Simpsons Producer Mike Reiss Talks Critic
Exclusive interview by Daniel Robert Epstein, contributing editor
A few months back, former Simpsons Executive Producer Mike Reiss became a favorite of UGO when he let details slip to us about a Simpsons movie. The entertainment newswires quickly picked up the story, and it was mentioned in print and TV venues across the world. Unfortunately, the beans weren't meant to be spilt, and Reiss caught a lot of flack from the big boys at Fox.
What Reiss is excited to talk us about now is the recent DVD release of his cult series, The Critic, he co-created with fellow Simpsons veteran Al Jean. The Critic, starring the voice of Jon Lovitz, was an animated series that started on ABC back in 1994, before it was moved to FOX and then subsequently cancelled. It soon garnered a huge following due to its reruns on Comedy Central, and in 2000, Al Jean and Reiss created a series of webisodes, which are included on this DVD set. We spoke to Reiss about Springfield, and whether we'll ever see a return of The Critic (hint: possibly).
UGO: What's it like having Al Reiss as your boss now?
MIKE REISS: I think Al likes being the boss. He seems to have a knack for being in control. I like to be a guide there, throwing out ideas and having someone else sort out what is good and what isn't. I never liked being the arbiter of comedy or deciding what will be good.
UGO: Did you ever throw out a joke that you know he will like but then he turns it down?
MIKE: Not recently. That would happen in the old days. I think I get treated a little nicer. I'm like an ex-wife that didn't soak him for too much.
UGO: How is The Critic DVD selling?
MIKE: It's selling great. I always say that this show failed and failed so after nine years I can finally say that The Critic is a hit. It just jumped onto the DVD list at 14 on Amazon. It sold a bunch really fast. We went through five issuings really fast.
UGO: Was it not expected it to do well?
MIKE: I think they had an inkling. They had this idea to do it, which was all motivated by the phenomenal sales of Family Guy. The history of Family Guy is almost exactly our history. We were on FOX and successful but then we got cancelled for no good reason. Then the show got successful later. They rushed The Critic DVDs into production. It was kind of breathtaking thing where we were talking about and suddenly they rushed it and wanted it out in two weeks.
It's funny because there is one thing you can tell about how rushed they were. What I was so proud of was that it came with all these great bonuses and additional material and its not mentioned anywhere on the box or promo materials.
UGO: I know. I opened it up and put it in my player and I was so excited that the webisodes were on it.
MIKE: Yeah that's just a testament to how rushed they were. I thought that was what was going to sell the boxed set and instead they forgot to put it in. Sometimes I think there is a little bit of a dark cloud that hangs over The Critic.
UGO: I had seen some of the webisodes when they were online but I had never seen them look that good of course.
MIKE: The webisodes were frustrating. We were part of this separate deal where Jim Brooks had to do ten different series on the web and we were the only suckers that went and executed everything. We worked like dogs to do them. It was just Al and I working from ten to midnight every night after we had already put in a workday. We were really thrilled but then nobody saw them. They put the things on without any fanfare. It was pitched to us as free work but we were told that we could do what The Critic could never do before, a movie will be in theatres one week and you could parody it that week. We would write them quickly and they would animate them quickly and then they sat on them for nine months. That's even slower than it was to put a regular episode on TV.
UGO: Why did that happen? Jim Brooks is not a small Hollywood fish at all.
MIKE: They kept saying they were debugging it. It was computer talk and that's why the dot coms were a bust.
UGO: The webisodes were definitely raunchier.
MIKE: We decided to take advantage of the fact that it was the Internet and do something different. Al and I were writing those late at night when we should have been home with our wives.
UGO: Did the episodes change at all when it went from ABC to FOX?
MIKE: When we went on ABC we knew they were not FOX so we felt we were soft-pedaling The Critic just a little bit. Two days later my secretary walked in with a crate and said "That's hate mail." We were the most shocking thing anything anyone had ever seen on ABC. Then when we made the jump to FOX we were doing the same show and the censors said we could be a lot "foxier." They were complaining we weren't raunchier enough.
UGO: I know that Jon Lovitz is friends with a lot of celebrities. Did they ever call him on any of the jokes?
MIKE: He would always worry. He would say, "I can't make this joke. He's a friend of mine." Jon literally knows everyone but we never got a complaint, which made me think nobody was watching.
UGO: What made Charles Napier right for your show? When you think of him you never think of cartoons.
MIKE: I'm very pleased that he's found a new career as a cartoon voice. We had the best casting woman in the world named Juel Bestrop. She cast the show as if it was live action. For the part of a boss she brought in actors that played a lot of bosses and that's definitely Charles Napier. If you ask Charles what his career is mostly he would say, "Crooked generals." But he walked in the door and Al and I lit up because we knew him from his Russ Meyer movies [such as Supervixens and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls]. In college, Al and I had very primitive cable that just showed Russ Meyer movies over and over. He's just the greatest guy too. For as much as The Critic failed and a lot of heartache it was probably the most fun job I had.
UGO: I know that Charles Napier has done many movies with Jonathan Demme. Was he reticent to play the judge in the Philadelphia movie parody?
MIKE: You caught that?
MIKE: I think he was just excited to do it. In our scripts we would always describe the characters, as "this is a trucker with a Sean Connery voice." In that script the writer got to write "Charles Napier in Charles Napier voice."
