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Mike Reiss on comedy greatness and creating The Simpsons

BY Neil Briscoe

8th Mar 2023 Film & TV

Mike Reiss on comedy greatness and creating The Simpsons

One of the original producers and writers of The Simpsons reflects on 30 years of comedy greatness

Comedy is all about timing, but sometimes it’s about the wrong timing. Let’s take for example, one of the greatest television comedy moments of all time. It comes in "Cape Feare", a 1993 episode of The Simpsons that parodied the 1991 Martin Scorsese thriller Cape Fear

Sideshow Bob and the rake 

The villain, Sideshow Bob (mellifluously voiced by Kelsey Grammer) exits a car and steps on a garden rake, which swings up and smacks him in the face. Then he does it again. And again. Eventually the camera pulls out to reveal that he is completely surrounded by rakes. It’s a side-splitting moment, made more funny by the repetition of the gag, and it only happened because of poor timing.  

“The greatest gag in TV history? Sure!” guffaws Mike Reiss. “I was there and I didn’t think so at the time, but we had the joke, and the show was running a little short, by about two minutes. And it was just me and [fellow producer] Al Jean and Al just said, ‘Well, let's show it again.’ And I go, ‘Okay,’ because I didn't have a better answer. And sometimes that's how great comedy is written…” 

Mike Reiss’ history in comedy 

Reiss is a veteran comedy writer and producer. As a student at Harvard University he wrote for the legendary satirical magazine Harvard Lampoon and later National Lampoon. He got his start writing for the television version of the film 9 to 5, a show that even Reiss himself didn’t like very much.

"Reiss was slaving every day to produce a mandated 60 jokes per day"

“My first writing job was on a dreadful sitcom, a TV version of the movie 9 to 5. It was literally the worst show I’d ever seen in my life…and then I got hired there,” says Reiss. “And then I got fired there, which meant that I was not good enough to write for the worst show I’d ever seen. But the, four years later when I’m running The Simpsons and it’s the biggest show in the land, the woman who hired me rings me up and says: ‘I have a writer I want to recommend.’ All I could say was: “Well, you’re an excellent judge of talent…’” 

From there, he went on to writing jokes for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, a gig which Reiss says was far from the glamorous image of screen writing. Instead of long lunches, Reiss was slaving every day to produce a mandated 60 jokes per day. “Maybe ten of those were good and the other 50 were terrible. I’d have much preferred to write 20 really funny jokes a day but 60 was the target we were given,” he says.  

Working on The Simpsons

The Simpsons came calling in 1988, but while with hindsight it was his biggest move ever, at the time Reiss recalls that everyone else was running scared from the project.

Mike Reiss portrait

Mike Reiss

“I got the Simpsons job because nobody else wanted it,” says Reiss. “Friends turned the job down. I took the job. I didn't tell anyone what I was doing because you know, it's impossible to remember how people regarded animation in 1989—which is that it was cheap kid stuff. It was on the Fox network, which was a very unknown entity at the time. One of the other writers on The Simpsons was the son of a very esteemed comedy writer, and his father begged him not to take the Simpsons job. That's what a loser of a gig this seemed like.” 

Instant success of the show 

Instead, The Simpsons was an instant success, something that Reiss realised when the production team gathered in a low-rent bowling alley to have a party for the airing of the first episode.

“You could feel it in the house,” says Reiss. “You can feel all the people who've made the show, watching it going: ‘Hey, this is good. We didn't know this was good!’ And then the reviews came in.

"The answer to the question, ‘When did you know you were ahead?’ It was immediately"

“It’s the days of fax machines and someone came in with a pile of faxes all over the country, we’ve gotten, you know, these fantastic reviews saying this is going to change TV. And then the next morning we found out we debuted to the highest ratings in the history of the Fox network. The answer to the question, ‘When did you know you were ahead?’ It was immediately. The first morning after the show aired we were already ahead. I think within three weeks we were on the cover of Newsweek magazine.” 

Mike Reiss today and the challenge of AI 

Nowadays, Reiss has stepped back from his producer’s role, but continues to write gags and scripts for the long-running series, which has shifted ownership from 20th Century Fox to Disney. When The Simpsons started, the fax and the mobile phone seemed to be the pinnacle of technology, but what does he think of trying to create comedy now, in a world of ChatGPT and AI

"When The Simpsons started, the fax and the mobile phone seemed to be the pinnacle of technology"

“Everywhere you look some technology has taken somebody's job,” says Reiss. “If you have machines making clothes, those clothes used to be made by a tailor. There used to be portrait painters everywhere and then the photograph came along and just kills a lot of their business. And then there were photographers and then there were film shops and now digital comes along and those all went. People don't even mourn them that much. So now a technology has come for my job and I go, ‘OK, this is what happens’.

“But you know, there are still painters out there and there's still photographers out there, but they're people who have to be really good at their job and think differently and that’s the challenge AI presents to me. AI will be able to do the job of mediocre comedy writers or maybe even good writers, but you’ll still just hope that maybe I can be one of the great ones who can do it a little better or a little different than a computer can.” 

Neil Briscoe spoke to Mike Reiss at the RENDR tech and creativity festival in Belfast  

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