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Mike Reiss has been a writer, producer, and show-runner for The Simpsons for nearly 30 years. (Photo courtesy of Mike Reiss )
Mike Reiss, pictured in his New York apartment, will be talking about his career at the Mark Twain House in Hartford on Thursday, July 26. (Photo by Frank Rizzo )
Mike Reiss calls Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, a genius. (Photo courtesy of Mike Reiss )
Mike Reiss )
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Mike Reiss never planned on writing a book about The Simpsons, the longest running entertainment series in television history, where for nearly 30 years he has been writer, producer, and show-runner.
But when the Bristol native was approached by journalist Matthew Klinkstein to write a book about Reiss’s life and his comedic take on America, the professional funnyman was intrigued because it wouldn’t be about The Simpsons.
This was the proposal: They would travel around the country together, with Reiss giving talks at night and being interviewed by Klinkstein during the day.
“It wasn’t even an original idea,” says Reiss from his midtown Manhattan high-rise apartment he shares with his wife Denise. “Another writer had the idea of riding around with [author] David Foster Wallace.”
The Reiss “on the road” project never happened, but a book did emerge—about The Simpsons.
Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets and Outright Lies from a Lifetime of Writing for ‘The Simpsons’ was published in June.
“It’s really an autobiography of The Simpsons in which I make a cameo appearance,” Reiss laughs.
Reiss will talking about the book and his career in television, film, theater, and book publishing at Hartford’s Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Avenue, on Thursday, July 26 at 7 p.m. Tickets for the “His Life’s as Joke” on-stage conversation are $20. Reiss will sign his new book, which will be available for purchase, after the talk.
Reiss, 58, a Peabody and four-time Emmy Award-winner, has been with the series since the beginning—along with the show’s creator Matt Groening, producer James L. Brooks, show-runner (and Reiss’s longtime writing partner) Al Jean, and David Silverman, producer-director-animation supervisor. Reiss now takes the red-eye every Tuesday to L.A., where he works one day a week on the series, participating in the writers’ room going over scripts and shows.
The Hardest Job on the Show
“The whole [Simpsons] job is that I sit there in a room with seven or eight writers and we just try to make things funnier,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a new script. Sometimes it’s a show that’s half-animated and we can still change a lot of it. Sometimes it’s the finished animation—but we can still change 10 percent.”
Reiss calls Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, “a cartoon and graphic genius.” But Reiss also gives much credit to the series to producer Brooks and show-runner Sam Simon. Reiss invented a mnemonic to speak to the show’s essence: “Matt did the art, Sam made it smart, and Jim gave it heart.”
But what exactly is a “show runner”?
“It’s the hardest job on the show there is,” he says. “It’s like being the general. You supervise the writing, that’s the chief thing, but you’re responsible for basically everything that goes on the air: editing, supervising audio tracks and visuals, and approving every design decision, figuring out what the music should be and where it goes and generally directing the actors. It’s a killer job. I meet kids coming out of college and they say, ‘I want to be a show runner.’ I mean, is that a thing now?”
After growing up in Bristol, the middle child of five kids, Reiss went to Harvard where he joined Harvard Lampoon—and subsequently to the New York-based National Lampoon after graduation. Then came gigs-for-gags as comedy writer for Johnny Carson, Garry Shandling, and the TV series Alf.
‘I Just Knew...’
Besides his work with The Simpsons, Reiss’s credits also include creator of the cult animated series The Critic and Queer Duck, and screenwriter for such films as Ice Age, Love Among the Ruins, and The Simpsons Movie. He is also the author of children’s books, including Late for School, The Boy Who Looked Like Lincoln, and How Murray Saved Christmas, which has become an animated musical TV holiday perennial.
His stage work includes I’m Connecticut (which earned him a special award from the Connecticut Critics Circle when it premiered at UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre in 2011) and Comedy Is Hard in 2014 and I Hate Musicals: The Musical in 2017 at the Ivoryton Playhouse.
“I have a theory,” says Reiss. “A lot of people, maybe everybody, has imagined at some point the thing they want to become—and they just know it when they see it. I used to watch The Dick Van Dyke Show, which is partially set in a comedy writers’ room, and I just knew I wanted to be there—I wanted to be Buddy Sorrell, the human joke machine.”
Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who lives in New Haven and New York City. He has been writing about theater and the arts in Connecticut for nearly 40 years.
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