‘The Simpsons,’ for a change

"I am very happy to be coming to a country with a sense of humor!"

‘We really had no idea what the show would become’: Writer Mike Reiss with ‘The Simpsons.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘We really had no idea what the show would become’: Writer Mike Reiss with ‘The Simpsons.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yes, folks. It’s coming up to that time of the year again when we adults can let our hair down – for some of us, what’s left of it – and get into some good old, generally wholesome “childish” entertainment. The junior fun fare on offer comes courtesy of the 16th edition of Animix, International Animation, Comics & Caricature Festival, which will take place at its regular berth, the Tel Aviv Cinematheque, August 2-6.
Naturally, as usual, Animix has plenty laid on for the actual junior age group, too, with its regular spread of kiddies- oriented cartoons and hands-on activities spread across the five days.
When it comes to animated series, you’d be hard-pressed to beat The Simpsons for enduring popularity. The American TV series first aired as a full 30-minute show in December 1989 after a three-season run as a short item in The Tracey Ullman Show, and it has been pulling ’em in, in droves, ever since.
The writer team lineup has ebbed and flowed somewhat over the years, but 56-year-old Jewish writer Mike Reiss has been around from the word go. Reiss, who will be one of the stars at Animix, where he will deliver a couple of Simpsons-related lectures and give a master class, says he got his slot on the show almost by default. “I’d been a TV writer for a decade when the Simpsons offer came along. They only asked me because two other guys turned the job down! The Simpsons, before it came on, was considered a very risky show with no chance of success.”
Reiss didn’t even have the requisite training for the job. “I never studied writing or worked in animation – none of our writers did – but I really loved cartoons as a kid, as most kids do.”
In addition to the Reiss slots, visitors to this year’s Animix bash will be able to enjoy an exhibition of works by some of our top caricaturists and comic-book artists based on characters from The Simpsons.
The animated sitcom now enjoys pride of place on primetime TV, but it began life as a mere sliver on the Fox television programming schedule. These days each episode runs for around half an hour, but the early versions were all of 3 minutes long.
Reiss says that he and his colleagues had to adapt to the scope evolution on the fly. “We really had no idea what the show would become. We wrote it instinctively, and some of those early, groundbreaking scripts were written very quickly.”
Initially, the bunch of young writers and producers had no long-term thoughts and basically set out in gowith- the-flow mode. They were to be happily disabused.
The Simpsons had just been a fun summer job for us all,” Reiss recalls. “We had a premiere party when the show debuted in December [1989], and someone came in with a xeroxed copy of our reviews – critics were calling us a new TV classic and a game-changer in television. We were completely surprised. The next day we learned that the show had debuted to the highest ratings in Fox history. We were an immediate critical and popular success and none of us saw it coming.”
One thing all the original team members had in common was a sense of frustration with the silver-screen fare being dished out to the American public at the time. Reiss says they set out to offer a more accurate reflection of everyday life in America. “We were trying to do a realer picture of America than we’d been seeing on TV – there were a lot of ‘soft’ family shows on then, like Boy Meets World and Full House. Roseanne and Married with Children had already started the trend toward more realism.”
Reiss notes that he and some his cohorts had firsthand experience to draw on. “It helped that many of the writers, including myself, grew up in blue-collar suburbs like [Simpsons’ hometown] Springfield.”
The writer feels that The Simpsons’ remarkable success is largely attributable to the way it communicates with different sectors of the population. “A show like American Idol had one big audience who all watch it for the same reason. The Simpsons has several small audiences – kids like that it’s a cartoon, college students like its irreverence, and adults like that there’s a show they can actually sit down and enjoy with their kids.”
Simpsons devotees will know that there have been several Jewish characters in the show, and will recall one episode in which the eponymous family and a bunch of pals came over to this part of the world. Reiss says his ethnic origins color his writing, although he is not alone in Judaizing the plot. “I have a very old-fashioned Jewish sense of humor – jokes and one-liners. I help provide the information on Judaism in the show. However, much of that Jewish material on the show comes from non-Jewish writers, like show-runner Al Jean, an Irish-Catholic. Another Irish-Catholic, Kevin Curran, wrote the episode where the Simpsons visit Israel – and he’d never been there.”
