If a robber snuck into my apartment and decided to kick back with my wonderful idiot dog on the couch and watch some TV, they would be pleasantly surprised to find hundreds of episodes of The Simpsons living quiet lives of syndicated dignity on my DVR.
The Simpsons remains the most cromulent television program in history, a microcosm of America in the 20th century in animated form, and also the most re-watchable show of our time. And that is regardless of whether you worship at the altar of seasons 3-10 or are a diehard fan who can name the best episodes of recent years (Holidays Of Futures Passed, Homer The Whopper, Bart Gets A Z, Barthood, Brick Like Me, Homer’s New Friend, to name a few).
In celebration of the show’s 30th anniversary this year, longtime writer/producer Mike Reiss is releasing Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for “The Simpsons” this week (you can read an excerpt here). Written with Mathew Klickstein, it’s the first substantial book to be written about the show, with never-before-told stories covering everything including the reason George Takai turned down a cameo (“I don’t make fun of monorails”), why the Japanese don’t like The Simpsons (they don’t like the fact that the characters have four fingers), and Matt Groening’s terrible idea for a final episode (“reveal that Krusty is really Homer”).
Reiss was one of the original writers before becoming co-showrunner with Al Jean during the peaks of seasons three and four (the two wrote a bunch of classic episodes, including The Way We Was, Moaning Lisa, Lisa’s Pony and Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious); he left the show for a few years, returned around season 10, co-wrote The Simpsons Movie, and has been a producer for the last two decades. In the book, he documents the exhaustive process it takes for each episode to go from concept to air (including nine months and 23 steps); he offers up his favorite episodes and characters, what went wrong with The Critic, and discusses the controversy over Apu (“Times change, and maybe after three decades, time has run out for Apu”).
You learn how many classic gags (like Bart’s phone calls to Moe and Sideshow Bob’s endless rakes) were produced to pad out episodes, why the Simpsons family is yellow, and all the many theories on where Springfield really resides. You also hear from Simpsons legends like Dan Castallaneta and Conan O’Brien, famous fans like Judd Apatow, and… David Copperfield, a friend of Reiss’ who makes a surprising amount of cameos.
I’m sure you hear this from a lot of people, but The Simpsons is something that has meant so much to me, and has been such an important part of my life. When the marathon started happening on FXX, I started automatically recording every episode on DVR, because there were certain later seasons I had never watched before. I spent like a year catching up with a lot of episodes I’d missed, and it was just such a delight. How great. It’s really great. It never gets old. The funny thing, at least for me, is it’s the one thing in life I can’t relate to. The love people have for the show, and the obsession they have for it is something I wish I could join in on, but of course, it’s my job, I work there. Somebody once said to me, “The worst part of working at The Simpsons must be that you can’t go home and watch The Simpsons.”
Do you feel like you’re too close to it? Do you not enjoy watching the show at this point? No, it’s just, it can’t surprise me because I saw it in the works all the way through, that’s all. And, in fact, I’m just like you in that there’s 50 episodes in the show I didn’t work on, out of 650. There’s two years I wasn’t there at all, and those episodes, when I catch them, I go, “Wow, it’s great.” And sometimes I think, wow, it’s so much better without me. But mostly, for the past 28 years, it’s just what I work at.
You left the show during seasons eight and nine [to work on The Critic, among other things]. That makes sense, since I was looking through the book to see if there was anything about the classic “The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson” episode, which was in season nine. Yes, I did not work on that. But I know that’s a huge fan favorite. I think I do mention this in the book, that my favorite episode ever is the one where Lisa finds the bones of an angel [“Lisa The Skeptic”]. I think David Cohen wrote it. And, again, this is one I didn’t work on, and I go home, and it was a mystery episode. I didn’t know how they were gonna resolve it, and I thought it has a really great resolution, and it at least spoke to what I love the most about The Simpsons, which is when it takes on an issue and discusses both sides of it, and generally an issue you never see discussed on TV, much less with comedy, much less a cartoon. And that one was about science versus faith, and I thought very fair handed.
