Mike Reiss has won four Emmys and a Peabody Award during his 28 years writing for The Simpsons. He ran the show in Season 4 which Entertainment Weekly called “the greatest season of the greatest show in history.”
Listen to Episode #72 here
Smiling All the Time with Mike Reiss
Our guest is Mike Reiss. Mike has won four Emmys and a Peabody Award during his 28 years writing for The Simpsons. He ran the show in season four, which Entertainment Weekly called, “The greatest season of the greatest show in history.” With Mathew Klickstein, he published Springfield Confidential, a memoir of Mike’s three decades at The Simpsons. Mike has published twenty children’s books though he has no children. Welcome, Mike.
It’s nice to be here. That’s a nice introduction.
You certainly earned it. I ask this to all my guests. If you weren’t working as a writer, what would you be doing with your life?
I always figured I would be a funny lawyer. I thought I’d be the guy who would rather get a laugh in court than get my client off. I had no idea I would ever be a writer. Right up through college, I didn’t pursue it. I’d never met a writer. I didn’t know about it. It was those guys and me and I figured I would go into advertising. I thought that’s the peak. That’s what someone who’s creative does. If they have to get a real job, you go into advertising.
Advertising is filled with creative people, artists who want to get paid.
It was pure ignorance on my part. I never met anyone who did it. I grew up in the ‘60s watching TV. As a kid in the ‘60s, you thought 80% of people worked in the advertising business.
You strike me as Jewish.
I come up Jewish even on radio.
Certainly, you’ve already started with a lawyer joke. I had a guest who talked about how much she calls it, “Jewiness,” is starting to show up in the world of entertainment like references and so on.
She can’t deny that 80-year tradition.
That’s the breadth of it all and moving away from some of the standard tropes, stereotypes and so on.
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It’s interesting. I don’t know what to say. I can do it mathematically. When I started in TV in ‘82, everybody was Jewish. I’ve worked on a sitcom where every single writer was Jewish except Al Jean, my writing partner. Over time, it got less and less Jewish. The Simpsons are about 20% Jewish. That doesn’t mean America is 3% Jewish, we’re 20% Jewish. We’re talking about a business that many years ago was 95% Jews. I have this belief that it’s one of those professions where we go, “This is not respectable. We will make the Jews do it.” They make a big success out of it, then everyone else is, “This is good for us.” It’s like the comic book business. I’m sure all the comic book writers were the guys who couldn’t get a job at The New Yorker until Jewish guys go into comics and create Superman, Batman and everything Stan Lee did. Suddenly, gentiles are going, “This is a respectable profession after all.”
In Springfield Confidential, you talk glowingly about your non-Jewish writing partner, Al Jean.
I was working with him going, “How does he do it?” He walks in every day for many years like it’s his first day on the job.
Correct me if I’m wrong. This is a hunch I have. Are you a little tired of being funny for a living?
I know I’m not as good as I used to be. I am a victim of self-imposed ageism where it gets a little harder. I don’t want to say I’m getting tired of being funny because you take that away. I’m just this machine that eats and poops. There’s nothing else to me.
Are your children’s books funny?
The children’s books are all funny. I tell this one story where I tried to write something dramatic. I wrote a sad, dramatic story. It’s a short story. There are five characters in the beginning. There are two funerals in ten pages. I sent it to Esquire and they wrote back, “It’s funny but,” I was like, “This is what I do.”
Let’s talk about the writers’ room. I’m very interested in this idea of how comedy, and you talked about this in the book, comes from a collaborative process. There’s not the lone genius. You talked about the issue between Sam Simon and Matt Groening. People wanted to crown one of them or the other one of them as the genius behind the show, the idea being that’s impossible because they needed each other. That’s even impossible if you wanted to give two geniuses because many creative, smart people go into the making of this incredible comedic television program.
Certainly, The Simpsons. There are shows where it’s the new TV, which one person can do. One person can be the auteur but they can crank out ten episodes in two years. It’s a great product like Fleabag. She took four years to make six episodes and it’s fantastic. She did in four years what we have to crank out in two, three months. That’s it. When they talk about the golden age of TV now, and I agree it’s a pretty golden age, it’s because nobody has to make 22 episodes year in, year out anymore.
