Interview with Mike Reiss, Simpsons Writer
Article written for a journalism class at UW Oshkosh, featuring interview with Simpsons writer Mike Reiss.
Oct. 3, 2007
Comedy writer Mike Reiss can’t stop laughing when he goes to work. Reiss’s job is to script the humor of TV’s most popular and longest running shows: The Simpsons.
“I get a million laughs for coming in once a week,” Reiss said.
On Monday, Sept. 24, Reiss could hear multitudes of laughs coming from more than 300 UW-Oshkosh students and others who came to hear him talk about the famed series at UW-Oshkosh’s Reeve Memorial Union.
Reiss has written and produced more than 200 episodes in his 11 years with the show, a period of the series that won four Emmys. He continues his presence with the series as a consulting producer, which means he goes to work once a week, and was one of the 11 writers for The Simpsons Movie.
One reason he does these presentations is to see who the fans really are.
“At The Simpsons, we have no interaction with our audience,” Reiss said. “It’s not like we have a studio audience we can see and talk to. So, this works well in going out to meet the people who actually watch the show.”
His college lecturing tour has given him the chance to visit parts of the U.S. he wouldn’t have visited otherwise such as Wisconsin or Connecticut. In these visits, he said he has learned new things from the fans.
“There’s characters like Duff Man or Disco Stu, who we use once on the show, and then we go on colleges and everyone has questions about Duff Man and Disco Stu. And I’d go back to work and say ‘People want more Disco Stu.’”
Reiss’s presentation gave people plenty of chances to laugh.
“I think my speech should be as entertaining as an episode of The Simpsons,” Reiss said.
Abby Schultz, the president of the campus’s University Speaker Series, said Reiss’s visit was a success.
“The students were really connecting with Mike Reiss,” Schultz said. “I think they understood his comments and they had a good time.”
She added that the audience was clapping their hands and laughing the whole night.
UW-Oshkosh senior Troy Memmal loved hearing the behind-the-scenes of his favorite show.
“He was dynamic and entertaining and I would definitely go see him again if he came back through town,” Memmal said.
Reiss enjoyed the Oshkosh audience too.
“It was a red-hot audience,” Reiss said. “I had to cut 10 minutes of my presentation because people were laughing. People were right on top of things.”
As part of his presentation, Reiss used rare clips from The Simpsons, The Critic, a show he co-created, and Queer Duck, an Internet cartoon he independently produced. In one of the Simpsons clips, he said his “deformity” of his protruding ears was the inspiration for the look of the substitute teacher that Lisa Simpson gets a crush on.
Reiss said one of the reasons The Simpsons in particular has been so popular is that fans are able to relate so well with the characters.
“When they see Homer Simpson, they say ‘That’s my dad,’” Reiss said.
UW-Oshkosh Radio-TV-Film lecturer Kevin Backstrom said in an interview that The Simpsons has this advantage over other sitcoms.
“In some ways, it probably more accurately reflects how people think of their lives than a typical situational comedy like Family Ties or The Bill Crosby Show,” Backstrom said.
He said there seems to be a Simpsons catchphrase for almost any situation and that the series has taken things from culture and “adapted it to their format.”
When one thinks of Homer for example, they think of his favorite saying: “Doh!” Others have gotten involved in the show’s fame as well.
Reiss spent much of the presentation talking about celebrities on the show, including the lack of presidential appearances.
“The closest we got was Bill Clinton but he told us ‘I would never do anything to disgrace the office,’” Reiss said, prompting a guffaw from the audience.
While The Simpsons have found success, Reiss said that the series hasn’t always had a smooth ride. The writers have received negative feedback, including several times when they sent the Simpsons around the world.
“When we send the Simpsons to somewhere [outside the US], we get in trouble,” Reiss said.
For example, in the episode where the Simpsons family went on a trip to Rio de Janeiro, Reiss said he and the other writers got complaints from that government on how their country was depicted in the episode (i.e. rats running around).
As many Simpsons fans know, The Simpsons began as a three-minute segment on the Tracey Ullman Show. When it was time to push it to a full half-hour, Reiss said they had no idea how it would do.
“Nobody working at the show thought it would run for more than six weeks,” Reiss said. “When I got home from work, I said, ‘I don’t think anyone’s going to watch this, but we’re having a lot of fun.’”
But as he found out, the show exceeded expectations and Reiss stuck with the show.
“Your job is to sit there and think of jokes and think of funny things and you’re working in a room with eight other funny people,” Reiss said. “And they’re trying to make you laugh. Everyone is trying to make a funny show.”