'Simpsons' writer on mining Ontario roots for '80s film, running afoul of Morrissey

TORONTO — Before he moved to the United States to become a comedy writer on late-night talk shows and "The Simpsons," Tim Long was a self-described nerd in an Ontario town dubbed "home of the white squirrel."

Exeter, Ont., has had so many white bushy-tailed critters — relative anomalies compared to their black and brown cousins — the town mascot is a giant squirrel named Willis the White Wonder, and the focus of an annual festival.

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Naturally, when Long loosely based his new Canadian comedy film "The Exchange" on his high-school years in 1980s Exeter, he couldn't resist setting the story in a fictional Ontario town that also celebrates the tree dweller.

"There were — someone will correct me on this — but probably about half-a-dozen white squirrels living in the town," Long, who's won five Emmy Awards for his work on "The Simpsons," said in a recent interview.

"The town song for a little while was called, 'White Wonder,' which was a song that needs to be heard to be believed. I've been looking for a copy of it; I can't find it. But it was by a band called Pete Snell and the Hometown Gentlemen, and it was fiendishly catchy and all about white squirrels."

Available in select theatres and across digital and on-demand platforms Friday, "The Exchange" stars Australian actor Ed Oxenbould as a socially awkward teen aptly named Tim Long.

Desperate for a best friend, Tim enrolls in a Canada-France exchange program, but is dismayed when the Parisian student turns out to be far cooler than he is.

Vancouver actor Avan Jogia plays the cigarette-smoking, cologne-wearing exchange student alongside "This Is Us" star Justin Hartley as an arrogant high-school gym teacher/part-time Ontario Provincial Police officer.

Other cast members include Paul Braunstein and Jennifer Irwin, who play Tim's parents and are now working with Long on a comedy series called "Cottage Country" set in Muskoka, Ont.

Dan Mazer directed "The Exchange," which was shot in Ottawa andAlmonte, Ont.

The Brandon, Man.-born Long moved to Exeter with his family around age four. Like Tim in the film, Long's dad worked in the tractor business, Long loved British '80s band the Smiths, and felt like "an alienated kid who's not as smart as he thinks he is."

Long also did a student exchange program, thinking, "If I can't make friends, I guess I'll import one."

But the biggest difference between his upbringing and the film is Exeter was "very accepting" and "pretty inclusive," says Long, unlike the fictional narrow-minded town of Hobart in the story.

"The point of the movie is to make fun of me and not make fun of Exeter," said Long, who's written for "The Simpsons" for more than 20 years.

"The place in this movie has as much to do with the town in 'Waiting for Guffman' as it does the real life town of Exeter."

Long has lived and worked in the United States for decades, with other credits including, "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Politically Incorrect" hosted by Bill Maher.

But his comedy material often incorporates details about his home country, and he's not shy to share trivia with colleagues on "The Simpsons" about Canadian quirks like bagged milk, and loonies and toonies.

"We've got three Canadians at 'The Simpsons' and so we form a little cabal and teach things like that to people," said Long, who started working on "The Simpsons" in 1999. The other Canadian writers on the show are Joel H. Cohen and Jeff Westbrook.

"There's a lot of weird Canadian stuff that we've talked about that people think we've made up.... When I came to the States to embark on a comedy writing career, I never thought I would be so Canada-obsessed. But it's a subject in one way or another that I keep returning to."

Another source of inspiration he's found himself returning to: English rocker Morrissey, lead singer of '80s group the Smiths.

Long incorporated the Smiths' music and band into "The Exchange" and wrote a recent episode of "The Simpsons" including a character "not entirely" based on Morrissey.

Long called it "a loving homage to Morrissey, for the most part, at least for the first couple of acts."

But Morrissey took issue with the episode, which aired in April, with his manager issuing a statement calling it "hurtful" and "hypocritical."

"Morrissey maybe wasn't thrilled about the character, and then the movie that I wrote also features not just music from the Smiths but also a scene involving the Smiths, and he's going to think, 'What is this guy's problem?'" Long said with a laugh.

"But if I ever meet him I'll have to tell him, 'We shot the movie two years ago, this was not a reaction to you.' I don't think he had any reason to complain from the first one ('The Simpsons' episode), but he has even less reason (with the film). It's just a kid who loves the band, like I did.

"I was a huge fan. I never thought in a million years I'd end up in a feud with the guy. But life takes some weird turns."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2021.

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