Long before animated sitcoms like “Family Guy,” “Archer” and “Bob’s Burgers” hit the small screen, “The Simpsons” captured the hearts of viewers worldwide with its biting social commentary and lovable bunch of outrageous characters.
Creatives have come and gone throughout the show’s 25 years, but Emmy-winning writer Mike Reiss is still going strong. Since “The Simpsons” began in 1989, he has served as writer, show-runner and producer for the series, and has helped pen a number of hit films such as “Horton Hears a Who!” and “Ice Age: The Dawn of Dinosaurs.”
Tying in “The Simpsons” with his Jewish descent, Reiss will present “The Simpsons and Other Jewish Families” Thursday, April 18, at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe, with all proceeds benefiting the Hillel Jewish Student Center at Arizona State University.
The East Valley Tribune recently sat down with Reiss to discuss “The Simpsons,” which character he relates to most, and why you don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy Thursday’s show.
Q: Could you share a general overview of what you’ll be speaking about at the ASU Hillel fundraiser in Tempe?
A: Yes, this is a speech I’ve given all over the country. It surprised me, someone came up with this idea to talk about Judaism and 'The Simpsons,' and I put together this speech that’s been a huge crowd-pleaser – it has sold-out audiences all over the country. I talk about my 25 years with 'The Simpsons,' and there’s, like, a bias toward Jewish themes on 'The Simpsons.' I talk about Jewish writers on the show, Jewish cast members, Jewish guest stars and the episodes that have had Jewish themes. It’s just a fun evening event, and you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the presentation at all. 'The Simpsons' is such a giant topic, and this is one way to kind of narrow it down and look at it.
Q: Having written and consulted for 'The Simpsons' for so long, how do you and the other writers keep material fresh or prevent yourselves from recycling old plots?
A: The biggest thing we do to keep ourselves fresh is we now have 23 writers on the show. For years, we did the show with four writers, then with six and then with eight. It ate us up. People got burnt out and would quit the show, and it got sad to see writers quitting every three or four years, even though they loved the job, because they had nothing left to give.
Now we have 23 writers, and we only do 22 episodes a year, and so that means that each writer really only has to have one really good idea a year, and one guy doesn’t have to do anything. [Laughs.] That’s one way we do it.
Also, people only work as many days as they feel they can be fresh. After 25 years, I only go in one day a week, and then there are some people that work four days a week or five days a week. That’s how we keep it fresh.
To keep from repeating ourselves, we have to hit the Internet constantly, and luckily there are a lot of 'Simpsons' fan sites, and Wikipedia has a long list of every couch joke we’ve done. We’ll have a new idea for a couch joke and then have to make sure we didn’t do it 15 years ago.
Q: Of all 'The Simpsons' characters, who would you say you relate to most and why?
A: Pretty much for all 'The Simpsons' writers, when they were kids they wished they had been Bart, because Bart was the cool kid they were not. But with all (the) writers – even the guys – we were all like Lisa when we were kids. We were a little too smart and didn’t have too many friends and didn’t fit in very well. We were all Lisa when we were kids and then suddenly, we woke up one day and we were Homer…grumpy and overweight. [Laughs.]
Q: When did you first realize that 'The Simpsons' was more than just a TV sitcom, but truly a pop culture phenomenon?
A: There were a few points, starting with the very first night we were on TV. It’s funny because you’ll read the history of 'The Simpsons' and some will say it was slow to catch on and we had a cult following at first, but that’s all wrong. 'The Simpsons' premiered in 1988 with a Christmas show, and we had fun working on it and writing episodes. That night we went to a premiere party, and the reviews came out and every one of the reviews knew that this was something special. Every single review we read that night said that this was something that was going to change TV forever and a landmark in TV comedy.
So we knew that night, and the ratings from our debut were in fact the highest ratings in the history of the Fox network. So that was it. We didn’t know what we had – we had worked on the show for a year and just thought, 'Well, this is fun, I hope somebody watches it.' But then from the very first night of the show, we knew we were on to something. We were all very surprised.
Q: To wrap things up, I have a good friend who is a huge 'Simpsons' fan and was just wondering what your experience was like working with recluse writer John Swartzwelder?
A: Yeah, John Swartzwelder. Because he never appears on DVD commentaries and he doesn’t ever get interviewed or anything, he becomes this sort of mythical figure. It’s funny how much attention you can draw by staying out of the public eye. When you see him, he’s always just such a friendly, affable guy. He seems like the most normal guy in the world, except that he writes the strangest episodes of 'The Simpsons.' Even among the very, very funny people that write for 'The Simpsons,' when he would turn in his scripts, we’d go, 'How did he do it? How’d he think of this stuff?' As your friend probably knows, John wrote 59 episodes of 'The Simpsons,' so he pretty much wrote three solid years of the show all by himself.
“The Simpsons and Other Jewish Families” is at 7:15 p.m. April 18 at the Arizona Historical Society Museum, 1300 N. College Ave. in Tempe. Individual tickets cost $18-$118. Two tickets and access to a dessert reception are $200. For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.HillelASU.org.