by Patricia Grandjean
Jun 18, 2013
01:09 PMBox Office
Front Row Q&A: Mike Reiss
Life has been good to comedy writer Mike Reiss, 53. The Bristol native (and Harvard grad) cut his teeth at both the Harvard Lampoon and National Lampoon before heading to Hollywood, where he wrote for “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Over the last 25 years he’s been a multi-Emmy-winning writer and producer for “The Simpsons” (below, his Simpsonized portrait), written 17 children’s books, and developed his first play—the romantic comedy I’m Connecticut—which broke box-office records at the University of Connecticut’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT) in 2011. It's currently enjoying a second go-round, through June 23, at Ivoryton Playhouse in Essex. Call (860) 767-7318 or visit ivorytonplayhouse.org.
How did you come up with the idea for the play?
Someone came to me with it. I was giving a speech at UConn, and having dinner with some of the faculty, and Frank Mack, the head of the theater department, said, "You should write a play about Connecticut; no one's done that before. When you work on "The Simpsons" and someone says, "No one's done that idea before," you jump on it, because we've done every idea there is.
I've never written a play before. But the idea so stuck with me . . . I'm from Connecticut; I grew up in Bristol. There's so much to talk about with Connecticut, there's a theme there and you can build a whole play around that. I wrote the play pretty quickly, then I wrote back to Frank Mack and said, "I hope you weren't kidding about this."
A lot of playwrights spend a long time workshopping, working out the kinks and figuring out how to stage their plays. Did you do any of that?
No, I didn't. I think this is something playwrights do that's completely bogus and a little fraudulent. [laughs] I wrote the play in about 10 days. What audiences will be seeing at the Ivoryton is the second draft. I did some tweaking here and there, but the biggest fight I had with the director was when I told him, "There are 10 jokes I wrote that just aren't funny, let me cut them, and he went, "No, no, I'll make them work."
So, all the prep that playwrights do is unnecessary?
I spent 30 years in TV before I ever wrote a play, and that gives you so much experience. It's like writing a play a day; you write it and you watch it. You get very good at assessing what will and won't be funny, what a scene needs. Playwrights don't have that advantage. I was in a theater producer's office once, and he was surrounded by posters of plays he had produced that were the biggest hits in the history of Broadway. I said, "You know what all those plays have in common? They're all written by TV writers"—people like Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and the guys in Monty Python. TV is a form of boot camp.
The character of Marc is "Connecticut," but is he you in any way?
I gotta say "yes." The play is not autobiographical, although there's one thing right out of my life, where he's the only Jewish kid in school and has to tell everyone about Hanukkah. What is definitely me is the fact that even though I've had this exciting career, have a lot of stories to tell and have been places, I'm so boring. If you have dinner with me, it just gets dull really fast. I feel like that's the character of Marc: Nice guy, has a lot to offer, smart and funny—but there's something just not that interesting about him.
But he seems to feel about himself the way everyone feels about themselves, doesn't he? I mean, if we all were really honest.
Maybe—or maybe you're just from Connecticut, too! There's the idea in the play that just plays out really well: If you're from Connecticut, everyone else just seems to have a little more character than you—the fast-talking guy from Boston, the tough guy from Brooklyn.
It makes me think of the way the department of tourism always struggles to convince people that Connecticut is worth visiting.
There was something a guy said to me my freshman year in college that really got the gears turning for this play 35 years ago. He said, "Where are you from?" I said, "I'm from Connecticut." He said, "That's great—you can root for either the Yankees or the Red Sox." I thought, "Yeah, sure—that's why we move here." I didn't start writing the play until I stumbled onto the idea that to a large extent, you are where you come from. We don't realize what a big role geography plays in our personalities. When I started writing the play, I was going to do it like Play It Again, Sam, with Marc as the Woody Allen character who would be advised by the state of Connecticut.
Okay, you came from Bristol—how are you like that town?
I think I'm a very warm, friendly, nice man—a nice place to visit but just not that interesting. Bristol's just a group of people and a lot of trees. A lot of Connecticut is like Bristol, but it's nobody's perception of the state. Outside of Connecticut, everyone thinks the state is a rich suburb of New York. They think of Fairfield County and are not aware of a town like Bristol, which is a blue-collar factory town.
