Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Books: "Springfield Confidential" On America's Funniest Family

Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Working for The Simpsons
Mike Reiss with Mathew Klickstein
Dey St., An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; $27.99

Mike Reiss, former head writer of The Simpsons, gives a freewheeling, irreverent account of working on the landmark show in his new memoir, Springfield Confidential.

In celebration of the Simpsons' 30th anniversary this year, Reiss is best-suited to give an inside look at the making of one of the most famous shows in television history.

Reiss shares stories, scandals, and gossip about working with America's most iconic cartoon family. He explains how the episodes are created, and gives an inside look at the show's writers, animators, actors, and celebrity guests.

There are reminiscences about the making of perennially favorite episodes, what it's like to be crammed in a room full of funny writers sixty hours a week, and tells what he's learned about travelling to 71 countries where The Simpsons is watched (ironic note: there is no electricity in many of these places).

When Reiss was asked to write for a new animated sitcom called The Simpsons, he was less than enthusiastic, as he writes here, "I got the Simpsons job the same way I got a wife: I was not the first choice, but I was available.

"I was working at It's Garry Shandling's Show, the second-lowest rated show on TV. (The lowest-rated was The Tracy Ullman Show, which featured short cartoons about these ugly little yellow people.) The Shandling show was going on summer break and showrunner Alan Zweibel was launching a new show, The Boys, a sitcom set at the Friars Club. Man, I wanted that job, where I would have been writing jokes for Norm Crosby and Norman Fell, two of my favorite Normans!

"But Zweibel opted to hire my old friends Max Pross and Tom Gammill, so my writing partner Al Jean, and I had to settle for the job they turned down: The Simpsons.

"Nobody wanted to work on The Simpsons. There hadn't been a cartoon in prime time since The Flintstones, a generation before. Worse yet, the show would be on the Fox network, a new enterprise that no one was even sure would last.

"I took the job...but didn't tell anyone what I was doing. After eight years writing for films, sitcoms, and even Johnny Carson, I was now working on a cartoon. I was twenty-eight years old and I thought I'd hit rock bottom.

"Still, I'd been a fan of Matt Groening and executive producer Sam Simon for years. They were having fun creating the show, and it was infectious. It was a summer job and it felt like the summer jobs I'd had in the past (selling housewares, filing death certificates): we knew we wouldn't be doing this forever, so no one took it too seriously. We didn't even have a real office at the time. The studio had so little faith in us, they housed us in a trailer. I assumed that if the show failed, they'd slowly back the trailer up to the Pacific and drown the writers like rats.

"Al Jean and I quickly churned out three of the first eight episodes of the show: 'There's No Disgrace Like Home,' which ends with the Simpsons electrocuting each other during family therapy; 'Moaning Lisa.' in which a depressed Lisa meets jazz great Bleeding Gums Murphy; and 'The Telltale Head,' where Bart saws the head offn the Jebediah Springfield statue. This is also the episode in which Sideshow Bob, Reverend Lovejoy, Krusty the Clown, and bullies Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney first appear.

"But the whole time I was writing, I groused, 'I'd rather be doing jokes for Norman Fell.' Since so few writers wanted to work on the series, we wound up with a very eclectic writing staff: except for Al and me, none of them had ever written a sitcom script before. They'd come from the world of sketches, late-night TV, even advertising. One day before the series premiered, I was sitting in the trailer with the other writers. After Matt Groening left the room, I asked the question that was on all our minds: 'How long do you actually think this show will last?'

"Every writer had the same answer. Six weeks. Six weeks, six weeks, six weeks. Only Sam Simon was optimistic. 'I think it will last thirteen weeks,' he said. 'But don't worry. No one will ever see it. It won't hurt your career.'

"Maybe that's the secret of the show's success: since we thought no one would be watching, we didn't make the kind of show we saw on TV; we made the kind of show we wanted to see on TV. It was unpredictable; one week we wrote a whodunit, and in another we parodied the French film Maron of the Spring. The only rule was one we made for ourselves - don't be boring. The scenes were snappy and packed with jokes, in the dialogue, in the foreground, and in the background. When Homer went to a video arcade in episode 6, Al and I filled the place with funny games like Pac-Rat, Escape from Grandma's House, and Robert Goulet Destroyer. And if you missed  a joke the first time, no problem; everyone in America was starting to get VCRs, so they could tape the show and watch it again.

"Remember, this was 1988, and the number one TV series was The Cosby Show. It was a great show...but it was slooooow. Nothing ever happened on The Cosby Show. (A lot happened after The Cosby Show...)
Sam was right about one thing, that it didn't hurt anyone's career. The Simpsons is now the longest-running animated sitcom of all time, and Reiss, a winner of four Emmys, is one of the few writers, producers, and showrunners who was worked on every episode.

Reiss answers some of the burning questions he gets from fans, such as: Where is Springfield located? What is the secret of The Simpsons' success? What do you say to people who say the show has gone downhill? What do you think of Family Guy? And the toughest question of all: Why are the characters yellow?

One thing that Reiss addresses is how The Simpsons says topical, as he writes about here, "The biggest misconception people have about The Simpsons is that it's a topical show, ripped from today's headlines. Actually, it takes us nearly a year to produce a single episode, so we are, in fact, the least timely show on television.

"Very often, this long lead time gets us into trouble. Eartha Kitt played herself in one episode, and by the time the show aired, she was dead. This Catwoman's appearance was...purr-plexing.

"In another episode, Mr.  Burns had the line 'Well, I'm no young matinee idol like Rex Harrison.' Two days before the show aired, Rex Harrison dropped dead. No one saw it coming - the man was only ninety-eight years old. We couldn't get Harry Shearer to come in an replace the line, so we took scissors and tape - this was the analog era - and recut the audio, changing it from Rex Harrison to Redd Foxx, the star of Sanford and Son. The line now went, 'Well, I'm no young matinee idol like Rrrreddddd Foooooxxxxx.' It didn't look good, it didn't make sense, but at least we were spared an embarrassing situation.

"The morning that show aired, Redd Foxx dropped dead. And it reminded me of something my grandfather told me as a little boy. He said, 'Michael, God hates you.'

"[FULL DISCLOSURE: I've been telling that story for years - and believing it. But I recently watched that episode again, and saw that we never changed the Rex Harrison line. And Rex Harrison was only eighty-two when he died. And Redd Foxx died sixteen months after that episode aired. Otherwise, I stand by my story.]

"The biggest problem with topical jokes is they don't age well. One episode ended with Selma singing '(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman' to her pet iguana Jub-Jub. (That name was coined by Conan O'Brien.) This was a parody of a scene on the sitcom Murphy Brown that was considered unforgettable - until everyone forgot it. And in The Simpsons Movie, the family escapes from the dome in a shot-for-shot homage to the ending of the show Prison Break. Remember that? Neither do I.

"I can think of only two times we tied Simpsons episodes to current events. The first was a 1996 Halloween segment where aliens Kang and Kodos take over the bodies of presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. During the nine months of production I worried that if something happened to either candidate - illness, resignation, assassination - before the show aired, it would ruin that episode. (It would be bad for America, too, but that wasn't my top concern.) Luckily, both candidates survived to Halloween, and later Election Day."

Reiss also sheds light on the writing he's done for cult series like The Critic, ALF, and Sledge Hammer!, hit movies such as five Ice Age films, two Despicable Mes, and a dozen more, and comedy legends like Johnny Carson, Joan Rivers, and Garry Shandling.

Springfield Confidential is an exclusive and very entertaining look into one of the greatest sitcoms ever, and a must-read for devout Simpsons fans and lovers of comedy.

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