Mike Reiss of The Simpsons

Per Matt
This Fall, The Simpsons will begin Season 26, for the groundbreaking TV show, which has outlived many of its competitors and has become one of the greatest sitcoms of all-time. The Simpsons is already the longest-running scripted primetime show (as well as longest-running American animated show) on TV. Last season featured many great milestones for the show, including an entire episode created with LEGO bricks and the first anime-inspired episode. Mike Reiss has been a writer and showrunner for The Simpsons and appearing at Momocon, he discussed working on The Simpsons, reuniting with the original writer’s group, becoming a playwright and developing his children’s book into an upcoming holiday TV special.

In a Momocon panel, the entire cast of The Animaniacs paid respect to your work. What’s it like to hear that from such great talent?
– “It was ridiculous. You know, if I ever wanted to become famous, I wouldn’t have become a writer. I have become a writer because it’s quiet; it’s private work. It’s the greatest thing in the world. Anybody would want that… but I feel bad, because it’s really wasted on me. It’s a little embarrassing. The world is full of people who would really love that kind of attention and they’re not getting it.”

Generally, when you write, you don’t usually collaborate with other people?
– “I got into writing, because I was a really solitary kid and I didn’t have any friends. That’s what I thought the job would be. But then, for 16 years, I had a writing partner and we worked together. All the work in TV is done by a group. It’s done by six, eight, 10 people sitting around a table. That’s something you’ve got to learn.”

“I remember the first job I ever had, I got fired because I was too quiet. I couldn’t speak up in the room. I was too shy. I learned my lesson. I forced myself to be more social. You’d never know it, because I go up in front of hundreds of people every week and talk, but it’s just not my nature.”

What was that first TV show you worked on?
– “It was a sitcom called 9 to 5. I used to watch it. I was out of work. I didn’t know anybody living in LA, nothing was going my way. The only thing that got me through the week was watching the show, 9 to 5. It was the worst show I ever saw in my life. It was just jaw-droppingly bad. One day I get a call, ‘The producers would like to meet with you.’ I went in for the job interview, and they say, ‘We’ve never met a writer before who actually watched our show.’

I go into work at this show, and I thought, ‘The writers are going to be complete idiots,’ and they weren’t. They were great, smart and talented people… Sometimes a show is just rotten at the very heart of it and that was one of them. So, here I am, working on the worst show in history and I got fired from it. I wasn’t good enough to write for the worst show on television. It just never worked.”

In your panel, you mentioned reuniting with all the original writers of The Simpsons. How’d that go?
– “It was so much fun, this little Simpsons writers reunion. It was three or four days ago, this week. It was in LA and it was for a podcast. It was for a benefit, people paid to see us all. You know, we haven’t worked together in 20 years and when we sat down, everything came back. Everybody remembered every detail and who thought of what joke, 20 years ago. We were just having so much fun. Everybody was really funny. It was me, Al Jean, Jon Vitti, Jay Kogen, Wally Wolodarsky and Jeff Martin. The only two writers who weren’t there from the original show were John Swartzwelder (who never does anything in public) and George Meyer (who doesn’t live in LA anymore).”

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Last season, there was an entire Simpsons episode created with LEGO bricks. Was there a lot of wrangling to get their endorsement?
– “Yes. It was two years in the making. That’s another fantastic episode I had nothing to do with. I had no involvement in that. It was extremely expensive. We had to get money from LEGO to help produce the show. LEGO, like any corporation, was very protective of their brand. We wanted to make a lot of sassy jokes. They wanted to change the most extreme jokes a little. Obviously, they didn’t change it too much.”

What did you think of The LEGO Movie?
– “It’s the best movie of the year. It’s unbelievably good. It shows you what’s become of our culture, when the best movie of the year is this two-hour advertisement for a kid’s toy.”

You mentioned the proudest moment of your career was creating Queer Duck. Why that moment?
– “There’s a couple of reasons. One, it’s something I did on my own. As great as The Simpsons is and The Critic may be, it’s a group effort. I can’t say it’s great because of me, because if I didn’t exist, the shows would be exactly as good as they are. Queer Duck was something I dreamt up as an act of conscience. I did it in the year 2000 after I’d read an article in the paper saying, ‘There are no gay characters on TV.’ There are so many now, they are so common, you can’t believe there were no gay people anywhere on TV.”

“I worked on the show ALF, where everybody in the front office was gay. The writers weren’t gay, but all the production people were gay. They loved TV. They would all go over to each other’s house to watch TV. At least in my experience, gay people were such TV fans and yet they couldn’t see themselves on TV. I created Queer Duck and said, ‘Let’s give gay people their own Bugs Bunny,’ and they loved it. I did that thing for gay audiences and they so appreciated it.”

