Perhaps Mike Reiss looked like a cartoon to me when I saw him speak last Friday night because when I think Reiss, I think The Simpsons. After all, the man has been a contributing writer to the show for 20 years, even spearheading the comedic touch for the third and fourth seasons. Or it could be the fact that he’s had a character based on his likeness. In Season Two, Lisa falls in love with her substitute teacher Mr. Bergstrom. When Reiss insisted that the animators give the character some kind of deformity, “they made him look like me,” he recalled.
92YTribeca’s “A Backstage Tour of The Simpsons with Mike Reiss” event offered an intriguing personal account of both the inner workings of one of the world’s most beloved shows and of Reiss’ mind, where real life experiences often translate into Simpsons animation. About himself and his fellow writers, Reiss said, “We all wish we were Bart, but we were Lisa growing up, and we’re all becoming Homer.” Fridays are designated doughnut days at the office.
During his first act, Reiss did not glorify his job; if anything, he downplayed his value to the show. “We do 22 episodes a year and we have 23 writers,” Reiss said. “All everyone has to do is come up with one good idea, and one guy doesn’t have to do shit. That guy is me.”
In reality though, Reiss probably is not that guy. After all, he was the editor of the Harvard Lampoon before writing for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson; plus, he had the creative genius to kill Mary Poppins midair with a commercial-size plane, a feat he brags could go on his resume. Explaining his inspiration for writing comedy, Reiss put it plainly: “I can’t help myself.”
This may help explain Queer Duck, Reiss’ recent project about a gay duck and his gang of homosexual friends, including characters Openly Gator and Bi Polar Bear. Pushing the limits may have been something that Reiss got comfortable with writing for the Simpsons. “The censors leave us alone because we’re on before Family Guy,” he said. “We could kill puppies on the air.” After showing a clip from Queer Duck, he said he could hear, “nervous laughter.”
However, it is understandable how Reiss is able to keep a healthy perspective on his job. Early in his routine he asked the audience what they remembered most from the Simpsons movie. “Spiderpig! Spiderpig!” he responded for us. “That’s the kind of joke you write when you’re high.”
Some sort of lamentation may be the correct response when you’re as dedicated to his craft as Reiss. He carries a notebook around with him at all times, writing down anything funny that comes to mind. Later, he transcribes his notes into computer documents and organizes them into files titled “jokes,” “funny characters,” and “movie ideas.” This dedication has paid off. After working for five years on a script (that is still in the works), Reiss was asked to produce 30 new pages of material. He turned to his files for help, and some of his best material came from these archives.
In a changing entertainment environment that features less and less scripted comedy, Reiss is a realist. “You can still get into writing,” he said, “but eventually it will be a bad living. It’s something you have to do for the love of it.”
In our post-show interview, Reiss said he believed his second set bombed. “Eleven countries, 30 states — this was the single-worst,” he said, describing the jokes in the routine as the ones that, “always get a laugh. I have no explanation.”
Still, Reiss remained positive and dedicated to his goal. “I want to make people happy,” he said, “and that’s not necessary comedy.”