Some of the Jewish characters didn’t start out that way. “Krusty had been a character for two years before we decided he was Jewish,” Reiss explains. “I like that. His religion didn’t drive his character, it enhanced it. I like Rabbi Krustofsky very much – one of the few smart, dedicated characters on the show.”
Reiss has displayed remarkable staying power over the last three or so decades with the show. That, he says, is because he simply loves his work. Still, it hasn’t always been the case and, at one point, Reiss was considering his options.
“There was a time about 15 years ago where there was a lot of friction on the show – a handful of writers who didn’t like or respect each other,” Reiss recalls, adding that the disharmony was beginning to show in the end product. “For the first time The Simpsons wasn’t a fun place to work, and I think it even manifested itself in the show – it became nasty and mean-spirited.”
Thankfully, the disruptive element was eventually offloaded and all was well again with The Simpsons’ team. “Luckily, those writers left the show, and it became a very happy place to work. I think one reason the show has run so long is that we all enjoy each other’s company – it’s a happy, frictionless environment where we are free to create the show without office politics or clashing egos.”
The Simpsons
is syndicated right across the globe, in 19 languages, including Albanian, Russian, Hindi, Swahili, Cantonese, Hebrew and Arabic. With that in mind, do the creators consciously consider the spread of viewing audiences that will get to see their finished work?
Reiss says he and the rest of the gang just focus on doing the best job they can. “When we write the show, we never think of anyone outside the writer’s room – we just try to entertain the other six people sitting in the room. We never think, Will they get this in Tel Aviv? We don’t even worry if they’ll get it in Texas.”
Over the almost 27 years since The Simpsons was unleashed on an unsuspecting TV viewing public, the world has gone through some seismic shifts and plenty of more subtle changes. Reiss says he and his colleagues have done their best to keep up and to keep the show relevant and contemporary. “The only reason The Simpsons has stayed on for so long is that we embrace changes in the world – that’s our source material for episodes. We love parodying new changes in technology especially. The other big change is that people’s attention spans have shortened, in part due to watching The Simpsons! That’s why we keep speeding up the pace of the show. Many of those early ‘classic’ episodes seem very slow today.”
Unsurprisingly, Reiss says that the show’s producers and writers have never paid too much attention to staying within the confines of PC-compliant confines.
“We really just write what we think is funny. If it makes a roomful of writers laugh, it goes in the show. We never try to shock, like South Park might. If we go beyond standard levels of taste, it’s only because we’re trying to write new jokes people haven’t heard before.”
He adds that he has never had any ideas rejected because they were considered a bit beyond the pale of respectability.
The Simpsons has been a trailblazer for close to three decades, in social, sociopolitical and other senses and, according to Reiss, in respect of how people relate to animation in general. “People don’t remember that when we began, everyone thought cartoons were just for kids. The Simpsons debuted the same year as The Little Mermaid, and it was this combination that showed the world that animation was for everyone. Now, of course, the biggest box-office hits every year are cartoons.”
Reiss says he is gratified by the show’s enduring popularity in this country, and praises our ability to enjoy a joke or two at our own expense. “Every year The Simpsons does a travel show, and the people in the country they visited get angry. Brazilians love The Simpsons, except when the Simpsons went to Rio. The same happened when they went to Australia. And France. And Japan. Only Israelis seemed to genuinely enjoy The Simpsons episode about them. I am very happy to be coming to a country with a sense of humor!”
Reiss says he is looking forward to coming over here, and may even go home with new ideas for the show. “I hope so! It’ll make the trip tax-deductible!” he laughs.
For tickets and more information about the Animix Festival: (03) 606-0800 and www.animix.fest.co.il.