NEW YORK — “We have a Bumble Man here tonight!” longtime “The Simpsons” writer and producer Mike Reiss pointed out from the stage. A goofy guy in a grin, cheap antennae and a yellow-black shirt stood up for a bow. “And about 20 of you have come dressed as Comic Book Guy.”
That one earned a big laugh from me (guilty as charged!). The Downtown Brooklyn Alamo Drafthouse – where cinema snobs mingle with pop culture slobs – was overrun with heavy-set men in T-shirts ready to quote decades of obscure “Simpsons” banter.
This was ostensibly part of a book tour. The 58-year-old Reiss is promoting “Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for the Simpsons,” his memoir of a life in television comedy. In addition to being one of the key architects of “The Simpsons,” Reiss worked on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,” “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “Alf.” (Remember Alf?) He also co-created “The Critic,” which he clearly is fond of, but loves to put down as being one of the 1990s’ notable failures.
Reiss isn’t a comedian, but has outstanding comic timing. His “show” was reminiscing about his career and showing clips of notable “Simpsons” moments. I’ve seen the “Mary Poppins” parody from 1997 at least 10 times but only with Reiss pointing it out did I realize that Homer’s mouth doesn’t move during one of the musical numbers. “I think the animators just forgot,” he joked.
His flip attitude toward so many personal cultural touchstones was the most revelatory part of the evening.
An example: when one of my favorite Springfieldians, Groundskeeper Willie, was first created, there were no details about him in the script. He was just a janitor. “How should I do it?” voice actor Dan Castellaneta asked. No one had an answer. So he opened his mouth and out came a Scottish accent. Everyone laughed.
Today, fights breakout during soccer matches between Aberdeen and Glasgow, as both claim the character as theirs. “The guy who cleans the toilets is a national hero!”
Reiss was unafraid to talk honestly about the cast and some of the show’s guests. He ribbed the very well-paid voice talent (“they get $35 a second!”) and he didn’t seem too thrilled that one of the top donors to the Church of Scientology is Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart. “We make fun of everything on ‘The Simpsons’… except Scientology,” he said with a shrug.
The most difficult guest, surprisingly, was Oprah Winfrey.
“It takes 10 minutes to record a guest, and we are accommodating. We did Bob Hope in his basement, we did Magic Johnson in his car.” Apparently Oprah only had five minutes for them and when she began to read her lines she affected a strange accent and didn’t sound like herself. “How do you tell Oprah Winfrey to stop sounding so black?”
They’ve yet to convince a president to come on the show, but came close with Bill Clinton. When he ultimately declined he wrote that he “didn’t want to do anything to diminish the reputation of the office,” Reiss said with an enormous grin.
Reiss told some outstanding stories about his Jewish heritage. His father was born in Brooklyn but studied hard, became a doctor and moved the family to Connecticut. (“I was raised in a town with a French-Canadian name: ‘Mayonnaise.’”)
He was the only Jewish kid there, he said, but his mother said he should try to date only Jewish girls. “So me and my mom went out for a while. We got along great, but her kid and I didn’t get along.”
He also explained that while his father worked hard his whole life and achieved success his uncle never studied and never left his home – which means he was just able to sell the family brownstone for $12 million.
Reiss’s favorite character to write is Grandpa, but he couldn’t name only one favorite joke. “One is just a title of a Troy McClure film: ‘P is for Psycho.’” Another he is very proud of is a visual gag from “The Simpsons Movie.” Two buildings are side-by-side, Reverend Lovejoy’s church and Moe’s Tavern. When it looks like the world is going to end, a group emerges from each doorway, shouts, then runs directly into the other building. (Reiss, in one of his few non-kidding remarks, remarked that Garry Trudeau thinks it’s the most meaningful 10 seconds of film he’s ever seen.)
With a potential purchase of Fox by Disney looming, Reiss is a little worried about the future of “The Simpsons.”
“Look how quickly they ruined ‘Star Wars.’ It took them less than two-and-a-half years. Disney will have us putting out ‘Simpsons’ movies every four days!” he said.
On the controversial topic brought up by comedian Hari Kondabolu, concerning Hank Azaria voicing the South Asian character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Reiss came prepared.
“It’s another example of ‘The Simpsons’ did it first!’ We had an episode two years ago where Apu’s nephew called him out on sounding racist. And Apu’s barely been on the show since. But look, that guy is right. It’s a legitimate complaint, and he has a right to make it. Apu is voiced by a white guy and Hari Kondabolu is a comedian who isn’t funny.” Reiss said.
While that line seemed pre-written, Reiss was on his comedy toes.
During the Q&A someone asked about the character Dr. Hibbert, which for years played like a riff on Bill Cosby’s Dr. Huxtable. “Have you thought about addressing that, or did you just not want to touch it?”
“Unlike Bill Cosby,” Reiss replied, “we didn’t want to touch it.”
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