Mike Reiss may live in New York, but for most of the past thirty years, his true home has been the geographically paradoxical town of Springfield.
Having written for The Simpsons off and on since the show’s premiere in 1989, he’s helped guide Homer to the perfect muumuu, pitted Bart against the continent of Australia, and forced Sideshow Bob to navigate his way through an endless sea of rakes. Along with fellow Simpsons legend Al Jean, Reiss also served as showrunner for the series’ fourth season — a run of episodes that includes perennial classics like “Kamp Krusty,” “Marge vs. the Monorail,” and “Mr. Plow.”
In his recently released memoir, Springfield Confidential, Reiss gives an insider’s account of the show, from the frustrations of co-developer Sam Simon over the media’s refusal to acknowledge his contributions to how exactly Michael Jackson’s legendary appearance as mental patient Leon Kompowsky came to be. He also recalls his time as a co-creator of the cartoon cult-classic, The Critic, and reflects on the nuance of writing jokes for animation.
Ahead of his appearance this Thursday at the Contemporary Jewish Museum as part of the 2018 Litquake Festival, Reiss spoke with SF Weekly about the show’s penchant for predicting the future, the time they almost got Prince to appear in an episode, and the weirdest item of Simpsons’ bootleg merchandise he’s ever seen.
I’m speaking to you the morning after the premiere of the 30th season of The Simpsons. Does the staff still do any special to commemorate milestone moments?
It’s definitely business as normal. It’s a factory, and we make a product. That said, it’s nice to have some reason to get people excited again, to get them interested. The funny thing is, when we had our 25th year, I thought it would be huge, but it just kind of came and went. There was really no big fanfare about it.
As a veteran joke writer, you don’t shy away from messing with readers in your book. It’s pretty clear when you’re telling tall tales and when you’re dishing the truth, but there’s one thing I have to fact-check: Did the real-life radio shrink you based the character of Marvin Monroe on actually commit suicide?
That’s absolutely true. I won’t mention his name, because it may be a little painful to be his family, but he was a very prominent L.A. radio shrink who killed himself.
Who died first — the character or the actual person?
I think that’s another case of The Simpsons predicting something.
I know any show that’s on for 30 years is going to get it right sometimes, but what do you guys make of the articles you can find that list all of the stuff The Simpsons has supposedly predicted?
I think we’re of two minds on this thing. One is that yes, the odds are if you just keep babbling for 30 years, you’re going to get something right. The other thing that nobody gives us credit for is that every once in a while, a prediction comes out that we made that’s correct, and it’s because we did a little homework. There’s an episode [“Elementary School Musical”] where I think the three bullies are debating who is going to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, and they got it right. They got it right in the episode, and to me that’s a great prediction that nobody has cited. We got it right because we did a little hard research, handicapping who would win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Even Trump. Calling Trump “president” sounded like the craziest non-sequitur in the world, but I think he’d even talked about running for president a couple of years before, so it wasn’t just a completely random, oddball choice.
One aspect of your book that I found fascinating was the revelation that the episode “Flaming Moe’s” is a reflection of co-developer Sam Simon’s resentment that Matt Groening was getting all the acclaim in the series’ early years.
There are a couple of things in the book that, as far as I know, nobody knew until I opened my big mouth. There’s also the fact that Jimbo the Bully is named after James L. Brooks. That was just sort of an inside joke. I don’t know that Matt Groening ever realized that the “Flaming [Moe’s]” episode came from Sam’s resentment. It’s in my book for the first time. I hope he doesn’t mind.
Well either way, you definitely make sure to give Sam a lot of credit in your book. I confess that while I’ve seen his name in the opening credits a million times, I wasn’t aware of the role he played in shaping the series.
I always used to picture The Simpsons in those early days as a troika. There were three horses pulling it, and they were all pulling equally. Literally all of the attention went to Matt Groening, and I think there was residual attention paid to James L. Brooks because of his impeccable track record, but it was three of them. It was three of them. The show wouldn’t be the show without all three of those guys working together.
You also mention that at some point, you guys wrote an episode where Prince visits Springfield, and the idea was that Leon Komposky would return but this time he thinks he’s Prince. After Prince turned the script down, what happened to it? Is there some mythical vault of unproduced Simpsons scripts somewhere?
Anytime something like this comes up, Al Jean — the showrunner — goes, ‘It’s in my garage somewhere.’ That’s all I know. I don’t know if he actually files away all these old, unproduced scripts, but I guess Al kept everything. He makes it sound like he has a garage like Citizen Kane. I don’t know how big it is, but somewhere in there, someone could find that original script. There’s also an extra wrinkle, which I don’t think I mention in the book.
