Over the course of its remarkable 23-year run, “The Simpsons” has become nothing short of a global phenomenon. Homer, Bart and company are some of the most recognizable characters in pop culture and their weekly antics almost singlehandedly revived the idea of animated shows in primetime, paving the way for hits like” Family Guy” and “South Park.”
Writer Mike Reiss has been with the show from its inception, taking over showrunner duties in 1992 and returning as a consultant in 1998 after leaving to work on different projects. In between working on some of today’s most popular animated hits like “The Lorax,” Reiss collaborates with the show’s writers to keep America’s favorite family going strong in the 21st century.
On Monday night, Hillel and the Jewish Student Union will host Reiss at Virginia Tech as the keystone speaker for Jewish Awareness Month. Admission is free for the presentation, which will start at 7pm in Squires Colonial Ballroom.
The Collegiate Times spoke with Reiss over the phone about the show’s beginning, the success of The Simpsons Movie and his career as a professional comedy writer.
CT: You were one of the original writers of the Simpsons. What was that first season of the show like?
Reiss: Basically it was a very strange experience…I was working on another TV show, that was a very well-regarded show that was also the lowest-rated show on tv. We had a three-month break and they were just starting up “The Simpsons” and couldn’t get anyone to work on it because it just sounded like a career killer if you worked on it. It was an animation show and there hadn’t been animation in primetime in 30 years. It was on FOX, which was a brand new network at the time. That was it, nobody wanted to work on the show and I took the job but didn’t tell anyone what I was doing because I thought I was really, you know, hitting rock bottom.
What it was like working there that first season was we tried to have fun. We really thought nobody was ever gonna watch this show. I asked around the office, how long does anyone think this show will run, and nobody thought it was going to run more than six weeks. So that was it, we just had fun and did it for ourselves. I think that’s part of the success of the show was we sort of just made this thing for fun, just for a little hobby and just amuse myself.
CT: You became showrunner in the third and fourth seasons. What was that experience like, a lot of pressure?
Reiss: By the time Al and I were hired to take over the show, the show had become this kind of this institution in America and the quality was considered so high that we were scared to death. We were really frightened, we’d never run anything, supervised anything and they’re just putting us in charge of this classic. We just spent those years in studio working very, very hard and it helped – the biggest bonus we had in those early years was that the show was still brand new. We could really – by season three, the show, we’d established our rhythm, our process for making the show, figured out what the show does or doesn’t do, how to use guest stars on the show. So it was great in that we had all the tricks and all the architecture in place but the show was new, it wasn’t like we’d done 10,000 ideas like we have now where it’s hard to find things to write about.
CT: Do you have a favorite character to write for? A lot of episodes you’ve written focus on Lisa.
Reiss: [She’s] the one all of us writers identify with. I mean we wish we’d been popular kids and I’m afraid we all aged into guys like Homer where we’re all just kinda middle aged and pounchy. But our childhood’s were like Lisa, adfsfd just very bright kids who didn’t fit in and didn’t have a lot of friends.
CT: Jumping forward, “The Simpsons” movie went through development hell for a while, took years, starts and stops. When it finally came out there was a great reception, box office and critics. How did you feel about that and the process of brining it to the screen?
Reiss: It wasn’t a development hell at all. Fox first asked us to do a Simpsons movie after season two. And we just didn’t want to do it, nobody wanted it. You know, its hard work to make “The Simpsons” and then to make the movie on top of it was very hard. All of us just felt this kind of allegiance to our viewers saying what could we possibly give them in the theaters that we don’t give them for free every week on TV. So we just resisted the idea for 15 years, saying no, no, no. Finally they showed us market research that said people want to see a Simpson movie more than they want to see another Star Wars or another Harry Potter or another Star Trek movie. So that’s when we decided to do it. It took as long as an animated movie takes to make, it took about three years. It was very hard work. Ill say it again we went into it very reluctantly and it was feeling the pressure of all our fans, not wanting to disappoint the fans, not wanting to look like we were just cashing in on the show. Famously we did 155 drafts of the script and we wound up using 11 writers on the project, and hiring different directors. I can’t say I was elated when the movie came out. We were all just relieved, we felt this great relief that we pulled it off and no one was mad at The Simpsons Movie and we did the job. But you can see nobody is very excited to try and do a sequel now. I don’t think any of us involved are interested in doing another one. I’m sure we will do another one but nobody’s jumping at the chance.
CT: If you do make another one do you think you’ll wait until the show has finished its run on TV?
Reiss: I think that’s the general plan, I think the day the show finally goes off the air, like a year later we’ll all going to miss it and I think then we’ll be a little more interested to do the movie.
CT: What is your involvement with the show?
I’m currently a consultant. I go in every Wednesday, I fly in there – there’s nothing special about Wednesday, it runs like a factory and its always in production. Every Wednesday I just come in and sort of step onto the assembly line and help out. The show is written by 8-10 people sitting in a room just throwing out ideas and jokes. Every Wedneday I’m just one more guy who goes in to help it.
CT: Are you considered something of an elder statesmen around there because you were since the show’s inception?
Reiss: Sometimes I feel that way. Sometimes I feel like they’ll put in one of my jokes just because I’m an old man and not because its particularly funny. I’ll get embarrassed sometimes, like I’ll throw in a joke where I know its not that good and they’ll put it in. People are very nice to me, it’s just a nice job. I think people – it’s the rare show on tv where the average tenure there is about 10 or 12 years. People like it, we all get along on, we all respect each other.
CT: Looking back does it amaze you just how big the cultural impact of the show was?
Reiss: Yeah, I have no answer, I don’t know what to make of the whole thing. The biggest thing about working on something like “The Simpsons” is it’s such a huge operation that you know no matter how – I’ve devoted my life to “The Simpsons,” but if I hadn’t existed the show would be just the same. We have 27 great writers and I keeled over dead one day it still has 26 very talented writers. I enjoy that I am a piece of this thing but you know, you can never point to it and say that’s me or it wouldn’t be the same without me. It’d be exactly the same without me.
CT: How would you describe your experience working in the entertainment industry?
Reiss: The job of a comedy writer is the greatest job in the world, it is so much fun. I mean your whole job is to sit there and make other people laugh. You’re sitting in a room full of people who are trying to make you laugh – what could be better? You’re really surrounded by very smart, very funny people all the time. There’s a level of bureaucracy outside of that…people meddling in your job, telling you what to do, giving a lot of unsolicited advice. That’s the only downside of the job and that can be very tough. I can only do one thing, I can’t type, I can’t sing, I can’t play musical instrument. The one thing I can do in life is I can make up jokes, I can write jokes, string jokes together so that they form kind of a story. I can’t believe I live in a time in history where that’s a job! Where somebody will pay you to do that, they’ll pay you well and even respect you for it (laughs). 500 years ago if I was the same guy I was today I’d be locked in a mental hospital and people would be throwing buckets of cold water on me.