Mike Reiss
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Mike Reiss

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The best kept secret in music


"Interview with Emmy Award Winner Mike Reiss"

According to Mike Reiss, at another time in our history, he and other comedy writers may have suffered a fate similar to those accused of being witches.

For the past 23 years, Reiss, a 51 year old from Bristol, Connecticut, has been a writer and producer of The Simpsons, winning four Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award. In 2006, Reiss received a lifetime Achievement Award from the Animation Writers Caucus. Reiss also co-created the animated series The Critic and created Showtime’s hit cartoon Queer Duck.

Reiss, a talented and entertaining public speaker, will be sharing his thoughts with Toronto’s Jewish community at UJA Federation’s Campaign Closing celebrations on Tuesday, February 15 at The Westin Prince Hotel.
“There’s definitely something wrong with us,” he says of himself and others who ply their trade as comedy writers, during a recent telephone interview. “It’s a nice quirk of history that in this century, there’s a high paying job doing what we do. In any other century, all comedy writers may have been rounded up and burnt at the stake, or locked up in a mental hospital.”
Growing up Jewish in Bristol, the home of ESPN, to which Mike quickly responds, “before that, it was home to nothing”, was not easy for Mike and his family. In fact, he likens the experience to “living in a daily pogrom.”
“It was very difficult,” he says, turning serious for a moment. “In fact, I was the only Jewish kid in my high school. I had my bar mitzvah in the shul in Bristol which, not coincidentally, was called Mike’s Synagogue. I believe the shul closed down after I left Bristol, however. Out of 50,000 families in Bristol, there may have been 50 Jewish ones. I think I’m Jewish by physiognomy that is, I look so incredibly Jewish. I have, based on my appearance alone, become a spokesman for our faith. People know I’m a Jew the second I walk in to the room.”
So, just how does a nice Jewish boy from a decidedly un-Jewish community end up writing for the most popular animated television series of all time?
“In 1988, I was writing for the lowest rated television show called This is Gary Shandling’s Show,” he explains. “During the summer, I had a few months off for the break when I heard that they were trying to do a Simpsons show. Remember, at that point in time, The Simpsons were just one-minute shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show. Nobody wanted to work on this show. People were turning down the job left and right. It was on FOX, which was a new network then, and it was an animated show which nobody thought could work. So, one day, I walk into FOX and took the job for the summer. I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing because I was so ashamed to be writing a cartoon. After the summer, I returned to the lowest rated show on television when the Simpsons came out and was an incredible success right off the bat. At the end of the year, I returned to The Simpsons and I literally never left. And we are now working on our 23rd season.”
Asked which one of the Simpsons’ characters he most closely relates to, Reiss is quickly in touch with his feminine side.
“Oh, Lisa, definitely,” he says, referring to the saxophone-playing eldest daughter on the show. “Me and all the writers are most like Lisa – we’re smart, with absolutely no friends. Actually, we all want to be like Bart, but we’re just not popular. When we were younger, we were all like Lisa, then, one day, we all woke up and we had all become Homer. It just sort of happened.”
In 2002, The Simpsons travelled north from Springfield to Toronto. Upon disembarking their plane (presumably at Pearson Airport) Marge Simpson exclaimed: “It’s so bland!”
So, Mike, would you like to apologize to Torontonians for insulting our beloved city?
“No, it was supposed to be an insult,” he says with a laugh. “The Simpsons have visited a different city every year, and we always get in trouble wherever we go. We got yanked off the air in Japan, we got sued by the Brazilian government, and then the Simpsons went to Toronto and we got flooded with complaints the next day. The main complain we received was, ‘you didn’t make enough fun of us!’ I have no idea why such an enormous country has such a self-esteem problem.”
Asked about how he sees the final episode – whenever that may be – of The Simpsons, Reiss admits he has no idea.
“All the writers have been talking about the last episode for 23 years now, and, really, we don’t have any great ideas in mind. Maybe we’ll just have to wrap it all up neatly and have Mr. Burns die Smithers will come out of the closet Maggie will finally talk, and Marge shoots Homer. Actually, I hope we never go off the air, because I have no idea how we’d sign off.” - Shalom Life

"LISTEN: 'Simpsons' producers Al Jean and Mike Reiss"

Both have been with the show since it went on the air. They're part of the "Harvard Mafia," comedy writers from Harvard who have influenced the comedy business from Saturday Night Live to The Muppet Show. This interview first aired July 17, 1992. - NPR

"LISTEN: WTSR Interview with Mike Reiss"

Kyle Smith, “Arts & Entertainment” correspondent, spoke with The Simpsons writer, Mike Reiss.

