Mike Reiss has been a part of The Simpsons since Season One. While he has always been a part of the legendary writer’s room, at one point, he was also the Showrunner. Reiss candidly discusses hiring Conan O’Brien, diagramming clown beds, becoming a playwright and a rivalry with the makers of Family Guy.
I happen to be currently reading The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History and wanted to know if you have any thoughts about it, since you’re quoted multiple times.
– “This book is not a good book at all. It’s an oral history. I read this book. I’m excited to read it, and then I see a mistake every few pages. Something’s wrong. And it makes me sad, because this is the book of record. This is what people believe. One of the funniest mistakes in this book comes so early on. Matt Groening came to prominence with a one-eared rabbit named Binky. Now, Binky has two ears. I mean, that’s a BIG mistake, to get the number of ears wrong on a rabbit. It sounds petty, but if you were reading about Walt Disney, and on page two, they said he became famous with a one-eared mouse named Mickey; suddenly, I question the whole book. As the book went along, fewer people would talk to him, so it becomes sort of a fan-fiction, editorializing, very sloppy and very mean-spirited by the end. I can’t say that I thought much of the book. The funny thing, I come off great in the book. They called me ‘brilliant’ four times in this book, and I still hate it.”
One of your quotes states that almost every writer’s assistant you worked with went on to become a Show Runner on another project.
– “I believe that’s true, at that time I said it. Since then, many, many years have gone by. On every single show, the writer’s assistant would go on, if not to run a show, to become a professional writer. There’s probably no better crash course in TV writing than to be the person in the room, typing it all up, listening to people throw out jokes, seeing what gets into the script, and what doesn’t get in. It’s great training. Anyone who wants to break into the business, and you can type, and you don’t mind a really hard, low-paying job, I’d become a Writing Assistant.”
You’ve been working in The Simpsons writer’s room since Day One. How did it change when Sam Simon left the show?
– “To this day, Sam Simon is the most adept TV professional, I’ve ever seen. He’d done something subsequently we’d done on the show: We would just start making up a script. He’d just start dictating, and we’d be throwing in jokes, and he went, ‘All right. And we’re done.’ It took, like, three days. You haven’t seen it typed up, you don’t know how long it is. We looked at it, and sure enough, it was 45 pages. He knew exactly how long it was. Even though we were making it up as we went along, it came out to be a full script, and sort of a classic script. There were four of us writing one script with Sam, was the one where Bart saws off the head of Jebediah Springfield’s statue. It’s kind of a famous episode: The episode that introduced Apu, Chief Wiggum, Eddie, Lou and Jimbo, Dolph and Kearney. I think Mayor Quimby made his first appearance. We created like five or 10 characters in that one episode, without even breaking a sweat. Just three day’s worth at the office. Sam was really amazing. After two years, he said to Al Jean and I, ‘Now you’re running it.’ Al and I hadn’t run anything. We can’t run a lawnmower. We were scared to death. We couldn’t match Sam for his skill, his craft or his art, but we worked it out with sweat. Al and I worked the staff so very, very hard, to follow in his footsteps. We were scared to death to be the guys who ruined The Simpsons. We dodged that bullet. That was our great achievement.”
How did The Simpsons Movie become one cohesive unit, when so many writers were assigned 20-page scripts to write separately?
– “Here’s how we did it: James L. Brooks hand-picked the seven writers for The Simpsons Movie. Five of us, I think, had run the show in the past. The other two were the most prolific script-writers we had: Jon Vitti and John Swartzwelder. Between them, I think, have written 100 episodes of The Simpsons. So, he put this team together, we work out the story and everybody takes 20 pages. Two, maybe three weeks later, we put these seven chunks together, and we expected it to be a mess. It read very well. It was an amazing thing to see. Everybody was very professional. Within a couple of weeks, we had an incredibly polished script. I was perfectly happy by the time we did the fifth draft of that script. Of course, what you saw in theaters was the 165th draft.”
What were the writer’s prereqs for working on The Simpsons?
– “When Sam Simon was starting up The Simpsons, when he was making the transition to a half-hour, he hired two Tracey Ulman writers, and then he hired four or five other people he hadn’t even met. Except for Al Jean and myself, none of the writers on the show had ever written a half-hour script before. They had all been sketch writers or even joke writers for late-night TV. He just grabbed them, because nobody knew this was going to turn into The Simpsons. It was just a summer job for all of us.”
What were your initial thoughts about getting hired for The Simpsons?
– “I’ve told this a million times, and I’m embarrassed to say it again. I took this job, with The Simpsons. It was a summer break from It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, because I was so embarrassed I was writing for a cartoon. There hadn’t been cartoons in prime time since The Flintstones and it was on the FOX Network, which at the time, nobody knew if that was going to be around from one year to the next. I thought I have hit rock bottom. This seems so pathetic. I knew the show was fun. One day, I went around the room before the show came on and asked, ‘How long is this show going to run?’ Sam Simon said, ‘I think it will go for 13 weeks, but don’t worry, no one’s ever going to see it.'”
What kind of assistance did you have in hiring Conan O’Brien?
