Mike Reiss, a writer and producer on the longest-running animated sitcom of all time, “The Simpsons,” gives Salon an exclusive look at how Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart and the crew stay relevant after 30 years on the air.
Reiss, a “Simpsons” lifer, has been with the show since its first episode in 1989 and says he could keep writing the show “forever.” His new book “Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons,” is a behind-the-scenes look at the beloved characters and how the writers’ room has evolved over 29 seasons.
He sat down with us in Salon's studio to talk about his "first grown-up book — and probably my last one, too," and the secrets to keeping "The Simpsons" alive.
Why did you decide to write a book about being with "The Simpsons" for so long?
I won't lie to you; I was sort of tricked into it. It's the same way I got married — I didn't see it coming. A journalist called me up — he's a guy I've never met — he said, "Mike, you and me are going to go on a road trip across America and I'm going to get Mike Reiss' take on America and there won't be any 'Simpsons' in the book at all."
Here we are two years later, no road trip, I've never been in a car with the guy, the book is 95 percent "Simpsons." On top of that, what I found out later was he had taken the whole idea from a journalist who went on the road with David Foster Wallace and got a book out of that. He also didn't tell me that David Foster Wallace killed himself right after the book tour ended. It's maybe for the best it turned out this way. That's it.
If the guy had come to me and [said], "do you want to write a memoir of your years with 'The Simpsons,'" I would have said "no, I think that's inappropriate." There are so many people involved. But I just got eased into it.
“Simpsons” lifer Mike Reiss reveals show’s secrets
Watch the full "Salon Talks" conversation:
If you were going to do a road trip across the country, what would the premise be like? Visiting every Springfield in the country?
I guess. That could be a book. There are — I know this — there are 48 Springfields in America, in 43 states. That means there's five states with two Springfields. That's creativity.
Is that why Springfield was named Springfield?
I think that was part of what went into it. This whole dynamic, this exercise to find out where it is, we didn't invent that. We didn't plan it. It's like a lot of things on "The Simpsons," it wasn't part of the plan. It was something the fans ran away with.
I think they named it Springfield because there was a boring sitcom in the '50s called "Father Knows Best" that was set in Springfield. Springfield somewhere. I think that's what "The Simpsons" wanted to be when it started, sort of a big generic American story.
You were there for the beginning of "The Simpsons," and 30 years later are still on the writing staff. It's really rare in entertainment for someone to stick to one project for so long. What's it like being the person who's been working on and off for one project for 30 years?
Luckily it's "The Simpsons." Luckily it's something that's a broad canvas. "The Simpsons" is a show about the world and humanity. The show "Lassie" ran for 20 years —
Yeah, 20 years.
How many Lassies were there?
There were about 10 Lassies. They just churning through Lassies. Every time you see Lassie doing a stunt like jumping over a cliff, it generally involved bringing the new Lassie in. I don't know how you wrote three Lassies, but "The Simpsons," you can write it forever. It's a show about human stupidity and people are not getting any brighter, so we've always got ideas.
In fact, maybe they've gotten less bright.
I'll get right to it: I mean, the Trump years have been a shot in the arm for the show. They've really been great for us. The show's quality or its creativity have always pegged to how weird the news is and how crazy society has gotten and it's never been better. The proof of this is, Donald Trump was elected President on November 8, 2016; on November 9 Fox called us and said, "You're picked up for two more years." He really is a job creator.
The characters on "The Simpsons" never age. It's been 30 years, but change in the show is inevitable. How do you think the show has evolved over time?
The show has not changed appreciatively, but society has changed, entertainment has changed. When we came on the air we were considered the most shocking thing on TV. They said it moves too fast, that was a huge complaint. "The Simpsons" moves along too fast for anyone to follow. I think we upped the stakes for how fast TV can move. Now I see shows like "[The Unbreakable] Kimmy Schmidt" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and I go, too fast, I can't keep up. They're like on meth or something. That's one way, the other way is, yes we were considered very outrageous; we were condemned by the National Council of Churches when we came on the air. The show has not changed tone or outrageousness at all, but three years ago we were praised by Pope Benedict. The Pope endorsed our show. Again, we're staying the same; its society that's generally circling the drain.
I'm definitely old enough to remember how scandalous"The Simpsons" was when it came on the air.
I find that hard to believe. I feel like the show must be older than you.
No, I even owned "The Simpsons" — the CD that you all put out the first couple years of the show.
"The Simpsons Sing the Blues"?
Oh dear, I wrote the song and I have a platinum album at home. I'm a man with no musical talent at all, but I managed to earn a platinum album for that.
I'm sure a lot of people do not remember that, but I do.
It outsold the Beatles' first album. This is how hot "The Simpsons" was when it came on. We put out an album, it sold five million copies and one of the writers, Jeff Martin, said, "That is an album nobody listened to twice."
You've actually brought up something I was going to ask you about. It really is hard for, I think, younger people to understand how controversial the show was when it came out, how people thought it was bad for kids, they thought it was bad for American morals. On TV now — because of the streaming services, there's nudity and cursing — how does "The Simpsons" kind of hold its own in that environment?
We're just what we are. We just keep doing this product.
The show in some ways is amazingly retro, especially technologically. It's the only hand-drawn animation you see anywhere. Disney, Pixar, nobody does hand-drawn animation. "The Simpsons" is still 24,000 hand-drawn drawings every week, and we're also scored with a 35-piece orchestra. All the other music you hear on TV is a synthesizer because that's all you need. A machine you can have on your desktop can sound exactly like a symphony orchestra, but we just keep doing the way we're doing it because it's working.
