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Friday, July 22, 2011

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

Posted By on Fri, Jul 22, 2011 at 1:00 PM

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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.

Writer-producer Mike Reiss of The Simpsons
  • Writer-producer Mike Reiss of The Simpsons

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 and creating Superman and Batman and Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. Every one of our superheroes came from Jewish people.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival runs through Aug. 8. For more information about the Mike Reiss event and other festival programs, visit www.sfjff.org.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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Casey Burchby

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