When you first started working at The Simpsons, did you feel like there was a bias against animated shows? Was there a sense that some writers would look down on animated comedies? Oh, absolutely. I got the job partly because I think the first couple of people they asked to work on the show turned it down. They turned the job down, and I took the job. And, candidly, it was jut a summer job. I was working on another show and on my summer break I worked at The Simpsons for three months and didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. It’s very hard for people to get in the mindset of 1988 that cartoons were not just dumb things for kids. The only cartoons on TV were very shabby, cheaply produced, Saturday morning cartoons. So we thought people were definitely looking down on it.
There’s a interesting synchronicity, because the same year The Simpsons came out, the Little Mermaid came out and caused everyone to reevaluate feature animation as well. That was literally the first time, at least in the modern era, that adults were saying, “Hey, here’s a Disney cartoon that I could go see.”
And one that adults could enjoy as much as their kids could. During that first season, as the writers were coming up with the initial stories and the initial characters to fill in Springfield, was there a sense among all of you that this was something special, that this was something that would last as long as it did? No, no, absolutely not. Just weeks before the show came out, I was sitting with the other writers in our trailer, because Fox wouldn’t even give us an actual room. We were in this trailer, and I had the sense, if the show failed, they were gonna back the trailer up to the ocean and let us drift away.
So I’m sitting in the trailer, and I said, “How long do you think this show will last?” And everybody said six weeks. And that was what used to happen back in that era when you tried to do a show that was different and experimental, you got six weeks on the air and you got canceled. So none of us thought it would last longer than that. And again, I always say, what may be the key to the show’s success is we didn’t think anyone was gonna watch it, we thought it was just a lark of a summer job, so we did the kind of TV we always wanted to see rather than worrying about the pressure of an audience.
Was there a moment for you when The Simpsons became The Simpsons that we all know and love? An episode, or a gag, or something that happened where the show clicked into place? It literally happened the night of the premiere. We had a premiere party in a bowling alley, which, again, is very low rent because expectations were low. It had just been a project we had all been fooling around with for year, and the show came on monitors in the bowling alley where they usually would be projecting your bowling score. They put the first episode of The Simpsons as it aired across America, and we’re all watching it, and I think we were all sort of dumbfounded how good it was.
So we were flabbergasted, and then not too long after, Fox publicity came in with the reviews that we were getting all over the country. Again, this is pre-internet. You didn’t know things instantly, they had to collect a bunch of newspapers, and cut them up, and Xerox them. And they came in with this packet of reviews, and the critics recognized it too. They said, “This is a game changer. This is a whole new kind of TV. This is something special.” So for us, it was all in one night, us recognizing, wow, this show is much better than we thought, then having the critics backing us up. Then the next morning we go to work and found out the show had debuted to the highest ratings in the history in the Fox Network, so that was it. We were sort of a critical and popular hit right out of the box.
About a month ago, I was channel surfing and I came upon the Robert De Niro version of Cape Fear. As I was watching it, I suddenly realized, a) I had never seen this movie before, but, b) I knew exactly what the plot was, and every major scene, because of The Simpsons, because I had watched the “Cape Feare” episode dozens and dozens of times. It has turned into a crazy phenomena, where The Simpsons is introducing generations of people to all sorts of pop culture. There’s so little conscious effort or conscious mission that went into creating the show. It was a fun thing we did. We would parody things that entertained us, and made references that we got, that the audience probably wouldn’t get, and certainly, the young audience wouldn’t get at all. We parodied every single scene in Citizen Kane, and I don’t know what percent of our audience has seen it. I can’t imagine the experience of growing up watching The Simpsons, and then at age 21 finally seeing Citizen Kane and going, “Oh, that’s what that all was about.”
The other thing, of course, about “Cape Feare” was that it had the now iconic rake gag—I was really amazed to read in your book about how that was really a padded scene. Yes, it was just improv. I’ve gotta give the credit to Al Jean. We were facing a seven second hole in the show, and he said, “Let’s just do it again.” And we did a couple of those earlier in the show, too, and I always wondered, do people get those or not? Where it would be in the Halloween show, we would see Kang and Kodos, the two aliens, plotting something evil, and then they would laugh evilly. And we would let the laugh go three times as long as it was supposed to. And I was never sure, do people get this, and how long do you have to let something run before people know, wow, this is going much too long?
