Mike Reiss’ new book, “Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons” is a biography and tell-all of sorts about his years working on “The Simpsons”, and much more. He’s honest, friendly, funny, and blunt when he wants to be in recounting stories from his career as a comedy writer. Reiss has earned 4 Emmy Awards for his work on The Simpsons, as well as an Edgar Award for “Cro-Magnon, P.I.” from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.
With the FOX buyout likely coming soon from Disney or some other entertainment mega conglomerate, his book couldn’t have come at a better time, it’s a chance to check in with one of the founding members of The Simpsons’ braintrust. I also got to ask about different phases of his career, including a couple other shows he’s worked on that have informed my love of comedy and storytelling.
FLIM Springfield: I know you wrote for “Sledge Hammer” early in your career as well as “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”. Even though the shows were wildly different they’re both very experimental in how bluntly they handle their fictional world and use that to get laughs. Do you have any particular memories or thoughts about how those early tv writing experiences shaped your work (and your partnership with Al Jean who you were already writing with)? Did your skills and comedy style translate well from National/Harvard Lampoon?
Mike Reiss: Al Jean and I were both good at parody. When we wrote at the “Harvard Lampoon”, we did mostly parodies and at National Lampoon we did the same. Then very luckily we were able to wind up on a lot of jobs that involved parody, starting with the film Airplane 2. Sledge Hammer was a tv show that was parody of Dirty Harry movies, and we were able to do a lot on The Simpsons. Then when we created a show, we did “The Critic” because we knew we could fill it with movie parodies. We can do lots of other kinds of writing, we can write for people and emotions, but we’re lucky to do what plays to our strengths.
FS: I loved the breaking of the 4th wall and little touches of Magical Realism that popped up on both Sledge Hammer and It’s Gary Shandling’s Show. It’s a creative effect that can really make viewers sit up and pay attention, but mostly seems to relegate those kinds of shows to smaller audiences. Even in the first few years of The Simpsons, a cartoon that could literally do anything, the show tread lightly on how far it pushed conceptual boundaries. Do you have any thoughts on why tv audiences can be so resistant embrace magical realism, why they reject having the fiction of tv stories pointed out?
MR: The very earliest Simpsons episodes would have fantasy, flashback and that kind of thing and we saw that the public would accept those. If it became bigger in later seasons it was only because we saw that the public had no problem with Magical Realism.
MR: The movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” involves Ferris just breaking the fourth wall constantly and people loved it, it’s a classic. In my script for the movie “My life in Ruins”, that was a running thing in the movie, where the main character was always turning to camera and talking. And the star of that cut it all out and it so hobbled the movie, hurt the storytelling, hurt the humor of the piece. I wish we’d left it in. The people in charge are often resistant to it, but the public enjoys it. The great modern example is “Deadpool”. He just keeps reminding you you’re watching a movie, but it never takes you out of the film.
FS: I’ve read that in the 90s you had production deal with Walt Disney Company for a few years that was kind of rough—Do you cover that in your new book at all?
MR: I had a production deal with The Walt Disney Company and it wasn’t a happy experience. Disney does great movies, and I love their theme parks but, at the time, 1998, they had a terrible television division: they meddled constantly in the creative process and never produced anything successful. If you read my book, there’s a chapter called “A Development Deal with the Devil” where I talk at length about the experience.
FS: Follow up, any thoughts on how things will go for “The Simpsons” and FOX now that it looks like they’ll be the new owners of the franchise?
“The Simpsons” has just had a very secure run making a show for Fox Studios, airing on Fox Network, and syndicated on Fox Stations. It was beautiful synergy and we just don’t know how that’s going to change under new ownership.
FS: So, you spent a few years at “The Simpsons,” co-created “The Critic”, and “Queer Duck”. All shows you’ve worked with some iconic actors who have one-of-a-kind voices—Shandling, Bullock, Kavner to name a few. You can hear their voices just by saying the name. Do you ever find yourself thinking in the voice of the character you’re writing for—or when it gets hard to do, do you have a trick to find your way back to it? Or is it just a real benefit to working with a team of creators who can help with that?
MR: I don’t think in the characters voices. It’s still just a job, I’m still writing, I never go into character or anything like that. I think that’s a romantic notion.
MR: My one experience like that was writing “Queer Duck”. For some reason those characters spoke to me, and every day I would wake up excited to see what they’d do next. There was something about the nature of that cartoon and the characters that made it fun for me. Because it was the first first gay cartoon ever, everything was wide open and I could do everything new again. We are so hemmed in on by our past on “The Simpsons” and that was not a problem on “Queer Duck”.
FS: As a follow up to that—and I’ll approach this cautiously—I’ve heard you say on Simpsons’ commentary tracks that you weren’t happy with The Critic as a project. The cast was great, the animation was distinct and beautiful, the stories were a riot, but it didn’t last. It’s fondly remembered by everyone now, but looking back on it do you have any kind of an A-HA realization. “It would have connected with audiences IF . . .”
MR: I was not happy with “The Critic”. I’m glad it’s so popular, and watch it again and I see that its funny, it’s definitely funny but that’s it. I don’t think it’s well designed, because it was designed by committee. I don’t think the plots are that good, the characters lack the of depth of—let’s say—Simpsons characters. And it’s rarely touching, reaching the emotions the way “The Simpsons” has. I’m delighted people like it, I’m glad it’s so funny, but I wish it had been more than that.
FS: I didn’t realize you had written so many children’s books? It must be a nice change of pace to have control of a whole story and world, compared to the hoops you have to jump through in movie and tv production. In a case where it’s just you and a single artist, where do you like to go—What grabs you about writing children’s books?
MR: I love writing children’s books, I’ve written 19 of them. And yes, I like ‘em because I can just write them and they don’t take that long and they’ll either publish them or they won’t. They meddle very little in it. But he choice of illustrator is entirely up to the publisher. There’s a chapter in my book called “The Sleazy Nasty World of Children’s Books” where you can see all the answers to this.
MR: In terms of illustrators, I have no input on Illustrators or illustrations, I sell a manuscript and then see I the book when it comes out. And in 16 out of 19 books I wish I had just a little input so I could have fixed things that were done incorrectly. It’s a crazy way to do the business. One gentlemen has illustrated 7 of my books and I’ve never met him. I don’t know who he is, or where he lives.
FS: What would you call the Mike Reiss zeitgeist? When people say “Get me Mike Reiss NOW!” or “This needs more Mike Reiss!” What are they asking for? Is the answer to that in “Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons”?
MR: I’m a guy who brings the funny. I can do other things, I can write heartfelt, I can grapple with big issues. But people come to me and they want parody, and they want silly, and they want jokes in vast quantities and that’s what I give them. That’s the work I’ve done uncredited on 24 animated films.
FS: As an atheist, what are some words to live by?
Mike Reiss: lot of people think atheists live in the dark amoral world, but it’s just the opposite: we believe this is the one chance we have in life, so we better be nice on this go around. If people are suffering you better help them now because there’s no afterlife where they’ll get a better shake when they die. Be good to everyone now, be a nice person, because we only have each other.
Flim Springfield: Thank you Mike for giving us your time. We earnestly recommend that Simpsons fans pick up or download a copy of the new book, it’s great Summer reading. And fans, Check out some of the other stories Mike Reiss has told on tv, film and books too, you’ll get a laugh, enjoy how inventive they are, and appreciate the escape.