A four-time Emmy winner within his three decades writing for “The Simpsons,” Mike Reiss has directly worked with countless comedy icons. Beyond writing jokes for Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, Garry Shandling and Pope Francis, Reiss is also the winner of a Peabody Award and a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Animation Writers Caucus.
Yet “The Simpsons” is only one of Reiss’ major credits as a writer and/or producer. For example, he has authored 19 children’s books, including the best-seller “How Murray Saved Christmas” and the award-winning “Late For School.” Reiss has been a contributing writer to more than two dozen animated films, including four “Ice Age” movies, two “Despicable Me” titles, “The Lorax,” “Rio”, and “Kung Fu Panda 3”; his film projects combine for a worldwide gross around $14 billion.
Currently, Reiss is promoting the book “Springfield Confidential,” a best-selling memoir focused on his “Simpsons” tenure. In support of “Springfield Confidential,” Reiss will be appearing at New York City’s The Great Hall of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art on May 31. Reiss will be signing and selling “Springfield Confidential” – a semifinalist for the Thurber Prize in American Humor, the highest (and only) award a funny book can win – at Cooper Union.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Mike Reiss by phone, and highlights from that interview are below. Not only are Reiss’ credits impressive, but his work ethic and overall drive to stay busy with quality-oriented projects is also very admirable.
Jewish Journal: When was the first time that you did some kind of a speaking engagement where you were the featured person and you were able to talk about your career and your overall success?
Mike Reiss: I would say 20 years ago my friend asked me to speak at Drexel University… And I’d never been in front of an audience in my life. I just wrote this speech and gave the speech and it went over great, and went so well that my friend who invited me — this professor – said, “You should do this professionally.”
He had a tape of the speech and I sent it to a lecture bureau. Since then I’ve given 500 speeches in 22 countries and the great capper to this whole thing is that I’m going back to Drexel University, where it all started, to give a commencement address this year.
JJ: The name of this one is “Springfield Confidential: 30 Years Writing For ‘The Simpsons.’” Was your speech ever called “20 Years Writing For The Simpsons” or “15 Years Writing For The Simpsons?”
MR: (laughs) Now there’s a very funny thing that happened. The speech used to be called “The Simpsons Backstage Tour” and it was always a joke that nobody got. The idea that an animated show doesn’t have a backstage. So I’ve called it “Simpsons Backstage Tour,” I’ve called it “Secrets Of The Simpsons,” but this time I’ll be selling my book, which is called “Springfield Confidential.” So I figured, “Why not get the title out there in the title of that speech?”
JJ: I’m very familiar with your career, not just your work, by hearing you on Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast and knowing your credits and all that. One thing that I never really hear mentioned is whether you had aspirations to do stand-up or if you just want to be a writer flat-out.
MR: I absolutely never had any plans or aspired to be a stand-up comedian, performer. From the time I was a little kid watching TV, I loved comedians. When a comedian would tell a joke, even when I was like six or seven years old, I would think, “Oh I wish I wrote that.” I never wanted to be the guy telling the jokes, but I always imagined there was some guy backstage just typing up the jokes and handing them to the comedian. And that was it.
I’ve only wanted to be a writer… I sort of stumbled into performing, kind of speech-giving, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I always hear people who see me speak say, “It looks so natural. It looks like it’s right off the top of your head.” But it’s the result of just the years and years of constant rehearsal to make it look natural.
JJ: I love the fact that when you talk about your Harvard years, writing for “National Lampoon” was super-important yet the education wasn’t super-important. Is there anywhere that you almost went to college instead of Harvard?
MR: It’s funny, I only went to Harvard for the “Harvard Lampoon.” Kids know so much more about colleges now, they’re college-savvy. But I always thought Harvard was just a school for rich people. I didn’t know that there were smart people there, that people were very very bright at the school. I only went there for that, and I only applied to writing schools. I applied to Columbia and Northwestern, where I thought they had entertainment writing and that kind of thing — playwrights came out of there — so that was it.
Also, nobody turns down Harvard. That’s the thing. I mean, I’m very jaded, disappointed in the place now. But I know 90 percent of people accepted to Harvard go to Harvard.
JJ: Of course you’re most synonymous with “The Simpsons,” but your career includes writing for over two dozen movies and writing over a dozen children’s books and all that. But if I can ask you about “The Critic” for a second. That’s kind of gone down as one of the most well-regarded animated shows of all-time. I know initially, it was a tough run. But looking back at it, was it a very favorable experience and something you’re very proud of?
