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April 23, 2007
"Simpsons" writer tells hometown secrets
|Listen to Mike Reiss talk about writing for 'The Simpsons'|
From The Simpsons Movie to handling rejection, longtime "Simpsons" writer Mike Reiss talks about two decades with America's favorite family.
By Beth Pond
Springfield is a town full of losers, morons and lunatics and everyone wants to call it their own.
"Simpsons" writer Mike Reiss.
The fictional home of "The Simpsons," Springfield is renowned for its quirky and hilariously stereotypical characters.
There are lots of Springfields in the United States, but none of them is the one made famous on "The Simpsons," said Mike Reiss, a writer and producer on the television show, which parodies life in small town America.
"Springfield is in Hawaii," Reiss joked.
According to Reiss, as dysfunctional as the cartoon town of Springfield is, people still keep hoping it is based on their town and everyone wants to know whether their Springfield is the Springfield.
"We picked (the name) Springfield for two reasons," said Reiss in a recent lecture to fans. "One, because it's the town of 'Father Knows Best' and two, to confuse you guys."
Reiss said the geographical logistics of the fictional Springfield make it impossible for it to be any city in the country. In one episode, he said, Homer Simpson is shoveling snow in the morning and having a cold drink in his hammock later in the day.
"There's no place Springfield could be," said Reiss.
Foreshadowing Mrs. Crabapple
Reiss's start in writing came when he was in the third grade at Patterson School in Bristol, Conn.
Rather than telling his mother that he did "nothing" all day, Reiss made up crazy stories about his teacher including that she threw a dog out the window and wore her underwear on the outside of her clothes. Eventually, his mother caught on to his active imagination and told him to write his stories down instead.
Much later, Reiss wrote for "The Tonight Show," then starring Johnny Carson.
"My job there was to write 60 jokes a day," said Reiss.
While some might wonder how anyone can write dozens of jokes at a time, for Reiss, it came naturally.
"One reason I write comedy is I can't help myself," said Reiss.
Last week, Reiss, a 1977 graduate of Bristol Eastern High School, returned to his hometown for the first time in 20 years. The keynote speaker at the Fourth Annual Tunxis Writers Festival at Tunxis Community College, Reiss entertained a crowd of friends, former teachers and fans.
Reiss, whose superlative in high school was "class brain," said former classmate Lisa Lavoie, received four Emmys and a Peabody for his work on "The Simpsons."
Writing for "The Simpsons"
He took the job writing for "The Simpsons" 18 years ago, said Reiss, when Fox was a new network and there were no cartoon shows for adults.
Reiss who said he thinks "The Simpsons" is a success because it contains universal themes said he draws his inspiration from personal experiences and stories he reads in the newspaper.
"People say, where do you get your ideas from, and I say I'm from Bristol, Connecticut," Reiss explained. "We have 25 writers on the show and they're all from towns like this."
Actors have grown rich portraying the "lunatics," "morons," and "lazy cops" who make up "The Simpsons," according to Reiss.
"Our cast members each earn $250,000 a week," said Reiss, for three hours a day. "They make $1,000 a minute."
Reiss spent a couple seasons overseeing the entire show, but said he now works just one day a week.
Writing the episodes, he said, is a collaborative effort.
"Everything on the show is written by a team," said Reiss. "It's 10 writers sitting around a table."
They take someone's script, Reiss said, and re-write it about eight times until they're satisfied. The writers' goal, he said, is to make each other laugh.
But when the show first started, "nobody else wanted the job," Reiss explained. "I took the job and I didn't tell anybody else what I was doing."
The Simpsons Movie
What's it like doing "The Simpsons"?
Its like being in a mental institution crazy people just sit around all day and laugh about made-up people. - "Simpsons" writer Mike Reiss
Reiss's latest project, The Simpsons Movie, took four years to create compared to a typical television episode, which he said takes eight months to a year. The movie is scheduled to hit theatres in the United States on July 27.
"It's a good movie," Reiss said.