We would experiment. Sometimes I watch Family Guy and I go, “Wow, they really committed to that.” I remember one of their most famous jokes, Peter’s running along and then he bangs his knee, and he just sits there wincing in pain for what must be 45 seconds. It’s very daring, and as much as we like to push the envelope on The Simpsons, we will never go that far. I think time is a little precious on the show, that we won’t make that kind of extreme commitment to a joke, but, I respect it.
Speaking of Family Guy, were the writers paying close attention to similar animated comedies that came in the wake of The Simpsons? The whole “The Simpsons already did it” idea? I did not become aware of it, personally, until they did it explicitly on South Park, that that was a trope or a meme. No, I had no idea that was going on.
It’s funny, there’s so many things like this that have just take off a life of its own off of the show. Yeah. Now, mind you, everyone has to realize, the biggest job we have at The Simpsons right now is that, that The Simpsons did it. And we have to work so hard not to repeat anything we’ve done in the past 300 hours of entertainment we provided. And the fact that our fans are very alert and very obsessive, if we repeat a joke once in 25 years, they’re gonna catch it.
How do you keep track of all of the different plots and B and C storylines to avoid that? We have about 20 writers, so sometimes it’s just someone in the group will say, “Hey, we did something close to this.” But, if you had to focus it on one entity, it’s Al Jean, the man who has run the show for 20 years, he just has an encyclopedic knowledge of the show and it’s often scary how far into the past he can reach, with real specificity, and say, “Here’s where we did this joke already.”
Early in the book, you talk about the 13 people most responsible for The Simpsons—[that includes co-creators Matt Groening and Sam Simon, James L Brooks, chief animation David Silverman, Al Jean, animators Brad Bird and Rich Moore, and the six main cast members Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer]—but you acknowledge that the writer’s room was largely a boys club in the early seasons. I was curious about how different the writer’s room is now. What’s funny is the tension is just this entity that absorbs everyone. It went probably five years without a woman on staff just because it was just a scattered group of friends who wrote the show for the first several years. Then women would come in, and people of color, and now we have a much more diverse looking staff. We just hired a 26-year-old writer from Nigeria.
But to me they come in, and here they are, part of The Simpsons machine. We had women on the show for 20 years, and I never noticed, “oh that’s a woman.” It’s funny. It sounds almost utopian or something. I never notice race, I don’t notice age, I don’t notice gender at the show because we’re all just working on this big thing, we’re all serving this bigger machine.
Were these sorts of issues around diversity and more viewpoints in the writer’s room brought up in the past, or is it only something that is a more recent thing that people have pointed out? Once we started hiring, again, we had a core group of writers for four or five years, and one spot would open up, and someone else would come in.
The big issue—and I hate even talking about it because it sounds like an excuse, but it’s happened repeatedly—we hire a woman writer, and then Hollywood goes, “Wow, it’s a woman and she writer for The Simpsons.” And they’ll throw a big deal at her. It happens terribly often where we’ll get a great woman writer, and then she’s gone in two years for a big Hollywood development deal. They’re looking at me and they’re like, “Wow, a middle aged Jewish guy. We’ve gotta have him.”
That’s just the new flavor Hollywood needs. It is funny in that we know writers are not the most desirable group, and yet slowly we have aged into becoming another minority on the show. Nobody wants to hire a 58-year-old comedy writer, but The Simpsons is full of them, they’re just people who have aged into this job.
Along these lines, I know you’ve spoken about the issues over Apu and Hank Azaria before, and in the book you talk a bit about how you feel now, that maybe it’s time to retire the character, especially if Hank isn’t comfortable playing him. What I’m curious about is, the show did an episode a few years ago on the topic, “Much Apu About Something,” that I thought was really interesting and great way of discussing it. So why did you bring it back dismissively in the more recent episode, “No Good Read Goes Unpunished”? It was brought up again just as a joke. It was a joke and acknowledgement that this is still an issue with the show. I don’t know.