We wrote the script for Prince. We sent it to him, and he wrote back — or his management wrote back. They said, ‘We love it. Here’s what we want Prince to be wearing in every scene.’ It was just a list of costumes, like ‘On page 35, he’ll wear this and on page 48 he’ll wear this gold mesh vest.’ We’re looking at the note, and the page numbers didn’t correspond with anything in the script we had sent them. It turns out that someone, independently, on the outside, wrote a script about Prince coming to Springfield, and that’s the one he liked. So we told them that it wasn’t our script and we weren’t going to use it. When he read the script we did want to do, he turned it down.
In addition to your work on The Simpsons, you and Al Jean also created The Critic, which was an amazing, if short-lived, show. Reading your book, I was really surprised to learn that there was so much resistance from The Simpsons writers when it came to the crossover episode where Marge invites Jay Sherman to be a judge at the Springfield Film Festival.
What can I say? Literally, it’s no joke to say that there were two rough patches in 30 years at The Simpsons. It’s such a happy, frictionless machine, but there’s that first chapter, talking about Matt Groening and Sam Simon not liking each other, and then it’s this Critic crossover. I think I even said this in the book: it was contentious for about a day and a half. I think on any other show, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but it was really the last conflict we had on The Simpsons. We had a bad day and a half 25 years ago.
You talk about how, to this day, people still tell you and Jon Lovitz that they wish The Critic would come back. When the show was ended after 23 episodes, did you and Al have any idea that fans would still be mentioning it nearly 25 years later?
You know, we thought it would be a hit when we made it. We thought people would like it, so we were caught off-guard by how quickly it fell apart and how the public didn’t embrace the show. It’s nice that there’s a cult following. The dedicated cult following shows me why the show failed in the first place. It appeals very strongly to a very select audience. If it had come along now, I’m sure it would’ve had much more of a successful run. Nowadays, you don’t need a huge audience; you just need a very reliable, passionate audience.
Right, as evidenced by something like Rick and Morty on Adult Swim.
I’m not sure if this is in the book, but when we were making The Critic, we put six movie parodies in every episode. About halfway into it, we read an article that says the average American sees one movie a year, and we went, “Uh-oh!”
It’s interesting, because I was pretty young when I saw those episodes air for the first time, and I must’ve missed the vast majority of the jokes but I still thought it was hilarious.
It’s a lesson you learn over and over in writing: People don’t have to get the jokes to like the jokes. Even kids can kind of spot where the comedy is and they can be tantalized by something that they’re not getting. They know something is going on there. It’s the same way with how I just loved Rocky & Bullwinkle. All of those jokes were flying over my head, but it didn’t matter. I knew it was funny and I knew there was a little more there than meets the eye.
You and your wife have done a ton of traveling, and I love the anecdotes in your book about seeing The Simpsons in all these unexpected places across the globe. Do the writers ever worry about whether a joke will translate, knowing you have an international audience?
We write it exactly the way we’ve always written it. We sit in a small, depressing room making the show. We don’t think of the world at large one bit. We don’t even think, “Will they get this in Texas or Ohio?” We just write the show we want to write. That’s always been the strategy, and it works pretty well for us. Frankly, I don’t get the overseas following. I get it in English-speaking countries, but I’ve seen this over and over. All over South America — those are our most impassioned fans. It was Bolivia in particular. I went to Bolivi,a and the show was on all day long. Everybody was watching. I saw old Mayan women watching it on little black-and-white TVs. I don’t know what they’re getting out of it. I don’t know why they relate so strongly, but they really love it.
In your time abroad, have you come across any truly outrageous Simpsons bootleg merchandise?
The best thing I ever saw was in China. Someone asked me to autograph this boxed collection of every season of The Simpsons on DVD. It was beautifully packaged, and it went up to whatever the current season was, and, you know, those seasons are not out on DVD in America. Somehow they were in this thing, but it wasn’t cheesy packaging. It had beautiful Simpsons art and a handsome box. It looked like the box that a high-end game comes in. So, yeah, the Chinese are doing great work ripping us off. I really applaud their effort.
The worst one was a shirt — I was just in Nepal, and somebody gave me this T-shirt of Bart Simpson climbing Mt. Everest. You’d just have to take their word for it that it was Bart Simpson — it’s just this weird, yellow thing and he’s got his tongue hanging out for some reason. It looks like his throat has been cut. That may be the worst one I’ve ever seen.
The devotion to The Simpsons from fans, me included, is pretty insane. Here in San Francisco, we actually have a bar that hosts a ’90s Simpsons trivia night once a month. They’ve been doing it for five years.
I have friends who roped me in as a ringer for a pub night because they always ask Simpsons trivia. I’m there on their team and a Simpsons question came up and I had no idea what the answer was. It’s very, very flattering. The Simpsons people all appreciate the devotion of the fans and the people who know the show much better than the people who make it.
Mike Reiss, Thursday, Oct. 18, 6:30 p.m., at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission Street. $15-$25; 415-655-7800 or thecjm.org