It can be as long or as short as they need to be. They can be launched when they want to be launched. Netflix doesn’t have demand for September launch and the same degree because of advertisers and so on.
When we were kids, we’d hear about the BBC, “Why can’t American TV be like British TV?” Now we are, we make shows the way they made them, slowly and don’t make more than what you have to do. Plenty of great shows are made by one person or one person working with a talented ensemble. You’ve got a guy like Larry David who gets writing credit on every episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. He’s got a big support team pitching him ideas and that kind of thing. He’s surrounding himself with a funny cast who adlibs as they go along.
I remember reading Tina Fey talking about Lorne Michaels having his approach for the SNL writers’ room was a bunch of Harvard Lampoon people like you are, with a bunch of Blue Collar Chicago style comics as being the right mix to be able to create comedy.
I’ve got to agree with it. She picks it apart pretty well. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. The one thing I will say and I’m very proud of is the Harvard Lampoon people are learning the tricks of the other people. We used to knock on Harvard Lampoon writers as it’s just jokes. There was never a story and there were never characters, but they’ve learned that. A show like The Office is amazing. I know Greg Daniels. I helped him get his first job and then I hired him here at The Simpsons. On The Office, he created one great character after another. There was a point where I couldn’t believe The Office was split into two offices. He created a whole second office full of great characters. I go, “Where did he learn that?” He didn’t learn that at The Harvard Lampoon and he didn’t learn that working from me. It’s an amazing skill. It’s something I don’t have. I don’t know how to do that.
Rashida Jones pops up in there.
It’s an astounding thing. I think the public is sitting there and they were like, “More people.” I was watching going, “How did he do that?”
Back to this idea of aging funniness. You were saying, and Matt had told me about this, you fly in to work on The Simpsons. You lived in LA for many years and now you’re New York-based. You fly in, you do your work and then you fly out.
That’s it. I’m like a thief in the night. I’m a carpet bagger. To give you the story, I lived in LA for 26 years. This is where my work was and I hated it every single day. I hated it every day the way a man in prison hates it every single day. Many years ago, I cut down to a day a week at The Simpsons. I come in as a consultant and I come in every Wednesday. The Simpsons is an assembly line. It’s not like the Wednesday that I come on a special day. Every single day is a bunch of writers sitting around a table trying to make a script better. I walk in on Wednesday, whatever they’re doing, and I’m pitching jokes. When I cut down to a day a week, I suddenly go, “Why am I spending six days a week in LA to work one day?” My wife said to me, “You complain the least to New York. Let’s move there.” We moved to New York and I would be flying back and forth every Wednesday. Part of the premise of this was the idea that The Simpsons isn’t going to run forever. Now we know it’s going to run at least that long. I’ve been commuting for many years now and I love it.
Are you on the same flight, in the same seat and the flight attendants know you?
It’s crazy. The state of modern air travel is I know them, I know the people, the check-in but they don’t know me. Week in, week out they see my face and they don’t know me. I will come in and I will go, “How’s your son in Alaska?” They look at me like, “He’s a witch. How does he know my life?”
That’s a funny sketch idea. I’m planning on taking a sketch class. I’m on the lookout for sketch ideas.
It’s the one thing I’ve never done. I’ve never written an eight-page, I don’t even know how long a sketch is. I sit and l style sketch. I’ve written one-minute sketches for a show called Not Necessarily the News. I’ve written every kind of TV and movies. I don’t know how to write an eight-minute sketch.
You and me both.
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I will come to classes with you.
That would be amazing. I told you I’m working on a new book. I’m kicking around a lot of ideas from comedy. One of those ideas is this notion of taking a bigger stage. Originally, the idea came from observing Steve Martin’s career. He moved from stand-up to TV to film and then all these other roles. I’m expanding this idea to not only a bigger platform like that, but also a different attitude about life and work. In part because many of us, when we’re young, we put in the time. You’ve put in years and years to get great at this craft and then you achieve some level of success. You could have kept doing the same things that you were doing but you decide, “I’m going to start writing children’s books. I’m going to live where I want to live. I’m going to make the schedule that I want to make.” I’m wondering how that came about. It sounds like your wife had some of the influence.
