Simpsons writer shares secrets behind beloved cartoon comedy

JACKSON, Wyo. — Mike Reiss considers himself one of the least funny people in his exceptionally funny cohort.

But even as he makes that confession, he does it with a joke:

“I always think I’m sort of the lower limit,” he says. “There should be a picture of me saying, ‘you must be this funny to get into the writer’s room.'”

Nevermind that Reiss is one of the masterminds behind one of the funniest shows on television, for which he has won four Emmy Awards. Reiss is one of the original and enduring writers of “The Simpsons,” the popular cartoon sitcom about the small-town family everyone loves to hate. He will reveal secrets, stories, and scandals from his three decades with the show on The Center stage Sunday, Oct. 20.

His first secret: “The Simpsons” was an accident. It was never supposed to be as popular as it is, and indeed even Reiss didn’t expect it to go far. It started as minute-long cartoons on the Tracy Ullman show, “just to provide a buffer between a sketch and a commercial.”

“Nobody had expectations for it to succeed,” Reiss says. “In 1988, cartoons were just for kids.”

But adults were hungry for cartoons in a way Reiss never could have predicted. When the first 30-minute episode debuted on Fox, it was to the highest ratings in the network’s history.

Part of the show’s popularity, Reiss suspects, is in its clear break from reality. The characters and their stories are relatable, of course — that’s why we love them. But Homer Simpson’s signature move is strangling his kids. “He’d be in prison in real life,” Reiss says. But Homer gets away with it because he’s, well, a cartoon character.

“It allows us to put more shocking and pointed remarks in the mouths of the characters,” Reiss says.

Speaking of shocking: Reiss denies that he can predict the future, despite several internet observations that Simpsons episodes from decades ago have predicted real current events (a Simpsons episode 19 years ago predicted that Donald Trump would be president one day, for example. A 2010 episode put Marge and Homer on a winning Olympic curling team that beat Sweden. The U.S. curing team actually beat Sweden for the gold in 2018).

But Reiss insists he’s no psychic. He just writes jokes. “I’m not sitting here with crystal balls trying to predict the future,” he says.

If anything, that some of the show’s absurd jokes have come true says more about society than it does about the writers, he says. “We think it’s the stupidest thing that could ever happen, then it happens.”

Reiss calculates his track record is only about one in 13,000 “psychic” jokes. “But it’s funny when we get it right.”

Don’t expect to learn anything profound at his show, Reiss says. He’s not there to offer life lessons. He is there to offer a rare, inside look at the life of a comedy writer. “I joke that it’s a Simpsons backstage tour — but there’s no backstage of an animated show.”

Reiss will share stories interspersed with rare clips from the show. But The Simpsons isn’t all he’s accomplished in his comedic career. Far from it. He’s also written 20 children’s books and two dozen animated films, including “Ice Age” and “Minions.” He’ll discuss how he wrote for kids without having any of his own.

His Jackson show will be a bit of a homecoming. It’s his first time in Jackson, specifically, but out of more than 500 speeches he’s delivered in 22 countries, his very first was across the state in Laramie.

“They laughed at [the show] in Qatar,” Reiss says. “Wyoming should be much easier.”

Don’t miss Mike Reiss’s “Secrets of the Simpsons” this Sunday, Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. His favorite part of any show is the Q&A, so bring questions. “I put on a show like the Bruce Springsteen of public speaking,” he says.

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Center for the Arts

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