Topics include Reiss’ interaction with Michael Jackson and some inside scoop about the twenty-five year old television hit. - WTSR Station

"'Simpsons' Writer Premieres His First Play At Jorgensen"

Mike Reiss wants you to know that he loves Connecticut.

Many folks wouldn't think anything otherwise. After all, he was born and raised in Bristol. And after he went off the Hollywood and became a fancy-schmancy television and film writer and producer, he's returned to his native state to present the first play he's written. It's called "I'm Connecticut" and it's about a young man from Simsbury living in New York and searching for love.

So how's that for being Nutmegalicious?

Well, Reiss is after all a Peabody and four-time Emmy Award-winning writer and producer of "The Simpsons" and the new stage comedy is being called a work that's in the "Simpsons"-style of humor, so we are told that this is not the tourism-friendly show that its title might suggest.

The evolution of the play — which begins performances Thursday, Dec. 1, at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs — started last year when Reiss, who is also a popular children's book author ("How Murray Saved Christmas," "Late for School"), was at a UConn book festival and CRT managing director Frank Mack suggested that Reiss might think about writing a full-length play for the theater to produce.

"It hit me at just the right moment," says Reiss. "As it turns out, I had just finished writing a one-act play called for 'Waiting for 'Waiting for Godot'.' It was about people standing in the cancellation line to get tickets for 'Waiting for Godot.' I found out about Israel Horovitz's play about people waiting in line [a long-running off-Broadway work titled 'Line'] after I had written my play. Horovitz showed up to see the play and he was not amused. I later we went to see his play and I thought, 'Well, that wasn't so good.' I liked my play better."

Like a "Simpsons' episode, things happen fast and often with little regard to logic, reality or laws of physics. "There are a lot of outrageous, surreal things in the play," he says. "There are a lot of cutaways and it moves like lightning. It's a lot like 'Annie Hall,' too, which is a nice romantic comedy but every five minutes in the film you're in a flashback or the narrator is talking to the camera or there's animation. People forget there was animation in 'Annie Hall.' There are some shocking things in the work, too, but there's real sweetness in the end. It has a really good heart. Everyone in the play cares about each other and it comes to a happy ending."

Ress, who also co-created the animated series "The Critic" and created "Queer Duck" for Showtime, says he's discovering all sorts of things about working in the theater. "I like theater. People come to laugh. They're in a good mood. They want to have a good time."

"Also, in the theater, the playwright has all the power and everyone listens to the playwright. I've spent 30 years in TV and the movies where everyone tells you what to do all the time. So it's great to be in control — although it's scary, too. If this thing sucks, it's all my fault. I've got no one else to blame."

When asked to describe himself growing up in Connecticut, Reiss says: "I was a weird kid growing up in Bristol," he says. "Very quiet and shy but I was smart — though no one thought I was funny. It was also weird that by the time I got high school I was the only Jewish kid in a school of 1,600 students. There wasn't any anti-Semitism. I was treated like an albino, 'Hey, we got one of these.' I had a lot of friends. That's why I love Connecticut."

Reiss also wonders why nobody's written anything on stage about Connecticut.

What about Eugene O'Neill, I ask?

"What about him?" he wisecracks. "Are his plays set in Connecticut?"

"Well, 'Long Day's Journey Into Night and…"

"I've heard of that. But nothing really funny. Listen, I'm from here. I grew up here. I love it. It's beautiful but there's nothing distinctive about it. Connecticut would be a great guy to marry but not to date. It hasn't got that zing. There's no regional dialect. It's sandwiched between Boston and New York. This is the vanilla in this ice cream sandwich.

"The only minefield I may be walking into is The Hartford Courant. We did a joke once on 'The Simpsons' when Homer won a free trip to Hawaii but when he goes to collect the prize they tell him, 'Oh, it's a free trip to Hartford' and Homer gets really mad and feels he's been ripped off. The day after we ran the episode the Courant did this editorial that said 'How dare they? A trip to Hartford is a great prize. Look it up! Hartford is as every bit as exciting as Hawaii.' Well, no, it's not. It's not."

- Hartford Courant

"The Simpsons' Mike Reiss Talks About Unexpected Success and Superheroes' Jewish Origins"

In 1989, Mike Reiss was hired with longtime writing partner Al Jean to join the original staff of The Simpsons. What he believed would be a six-week summer job turned into a gargantuan hit, now in its 22nd season. He and Jean were the series showrunners for more than two seasons, overseeing the writing of some of The Simpsons' most enduring episodes. (Fans should seek out the DVD releases and listen to the commentary tracks, dozens of which feature incredible anecdotes and insights from Reiss and Jean.)

Although he continues to work on The Simpsons, Reiss went on to create The Critic and Queer Duck. He has contributed to The Oblongs as well as the screenplays for the Ice Age movies and The Simpsons Movie. As prolific as he is, he has also found time to write 17 children's books, beginning with How Murray Saved Christmas.