A small huge majority. I’ve had this blessed career and especially I love The Simpsons. I never loved show business. I didn’t think I would ever be going into it. I love being with other writers. I like making jokes. I love the writers’ room. I love a good writers’ room. I’ve been with certain other writers’ rooms where they’re a little dark for me or a little nasty. I shut down and I can’t do it. I need a very congenial writers’ room to be in. It can’t be a room full of half-baked challenge. Every once in a while, the jokes are in this lame level and again, I shut down. I’m a hothouse flower. I need a very special set up to do anything approaching good work. I’m lucky to fall into The Simpsons for many years where everybody’s good and everybody’s nice. Whatever you’ve taken away for the next book, it’s something I learned writing my own book and then I’ve seen it backed up, which is the real successful shows are nice places to be.
I finished the whole book and an Israeli reviewer said, “Where’s the conflict? Where’s the controversy? What are you hiding?” Up until then, I didn’t realize there was no conflict. I had no dark stories. I opened saying there was a conflict between the two creators of the show. About a few years later, we had a bad day and a half where we were doing a crossover show with the critic and the two staffs were fighting. That was a day-and-a-half and that’s it in many years. I go, “It makes sense. It should make sense. A happy place produces good comedy,” but you don’t hear that. I read Eric Idle’s book about the history of Monty Python. They never fought. There were no egos there. They liked each other and they respected each other. That’s how it is. In the show M*A*S*H, Alan Alda’s book, I read that one. It was a happy place to work. Everyone liked each other. That’s the secret surprise of making a comedy.
You have an anecdote in the book where some very difficult writer got pulled aside by the showrunner. He was like, “If you don’t stop being an asshole, we’re going to have to fire you.” His response was, “Let me think about it.”
That was a true story. He went home and he came back the next day. He said, “I discussed it with my wife and she agreed I can’t stop being an asshole.” The thing in the story is he’s a brilliant writer. He’s a fantastically funny guy but that’s not enough for this TV environment. You’ve got to get along with people.
I love that idea. I talked to Chris Mazzilli who runs the Gotham Comedy Club. It’s an incredibly well-run comedy club. He has a saying to aspiring comics, which is, “Don’t be an asshole.”
There’s so much perception. We get this idea from The Sid Caesar Show. That legend goes on. It was just competitions. Everybody’s yelling at them trying to get attention. I’ve never worked in that kind of environment and I believe it wouldn’t be conducive to making a good show.
In terms of this bigger stage thing, you said, “I’m going to live where I want to live. I will fly in as I need to.” You have the ability to do this, which is great. I could tell from reading your book that you’re a happy guy. You gravitate towards happy places but you probably also make those places happier.
The working title for Springfield Confidential was Smiling All The Time, which is the worst title in the world. It came from IMDB. There’s a discussion thread about me and somebody said, “I listened to Mike Reiss on the DVD commentaries and he sounds like he’s smiling all the time.”
You’re smiling right now.
I smile all the time, and then someone underneath goes, “It gets annoying.”
I think we have the name for this podcast episode, which I’m always puzzling over and sometimes it comes to me during the podcast.
I happened to be this way. I’ve worked with this very grouchy comedy writer, Sam Simon. He was a good laugher. Things would take on but he’s an incredibly prickly, dark, cunning man. A lot of people could not work with the man, but he’s the best TV writer I ever worked with, very funny. You can have any attitude and do that. One night I took NyQuil and I came in the next day and I was Sam Simon. I could do my work and make jokes but I was in a bad mood and cranky. I said, “You can do it all.” I realized, “It’s chemicals. He’s got NyQuil, Prozac or whatever it is in his system. It makes you a grinning idiot.”