Although he said he is sworn to secrecy, Reiss said making the movie was really no different than making an episode of the well-known cartoon.
True to the show, the movie boasts Homer, the beer-crazed father, Bart, the trouble-making son, and Lisa, the brainy daughter. However, had the movie used live actors, Reiss suggested Tom Cruise as a prime candidate for the role of Waylon Smithers, a sniveling assistant in love with his evil nuclear power plant boss, Montgomery Burns.
Some characters on "The Simpsons" are based on animals, according to Reiss.
"Chief Wiggam is a pig," Reiss explained, while his son, Ralph, is "an aborted lamb's fetus."
Reiss said he created Ralph, but finds him creepy. He said he was surprised to learn from lecture tours that many viewers love Ralph.
He said Moe Szyslak, the bartender, is based on a gorilla. Artists started with a gorilla "just started erasing fur," said Reiss, who said it is "not a compliment" when people tell him he looks like Moe.
As popular as the show is, the crude stereotypes don't sit well with all viewers, which is why Reiss's favorite character is Grandpa.
"When we write about Grandpa, we are not offending one viewer," Reiss said, because, he said, "Not one old person in America watches 'The Simpsons.'"
But Reiss and his colleagues at "The Simpsons" have managed to offend people all over the globe, including Japan, France, Brazil and Australia especially anywhere a "Simpsons" character travels.
Celebrities, however, don't seem to have a problem with looking bad, if it means being on "The Simpsons."
Reiss said most celebrities are happy to appear as guests on the show often as themselves, and often looking foolish. He said sometimes it is the children of the celebrities who insist that their parents make the appearance.
Hotel heiress Paris Hilton recently was a guest on the show, Reiss said, and the writers made her look ridiculous. Despite that, she sent them a basket of cookies the next day, he said.
Politicians are another story, he said.
U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy hates the Mayor Quimby character, according to Reiss. Reiss said the show's creators haven't had much luck getting former U.S. presidents to guest star.
"We've asked every U.S. president from Gerald Ford on down," said Reiss, and every one has turned them down.
Justin Skaradosky/ The Tattoo
Mike Reiss speaking at Tunxis Community College in Farmington, Connecticut.
Censorship isn't much of a problem for "Simpsons" writers, according to Reiss. One episode involving Catholic nuns was censored without notifying the writers, said Reiss, but they made it clear that they wouldn't continue the show on Fox if it happened again. It hasn't, he said.
"The censors at Fox are very easy going," said Reiss, but he said they're probably too busy with "Family Guy."
"'Family Guy' is like 'The Simpsons' after three beers," said Reiss.
While "Family Guy" started out almost copying from "The Simpsons," Reiss said the show has taken its own course and is now more popular than "The Simpsons."
Reiss said he liked "Family Guy" and thinks it's a funny show.
Another popular cartoon, "Spongebob Squarepants," didn't get that kind of praise.
"You can write 'Spongebob' on drugs," said Reiss, "and you'd probably have to."
Some people go overboard analyzing "The Simpsons," according to Reiss, who said the fact that some colleges are offering courses on the show is "a very good sign of the Apocalypse."
While there are those who think of "The Simpsons" as an art form, "To us, it's just this hole we shovel jokes into every week," said Reiss.
With the hype of The Simpsons Movie only beginning, Reiss plans to go to Wales to promote "Queer Duck," another of his comedic masterpieces, which didn't get much recognition in the United States.
What really matters
According to Reiss, having a loving wife and losing 70 pounds mean more to him than Emmys or the fact that "The Simpsons" will soon air its 400 th episode.
Although Reiss currently resides in Los Angeles, California with his wife, his hometown stills holds a special place in his heart.
There was a time, he said, when he didn't want to leave. When the rest of Reiss's family moved to Arizona during his senior year of high school, Reiss opted to stay in Bristol.
"I loved my friends. I didn't want to go to Arizona," said Reiss. "Everyone treated my so nicely here."
His success started with making his friends laugh.
"You can achieve your wildest dreams in life," said Reiss, "even if you are a kid from Bristol."
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