How Mike Reiss Converted ‘The Simpsons’ To Judaism
Mike Reiss has been a writer for “The Simpsons” for 28 years. He has won 4 Emmy Awards and a Peabody for his work on the show. A multi-talented Harvard graduate — he was president of the Harvard Lampoon — he has also written 18 children’s books, five plays and now a memoir, “Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons.” The cowriter on the new book is Mathew Klickstein.
Mike Reiss is a longtime friend. His adored wife Denise, was my college roommate. We all went to Harvard where Mike and Denise met.
Since this piece is written by a pal, it contains no criticism of Mike’s work: only curiosity and wonder at his varied and outstanding talents, plus amazement at his peripatetic and adventurous lifestyle. Mike and Denise live in New York, but travel to LA one day a week where he works for “The Simpsons.”
As I write this, they are on their way to Moscow. That’s relatively tame compared to their past voyages. Mike’s been to 113 countries because, he says, “My wife loves to travel. We’ve been to the North Pole and the South Pole…My wife has even dragged her clearly Semitic husband to every Jew-hating place on earth: Iran, Iraq, Syria, South Carolina. So why do I go? Because I fear my wife more than I fear Isis.”
That’s a joke. Mike and Denise have been married since 1988 and theirs is a harmonious, fond relationship (“I am crazy in love with Denise,” Mike told me).
In our 35th anniversary college report Denise wrote: “I’m so lucky I agreed to judge our freshman year talent show, because that’s when I first saw Mike Reiss who emceed the evening. He was so funny, I just had to meet him and convince him to marry me. I never looked back, never second-guessed that decision; its been pure happiness and adventure ever since.” For him too!
So, how did he get to be so funny? He never took a comedy writing class, nor does he know any comedy writer who has.
“This may sound conceited,” he told me. “But I was always funny. My first grade report card came back: ‘Mike keeps us laughing all the time.’ My mother said: ‘You’re funny?’ My family was funny. My friends were funny. ‘The Simpsons’ writers are the funniest, best guys I’ve ever worked with. They are all from small towns. It must be genetic mutations: funny people.”
I asked him who his heroes were when he was a kid. He says he loved “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” As a kid, he wanted “to be Morey Amsterdam, the funny little guy on the Dick Van Dyke show with the big blonde wife who cracked a lot of jokes at the office but didn’t do much work. I’ve achieved all my childhood goals.” Mike’s wife Denise, is tall and blonde-haired, while Mike is on the Morey Amsterdam end of the spectrum. As Mike pointed out, Amsterdam’s was the only Jewish character on TV when we were kids.
Asked if there was something especially Jewish about his humor Mike told me no,“I don’t know that there’s a ‘Jewish sense of humor,’ but I do think there is a self-deprecation that I consider Jewish. Great humor is ascribed to Jews. George Burns called it the illogical logic.”
Perhaps Mike’s taste for that kind of humor can be explained explained by where and how he grew up. As a kid, growing up in Bristol, Conn., a town of 50,000 with very few Jewish families, he thought of himself as an odd duck. Even so, he says, he encountered no anti-Semitism. His father was a successful, a first generation doctor. “That was most people in Bristol’s experience with Jews, going to their doctors,” Mike said. “People in Bristol regarded Jews the way they might regard an Inuit: it was odd and they’d never met one before, but they had no particular bias against them. “
Then in high school, where he was the only Jew among 1600 students, he was heckled a little about being Jewish, but it was no big deal. Obviously, he did well in high school. “Math got me into Harvard,” he said. His first-year roommate, math major Al Jean, would become his writing partner on “The Simpsons.” (Note: Half the writers on “The Simpsons” have a math or science background. There’s even a book about it called “’The Simpsons’ and their Mathematical Secrets” by Simon Singh.)
The only significant anti-Semitism Mike experienced was when he was dating his high school girlfriend. When the couple was twenty, he says, her mother broke them up because he was Jewish.
If you read Mike’s memoir, you’ll discover that he is not just a funny man, he’s a good one. The reason he wrote “Queer Duck,” the first gay cartoon on TV was because he was outraged by a new law back in 2000, barring homosexuals from teaching in public schools. He also was aware that there were few, if any, gay characters on TV. “This was before ‘Glee’ and ‘Will and Grace’ and Anderson Cooper and Rush Limbaugh (Oh, my God! He just outed Rush Limbaugh).”
Mike decided to redress these wrongs “the only way I knew how: through cartoons.” Besides, as he writes in his memoir, “Both Jews and homosexuals are alike. They have suffered thousands of years of oppression-from their mothers.”
Jokes aside, Mike told me that Queer Duck was his favorite project ever.
“Were you motivated by Tikun Olam when you wrote Queer Duck?” I asked him.
“No. I didn’t grow up that Jewish. We went to synagogue when I was bar mitzvahed. That was it.My father wore Tefilin until he was twenty. He did it to please his father who also didn’t believe in God.”
Mike explains that he likes Jewish culture, but not the religion. Religion doesn’t do anything for him because “I don’t believe in God. I would like to write a book for atheist kids. That would be fun. But no one would publish it!”
The Jewish content of “The Simpsons” is another thing Mike is proud of. The number reflects the Jewish population of the US. Out of 600 shows, “We’ve done half a dozen Jewish episodes compared to other TV shows where there is no Jewish content at all.”
“Almost always approval for those episodes comes from Al Jean, an Irish Catholic,” said Mike.
Aside from being motivated to write by his conscience, Mike is driven to be charitable. He and Denise don’t have any children. “I love buying second clothes at thrift shops. I drive a 19 year old car. I make a lot of money and its all going to charity sooner or later,” he said. “The same impulse that drives me to write comedy has motivated me to give my money away. I want to make people happy.”
As a kid, he said his three favorite TV holiday specials were “Charlie Brown’s Christmas,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “A Christmas Carol — because it’s another great version of great redemption in the end.”
“As I’ve matured, I moved away from dark and nasty comedy — the bracing shock of people making fun of things you never thought they could make fun of. ‘The Critic’ (an animated series which Mike co-created) was mean-spirited. I don’t like it.”
His one supernatural belief is that for every situation, if you work at it, you’ll find the perfect joke.
“I’m not a spiritual man,” he writes in his memoir. “I don’t believe in ghosts or astrology or reincarnation. Although I’m Jewish, I’d happily eat a ham sandwich. With mayo. In a synagogue. On Yom Kippur. My one supernatural belief? If you work hard enough, you can find the right joke for any situation.”