-By James J.M.
Walking into a crowded lecture hall, at the podium stood a dark-haired, kind-looking Mike Reiss—a writer, producer, and former show-runner of the celebrated longest running animated series, The Simpsons. Patiently waiting for the excited audience to simmer down, as Reiss began to speak, the scene couldn’t help but remind me of the opening credits of the show, wherein the clouds clear to an angelic harmony whispering their name, quickly thrusting the audience into the quirky, fascinating world of Springfield, USA. Now, as we all sat patiently waiting to hear a rare glimpse at the behind-the-scenes moments of one of television’s most iconic shows, the clouds seem to clear as Reiss began to offer a truly special glimpse into the world of The Simpsons, and the minds and efforts of its creators, whose wit and passion have made this show into one of the most globally influential and culturally significant feats ever created. Growing up, the Simpsons was a staple in my daily life. Before dinner every night, my brothers and I delighted in the offbeat, clever antics of Homer, Bart, Marge, Lisa, and the hundreds of lovable minor characters whose roles, although seemingly unimportant, are fundamental in shaping the timelessness of the show. As the years went by, the comedy of the show became so intertwined in my own sense of humor that at times, my brothers and I could carry an entire conversation wholly composed of the outrageous dialogue of which the show has created so well. This dysfunctional family, in essence, became part of my own. Yet this sense of connection with the show is not isolated just to me, as 23 years, a feature-length film and nearly 500 episodes from its inception, the Simpsons’ cultural importance, marketability, and undeniable humor only continue to grow. The show, broadcasted in over a dozen languages, contains comedy, plot, and character growth that is universally loved and appreciated. Although the show’s producers now enjoy the benefits ofa show that has netted over three billion dollars (US) in profits, they are still humble in their approach and their continued detail to storyline. The satirical wit, brilliant plotlines and continued detail in developing their characters are unwavering, as even after nearly a quarter of a century, the writers, producers, and animators of this series truly care about the show. In the episode, “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” the closing scene depicts the four members of Homer’s quartet projecting a number loudly on the roof of their favorite bar, Moe’s Tavern. Alluding to the Beatles’ 1969 performance atop the Apple Corps building, as they sing, George Harrison drives by, rolls his window and proclaims, “It’s been done!” These are men writing one of the most popular shows of all time, but still they find time to make fun of themselves. With this, the writers seem to poke fun at their own place as a legend of pop culture – true modesty even in success.
I was able to speak with Mr. Reiss after his lecture, making sure to ask him many of the questions myself like other the Simpsons’ fans have been wondering all these years.
J: you said in an interview, in I think 91, that this show was a grenade that sent shrapnel in all directions. You had such a passion about it at that time when you first started writing, that I just wanted to know, what was your mindset in the earliest seasons, working with these guys like Al Jean, doing this stuff for the first time? What did you want out of the show?
Mike Reiss: When we started the show, we thought that it was going to last 6 weeks. We thought–6 weeks–nobody would watch it. It was just a summer job for me. And I think that shaped the show. We said, “let’s just entertain ourselves because no one is going to watch this.” You have to remember, there hadn’t been an animation in primetime for 30 years, not since The Flintstones. And this was maybe the second or third year of the fox network, no one knew if the network itself would be there from year to year. So we were really just having fun. Especially since we had a bunch of different friends who were doing tv shows, and whenever anyone tried something a little quirky, a little off beat, it was gone in 6 weeks. So that was it—that was our motivation; that was our mentality.
J: With all the writers, is it evident when you watch an episode who wrote what joke, or what scene?
M: No it is not.
M: No, you can’t tell. The only weird thing, if you listen to DVD commentaries, if you work on the show, I mean, I ran the show for a couple of years…
J: [Seasons] 3 and 4 right?
M: Exactly! And I’ll watch those shows, and I can stop it and say, “That joke was written at 11 at night. And that one was written at 1 in the morning, and that joke, nobody liked it but me, I had to fight to get that in.” You know, when you’re running the show, it becomes very intensive, but just to watch it you really have no idea who did anything. And especially now, with 23 writers, there’s no way to tell. Nobody has a trademark or anything like that.
J: 23 writers! Is there anyone brought in just specifically so that you don’t overlap with what you’ve done in past seasons?
M: No! What’s funny is that there’s this one guy, I always call him ‘the young guy’ the young guy on the show, who keeps us honest and the young guy who grew up watching the show…well the young guy’s 32 now, he’s not young at all! I was running this show when I was 28! But, no. There’s nobody. What helps is that [current show-runner and original writer] Al Jean is just this brilliant genius. He was my writing partner for years, and he just has this steel-trap memory, and we’ll do a joke and he’ll say, “Wait. This sounds like something that we did 19 years ago.” and he’ll say to the typist, “Can you pull up episode 7F12?” and we’ll pull it up, and he’ll say go to page 14, and—he really does this!—and we’ll go ‘”Oh there’s the same joke.” That’s why he’s so great for running this show, with this fantastic memory.