The Ivoryton Playhouse has billed this as a "brand-new play," which obviously isn't true.
The play broke all box office records at Connecticut Repertory Theatre in 2011. The reviews were the greatest reviews I ever got in my career. It won the best play of the year Broadway Connecticut Award, and then it disappeared. I'm so gratefull—if this Ivoryton gig hadn't come along, I just wouldn't have written another play, because I'd feel like. "What do you have to do to get ahead in this field?" I did a reading in Los Angeles, and a reading in New York, and it killed. You don't have to be from Connecticut to enjoy this play. But if you are, it's like crack cocaine, local audiences love it so much. How many plays do they see that have a joke about Windsor Locks? It opens their eyes to things they've seen every day, like the Connecticut flag. What drives me crazy is, why aren't the other theaters in Connecticut doing this? What do I have to do? I've pestered Westport Playhouse and the Goodspeed Opera House. It's good, it makes money, it's about Connecticut.
For Goodspeed, you'll have to write a score.
That's what I want to do, put a lot more work into this. [laughs] The way I wrote a lot of the play is, I have about 150 pages of joke ideas—a lot of the play was just pieced together and filled out from these files full of material that I said, "Well, I don't know when I'll get a chance to use that."
I'd like to ask about your career more generally. When did you start writing?
I wrote in college for The Harvard Lampoon. Someone discovered me at the National Lampoon who had been reading The Harvard Lampoon. They wrote to me when I was a junior or senior in college, so I started doing freelance humor writing and making a little money. After college, somebody saw my work in the National Lampoon, and I got asked to go out to Hollywood.
Do you remember the first piece you wrote, either for The Harvard Lampoon or National Lampoon?
One of the seminal pieces was the first one I wrote with my roommate, Al Jean, called "Spooky Magic." It was a parody of those books of magic tricks that 8-year-olds get. Al and I had both had this book as kids. Al wasn't exactly even thinking of becoming a writer. But the piece came out very funny and was fun for us to do together. That was the article that got us hired for National Lampoon. We became writing partners for 16 years and went out to Hollywood together.
The two of you bonded at Harvard, but otherwise you've said you didn't care for the school.
I still hate the place. I just don't think much of it as an institution. It's very cold; unfeeling. Everything I got out of Harvard I got from the Lampoon: My friends, my career, my comedy-writing education. That would be something I'd certainly give credit to Harvard for, except Harvard hated The Harvard Lampoon. The one good thing they had going, they were antagonistic towards.
So I really can't give Harvard much credit, though I met my wife there. It offered a lousy education, lousy services and an uncaring faculty. I have this second or third career as college lecturer. I've been to 300 colleges where I give a funny presentation about "The Simpsons" and show rare clips. And every one I go to I think, "Hey, this college is better than Harvard." Even in Tuscaloosa, Ala., I look around and think, "Gee, I wish I'd gone to school here."
After your arrival in L.A., you became involved with "The Simpsons" right at the beginning of the show. And it's a show that's gone on for a quarter-century. How do you explain its longevity?
I just figured it out a few months ago and it's so prosaic, it's bound to be disappointing.
By the way, I still work for the show—half the articles I read say, "The former writer of 'The Simpsons' is coming." I'm always like, "What? What have they heard?" My story is, about six years ago, I moved to New York. But I continue to work every Wednesday at "The Simpsons"—I fly to L.A. every Tuesday night, work there, and then Wednesday night I fly back to New York.
So what's hit me is that all these animated shows have run forever—"South Park" has been on for 15 years; "Family Guy" has been on for years. All hit shows would run forever, except the cast gets bored or too rich. Actors are the things that kill a hit show, and we don't exactly have actors. Cartoon characters don't get bored. There's only one live-action show that's run as long as "The Simpsons," and that's "Lassie." That's it—cartoon characters don't get tired of their jobs.
But is there some special reason audiences have remained committed to "The Simpsons" for this long?
