February 18, 2004

An Evening With Mike Reiss

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Inspiring laughter in about 500 college students might pose difficulty for some comedians, but Simpsons producer and writer Mike Reiss seemed to have no trouble last night at the Statler Auditorium.

Dressed in a black turtleneck, gray sports jacket, and sneakers, Reiss launched into his routine the moment he stepped on stage.

He forewarned the audience about his speech’s content, saying, “This speech contains some adult situations, some foul language, and some full frontal nudity — mine.”

He moved on to talk briefly about his Jewish background, perhaps not surprising considering that Cornell Hillel sponsored his visit. He said that he felt rather different growing up in a small town because of his strongly Jewish looks, and added, “I put myself through college modeling for hate literature.”

From his childhood, he moved on to his career, describing in self-deprecating terms how he graduated from Harvard University, helped script Airplane 2 and wrote for both Gary Shandling and Alf.

Returning to the subject of Judaism, he talked about why so many Jewish people are in comedy. He said that 50 percent of the Simpsons’ writers are Jewish, and that three of the six main voice actors on the show are also Jewish.

“Apu, the Hindu, well, he’s a Jew too!” he said, ending the list of Simpsons characters voiced by Jewish actors, which include Reverend Lovejoy, Ned Flanders, and Disco Stu.

In addition to many of The Simpsons’ voice actors being Jewish, Reiss said that all of the children’s voices are done by adult women. He commented, “Milhouse is hot,” suggesting the physical difference between the cartoon and the person behind it.

He also talked about the changes The Simpsons has gone through during its 15 years on the air. Describing how Lisa has become a vegetarian and Buddhist, he suggested that they would have her become a lesbian next and a cannibal after that, and then finally send her to Brown University. He also said that in very early episodes, Smithers was originally black, but they decided to change both his race and sexual orientation.

“I think that’s how God makes these decisions. Poof, you’re white. Poof, you’re gay. Poof, you’re Michael Jackson,” he said.

He then showed a clip from The Simpsons, where Lisa falls in love with her substitute teacher, whose character Reiss created. He explained that although Dustin Hoffman voiced the character, the artists based the character’s looks on Reiss himself, seemingly much to his chagrin.

Describing his favorites on the show, he said his favorite character is Troy McClure, who he created, and his favorite episode is when Krusty reunites with his rabbi father.

He then addressed the big news among Simpsons fans — the possibility of a Simpsons feature movie. He admitted, although jokingly, that he was the one who leaked the news to the press through an Internet entertainment writer. Comparing it to the Scooby Doo movie, he said that the film will “suck pretty hard,” but that he would look forward to seeing it done as a live-action movie.

“For years we’ve wanted to find an actor as bald as Homer and just as stupid, and God gave us Vin Diesel,” he said.

Reiss also explained how The Simpsons has managed to air several episodes with offensive jokes, saying, “Trying to censor Fox is like trying to clean a sewer with a wetnap.”

Later, during the question and answer session, he described why the Fox network has never prohibited the show from making fun of it.

“Fox needs us more than we need them. We don’t knock Fox because we want to bite the hand that feeds us. We knock Fox because Fox sucks,” he said. He said that while the Simpsons writers attempt to write an intelligent show, during the commercial breaks, Fox advertises shows asking the question, “How many dwarves can we fit in an elephant’s asshole?”

In addition to The Simpsons, Reiss also co-created The Critic with Jon Lovitz. He showed a clip from The Critic and a short from a cartoon about gay animals called “Queer Duck.”

“I’m not gay, but I’m Jewish, which is about the same thing. We’ve both been persecuted for centuries — by our mothers,” he said.

Finishing his talk with a question and answer session, he fielded questions on Maggie talking, episodes he truly disliked, the show in syndication, and celebrities guest-starring on the show.

The audience appeared to enjoy the show, with Reiss talking to and signing autographs for a large group of students at the podium afterwards.

“He made it an enjoyable evening from the time he got on stage to the time he got off,” said Mike Nagele ’07.

One of the organizers of the event, Matt Jossen ’04, president of the Jewish Students Union, said that the group invited Reiss in order to attract a diverse crowd.

“He’s a great draw for college-age kids. He won’t just draw Jewish kids, but he’s a draw for the whole Cornell community. Every college student is attracted to the Simpsons,” he said.

Archived article by Shannon Brescher