12 min read

"The Simpsons" Creator Travels Globe Saving Animals, Cheating Death

Sam Simon is typically identified as "co-creator of ‘The Simpsons,'" which is true, and people often like to go further, proclaiming him the real heart of the series, even though he left it long ago, in 1993. He's also had a startlingly long career in TV before that -- as a wunderkid showrunner for "Taxi," and a creative force behind adored, critical favorites like "Cheers," "It's Garry Shandling's Show," and "The George Carlin Show." But for the past two years he's been known as the TV genius who, faced with a brutal cancer diagnosis, decided to stop everything and devote his time and money to helping animals.

That's not entirely right, actually: His self-funded Sam Simon Foundation has been around since 2002, and has been harboring and training strays, to the tune of several million dollars a year (in a 2007 profile, "60 Minutes" called it "the grandest dog shelter in the country, a five star spread in Malibu"). He's a longtime supporter of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which named one of its anti-whaling vessels after him. But as his condition continues constant attention, he's stepped up his work -- and his wit -- with memorable tweets like this:

Simon in Taiji, Japan (photo by @MikkoAlanne)

And now you're just back from visiting Taiji, Japan, with the Sea Shepherd...

Sometimes people get frustrated with the Sea Shepherd Cove Guardian campaign -- they just want them to ram everything in sight [laughs]...

They do! I've heard people wonder why Sea Shepherd doesn't just drive right into the cove and end it.

But this [Sea Shepherd's live stream coverage of the dolphin hunt] really seems to be working, having it's broadcast all over the world when it happens. It's very hard for [the hunters] to deal with. And then there's an albino dolphin! This pathetic, blind, deaf creature that's captured the hearts of the world, that would probably be dead in the wild, and is probably going to may be dead in a few days anyway. And then they find out the mom commits suicide apparently. . .

[Note: Rumors swirled Saturday that the dolphin, named "Angel" by activists, had died in captivity, but those seemed to be debunked last night.]

Did you get to see the albino dolphin? I know you were trying to go to the Taiji Whale Museum...

They wouldn't let me into the whale museum. No Sea Shepherds are allowed. We brought in someone who went undercover and got some footage, but not sure what they're going to do with the latest video of the albino dolphin. The dolphins in captivity spend their lives in 20 feet of water, so they're covered with zinc oxide and sunscreen. Maybe the albino dolphin would have a chance in the wild, as far as not being destroyed by the sun. But in an outdoor tank at a dolphin stadium? I don't think that's going to work.

This was the first time you'd gone to Taiji for the hunt. What made you go this year?

I was invited to go this year by [Sea Shepherd's] Melissa Sehgal, who is just an amazing person, and one of the pleasures of being involved in animal rights is to meet people like her. They're so dedicated, so single-minded, they're pure in a way -- and I'm also talking about people like Ingrid Newkirk and [Sea Shepherd Founder] Paul Watson here -- it's a privilege and inspiration to be around them.

Simon with other Sea Shepherds in Taiji.

You've built a career on comedy, and animal activists are often portrayed as being incredibly humorless. Is that true?

It's funny that you mention that. I've been struck by the same thing, too. And there's no one with a better sense of humor than Ingrid Newkirk or Paul Watson. I know it's hard for people to believe. It's not like the individuals don't have a sense of humor. But I particularly think of that Sarah McLachlan video. Even I need to change the channel when I see that thing. It's asking you to to go down and pick up a dog at the shelter -- this is something that should be the happiest day of your life! I don't know, they must test this stuff, it must work. But there's a style to it that's off-putting. I have a radio show where we talk about this stuff and we don't do that. I think we're funny.

For people aware of your cancer diagnosis, the trip to Japan seemed like a great sign that you were doing well. Are you?

I'm at a good spot in my treatment. To be honest, I'm still recovering -- I still haven't gotten out of bed since I came back. And I think it was pretty grueling for everybody who went, which means I'm not sure I should be doing it. But I'd rather do too much than too little. And overall I think its very therapeutic to be doing things like this.

When did you get back?

I think we got back Thursday.

[We spoke to Simon on the following Monday evening.]

Well it's a tough trip. But your prognosis, originally, was . . .

Three to six months and I guess it's been about a year and three months.

That's incredible.

But it's very hard to get them to tell you how long you have. They don't like to give you the answer to that question. Look, I'm not complaining that [my doctor] got the answer wrong. He did ask me, the other day, if I've thought of leaving anything to [his university oncology department] in my estate planning. I'm not sure how to interpret that. [Laughs.]

Wow.

He admitted it was an uncomfortable conversation. [Laughs.]

I'm uncomfortable just hearing about it. But are you doing things you wouldn't do, were it not for the diagnosis?

The things I wouldn't be doing would be buying the zoos and the circuses. That's just a pleasure. One of our bears, Marley just had surgery. She had the exact same break on both her front legs, so someone clearly beat her with a pipe or something. . . I'm thrilled to be doing that, and I am going to continue doing that.

I just love when we let them go. It's a great thing.

Simon with Poppy the Grizzly, one of his rescued bears.

Is there any one thing you're still desperate to accomplish?

I don't think you can prioritize like that. I just have to be honest that the issue of animals in entertainment, it affects me in a way that's different than a lot of this stuff. Maybe I just feel like you don't need to do it to entertain people. But when I see Ringling Brothers, and I see SeaWorld. . . I know the orcas are not the biggest problem. But on an emotional level, they are with me.