That’s super funny. If I can become a behavioral scientist for a moment, one of my favorite studies was done by a researcher at Berkeley named Dacher Keltner. He might have been at Michigan at the time. In any case, he and some other co-authors did an analysis of college yearbook photos of young women. They coded the degree to which their smiles were authentic or not. It’s what’s called Duchenne or non-Duchenne smiles. The ability to have true positive emotions or not. This is a genetic learn tendency that people have. You’re very high on it. That’s very clear. What they did was they correlated the presence or absence of this true positive emotion or not from the photos with a whole variety of outcomes in life. This was a longitudinal study many years later. Things like satisfaction with work, likelihood to have a happy marriage and so on. Lo and behold, there’s a positive correlation there. These women are easier to get along with. They find the bright side of things and that has a variety of positive effects throughout life. You have an obsession with the Marx Brothers.
I guess so. I think people who love comedy love the Marx Brothers.
Tell me why? Make a case. A lot of our audience love comedy and they’re almost certainly going to like The Simpsons. My guess is a lot of them know who the Marx Brothers are, but don’t have love. You want to convince someone to fall in love with the Marx Brothers and why?
The most amazing things about the Marx Brothers is they are legendary and beloved, the Groucho nose, glasses and mustache.
It’s on the cover of my book.
I don’t think any other comedian became a product that represents comedy. It all hangs on five movies, six movies, a few movies. I may get the numbers wrong but I think they only made eleven movies and five of them are no good at all. Some of the movies among their classics are an hour long. It’s not a ton of material but what there is it’s better than anything. Groucho Marx is probably the funniest verbal comedian ever. You have him and whenever there’s a break in the action, you got Harpo Marx, one of the great silent comedians ever. You’ve got Chico who probably everybody is like, “This was a very funny man.” He’s the mortar. He’s the go-between these two guys. That’s it. They are short, funny, dense, fast-moving movies that work. If people have a question, they should see Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. That’s three hours out of their lives to see the greatest comedies ever.
The Duck Soup regularly ends up as the greatest comedy movie ever.
I can’t believe how good it was. It’s utterly perfect until the last two or three minutes. By the end, it’s as good as other movies but up until then it’s super great and it ends. They didn’t have a latch joke or anything. I might have seen it 50 times. I know it by art, I still watch it, and I’m dazzled by it.
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Is that part of the reason that you got into comedy?
I don’t know. I think this was always in me and that’s what I responded to. I was thinking, except that it dates me so terribly, I grew up in a family in the ‘60s where we would watch The Ed Sullivan Show. For younger people, it was a variety show in the truest sense. You’d get a singer, then a dancer, then a juggler, then a comedian. I’d sit there through the whole show waiting for the comedian. That’s something that would interest me from the age of four or five. I want to see the comedian but I never wanted to be the comedian. I never analyze what he did but I had this notion when I would hear a good joke from a comedian and go, “I wish I wrote that.” I never said, “I wish I was that guy.” You always had this image of a guy backstage typing away and then handing the jokes through the curtain. It was insane. I knew there were writers and I said, “I want to be that guy.”
You became him. You wrote for Carson.
I had achieved every one of my childhood dreams. To date myself again, the show I love growing up was The Dick Van Dyke Show. I never wanted to be Dick Van Dyke and I didn’t want to be married to Mary Tyler Moore. There was the character Buddy Sorrell, who was the shrimpy Jewish comedy writer who’s married to a big blonde. He seemed to get laughs around the office but never contributed much to work. I go, “That’s what I want to be,” and that is 100% what I became.
I’m going to get back to Carson and a few other things but I want to ask you about this because you’re still a young man.
No, I’m not. I am a youthful 60-year-old.
In this age, that still can be young. I felt I’ve achieved everything I set out to achieve. It wasn’t maybe as big and audacious. Nonetheless, I’ve got a full professor. In many ways, I’ve been thinking a little bit about what do I want the next twenty years to be like. I spent many hard years doing this and it paid off. It wasn’t clear that it would. Do you think about this idea of you’ve checked all the boxes, is there a next chapter? What’s the plan? Is there a plan?
