech to communicate and he also got a cochlear implant in his twenties. There is a moment in the episode when Monk gets his cochlear activated and hears the sound of his father’s music for the first time, and I think that John’s performance which draws on his personal experience, combined with the beautiful animation really makes it very poignant.
Q: What was it like to work with your brother, Eli, who voiced one of the characters on this project?
My brother and I have collaborated before on different projects and it’s an easy fit because we know each other so well. I showed him early drafts of the script, mostly to get his approval for elements of the story that borrowed from his life. There is a segment of the episode that shows how Bleeding Gums discovered that his son was born deaf that is directly drawn from how my parents discovered that Eli was born deaf. As a baby he was napping when my father dropped pots and pans near his crib and when he didn’t wake up from the clatter they knew he couldn’t hear. We animated [this] in the scene where Bleeding Gums comes home late at night with a bandmate who drops his cymbals in a loud clatter that doesn’t wake the baby. After the show aired my brother expressed how moved he was by seeing that moment represented on The Simpsons. So, when it turned out we needed one more deaf voice in the episode it made sense to cast him. He has, of course, bugged me ever since about when his character will return and perhaps carry an episode [arc].
Q: You talked a bit about the challenge of animating ASL for characters who only had four fingers– were there any other unexpected challenges or surprises that cropped up while you were creating this episode?
Well, the challenges of drawing the ASL were mostly taken on by our wonderful animators. I do believe one of the animators had some knowledge of ASL, but we also sent clips of their animatics to several ASL experts. I turned to two family friends: Michelle McAuliffe, a childhood friend who is a professor at Gallaudet, and Cindy Herbst, who is a professor of ASL and an interpreter at Cal State Northridge. Both these women were generous with their time and happy to help as we sent drafts of the animation to them and made slight adjustments. After the show aired I visited one of Michelle’s classes at Gallaudet (via Zoom) and it was a real honor to get to meet with her students and get their feedback. I was deeply touched by what it meant to them to see ASL on The Simpsons, and I was also happy to hear their pitches for how to do it even better and more often.
Q: How is writing for animation different from writing for human actors, if at all? Do you like one more than the other? Do you find writing for animation to be easier because cartoon characters have more flexibility in terms of what they can be made to do?
I just love how patient the process is in animation. It takes about a year from the original pitch to the airing of an episode, so there are a lot of opportunities to make improvements. I love the collaborative discussions with the animators that come after the table read. For example, for this episode I was able to send them many images for how to draw Monk’s hearing aids and later his cochlear implant. And the moment when Monk gets his implant turned on for the first time is illustrated to show the musical notes coming off of his father’s album, entering the cochlear implant, and then lighting up Monk’s brain with memories and images of his father. This is a beautiful moment conveyed through animation, that could only be drawn.
Q: In what ways did your time at Harvard influence the path you have taken since graduating?
I went to Harvard knowing that I wanted to be a writer, but I had no idea I’d write for television. At the time my ambition was to be a novelist. I took as many creative writing classes as I could and got to study with Jamaica Kincaid and Jill McCorkle. I was able to do a novel as my creative writing thesis and I went on to graduate school in the MFA program at UC Irvine. As I struggled to finish the novel, I began writing scripts on the side just for fun. Eventually the form of writing that I had the most fun doing took over the form I was most stressed about. I participated in writing workshops at Harvardwood that really helped me get my early spec scripts in shape. Those workshops were great opportunities to collaborate with other writers, many of whom have since gone on to have successful writing careers.
Q: What advice do you have for young aspiring comedy writers?
Get into or start a supportive writing group and use it to keep creating and revising your specs to get them in better and better shape. Rewriting is the main part of the job and collaborating is the other. So, getting to workshop your work in a group setting is really good preparation for the writer’s room.
Q: How do you like to spend your time when you’re not working?
When I’m not working it’s all about family time. Our triplets are now ten years old and we are just trying to savor this particularly fun time in childhood.
Loni's Simpson's episode of The Simpsons, "The Sound of Bleeding Gums", was released on April 10, 2022 and is available to stream now.