Here's my high-blown answer: "The Simpsons" is always a show about human stupidity and human frailty. As long as people keep doing dumb things, "The Simpsons" will have material. There have been times when the show looked a little shaky, and it was running on fumes. Part of that was during the Bill Clinton era, when everything was going great. There was 100 percent employment and people were making money. There wasn't much to make fun of. Then, suddenly, George W. Bush came into office, and bang! That was a shot in the arm for the show. Terrorism and the collapse of the world economy have been just great for "The Simpsons."
You wrote for one of my favorite shows ever, "It's Garry Shandling's Show."
People do remember that show fondly, not that they were watching it at the time. It was the lowest-rated show on TV, and now I hear about it all the time. It never gets its due, in that it had a huge influence on "The Simpsons." Half the original staff of "The Simpsons" worked on that show. It certainly was a show that played with the medium. Sometimes we'd do a show that was just one big movie parody. Shows like that, which we did on "The Simpsons" too, "It's Garry Shandling's Show" did first.
And you worked on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson." Did you work directly with Carson?
As much as anyone did. Especially at that time, he was an enormously removed man. He did a five-minute interview with me when I got the job, and it was just like being interviewed as a guest on the show—very exciting and polished, a great interview. Then I saw him maybe four times for 20 minutes, and got to work with him. Then I got fired, because everybody gets fired there. Two weeks later he tried to rehire me, but I'd moved on.
The day I got the job the head writer shook my hand and said, "Congratulations, you'll be gone in 13 weeks." The fact that I hung in for a year-and-a-half set a record up to that point. At the time he was a very unhappy man, and his unhappiness would manifest itself by firing whomever's contract was up. He was going through a very bad divorce at the time. The only way we knew what was going on with our boss was we'd read about his divorce in The National Enquirer. It had a story, "Carson's Ex-Wife Demands $9,000 a Week More in Alimony." Two of the older writers were there, and they looked at each other and said, "Between us, we make $9,000 a week." They got fired two days later.
What did you work on while you were there?
Carson actually had two completely different writing staffs: The monologue writers—that's the job I wish I had—were in one building and the sketch writers in an entirely different one. In my year-and-a-half there, I never met the monologue writers. The sketch writers would write the piece of material Johnny would do every night after his monologue. It would be Carnack the Magnificent, or Aunt Blabby, or The Edge of Wetness . . . or he'd just sit at the desk and go. "Here's a list of 10 ways to beat the heat." and then Ed McMahon would say, "I guess every idea is on that list," and Johnny would launch into 20 more comedic ways to beat the heat. So that was the stuff I wrote.
I used to love Carnack most of all.
I loved Carnack, I loved to write it, the audience loved it, but Carson hated it and hated doing it. The theory was that he thought it was a writer's day off, because it involved about 10 jokes and they were sort of easy to write. I could have done Carnack every night. I think people would have been very happy with it.
You've also written 17 children's books.
Correct, and in fact, my 18th children's book is available as a Kindle single. It's an odd length: too long to really be a picture book, too short to be a novel. So it's a Kindle download for 99 cents. It's called Tales of Moronica, and it's a parable of George Bush. It's my attempt at Alice in Wonderland, about the stupidest kingdom in the history of fairy tales. It's for adults and smart kids.
What do you think your best work has been?
The couple of projects where I just jumped into the void. I'm really proud of "I'm Connecticut." My first mystery story, "Cro-Magnon, P.I." won an Edgar Award. It came to me after a long jag of listening to a lot of historical fiction—particularly mysteries—on tape, like Cadfael, which is about Renaissance monks. Then I started to go back further and further in time and thought, "What about Socrates solving a crime?" Somebody told me there was already a book about that. So I decided to have a caveman solve a crime; his Dr. Watson is a Neanderthal. I intercut that with modern-day paleontologists uncovering remnants of his life and not knowing what to make of his notes. His notes were cave-drawings. The story was rejected by 18 magazines, until it was finally accepted by Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. They paid me $120. And it won "Best Mystery Story of the Year."