There is no plan. My career came to me. When I was 38, I saved my money because I knew the life of the TV writer does not last that long. It’s like being a professional athlete. You have twenty good years and then you’re of no use to anyone anymore. I saved my money and I had no kids. I lived frugally. At 38, I retired. I waved goodbye to everything. My wife and I started traveling. I remember I said to David Mirkin, one of the writers of The Simpsons, “I will work again if it’s on a show I like, for nice people on my schedule, and I have no responsibility.” He laughed and said, “Good luck with that.” Sure enough for the past years, I’ve found a lot of jobs like that. Consulting at The Simpsons is one of them. I punched up 25 animated movies. I do a lot of that. Writing the kids’ books makes very little money but I write the kid’s book and they either publish it or they don’t. There’s no back and forth. I don’t have to deal with a bunch of committees telling me what to do.
I found plenty of work and writing plays is there. I started writing plays a few years ago and it’s been the most fun of anything. I would rather do that than anything. It is the hardest profession to crack because nobody wants a new play. Even a play you think is a huge hit makes no money at all for anybody. Nobody wants to risk anything on a new play, but I enjoyed doing that. I’m having much more fun than I thought I would have. To look towards the future, I could go any day now. I’m not lying about that. It’s not levity to it where I did everything I wanted to do. I’ve been to 116 countries. I’ve been to both poles and I wrote my memoirs so I don’t care anymore. I’m on a lot of bad plane flights. I was on a flight where I thought it was going to crash and I go, “Let her crash. I was going to take 200 people with me. I don’t care. It’s been a nice and charming life.”
Thank you for doing this show then.
This is the peak. This is it. I can go, “Oh, my heart.”
I once took a CPR course. It will be awkward but I will do my best. Let’s revisit a couple of ideas that I had. You’ve worked for Carson. You got fired and rehired.
I got fired and he offered me my job back two weeks later. I was like, “What did I learn in two weeks?”
You and your partner/partners would write 60 jokes a day. Carson would pick twelve of those jokes. You said about four would still be bombed despite those numbers.
It was about five groups of writers each doing 60. That’s 300 jokes. The head writer would cut it down to eighteen. Carson would cut it down to twelve. Of those twelve, four would suck. The question I would get all the time from people about writing for Carson and they go, “He’s so funny when he bombs. Do you write him bad jokes so he can bomb?” I was like, “That’s what I do.”
Standups and writers understand this but the average person doesn’t understand how much work goes into finding comedy gold.
It’s a craft for sure. It’s not an art. I don’t think I’m an artist. I write a tweet a day. I write one joke a day on Twitter, @MikeReissWriter. I would spend hours to make the joke great and if people don’t love it, I will put another one up there to get one joke right. I did the math once. I’ve written 60,000 jokes in my life and yet still I put it on Twitter. I have no idea what the feedback’s going to be. There are times my wife will watch me where I type up a joke, put it on Twitter and then I rolled the chair back. Nobody goes for it. That’s it. I still don’t quite get it.
Why do you write a joke a day for Twitter?
It’s like everything else I do in life. I’ve never wanted to go near it. I didn’t think so. When I sold the book, Springfield Confidential, they said, “You should go on social media,” because I’m not on Facebook. I’m like, “I will go on Twitter,” but I hate these accounts. There are funny people on Twitter. I was like, “I will make a thing of this. I will try and write a good joke every day,” and that’s what I do.
You were the showrunner on season four with Al Jean. Everything I know about show running, which is not a lot, suggest that you are indeed too happy to be a showrunner. Is that a false premise that I’m working with?
The year I retired when I was 38, Al Jean came running right back to The Simpsons. He spent a couple of years as the number two guy. He’s been running the show for many years single-handedly. He’s doing exactly as well as he did working with me. If you do the math on that, I contributed zero. He loves running the show and he hopes he dies doing it. I hated running The Simpsons.
How are you two wired differently that he loves it and you hate it?
