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How an almost lawyer came to write jokes for Bart Simpson

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A key figure for the long-running animated comedy “The Simpsons” made a visiting appearance at Page Hall on Friday, Feb. 8, where Mike Reiss, writer and producer for “The Simpsons,” was a guest speaker for the New York State Writers Institute.

“I am not a comedian,” said Reiss. “I am a comedy writer. I could not write comedy myself.”

Reiss discussed how teamwork is needed in order to create the television series.  

“There are 23 writers on staff,” said Reiss. “There are 22 episodes a year and each writer must have one good idea.  One doesn’t do squat. That person is me.”

Reiss provided the audience with a great “behind-the-scenes” look at the creation of some iconic episodes from the series, which currently has 30 seasons under its belt.

Some episodes were based off experiences of different writers and workers on “The Simpsons,” according to Reiss.

One episode, which was “Goo Goo Gai Pan,” showed how Selma, Marge’s sister, adopted a baby from China because she could not have any more babies.  This episode was based on an episode where a writer adopted a baby girl from China.

“One writer adopted a baby girl, and instead of saying ‘congratulations,’ we wrote an episode about it,” said Reiss.  

Reiss talked to fans about how episodes in certain countries were banned because they were offensive to cultures of different countries.

“We were banned in Japan, because each character has four fingers,” said Reiss.  “Walt Disney Studios gave Mickey Mouse the ‘finger’ so he would not have four fingers because in Japan, four is bad luck.”

France cancelled “The Simpsons” shortly after the show premiered on American television, because of an episode in the first season called “The Crepes of Wrath,” a play on words of the John Steinbeck book, “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Venezuela has also banned “The Simpsons” because leaders thought the show would bring “bad American values.”

“We were banned in Venezuela because leader Hugo Chavez said it had ‘bad American values,’” said Reiss. “It was replaced with ‘Baywatch.’”

Most of the guest stars who received guest roles wanted to please their grandchildren.

“The Rolling Stones’ [Mick Jagger and Keith Richards] grandchildren influenced them to do it,” said Reiss. “Author Thomas Pynchon wanted to impress his teenage son by getting a role on the show. We always get calls from him. After the second time he called the show, we told him we were not in.”

Reiss discussed how he wanted to create more movies after the success of “The Simpsons Movie.” It took four years, nine writers, and 11 directors to create the movie.

“We currently have no plans, but you never know,” said Reiss. “I want to make a live action movie featuring Vin Diesel as Homer Simpson. I also would cast William H. Macy for the role of Ned Flanders. We would also give Tom Cruise the role as Mr. Smithers, [Mr. Burns’ assistant].”

Throughout his time as writer, he has experienced failures while creating other television shows.

Reiss’ show ‘The Critic’ bounced around networks until it landed on a comedy website that eventually went bankrupt.

During his time as writer for different television shows, he enjoyed working on “ALF,” a classic American sitcom of its time. The show, which was televised in the 1980s, was about an alien who lived with a suburban family.

“It was easy and fun,” said Reiss. “It was a kid’s show where adults could understand the humor. Paul Fusco, the creator, was fun to work with while the show was on the air.”

If Reiss was not in the television industry, he would have been a lawyer.

“If I was not a comedy writer, I would definitely be a funny lawyer,” said Reiss. “I would always like to get laughs when I was at Harvard Law School.”

Mike Reiss’ book, Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons, discusses behind the scenes of the longest running television series in television history. It is in stores now.

2 Comments

  1. Christopher Payne
    February 22, 2019 at 10:20 am — Reply

    I like this story!

  2. March 9, 2019 at 2:55 pm — Reply

    It’s spectacular!

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