The gentleman [comedian Hari Kondabolu] made a documentary about it this year and got a lot of attention, not realizing I think, or not appreciating the fact that we’re aware of the issue, we’re not comfortable with the issue, we addressed it head on two years ago, and since then, without a lot of fanfare, we have benched Apu. You don’t see him on the show anymore. We haven’t made a grand stand of it, you just don’t see him, he had one line last year. So the fact that someone has made a documentary thing, we’ve gotta do something, Apu hasn’t really been paid attention because we did what we can about Apu. It is a very complicated issue. We study all the fan feedback we can get, and letters to the editor, and it’s not cut and dried in any direction.
If there was a very clear throughline of what’s to be done, I know we’d do it because we wanna do the right thing, but the feelings are very strong on several different approaches to this issue, and so again, we just quietly benched the character for several years now.
Was there ever a moment where you considered getting a different voice actor to play him? Yes, it’s always discussed. It’s always come up. Again, there is no consensus among the fans, there’s no consensus among the producers what the best course of action is.
The Simpsons have had so many guests and so many musicians over the years. What makes for a great guest star or guest musician versus a forgettable one? When we have a random guest star, for example, when we do a show about opera, you’ll go after the biggest opera star in the world. We had Placido Domingo on the show. But sometimes the guest stars are just people we wanna meet, people we admire, and so we bring them in to work on the show. The most memorable one was when Homer went into space [“Deep Space Homer”], the guest star was James Taylor, it was really just because we wanted to meet James Taylor. We keep a wishlist of people we’d love to have on the show, and also we keep notes of celebrities who might say in an interview, “I love The Simpsons.” And we’ll go, “All right, we’ll put them on the list.”
Who at this point is your white whale? We’ve made so many approaches to Bruce Springsteen. From year one I think we’ve been trying to get Bruce on the show, and we could never quite get him. He just wasn’t interested.
The amazing one I had is, I am friends with a very prominent priest in New York who swears to me he can get the Pope on the show. He knows the Pope, he can get the Pope. I bring it up at work every once in a while, “I think I can get us the Pope!”, and we’re always too busy. We’re always too busy just putting out fires, and making the current show to think about getting the parts right
That seems like a pretty big get if you can. I think that’s a great get. Yeah, as you can imagine, I pushed really hard several times, and to the point where I gotta stop sitting here like an idiot pitching the Pope.
I wonder if your friend is just trying to impress you. Just the idea of being friends with the Pope seems like an absurd statement from afar. He’s really a friend of the Pope, he’s one of the top clergyman in New York. I don’t know if you saw it in the book, but got an award from the Pope, which beats any Emmy I had. The Pope needed jokes for a charity he was doing, and I wrote a bunch of jokes. And so my friend the priest came to me, and I wrote a bunch of jokes for the Pope, and I have a plaque in my home where Pope Francis declared me a Missionary of Joy.
Do you think that some fans are too invested, or obsessed, with continuity? No. None of it bothers me. I’m glad they’re having fun. I’m glad they’re obsessing, unless they get very nasty. I do an awful lot of public speaking. I’ve given 400 speeches in 21 countries about The Simpsons. When I meet our fans, our fans are cool. Our fans are not nerdy, they’re not obsessed with details. Our fans are not Comic Book Guy. When I do a Q&A I look at parody questions, someone will ask the kind of question a nerd would ask in jest. So I think they all get it. The pieces do not fit together any more.
You talk in the book a little about the portion of fans who always reminisce about the golden years of the show, how they feel the show went downhill at a certain point, and how you feel like maybe they don’t give it a chance now. Why do you think these fans don’t care for the show past season 10 or so? Why do you think they lionize that first decade so much? I don’t know. I don’t have a great answer except, The Simpsons can keep being good, but they can’t be new forever. It can’t be fresh forever. You can’t surprise people forever. And we’re victims of that, and there are times I think, yes, maybe the show does get a little complacent, get a little repetitious.
But what’s been simply amazing to me is, I think once we predicted Trump, which was just a fluke, just something silly that happened, the fans came back to start watching the show again, and they’re loving it again. And that amazes me that you’re in season 29, I keep hearing as the year wraps up, people going, “Wow, that was a great year.” So yes, once people sit there and actually watch the show, they tend to really like it again.