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He likes controlling the whole process. I don’t know why he likes it. It was one of those things that came up in the writing of the book. The editor said, “Al has been doing this. Isn’t there anyone after the job? Isn’t there any competition?” It had never occurred to me why would anyone want the hardest job in the world? There’s been no palace intrigue. There have been no attempted coups. We found someone willing to do this job, which seems to like it.
I don’t often plug people’s stuff in front of them, but there’s a section of the book where you lay out the time course of an episode and everything that goes into that episode. You even build the joke into that. If people are wondering what exactly does a showrunner do? To save us time, they should read at least that section of your book.
I never give Mathew Klickstein, my co-writer, enough credit. That was the thing he said, “You’ve got to put this in the book.” I said, “No one’s going to be interested.” It’s 23 steps to make a Simpson. I thought it’s the dullest thing in the world and then I read the book on tape. I’m bored out of my mind reading my own process. It’s in there and people love it. It’s the biggest takeaway from the book. Look how hard they work to make this show and it’s not a joke. I said, “It’s 23 steps to make a Simpson. How many steps is it to do a liver transplant?” I looked that up. That’s eight steps. You can do liver, lungs, and heart with the amount of effort to make one Simpson.
You talked about padding shows and falling short. It’s having too much content and having too little and how depending on the writers’ room and who’s running it sometimes. You were talking about needing to pad shows at times.
Al and I had a very tough filter, very high standard for materials. I think when we ran the show together and we were always coming up short. We need to fill twenty minutes and we would come in with seventeen minutes. Sometimes we would say to Fox, “Can you sell more ads?” They’d go, “We sure can.” We found creative ways to fill the time. The best one that came purely out of desperation was to make a long couch joke. We make a joke every week where they sit on the couch and it’s five seconds. We said, “Let’s do one that’s a minute.” We’ve done them that are three minutes long. We bring in guest artists to do it. Even people who are sick of The Simpsons love what we do with the couch joke every week. That was born of pure desperation.
We might disagree about what makes things funny, but we do agree that Hot Fuzz is a great movie.
They even fought me on putting that in the book where I said, “Here’s the movie you have to see.” They said, “Everyone has seen Hot Fuzz.” I don’t think it’s true at all. Simon Pegg has been in a lot of okay movies and he will do things. He writes these movies that are beautifully constructed and Hot Fuzz is the movie. There’s not a line wasted in the movie. It’s very funny. You will get to the end of the movie and go, “He sets that up to an hour-and-a-half ago with something else.” They are so intricate. He did a movie called The World’s End, which also someone did the structure on that and found out there is so much more going on to that movie than you thought.
It seems like a group comedy Hangover-esque prop.
There’s a lot more to it. There’s part of it that I think is a theme that keeps coming up here, which is you can phone it in. You can do half-baked comedy and even succeed for a while, but you can also work hard and you should. Things come out a little better if you work hard.
I like the movie because it’s a part action movie. It ups the entertainment value of it. It has the buddy element, the classic clown and straight guy there. I noticed that and I was like, “I like that movie too.” This is a perfect lead in to my final question. Beyond Hot Fuzz, what are you reading, watching or listening to that’s good?
Dana Gould who wrote for The Simpsons for years does a podcast, which is great. It’s a work of art, better than any other podcasts there. He crafted it and it’s three hours long. It’s this insanely long podcast when he could put out, “Here’s an interview with my funny friend,” and do a different one every week, but instead he’s got four or five balls in the air. He cuts between different stories. He clearly edits, which a lot of podcasts don’t. That’s it. There are a lot of good podcasts out there. I will plug The Dana Gould Hour. It’s three hours long. The other ones are the obvious contenders. I watched Fleabag, the second one, which I loved. You almost get tired of it because everybody’s saying, “Have you seen Fleabag?” You go, “Is there nothing else that’s great out there?” It’s a good example of the fact that the woman who made Fleabag the first season, did not want to do a second season. She had to be nagged and begged into it. She took her sweet time. It took four years to make what’s basically two-and-a-half-hours of material. It’s a long movie. There’s not a minute wasted in that. I catch up on Veep. Everybody likes Veep. The last episode of the series is the greatest last episode of anything. I saw it. I think about it every day. It resonates with me because for many years we’ve been trying to think of the last episode of The Simpsons and I’ve never had or heard a good idea.