Last year, you mentioned an axed anime episode of The Simpsons. This year, one aired. Was this the same long-gestating episode?
– “It wasn’t exactly the same. We loved that (Treehouse of Horrors) segment so much and put so much work into it, it was just strange to lose it entirely. Mind you, the anime fans in the audience would have loved it, but an awful lot of America would have been scratching their heads. It was very understandable that we cut it from a Halloween show. Halloween shows are so high profile. So, we took it out of there, but we knew it was good and something special.”

Please tell me the anime-inspired Halloween segment was saved.
– “We never animated it. We just read it out loud at the cast table reading. Many, many people were baffled by it, that’s why we didn’t do it in that show. The basic concept of it, we wound up doing this year in episode where it fit in so beautifully and organically (episode: Married to the Blob).”

A lot of secondary characters never return to The Simpsons. Will Kumiko ever make a return appearance?
– “Yes. I know we just stuck her in another episode. She’ll come back, as needed. I know Patty and Selma adopted a baby in one episode and you never see that kid. Every once in a while, she’ll pop up. I think her name is Ling. I don’t even know the baby’s name, that’s how rarely we use her.”

Is it draining to create well-rounded secondary characters that are never involved with subsequent storylines?
– “Yes. You know, if they’re great characters, we’ll use them again. It’s just tough. It never works when you’re trying to create a new character. That never sticks in the show. There are certain characters that start from one line on the show and everybody laughs. Then we go, ‘That’s going to be a character.'”

I’ve always wondered who’s older: Grandpa Simpson or Mr. Burns?
– “We just don’t care. That’s the kind of thing we just don’t care about. I remember on Episode 3, we gave Mr. Burns’ age: He’s 81. I think we’ve implied he’s 108 in other episodes… There’s certain jokes that imply he’s 500 years old. It’s ridiculous. I think we’ve stuck at Homer’s 39 years old. Somehow, his father must have had him in his 50s.”

Outside of The Simpsons, you’ve written 18 children’s books. Do you have any upcoming books to be released?
– “I do. They take so long to come out. I have at least three more to come out. I’m very excited about my first children’s book, which I think I wrote in 2001, How Murray Saved Christmas. It was a best seller for a picture book and it’s going to be an animated Christmas special this December. I wrote and produced it. I’m super proud of it. I have to say, they gave me an hour on NBC to do whatever I wanted. If it’s terrible, it’s all my fault.”

Simpsons Writer Mike Reiss

What was your inspiration for the children’s books?
– “It’s all tied into The Simpsons. When The Simpsons came on, it was considered shocking. So many people condemned it. I went to a reunion and this cool guy I knew in college started yelling at me, ‘I have kids. I can’t let them watch this filth.’ I took that really bad. I’m going to write something funny with The Simpsons’ sense of humor but clean and inoffensive, with positive values and morals to it for this guy’s kids. That’s how I started writing children’s books. It’s sort of an act of atonement for the shocking, horrible Simpsons I was working on.”

Last year, you received a ringing endorsement from We Put The Spring in Springfield. What did you think of the group?
– “There’s a cabaret show in New York called We Put The Spring in Springfield, where they put together an hour of songs from The Simpsons and it’s the greatest show. It’s so entertaining and it moves fast. It’s so dense with humor, because we pack a lot into every song. I’ve seen that show three times. I’m glad they got to perform. I helped a little bit to broker that. It’s the greatest show. It’s so much fun.”

What upcoming projects do you have planed for 2014?
– “I’ve got three upcoming books in the pipeline, I’ve got the holiday special, I’ve got three different plays opening this summer in Connecticut and Massachusetts. One is called I’m Connecticut. I’m from Connecticut. Being from Connecticut is something very special and weird that’s never been explored in a play. You don’t have to be from Connecticut to enjoy it. It’s all about how where you’re from affects who you are. All the different states of the union are characters in the play.”

“One play is called Rubble and it’s a little autobiographical. It’s about an aging comedy writer who’s got one last chance to save his career. He’s in a meeting in Los Angeles and there’s an earthquake. It buries him up to his neck in rubble and he uses the play to reflect on his life. The third play is called Comedy is Hard! It’s about a nursing home for retired performers and it’s sort of a romance between an old dramatic actress and an old stand-up comedian. The whole play is sort of a debate. What’s harder: Comedy or drama?”

“I’ve got a lot going on, for a guy that doesn’t work that hard. I’m not a workaholic. I’m not insanely prolific. I think the difference is I’m very meticulous about my work. Almost everything I do gets out there, in some form or another: Every play I’ve written, most of the children’s books I’ve written have gotten published. So, when I finish something, I believe in this and I’ll push it very hard.”