And by the way, it seems strange to think of Saturday Night Live, which in season 45 can still get an audience and make the news every week. That’s a show people have been willing to write off for whole decades, for scores of years, and say it hasn’t been good in 20 years, and then suddenly, wow it’s electrifying again.
I think the joke about that starting with the third episode, people were saying it’s not as good as it used to be. For these long running shows, at a certain point you are competing with yourself. You’re competing with that first story that people fell in love with. They are going to be compared, whether anyone thinks that’s fair or not. Yes, I’ll say on The Simpsons the very hardest part of our job now is finding a great new story we haven’t done before. And once we get those stories, then it’s like somebody starting up the presses at a newspaper. Then all the writers can jump in on the jokes and figure out the plot twist. But you just need a fresh angle.
My impression from the book is that Homer is your favorite character to write for. How do you balance Homer so that he doesn’t flip over into the Jerk Ass Homer territory? Well, obviously you’re quoting the term coined by our fans. [Laughs]
You bring it up in the book. Yes. It’s not the most eloquent phrase, but we cite it all the time. It’s something to protect against. I think possibly where fans may have started to drift away was at any point they thought that Homer was losing his humanity. Or Homer went from dumb to incredibly stupid, almost sadly stupid. As much as we sometimes feel brutalized by the fan websites, they make a good point, and when they say something that makes sense, we listen to it.
Can The Simpsons continue without people like Dan and Hank? Hmm, I don’t know.
Do you guys talk about what the future might hold if certain people don’t want to do it anymore? We do worry about it. We had a little scare with Harry Shearer, who just didn’t like the terms offered to him. He’s very careful to say he wasn’t quitting, he just didn’t like what he was presented with and he wasn’t going to come back to the show. At that point, every agent in town was pitching actors to us. [Laughs] Some very well known actors were angling to get Harry’s part.
Because we would have had to, we were going to proceed without him. So, maybe. But we’re just so lucky we haven’t come up against that. We’ve had a couple of semi-regulars on the show die, and we’ve never replaced their characters. We never got someone to be Mrs. Krabappel or Lionel Hutz or Troy McClure. We just said, “Let them go.” But, I don’t know, sooner or later, it is bound to happen.
Certainly, it’s gonna come to a moment where decisions will have to be made. Because it’s one thing, obviously, for a side character. It’s another thing for one of the members of the family. Yeah. We’re just so lucky with the cast. They get a lot of money, but we know they’re worth every penny. They’re all so talented, so good. They bring so much to the show. Whenever we do a table reading of a script and the cast is there, we know the material is getting the best service it can get. So we like them, and they’re good to work with, too. They’re nice people.
Do you have a favorite musician who has been on the show? Let me think about that. It’s a little easy to go with, but Al Jean and I wrote the episode that had Michael Jackson in it [“Stark Raving Dad”], and it was Michael Jackson before any scandal and at the super peak of his fame. He was famous to a level nobody has been as famous as ever since. He was just a delight. It was so exciting to work with him, he was such a nice man. He seemed much more normal in person. He had no entourage, he shook hands with everyone. He seemed to really enjoy the experience. He wrote the lovely “Lisa, It’s Your Birthday” song for the show. That just was pure pleasure, one of the real peak experiences of my career.
The whole thing about Kipp Lennon [Jackson’s authorized soundalike who came with him to the taping and sang “Lisa, It’s Your Birthday”] was just such a bizarre twist on the whole thing. That was a funny little surprise, literally right at the end of the day. We’d been through the whole script development process with him, we’d recorded 80% of the episode, and then to suddenly come in with his authorized soundalike was something we didn’t understand. But we were glad, “Okay, we got a little bit of a quirk out of Michael Jackson.”
I’m pretty sure I say in the book is, if you watch the show again, you’ll see Kipp Lennon is not imitating Michael Jackson, he’s parodying him. He’s pushing it and here he is, making fun of Michael Jackson, and Michael Jackson is standing two feet away just loving it. He was literally slapping his knee. He thought it was so funny.
