February 19, 2004

The Man Who Shot Mr. Burns

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Even as the applause died, and the audience left, two things remained in Statler auditorium on Tuesday night: one was Mike Reiss, the other was the laughter he had instilled.

Despite filling an hour and twenty-minute long speech with jokes about his mother, Hollywood, and even himself, Reiss continued to address fans, and continued to churn out the comedy. Casually dressed in a turtleneck, sport coat, and white tennis shoes, he leaned against the stage cracking jokes and conversing with fans. Reiss was relaxed and completely in his element — comedy.

Of course, the halls of an Ivy League institution were nothing new for The Simpsons producer. A native of Connecticut, he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard. Still, Reiss recalls his true education coming from his extracurricular work at the Harvard Lampoon, where he served as an editor — and from various illicit substances.

“I went to Harvard on a bong water fellowship,” he joked openly. “And I graduated with a PHLSD.”

Despite the use of mind-altering drugs, and nearly a quarter century in the comedy business, Reiss still isn’t out of jokes, particularly when it comes to current events and politics. He reduced the audience to tears of laughter with his commentaries on President George W. Bush, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Still, while Schwarzenegger and Kerry might just be good material, to Reiss Bush is the devil in a business suit.

“I haven’t got anything against John Kerry — they’re all good — I mean it’s crazy that this is even a competition. They’re all good men,” Reiss said of the current Democratic presidential hopefuls. “To me, you’ve just got this baboon in the office who couldn’t be doing a worse job. [He’s] a man of no achievement and no intellect who’s done more damage than if we had elected Satan.”

While passionate about politics, Reiss noted that at heart, he’s still a man of comedy.

“I wrote a dramatic screen play that actually sold, and it sold for big money,” he admitted. “It was funny because it sold to Adam Sandler, who also wants to be dramatic, but that was a real fluke. I’m not even a comedy writer, I feel like I’m a joke writer. I write a lot of jokes, and I’m lucky that I can string them together to make it look like a coherent story.”

But sometimes making things look like a coherent story is harder than it seems. Reiss admitted that while he loves his job, it’s hard to fill an entire cartoon show with jokes. And despite the success of The Simpsons’ two-part story line “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” the writers have yet to generate another plot thick enough to stretch two episodes.

So what’s Reiss’s secret to making The Simpsons so funny? One part childhood trauma, plus two parts musical, with a dash of college-student feedback.

“I used them as much as I could,” Reiss said of his childhood experiences. “I would say that every kind of interesting thing that happened in my childhood wound up on the Simpsons. I even left the show at a point where I went, ‘I’m out of stories.'”

And when the stories run out, Reiss turns to musical comedy. While fans love the departure from the show’s usual format, the writers enjoy it for a different reason.

“The reason we do musical numbers on the show is because it eats up a lot of time. The show is just a hole that we have to fill every week. If you write jokes on the show, they can always change the jokes