It’s very hard to wrap these long-running shows. They’re always going to be disappointing in some way.
Disappointing is one thing. People hate them. Game of Thrones or Seinfeld, they hated the last episode.
I had Matt Walsh from Veep on this show. It was a very nice thing. Can I make a quick observation? You are primarily a joke writer.
I am a joke writer. I have a little trick. I make a lot of jokes and then I have the extra skill to string them together and make it look like there’s a story there.
You’re fascinated, in my opinion from talking to you, with this notion of story and character. It’s come up a number of times. You admire it. You were talking about Hot Fuzz, a comedy with story and characters and so on. You got into playwriting, which is story and characters primarily. You have had success as a playwriter in a world that is very difficult to have success. You had a play called I’m Connecticut.
It won every award in Connecticut. It drives me crazy because it’s set in New York. It has Connecticut in the title and so everyone goes could only be in Connecticut and it’s like Oklahoma that played outside of Oklahoma. The anecdote I want to keep getting to is I was on a panel with Dan Greaney who’s a much funnier Simpsons writer than I am. One of the smartest guys I know. They introduced me and they go, “Our next panelist is Mike Reiss, a true renaissance man.” He starts laughing. He goes, “Renaissance man, him?” They go, “Mike has written movies, TVs, mystery stories and plays.” He goes, “He’s just a lonely guy who sits at the computer.” I go, “Once again, Dan was correct. He summed it all up where everything I write is the same. It all comes from spending a lot of time sitting there trying to make it better.” My kids’ books are like my plays. They are like Simpsons or like animated movies. I try to make them funny and goodhearted. I want them to be clever. Clever is a very hard thing to sell in TV because you will do something clever and people go, “It didn’t get a laugh.” It’s like, “It’s clever. The light bulb doesn’t get a laugh but it’s clever.”
I will tell you one more thing because I get this question a lot. Is there a joke you love and you didn’t make the cut? It was a joke in the movie, The Lorax. It’s an animated movie that I helped to write. Anyone who’s read The Lorax or saw the movie sees that it’s all about a company selling Thneed. You see Thneed on signs and billboards, Dr. Seuss’s work. I said, “At the end of the movie, have The Lorax move the “n” in Thneed two places to the right and it will say, “The End.” It’s the thing the comedy writers call that a find. That’s joke sitting there waiting to be found. I wrote that joke and I go, “I’ve earned my pay here,” and then what happened is what happens in animated movies. Any joke you give them, they go, “Now we will save it.” Instead of having them move the “n,” they made a 45-second piece out of them, struggling and sweating. I saw it. I go, “They took all the fun out of it.” It’s not in the movie. In fact, The Lorax is another movie that ends. It runs out of time. There is no joke at the end. That one drove me crazy. It’s not even self-pride. I feel like I’m the guy who found that joke sitting there and then they didn’t do it.
I get this question a lot about the limits of the Benign Violation Theory, which clearly has some. I think one of the places that it bumps up against limits is the notion that humor arises from things that are wrong yet okay or as we call them benign violations, doesn’t do a good job explaining clever. I like to say that the Benign Violation Theory is a ha-ha theory but what you’re interested in is a-ha, these moments of insight. Moments of insights are pleasurable even though you’re not necessarily laughing. The best is to bring them both together at the same moment. Mike, thank you so much. You’re on your lunch break. We’re on the Fox Studio lot doing these things. People outside are starting to congregate.
We’re keeping The Simpsons from being funny.
People will be pissed by that. Thank you so much and cheers.
- Springfield Confidential
- Gotham Comedy Club
- @MikeReissWriter on Twitter
- The Dana Gould Hour
- Matt Walsh – past episode
About Mike Reiss
Mike Reiss has won four Emmys and a Peabody Award during his twenty-eight years writing for “The Simpsons”. He ran the show in Season 4, which Entertainment Weekly called “the greatest season of the greatest show in history.”
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