He must have had a pretty good sense of humor. Yes, he really did. To write the script, we wrote a 20 page outline first. An outline is nearly unreadable. It’s all…no jokes, it’s just sort of a description of the action. Michael Jackson, he read this whole thing carefully, suggested a couple of great jokes. He changed one joke and added a great twist, and it’s probably one of the better parts of the show. That was it. It was just a grand experience.
Did you ever discuss bringing him back? I really enjoyed the story about your idea for the Prince episode. Yeah, I thought it was a fun idea to bring back the character as another star. That was my idea. Prince did not think it was a good idea. It got thrown out as a result. But it’s been a long time. We could still do that idea. It’s one of the very rare times in Simpsons history we had the whole script written, and not only written but rewritten, polished. It was ready to go, and Prince said, “No, thanks.”
Another idea that stuck out to me in the book was your (jokey) pitch for the second Simpsons movie, with real actors. It sounded both interesting and horrific. I really said jokingly that Vin Diesel could play Homer, but a lot of it was talk. This is all second-hand, but I heard that James Gandolfini, who loved The Simpsons, would have been a great Simpsons guest, he would have wanted to play Homer in a live-action Simpsons movie.
Wow. But the one idea was, one of our writers, Tim Long, went to William H. Macy at a party and tried to pitch him playing Ned Flanders in a Simpsons movie, and Macy said he had just heard that idea a hundred times already. He was sick of hearing the idea.
Has there been any further discussion about doing another movie? They’re thinking about it. They kick it around, but what happens is, every once in a while we’ll have an exceptionally good table reading of an upcoming episode, and the discussion comes up, “Gee, maybe we could stretch this into another movie.” But that’s it. It took us 17 years to make the first one, so it could be another 17 years to make that one.
You have a section in the book where you talk about the three or four things that you wish you could change, like killing Maude. Are there any guests that you regret having on the show in hindsight? Gosh, there’s probably a few who marched to infamy. I’m not sure about Julian Assange on the show. That was quite a coup, but I’m not sure how kind history is gonna be to that guy.
Beyond that, no. There’s Michael Jackson, and we actually had to kind of cop to it in a much later episode that…just some of the weirdness of that. I think we’ve had about 800 guests at this point, and I only remember three people, three cases where somebody said, “He was kind of a jerk.” You would never guess who they were. They were just random special guests who came in and were a little hardened, or not very pleasant. The other great thing about having guest stars on the show is they’re so excited to do it. It’s really fun to see a Liam Neeson come into work and be excited to be there at your job.
Have you thought at all about what you would want the final episode to be? No, no. It’s something we’ve literally been discussing for 28 years, and I’ve never heard a great idea for it. Nobody’s ever nailed what that final episode should be. We’re always looking at history. We go, “Jeez, a show almost never pulls off a great, satisfying final episode.” There’s so much pressure on them.
It’s hard enough just making a good show, but then making an episode that summarizes everything you’ve done in the past. Again, I don’t have the idea. Al Jean, I think that he’s gone public with it, he’s had this nice idea that we should end with a Christmas show that precedes the Christmas show that began The Simpsons. In other words, we’ll open with an episode that I think opened the night of the Christmas pageant at school. He may want to do an episode that ends just as that episode begins, and make the whole three decades plus a big circuit, a big cycle.
I have a feeling that great idea doesn’t exist, because there’s probably been a hundred of our best minds that have been working on it for 30 years, and haven’t come up with anything.
Thanks so much for talking to me. When I was younger, this is exactly the kind of book on The Simpsons that I wanted to read. Oh, how great. I love hearing that. I’ll tell you a little backstory on the book. As I mentioned, I’d been lecturing for almost 20 years to hundreds and hundreds of audiences, and this book is the result of all of that. It’s the result of hearing questions for 20 years from people from all over the world, what they want to know about the show, and having 20 years to fashion a funny, informative answer to any question people have. In that sense, the book has been 20 years and 20 countries in the making. What’s a good feeling is, I finished the manuscript about six months ago, and since then I’ve done a lot more interviews, I’ve done many, many more speeches, and nobody has had a question for me where I can’t say, “It’s in the book. It’s in the book.” I think there’s nothing I’ve left out of the book.
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