On Monday, July 25, Reiss appears with the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival at the Castro Theatre following a selection of Jewish-themed episodes from animated TV programs, including the classic "Like Father, Like Clown" from The Simpsons. At the event, he will discuss the contributions of Jewish writers to animation and comedy. Reiss spoke with us recently from his home in New York City.

I know you from The Simpsons, and I know you from The Critic and It's Garry Shandling's Show -- but I did not realize that you had written for Sledge Hammer, which I always loved.
There's something enduring about that show. I left L.A. a few years ago and moved back to New York, and I've become very friendly with the star, David Rasche -- Sledge Hammer himself. And walking through the streets with Sledge Hammer is like walking around with Jack Nicholson. Everybody seems to recognize him. That was the worst job I ever had. We didn't exactly know what we were doing. And yet it endured -- it was very funny, and people remember it fondly.

It seems like all the shows you've worked on have been crammed with jokes but also very character-driven. Does your sense of what's funny generally evolve from a character?
My very first job in Hollywood was writing jokes for Airplane II -- not the good one. Airplane II is a comedy so bad it won an award in France. I learned a good lesson there: Jokes are not enough. Airplane II had all the kinds of jokes we would do throughout the rest of our career. (I always say "we" because I had a writing partner for 16 years [Al Jean].) But it had movie references, and parody and satire -- but jokes alone won't carry the day. You need strong characters, or none of the rest of it will work.

When you started on The Simpsons, what did you imagine the trajectory of that show would be?
I'll tell you precisely. At the time, a bunch of my friends had had their shots to do TV shows, and many of them were funny and clever. But none of them ran for more than six weeks. And that was everyone's feeling at The Simpsons. I think it helped the show. We were sitting in a trailer together, writing it to entertain ourselves. We thought, "No one is ever going to see this, and in six weeks, it will be gone." We were just doing it for fun.
How many seasons were you and Al the showrunners?
Part of season two, and then seasons three and four. It was a real burnout job. The job nearly killed me. I was working 100 hours a week, and we were working 51 weeks a year. The big change that's happened over the years is that we started out with six writers, and then we went up to eight writers, and now we have 23 writers -- and everybody's really good at the show. But that's allowed us to spread the workload around. Al's been running the show single-handedly for eight or 10 years. And that would not have been possible in the old days.

What's your feeling about why there have been so many great Jewish comedians and comedy writers in the last half-century or so?
I'll be talking about that in my speech a little, and my main theory will be that I have no idea. Really. My theory is that every culture chooses to embrace certain things and then get good at them. And it's pretty random. Like, the Russians are great at chess. Why? Well, they just decided that was important and then got good at it.

There's a great example here in New York where a fencing coach came to Harlem to teach fencing. Now, there's nothing intrinsically ingrained about fencing in Harlem -- but they had a good trainer, and they started producing Olympic fencing champions out of the Harlem school system. So, Jews will be great at sitting around being funny, and when someone tosses them a football, it's a disaster.

Jewish history is marked by Jews having opportunities limited to them. They couldn't go into certain things, and they were forced into other fields. They were forced into banking, because they weren't allowed to be farmers. So they became great with money and finance and that kind of thing. It was the same way with writing opportunities. Jews couldn't write for The New Yorker, so they ended up writing comic books an - SF Weekly


Still working on that hot first release.



Mike Reiss has won four Emmys and a Peabody Award during his eighteen years writing for “The Simpsons”. In 2006, Reiss received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Animation Writers Caucus. Reiss co-created the animated series “The Critic” and created Showtime’s hit cartoon “Queer Duck” (about a gay duck).

“Queer Duck” was recently named one of “The 100 Greatest Cartoons of All Time” by the BBC. “Queer Duck: the Movie” was released to rave reviews in July 2006. The film won awards in New York, Chicago, Sweden, Germany and Wales.

Reiss’s other TV credits include “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”, “ALF”, and “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”.

“My Life in Ruins”, a film inspired by his travels to 61 countries, was released in 2009. Reiss was also co-wrote ‘The Simpsons Movie” and “Ice Age 3”, with a combined world-wide gross of $1.5 billion.

His caveman detective story “Cro-Magnon P.I.” won an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. He has published fourteen children’s books, including the best-seller “How Murray Saved Christmas” and the award-winning “Late for School”. Reiss also composes puzzles for “NPR”, and “Games Magazine”.

As a professional speaker, Reiss has lectured at over one hundred colleges and institutions, on six continents. His topics include “The Simpsons”, comedy and Judaism, and the sorry state of television. Reiss is a former president of “The Harvard Lampoon” and editor of “The National Lampoon”.

He has been happily married for twenty-one years. Like most children’s book authors, he has no children.