MR: The people who watched “The Critic,” I think I liked it less than most of them. (laughs) While “The Critic” isn’t everything I hoped it would be, I’m inordinately proud of my “Queer Duck” cartoons. They’re shorts I made for the Internet from 2000 to 2006 about a gay duck and his animal pals Openly Gator and Bi Polar Bear. You can see the cartoons on YouTube. They won every gay award you can win, even after they found out I was straight.
JJ: Being at this point in your career where you’ve really done anything and everything that a comedy writer can do, is there still anything that you haven’t accomplished that you’re still hoping you get to do?
MR: The answer is no. It’s a very funny thing. I’m about to turn 60 and I’ve spent the past year promoting the hell out of my book. I’ve been all over the country selling the book and that’s about to come to an end. One of the last of the 100 or so stops that I’ll make will be Cooper Union. And then I don’t know, someday you’ll write a memoir and you’ll realize, “Well that’s a perfect end to a life, I’ve written a book about my life. I should probably just stop now and probably go lay down in my cold grave.” (laughs)
So I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ve had great experiences to come out of the blue this year, which was I got to write on the Oscars. That is something I promised my wife for 30 years. I said, “Somehow, some way, I’m going to get us into the Oscars.” I always hoped it would be because I was nominated for something, but it’s that I was just writing the show. But we went to the Oscars, that’s a big thing on the bucket list.
But what’s next? My twentieth children’s book, “The Turtle And The Tortoise Are Not Friends,” comes out in July. That same month, my play “Shakespeare’s Worst” will be part of the D.C. Fringe Festival. This travesty of Shakespeare had sold-out crowds in Bristol, U.K. and the Utah Shakespeare Festival. I’ve had five plays produced and I enjoy it more than anything else I’ve done.
JJ: I look at somebody like you as being comedy royalty. People like you and Alan Zweibel wrote for some of the best shows in history. I’m curious if you’re the kind of guy who mostly hangs out with comedians or writers, or you stay away and you kind of go, “That’s my work and this is my life.”
MR: I love comedy writers. Then again, it’s funny, it’s the first line of the speech I will give at Cooper Union and I give everywhere: “I’m a comedy writer, I’m not a comedian.” They’re extremely different creatures. I read somewhere that 90 percent of comedians suffer from clinical depression, and comedy writers seem to be a very happy stable bunch of people. They have solid family lives, and seem pretty happy that somebody pays them to do this comedy thing. So I do hang around with a lot of comedy writers.
I see Alan Zweibel a lot. I have this sort of chain of people I know. I know Alan Zweibel’s about 10 years older than me and I know Norman Steinberg, who wrote “Blazing Saddles” and “My Favorite Year,” and he’s about 10 years older than Alan. I look at it and I feel like we’re all the same guys at different ages. I can sort of look at those two and go, “OK that’s what I’ll be in 10 years and that’s what I’ll be in 20 years.”
JJ: A lot of the top people in comedy, both writers and performers, have evolved into podcasters. What do you think about podcasts with relation to comedy today?
MR: I’ve been on now probably 30 podcasts. I listen to a handful of them. I don’t really have an opinion on them, I don’t really have much to say. There’s a few I really like. There’s a lot I don’t like. There’s a lot of podcasts I hear with people laughing way too hard at the conversation and none of this stuff is really that funny. That said, I really love Gilbert Gottfried’s podcast. I never miss it.
JJ: What can you tell me about your bar mitzvah?
MR: Again, I’m a shy man. It was the first time probably I was shoved in front of an audience. It was not fun at all for me. It was three hours of singing in Hebrew I didn’t know the language. I couldn’t sing, I was painfully shy. My parents wanted to throw a big bar mitzvah party. I said, “No, just throw something at the house.” They had a party at the house and I kind of hid it in my room all night. (laughs)
So that was like a very sad, neurotic story, but I was a shy kid. So it’s funny, my mother – of anyone – cannot believe what’s become of my life. I mean, I used to be a shy kid who couldn’t face five people in the living room. Last week I addressed 7,000 people in Anaheim Stadium. So life has taken some odd turns for me. (laughs)
JJ: So in closing Mike, any last words for the kids?
MR: I hope everyone comes to Cooper Union. I spent a lot of this call badmouthing Hollywood and Harvard and “The Critic.” (laughs)
Cooper Union as an institution, I genuinely love. My wife’s father was a very brilliant young man who had even before offered a full scholarship to M.I.T. but he couldn’t afford books. He was that poor. So instead he got an engineering degree at Cooper Union for free and that’s always been a wonderful story to me. So I think it’s a great institution and I’m so honored I’m going to get to speak there.
More on the award-winning and prolific Mike Reiss can be found by following him on Twitter via @MikeReissWriter.