Nice Jewish boy from Connecticut begins his 23rd season as writer of The Simpsons
By Daniel Horowitz— 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 witchcraft.
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 celebration 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 into 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 complaint 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.”
Be careful what you wish for, Mike.
Tickets to the UJA Campaign 2011 closing are going fast. The cost is $30 and includes a dessert reception. To register online, visit ujaevents.com/registration/Simpsons or email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 416.631.5685.