ONE OF the highlights of the upcoming Vodafone Comedy Carnival Galway is The Simpsons Backstage Tour presented by series writer/producer Mike Reiss, which will take audiences inside the lives of Springfield’s first family, revealing secret trivia of the show, insane dealings with network censors, and lots of juicy gossip about celebrity guest stars.
Ahead of his Galway visit, Mike Reiss sat down to share some highlights and insights from his long association with The Simpsons, which dates back to its very first series. I began by asking him about the formative influences that drew him toward comedy.
“There were a couple,” he reveals. “The big one was that I loved The Dick Van Dyke Show, it was a show about comedy writing and I identified with Morey Amsterdam who played Buddy Sorrell, one of the writers. I’m a Jewish guy who grew up in a Connecticut town that was completely Catholic. This was the 1960s and there were no Jewish people on TV except for Buddy Sorrell so he was my role model. If he had been a neurosurgeon on the show I might be a neurosurgeon today! Another one was Monty Python, that was a huge influence, and Mad magazine; it was so universal as a kid we always forget to credit it, but I think it has been an influence on all The Simpsons writers.”
Reiss always wanted to write rather than going onstage himself. “I was never interested in performing,” he declares. “Whenever I would watch a comedian on TV and the comedian would get a laugh, even as a little kid I would go ‘I wish I wrote that’ - I used to imagine there was a writer sitting right backstage typing up material and handing it to the comedian. I did stand-up comedy only one time, it was in college; I was the MC of the freshman talent show and the judge of the show said ‘Hey, you’re really funny’ so I married her, and Denise and I have been together ever since.”
After working on several TV shows, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, ALF, and Sledge Hammer!, in 1989 Reiss was one of the writers hired to script the debut series of The Simpsons. “There were four or five of us sitting in a trailer one day – we didn’t even have a real office," he recalls. "I remember asking the others ‘How long do you think this show is going to last?’ and everyone said ‘Six weeks’. Often, when you try something different on TV it gets cancelled after six weeks. So we had a premiere party after the first episode aired and we were thinking ‘That’s the end of our little summer job’ and then the reviews came out and every critic said ‘There is a new classic on TV’, and that first episode premiered to the highest ratings in the history of the Fox network. We were a critical and popular hit from the very first episode, it caught us all off-guard but it was a very nice surprise.”
Is Krusty Homer in disguise?
My 10-year-old daughter Isobel loves the Simpsons and has a store of facts at her fingertips so I invited her to submit a few questions. Her first one was how come Smithers started out Afro-American and then became Caucasian? “That’s a great question and it’s something I talk about in my presentation,” Reiss replies. “We wrote the shows and had to record all 13, and the very last step in the process was to animate them. We had decided that Smithers would be black but when we saw the finished shows in colour we thought ‘This looks terrible! He’s the one black character and he is subservient to his mean old white boss’. It just looked awful so we decided to change it and luckily that is something you can do with a cartoon, you can change a black guy into a white guy. The joke I tell is Smithers was the first man in history to go from black and straight to white and gay and the second one was Michael Jackson.”
Isobel next observed that Krusty looks exactly like Homer, except with clown make-up, how come? “She is unbelievably perceptive, nobody asks about this!” Reiss answers. “There were a couple of really weird ideas we had when the show was starting that we never followed up on. One of them was going to be that it would be revealed some way into the show that Krusty the Clown actually was Homer and that Homer lived this double life. It was supposed to be this kind of a joke that Marg loved Krusty and hated Homer and then it would be revealed that Homer really is Krusty, but then about five or six episodes into the series we had a scene where Homer met Krusty so it was a case of ‘There goes that idea’ but yes they are identical.”
Long-time fans of the show know that Homer’s voice changed markedly from the early episodes. “That was a choice by actor Dan Castellaneta,” Reiss explains. “Homer was initially very gruff and it was just Dan doing an impression of Walter Matthau and there was really not much more to it. What he found was that a Walter Matthau grumbly voice couldn’t elicit all the emotional things that Homer does, it’s hard to do be excited and happy with the gruff voice so he slowly shifted it to a completely original voice.”
The trouble with celebrities
One of the great pleasures of the show is its regular celebrity guest stars. Has anyone ever turned down the chance of guesting on The Simpsons? “You’d be surprised how often that the star who appears on the show was our second choice,” Reiss says with a laugh. “We’ve gone after Bruce Springsteen many, many, times and he always says no, and we’ve asked Eminem a few times and he’s said no. Then there are a few people who asked to be on the show and we wrote them a show and they turned it down; Lyle Lovett, Prince, and George Lucas all did that.”
Have any of the celeb guests wanted their scripts altered? “We can say the worst things about our guests and make them do embarrassing things and they hardly ever complain,” Reiss declares. “We’ve had 300 guest stars and the only problem we ever had was Jose Conseco, the baseball player. We’d written a scene where he is being hit on by Mrs Kerfuffle and he told us ‘Look, I’m having some problems with the wife, don’t write me as a womaniser’ so we had to change that. Then we had Johnny Carson on and we wrote him as very pathetic. He had retired from his talk show and wound up moving into the Simpsons’ house and he’s got nothing to do, and he’s a big slob and won’t get off the couch and Johnny Carson – who had asked to be on the show - turned that down, he didn’t want to be portrayed like that. So we wrote him in the other direction and made him Superman where he could juggle cars and sing opera and he said ‘This, I’ll do!” It was really a great coup for us because after leaving his talk show, he only appeared on one other TV show and it was The Simpsons.”
I leave the concluding question to Isobel, and she asked Mike which was his favourite Simpsons episode; “Of the ones I’ve been involved in it was the one where Lisa gets a crush on her substitute teacher,” he discloses. “I’ll be showing a clip from that because Lisa had a Jewish substitute teacher and they used my face because I look more Jewish than anyone else on the set. I have a fondness for that but it was really James L Brooks who told us how to do it. That episode is so emotionally powerful, it had such a powerful ending I can’t watch it. I remember when it went on the air we were just flooded with responses about how touching the episode was. But the very best episode I ever saw – there have been 600 episodes and I’ve worked on 550 of them - was one I wasn’t involved in. It was where Lisa finds the bones of an angel and it raises this whole spiritual controversy in Springfield. That episode is so awesome.”
The Simpsons Backstage Tour is at the Town Hall on Saturday October 24 and Sunday October 25 at 3pm each day. For details on the festival and online booking see www.vodafonecomedycarnival.com; Tickets are also available via OMG @ Zhivago, Shop Street, and www.ticketmaster.ie