As writers, we all have stories like this. My first children's book was called How Murray Saved Christmas. Every children's book publisher rejected it unti I got to the 13th company. As picture books go, it was a blockbuster. These days, 9,000 copies sold of a book makes it a bestseller; that book sold 180,000 copies. Instead of enjoying that, I was so mad that every other publisher I tried had this potential bestseller sitting on their desks.
Anything you haven't tried yet that you'd like to?
No; in fact, I'm at a point in my career where I feel I have a really nice archive of stuff nobody's taken a chance on. I have three screenplays in particular which sold for a lot of money. They bought them, they never made them and I wish they would. Or at least, I wish they'd make one of them and not mess it up. I did this cartoon called "Queer Duck," about a gay duck. It started out on the Internet, moved to Showtime and ten wound up on British television, where TV viewers named it one of the 100 "Greatest Cartoons of All Time." I did this 12 years ago, and people still come up to me and say, "When is there going to be more 'Queer Duck?'" So I wrote a pilot, and I'd love to do more of that. I'm very proud of that; I won a lot of gay awards. And I wrote it as sort of a knee-jerk reaction to an article I had read in 2000 about how there were no gay people on TV. This was before "Glee," "Will & Grace" and Anderson Cooper. I'm not gay, but I had to keep that quiet—I didn't want people to think I was a carpetbagger.
What are you working on right now?
NBC is going to do a Christmas special of How Murray Saved Christmas in 2014. I have two more plays that I wish would get a little more traction.
Are you going to try to keep finding stage opportunities for I'm Connecticut?
Yes—tell me what I have to do! I've sent it to everybody I can think of, and you never hear back. It's a very funny feeling after 30 years in movie and TV; suddenly, I'm a first-imer again, an unknown. I don't get any breaks and I'm like any guy banging on doors, like a 21-year-old writer who just got off the bus.
What I've learned is that theater is not a business, it's really a rich man's hobby. There are probably half-a-dozen people who make a successful career in it. For everyone else, it's just a hobby—it loses money. I meet people I consider successful playwrights—they win the awards, they're always getting produced—and they have day jobs doing something else. It's like yacht-racing or dressage. When you own a prize stepping-horse, you don't think, "I'm going to make a bundle off of this."
I understand that you and your wife travel a lot. Where have you been?
We have been to places nobody wants to go, routinely. We've been to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and North Korea—that last one is the one that blows people's minds. I've been off in the jungles of Indonesia looking for orangutans and tigers. I've seen the world, and none of it by choice—I do it because my wife likes to do it. Her mom took her on a couple of round-the-world trips when she was a teenager, and she got the bug for it. It's certainly blown my mind. It's sort of what people know us for. That's my hook: I'm the guy who goes to hellholes. If I hadn't married her, I'd just go to Orlando, Fla. on vacation.
What's your favorite hellhole?
Iran. I cannot say enough about how nice the people are, how worldy and cosmopolitan they are. And what a beautiful country it is. The perception we've been given could not be wronger. In fact, I think there was once a TIME magazine cover with the line, "Everything you know about Iran is wrong." These people hate their government; they think they're being run by boobs. They not only don't hate the U.S., they love it. Because everyone there has a cousin who came to America and got successful. I tell this story" We went to Iran because my wife wanted to go, and I was scared to death. Our first day there our tour guide, this young man who never left Tehran, asked me what I did for a living. I'm thinking, "How do I explain 'The Simpsons'?" So I just told him, "I write for this show called 'The Simpsons,'" and he said, "Y'know, I really liked the early seasons . . ."
When we started doing this, I lived in L.A., which I hated every single day. And I'm a guy who liked Iran, so I'm not that hard to please. So that was one reason we traveled so much; anywhere we went was better than L.A. Now I live in New York, where I love it every day, so I'm less inclined to travel.
Sounds great to me. If I had a billion dollars, I'd go everywhere.
I like it. And here's a tag for your story: It's been in the news that they're looking for a childless middle-aged couple to go to Mars. Everyone has called us, saying, "That's you, guys." We became enamored of the idea, so we've applied. I'm a man who'd be happy to spend 500 days in a small spaceship with my wife.Front Row Q&A: Mike Reiss