UGO: I read that originally The Critic was going to be live action.
MIKE: Yes, it was going to be live action starring Jon Lovitz and we didn't ask. We just wrote it for him. It was as stupid a way to do a show as you can imagine. We wrote the whole pilot and we gave it to Jon right after A League of Their Own came out when he was very hot. He said he didn't want to TV. The project was then almost dead and we decided to do it as a cartoon. I'm willing to bet no other animated project has been done in that way.
UGO: I read that a lot of people, who you wouldn't expect to turn you down to be a guest star, turned you down, like Ruth Buzzi.
MIKE: Wow, where'd you hear that?
Yeah, you look at The Simpsons and they get Stephen Hawking and Tony Blair but we couldn't get Fred 'Rerun' Berry or Buddy Hackett or Jim Varney. A lot of people who are dead now. It was a real heartbreaker. But luckily we could imitate anyone we wanted to on it. Watching the old show I was surprised at how many celebrities we had like Ricki Lake, Bob Costas and Geraldo. They're not A-list though. Of course any film critic we asked came on and did whatever we asked them to. They are just such unabashed hams. My favorite episode is the one that had Siskel and Ebert on. We had written all these songs for them and we were afraid to ask them but they were happy to sing.
UGO: You spoke to one of our contributing editors, Thomas Chau, about The Simpsons movie.
MIKE: Yes, and I got into a lot of trouble for that. It was really an offhand remark in the sense of the inevitability of The Simpsons movie. I didn't know how big a story it would get. In hard facts there is no idea when this will come out or if it comes out. We still don't have the idea for it. It was just some offhand speculation that wound up on the CNN crawl.
UGO: When someone comes down on you for something like that, who is it that does it? Was it Jim Brooks?
MIKE: He did not. I'm not going to talk about it anymore. What happened is that almost everyone in organization yelled at me, and then apologized. They were mad because I had done something stupid, but I hadn't done it on purpose. It's completely blown over now. Now you just hear about the Sex in the City movie, which I also leaked.
UGO: I also heard about a Queer Duck movie.
MIKE: Yes, that's still in the works. Queer Duck was a big hit on Showtime. Then there was a big change over there and they didn't want to be the gay network anymore. At that point they were developing a whole gay network and Queer Duck was going to be like their NBC peacock. Then they decided the gay thing was going to pan out, and then two months later Queer Eye for the Straight Guy comes on and they missed the whole gay boat. The Queer Duck movie is written, people love the script, and I think it's the best thing I ever wrote.
UGO: Did you write it by yourself?
MIKE: All by myself and that one I can I leak. It was such a labor of love. We've got a lot of investors lined up.
UGO: What do you do exactly on The Simpsons now?
MIKE: I consult. Everything on The Simpsons is done collaboratively. There are two writer's rooms with ten writers apiece. They just go through scripts a line at a time. One day a week I go in and I'm just one of those ten guys pitching jokes and story ideas.
UGO: What's it like working with newer Simpsons writers Bill Odenkirk and Dana Gould?
MIKE: Dana is a treat because he's always on which could be a mixed blessing. He's always in performance mode. It's like doing your job at The Improv. Bill Odenkirk is funny because I'm sure he's the quiet member of the Odenkirk family, but he's always jumping in and out of character. There is a level of quality writers that have come in lately that I'm not used to. I am just a writer. A drone that sits in a room and never wants to perform. We've gotten a lot of writer/performer that has changed the dynamic of TV writing. Ten years ago they were all on the road.
UGO: How has that changed The Simpsons?
MIKE: It doesn't manifest itself so much on the air. The show is the same. It's more in the writer's room. You used to be able to just pitch a joke and now you have to act it out in the character's voice.
UGO: I spoke with Al Jean not too long ago. He said it is a lot harder to write The Simpsons now.
MIKE: The only tough thing about the job is getting the original story. If someone comes in with a good new idea then that's a miracle. It's like its raining fish and we're so excited. Once we've got the idea the machine starts up and we can generate a new episode. I saw an old episode where it was Homer's first time on an airplane and he just keeps dinging the stewardess and asking for all these free things. Now the guy has probably logged half a million airline miles.
UGO: Family Guy is coming back because of the DVDs. Any chance with The Critic?
MIKE: It may come back. People are interested. Lovitz was pitching to me and wants to do it live action so finally that whole idea has come full circle. I always think there is new modern media we haven't failed in yet.
UGO: What do you think of Family Guy?
MIKE: I love Family Guy. I think it's great. It's a show that shocks me, jaded as I am.
UGO: I love Family Guy and The Simpsons. Sometimes on Family Guy there are jokes I know I have seen on The Simpsons.
MIKE: No, but it does bother a lot of The Simpsons guys. But then I've seen jokes on Family Guy that wind up on The Simpsons. There are so many pop culture references in the world. I don't know if they're stealing but we do keep stumbling on the same ideas. It's the same reason that most people in animation don't watch the other shows because they just don't want to say "This would have been a great idea but I saw it on South Park."
UGO: What superpower would you like to have?
MIKE: X-ray eyes to look through women's dresses.
UGO: What's your favorite movie franchise out of The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, and Star Wars?
MIKE: I'm going to say the first three Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings was ok. With The Matrix, I've never seen anything hit the skids like that. I never saw something fall apart so quickly. It was a crime.