TV WRITERS CHANGE shows more frequently than most grade school kids change their dream job, which makes Mike Reiss something of an outlier. He started writing for the Simpsons during its first season in 1989 and still writes for it today. Reiss and his writing partner Al Jean’s run on the show is the stuff of legends, and now he’s sharing his behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the show in his new book Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons,” which he’ll be talking about at the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Book Festival on Saturday, November 3..
When Reiss first got the call to work on The Simpsons thirty years ago, he didn’t exactly jump at the opportunity. “It’s hard to remember what 1988 was like. There was no animation for adults on TV,” said Reiss on the phone from his home in New York. “Nobody had any faith in the concept of this. It was on the Fox network, which was brand new at the time.” Reiss had been working on Garry Shandling’s TV show when he was approached with the gig. “I was on a summer break (from “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”). I had three months off and they were just starting the Simpsons up… nobody wanted this job.”
Reiss and longtime writing partner Al Jean figured that since Garry Shandling’s show was one of the lowest rated shows on TV, they had nothing to lose. They took the job. Little did they know that thirty years later they’d still be plugging away at it.
“TV was very un-daring, un-experimental in those days,” said Reiss. “If you did a show that was sort of novel, and sort of interesting, you got canceled after six weeks.” The Simpsons, however, defied those expectations. “We went from nowhere to the biggest hit in the country in literally the half-hour it took to air the first show.”
The first season Simpsons writing staff was hardly a classic dream team. “Except for Al Jean and me, none of the writers had ever written a TV script before,” said Reiss. Yet despite their lack of experience, they somehow made it work.
After the first two seasons of the show had been completed, Reiss and Jean were asked to take over running the show. “It was an experience that started with fear and ended with misery,” recalled Reiss. “We were petrified. We had never run anything.”
Reiss and Jean found themselves putting in hundred-hour work weeks dealing with everything from music selections to editing decisions. After two seasons of the show, Reiss was happy to step away from the job. He and Jean had come up with an idea for a show of their own, a show that eventually became The Critic, starring Jon Lovitz.
An animated comedy about a curmudgeonly film critic named Jay Sherman who hates almost every movie he reviews, the show was a critical success but failed to catch on with audiences. “We put about six movie parodies in every episode, and while we were doing it we read an article in the paper that said that the average American sees one movie a year,” said Reiss. “And we went ‘holy cow! No one understands anything we’re writing about!”
Reiss believes the show was ahead of its time. “It very much fits the pattern of popular animated shows today, something like BoJack Horseman, where a show can be kind of dark and depressing and all that matters are the jokes.”
Even with his side projects though, Reiss quickly became a Simpsons lifer. He’s been there since the beginning and he sees value in that. “I always say I’m not the best writer, or the most prolific writer, but I’ve been there as long as anybody,” said Reiss. “I remember how an awful lot of things started that have now become iconic on the show, but they had to start somewhere.”
In Reiss’ book, he writes extensively about the episode where Krusty the Klown is revealed to be the son of an orthodox Rabbi. Reiss sees it as a pivotal episode in the history of the show, because of several things. It was one of the first episodes to focus on a peripheral character rather than one of the Simpsons. It established a precedent of exploring the religious lives of characters on the show. And it also featured a Talmudic debate written with the input of three Rabbis. Reiss also acknowledges that the episode rips off the plot of “The Jazz Singer.” “It’s always been a lousy movie,” wrote Reiss, “and yet the ending – where the Rabbi reconciles with his entertainer son – always works.”
Reiss is consistently amused by how much some people read into the Simpsons. “There’s no long-term thinking on The Simpsons. I read a lot of scholars and academics who are saying ‘you know they have this theme, and this overarching idea, and this is the philosophy of the show.’” And I swear to you, we have no philosophy at all. We’re just trying to make a funny show, and it’s written collectively.”
He also has no ego about the job he does. “It’s a twenty-two minute hole in the schedule every week that we just shovel jokes into until it’s full,” said Reiss. “So I feel that my job is closest to a grave digger, I think, or a guy who shovels coal on an old locomotive.”
Writing, to Reiss, is all about practice. “It’s something you learn by doing. People who write should just write a lot.” In fact, Reiss recommends that young comedy writers turn to the internet. “One of the easiest things someone can do now is start tweeting. They should start tweeting jokes and have a very pure Twitter feed. Don’t encumber it with a lot of photos of what you’re eating or your political views. Just put out a good joke or two every day. It’s such a great learning curve; you’re getting feedback from thousands of strangers.”
Reiss also believes in a reflective process when crafting jokes. “The very biggest rule of (comedy) writing, and it’s a very hard one to learn, is before you write any line, think ‘would I laugh at this?’ It’s very easy to write bad stuff, because you go, oh this feels like what I’ve seen; this feels very comfortable. Just take that one step back on every line.”
“Springfield Confidential” is actually Reiss’ nineteenth book. “I’ve written eighteen children’s books, including seven Christmas books, which is kind of funny for a Jewish guy,” said Reiss. “I have no children, by the way. This is my first grown up book.” It’s sure to be a treat for any fan of The Simpsons, as its filled with memories and fun facts, some of which even surprised current writers of the show. When Reiss pointed out to the show’s current crop of writers that there’s a visual gag in the show’s opener in which “The Simps” appears before the full name “The Simpsons” is spelled out in the sky, “nobody on staff had any idea it was there.”
More than anything, Reiss is grateful for the years he’s spent working on the show. “The show has succeeded and lasted so long because it’s an enormously pleasant place to be,” said Reiss. “The writers all really respect and enjoy each other. It’s not competitive, there’s no politics on the writing end. We all really enjoy our cast, they make us laugh. Our animators are very proficient and elevate the material we give them.
“I’m so fortunate to have landed into it, to have taken this job nobody wanted.”
Jonathan Maseng is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.