– “I’m a graduate of the Harvard Lampoon. About half our writers have come from the Harvard Lampoon. I want to say in 1982 or ’83, I had just been out of college a couple of years, I was living in New York, and someone from the Harvard Lampoon called me, and said, ‘You gotta get back here. There’s this guy here, like something we’ve never seen in our lives.’ And it was Conan O’Brien. I took a train to Boston, just to meet this 19-year-old kid, and sure enough, he was the funniest thing I ever saw. He was so comfortable. Here, I was a professional writer, traveled 200 miles just to meet him, and he acts like this happens to him all the time. So, I knew Conan. I knew he was great. I think I helped him get his first job, an HBO show called Not Necessarily The News.”
“And so then, I think it was Season Three of The Simpsons. We’d done the first three years with the same crew, but I think a couple of writers were leaving. It was the first time we had to hire someone new. We brought Conan in. It was literally the first week, he came in and pitched the Monorail episode. Everybody loved him. Even though we’d been this tight unit all these years, he walked in and instantly, here’s the funniest guy in the room. We all kicked back, just relaxed, and enjoyed him. You can probably see from the show, he’s this warm, funny guy. He’s like he is on TV, all the time. In those days of The Simpsons, we were working 16-hour days, and Conan was Conan all day long: High energy, crazy, funny, never slowed down.”
Has The Simpsons always been hand-drawn animation cels?
– “The show was always hand drawn and hand painted. I would say 15 years into the run of show, people started wondering if we could do it by computer. The animators said, ‘No! People will see the difference.’ I wasn’t there when this happened, somebody said, ‘Let’s do one episode that’s by computer ink and paint. We won’t tell anybody. We’ll put it on the air. If one person calls in and asks, What happened to the show? It looked weird tonight,’ we’ll never do that again. So, we picked one episode, at random, with computer ink and paint. Nobody in America noticed. We’ve been (using) computer ink and paint ever since.”
Do you have any of the original cels
– “I hope I can tell this story. Sam Simon just felt we should have cels. This was before you could even buy cels. So, he snuck into the animation warehouse and just stole a bunch of them, and handed them out to us. They’re not beautiful production cels, they’re just random cels. Homer with his eyes half open, sometimes a pair of feet… I have a bunch of those cels.”
Did you ever do stand-up comedy?
– “I did stand-up exactly once, at college. There was a talent show, my wife was the judge. I got first prize: A wife.”
Could you tell me the backstory of the Clown Bed?
– “My father was the world’s worst carpenter, and he built these beds that looked like clowns, for my brother. They were nice, cute beds, but he painted the face, himself. They were HORRIFYING! I remember telling that story to Matt Groening, who thought it was so funny. So, there we are, three years later, doing a story about Bart, as a young boy, and Matt was the one who said, ‘Do the clown beds,’ and we put it in the show. It was the one thing I’d ever drawn, and he put it in the show. That’s pretty much the design he used in the show. My father saw it and he was very proud. He’d come to a party in my house, and tell people, ‘I’m the one who made the clown beds.'”
Is this your first convention?
– “No. I was at DragonCon last year. It’s my first MomoCon. I’m not anime. I’m not manga. This is my first exposure to this specific world.”
Will you be attending any conventions in the near future?
– “I’m hoping to return, do my little song and dance at DragonCon again, this year, and The Simpsons always goes to San Diego Comic-Con. I don’t go. I don’t live in LA anymore, even though I still work on the show. I live in New York and fly into LA every Wednesday, work on The Simpsons, and fly out again. We’re working on Season 25 right now.”
Do you currently have any other side projects you’re working on?
– “Tales of Moronica, it’s a Kindle download available on Amazon. I’m really proud of that. Genre fans would really like it. We’re animating my first children’s book, How Murray Saved Christmas, as an animated special for NBC next year. If it comes out good, it’s something I could die after. I dreamt it up when I was 9 years old. If you can imagine, it’s been in my head for 44 years. I wrote my first play. It’s called, ‘I’m Connecticut.’ I am from Connecticut, we did the play in Connecticut, and it won Best Play of the Year. I’m starting to write plays. It’s kind of a fun hobby for an aging writer. I work on a lot of animated movies, I’m sort of a ghostwriter. Despicable Me 2 will be out this summer. They’re doing a Minions movie.”
Is there a Simpsons-Family Guy rivalry at FOX?
– “I have to say, a LOT of people of The Simpsons hated Family Guy, when it came on. They thought it was a rip-off. We’ve made peace with them. I think part of it is because their ratings have boosted our ratings; our ratings boost their ratings. I think we need each other. But we’ve come friendly over the years. Homer Simpson made an appearance on Family Guy last year. Seth MacFarlane did a guest shot, he’ll be on The Simpsons this year. He was just hilarious. I don’t know if this is a secret, but if it is, it’s THEIR secret: I think they want to do a whole episode where Peter has a dream and wakes up in Springfield. The whole episode is set in Springfield. It’s some sort of cross-over episode, but that’s just a rumor. Even though it had its detractors, I liked Family Guy. Family Guy is like The Simpsons, after three beers. As opposed to King of the Hill, which I thought was like The Simpsons, after a series of small strokes.”
“Here’s an amazing story that I can’t believe it’s not well known. Everyone should know this story. Seth MacFarlane went to Boston, to see a friend get married. And then he had to fly back to LA to do more Family Guy. His Travel Agent gave him the wrong time. So, he gets to the airport just in time to see the plane take off without him. Seth gets on the phone, he’s yelling at the Travel Agent, and then he looks up at the TV and sees the plane he was supposed to be on, fly into the World Trade Center. What’s the point of this story? The point of the story is: I like Family Guy, but God LOVES Family Guy!”