J: That’s awesome. You can tell in the episode where Bart gets an elephant, there was another one years later where the elephant comes back at Apu’s wedding I think, and someone says “wait didn’t we already have an elephant?” And there were two episodes where there was a horse involved, and you caught on to the [reoccurrence] really well.
J: There’s hundreds of characters. I think there are 200 recurring characters on this show.
M: Yeah, that’s the number I go to…
J: There’s probably more than that! When writing an episode, how do you form these characters? There are some really great characters that have come out of one episode and they will have such an impact on people that people will remember who they are ten years later.
M: Very often, when we think of a character, it’s often just a minor character from a movie. We’ll just take a character. A good example is Gil.
J: Gil Gunderson!
M: Gil Gunderson is just Jack Lemmon in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s an obscure enough steal that we just made him our own. And Fat Tony has these two henchmen who we just lifted right out of Goodfellas. We do that a lot. The other way characters come out is that we’ll just have a vague notion for some guy, and we’ll say, “here’s the character” and we’ll hand it to one of our actors and they’ll throw a voice at it that we didn’t se coming. He’ll just say, “here’s the voice that should go with this dialogue” and then the animators will get it next and say “well here’s what that guy should look like.’” And it really grows. The characters become so much fuller fledged than when we write them. A perfect example is Comic Book Guy. He just had like 2 lines, and then Hank Azaria did that weird voice that I think is [based off] his old college roommate. It was such a minor part. Then the animators just drew the millions of guys they knew that were like that and then all of a sudden it’s like hey here’s this beautiful, kind of fully realized character.
J: Is there any character that you would say you specifically formed and shaped to your liking?
M: Well a great example of this is a, well…I’ll tell you a longer story if you don’t mind. We used to do Ralph on the show, right? And Ralph was there and he would say these weird sorts of aphorisms and non-sequiturs and we hated it! We started hating Ralph and we said, “oh it’s too easy to write, it’s too stupid,” and we cut him. There were two or three years where there was no Ralph on the show. And then I started doing public speaking and I went to colleges and everyone just wanted to know about Ralph, and everyone’s favorite lines were Ralph lines! So I went back The Simpsons and I said, “People love Ralph! We gotta start putting him back!” And after that he’s been in every single episode.
And I finally said to Al [Jean}, “Who created Ralph anyway?” and he said “You did!” I had no memory of it but we created him in this episode, but he was supposed to be a mini-Homer. We called him Ralph after Ralph Kramden, after Jackie Gleason on The Honeymooners. He was supposed to be this tough stupid guy, but somehow he just developed in to this brain-damaged Buddha character.
J: So it’s been 23 seasons, and after all this time, the relevance and the wit and the storylines haven’t gotten old. What has attributed to that, and what do you think that it’s been 23 years and you can still do that?
M: I’m super impressed by it! I’m with everyone else–there were times I thought we were really running out of steam. But the two things that helped are that for one, our writing staff exploded. We did the show for years with six writers, then eight writers, and now we’ve got 23. Somebody told me it’s actually 27. And that’s just the giant help to spread the work around. When there’s so many writers, everybody gets their own episode and you go, ‘well gee, this one’s gotta be good, this is the only shot I have this year.’
And the other thing that helps the show is we draw on what’s going on in the world. 10 years ago, with 9/11 and George Bush and the world wide economic collapse, the world went completely nuts. The world completely fell apart, and that’s been good for The Simpsons. That really revitalized the show. So the worse the world goes to hell, the better the show’s gonna be.
J: Do you think you’ve drifted into more political episodes because of that? Or, episodes with a meaning, something you want to prove?
M: Yeah, I think there are a bunch of issues that really offend us in the news. They seem so ludicrous to us that we like to jump on them. But I always say, this show isn’t topical. We can’t do anything about Herman Cain because by the time it airs, no one will remember Herman Cain. But there’s bigger issues that really just nag and won’t go away, so we know we can make fun of them.
J: You’ve done a lot of other things too. You’ve written for movies as well. Which movies did you write for?
M: I’ve contributed to a lot of movies. Sometimes I get credit, sometimes I don’t. All the Ice Age movies, Despicable Me, and this thing Rio that just came out. Thanksgiving night I wrote the Ice Age Christmas special. And it’s a fun job where I don’t write the scripts, but I rewrite them. Wherever I’m traveling in the world, like Dubai, they’ll just email me scenes and go, “Can you make this funnier? This isn’t playing with an audience.’” So it’s a fun way where I know I’m not being that original but I know I’m helping.
J: So, final question, back to The Simpsons, I always wanted to ask, why did Bart’s ‘bad boy’ persona change as seasons went on?
M: We almost ran out of ideas for Bart. We just couldn’t relate to him. We were all more like Lisa in those days. Then we grew up, and all of a sudden we were Homer.