We haven't changed the cast at all, haven't done any turnover among the cast in 30 years. That's it. I don't how much we can change. I certainly don't want to radicalize the show. I think when people get tired of the product we're making, worse [thing] is we go off the air and I'll finally get a vacation.
I was going to suggest that it was something that animated shows have that live action shows don't have, and you actually get into this in the book, but then again there's Lassie.
This is the realization I had, the question has been asked millions of times: Why has the show run so long? Academics had ideas and journalist had ideas and they were all so wrong. I didn't know what the right answer was, but wow, I could hear the wrong answer when I heard it. And that was when it finally hit me, the question shouldn't be why is "The Simpsons running so long,
it's like, why don't other shows run as long as "The Simpsons"?
Then you realize, it's because of actors. Real actors, live people, just get sick of playing the same character week after week after week. You think if Seinfeld hadn't gotten sick of "Seinfeld" that would still be on the air? People would still be watching "Seinfeld."
This is why you're seeing all these reboots lately — you have a show and then everybody needs a break and then suddenly they're dying to come back. Animated characters don't get tired. It's not that draining for the actors.
And that's why if it wasn't "The Simpsons" running 30 years it would be "South Park" running 22 years and "Family Guy" running 20 years, and Mickey Mouse being 85 years old [and] sucking for 85 years.
What kind of impact do you think "The Simpsons" has had on comedy, especially television comedy?
This is the one impact it has: I don't think it changed society, I don't think it changed politics, but it's changed entertainment. When we came on the air in '89, TV moved slow, and the number one show was ["The Cosby Show"]." It was a good show, but nothing ever happened on "Cosby." A lot would happen right after "Cosby," but nothing happened on the show. At the time, the fastest paced, most radical show on TV was "The Golden Girls," a show with four 70-year-old women that was about as breakneck as TV got.
When we were creating "The Simpsons," that first season we had no artistic motives, we had no grand scheme, it was just this idea: Let's make it move as fast as it can. Let's just jam in as much stuff as we can. Partly because we didn't think we would make a second season. We thought, what a goof, they're giving us 13 episodes, let's go crazy with them and do all the stuff we always wanted to do on TV that we never had a shot to do. "The Simpsons" moved fast and now the rest of TV moves fast. Immediately, "Seinfeld" picked up its game. You watched the first season of "Seinfeld" and it literally was a show about nothing, and then I think they saw "The Simpsons" and saw, look they can juggle four plot lines in an episode. Again, [now] you see live action shows like "Kimmy Schmidt" or "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" that just move like lightning.
Speaking of it being 30 years old, things have changed in a lot of ways in the culture, and one of the things that kind of comes up — I'm sure you've talked about this a lot on your book tour — is the controversy that's risen over the character Apu. There was a documentary called "The Problem with Apu" by comedian Hari Kondabolu, you called it in the book "a nasty little documentary."
First up, I agree with him. I have no problem with this point; it's given us great pause. It's a nasty documentary. The documentary ends with them stabbing a picture of Apu. I just think that's gross and weird and a little sick. He's just a cartoon character. Don't stab him; don't stab anyone. But the point is not only well taken, but I have to say it's one of those issues where "The Simpsons" did it. What I'm trying to say is, he put [it] on a documentary [and got] a lot of attention. We addressed it on the show two years before him, we knew there was a problem, we knew there was a scandal, the character had become, in changing times, had become offensive, so we addressed it head-on. On "The Simpsons" we did an episode all about it where Apu's Americanized nephew comes to work with him and says all the things Hari says in his documentary, including "you sound like a white guy doing an Indian guy." We address the point. I think the way "The Simpsons" does it looks at the subject, turns it all over, and then we threw the bench to Apu. For all the outrage about Apu, he hasn't had a line in three years.
I didn't know that.
Yes, nobody seems to notice. I think our problem was just, we got it, we addressed it and we addressed it quietly without a lot of fanfare and a lot of self-congratulations. Again, it's an important issue, we don't want to offend people, we want to make people think and stimulate them, but we don't want to hurt people and we don't want to be hateful. That's just the opposite of what the show is. It's an ongoing problem, I'll say of the show, and that we've never run up against something like this.
It's not cut and dry. It's not like the public is 100 percent against Apu. It sort of doesn't even matter what white people think. What do Indians think? I don't care to hear what a white person thinks about the depiction of Apu. Indians are split — there is no massive study — there's never even a barometer — [on] how many people, what percentage of people have to be offended by something before you change it. Is 1 percent enough? I know it's not, it's not 50 percent, it's not a democracy, because hurt feelings and offense outweigh not being offended. We want to hear them out, just sort of gauging how the public feels about it and how Indians feel. We want to do the right thing.
I haven't seen the documentary, but I can safely say that it's clear that this is about more than just "The Simpsons." It just uses the character because it is such a famous character.
I don't know, I don't know what his motivation is. I don't know where he comes from — not geographically, I don't know what's motivating him. It made him very famous.
Having done the show for 30 years, what character do you most relate to?
I think me and all the writers on the show, we're Lisa. We were all Lisa growing up; we were a little too smart for our own good. We were smart but nobody particularly liked us and we all felt a little isolated, so we're all Lisa. And then one day we woke up and we were all Homer. We're all angry middle-aged men with thinning hair. The proof of this is, everybody wants to work on Friday at "The Simpsons." Everybody makes their own schedule, but Friday is the day we all want to come in, because that's the day we get free donuts. That's donut day at "The Simpsons" and we do love our donuts. I'm Homer. The first thing I thought when I walked into the offices here is, I wonder if they have donuts.
Bagels, but not donuts.
It’s close enough.