He said not a single writer on the show thought it would last more than six weeks on the air. After all, there hadn't been a cartoon in prime time since “The Flintstones.” Worse yet, the show would be on Fox, a new network at the time that many thought wouldn’t last. There were clues that Fox execs agreed with the writers’ assessment for the show’s prospects: The premiere was held in a bowling alley and the writer’s room was a trailer.
“I assumed that if the show failed, they’d slowly back the trailer up to the Pacific and drown the writers like rats,” said Reiss. “Only Sam Simon [Simpsons co-creator] was optimistic. ‘I think it will last thirteen weeks,’ he said. ‘But don’t worry. No one will ever see it. It won’t hurt your career.’”
Since they thought no one would watch, the writers didn’t make the kind of show they saw on TV. They made the kind of show they wanted to see on TV.
“Each episode was unpredictable and the only rule we made for ourselves was don’t be boring,” said Reiss.
“Scenes were snappy and packed with jokes—in the dialogue, in the foreground, even in the background. When Homer went to a video arcade in episode six, Al and I filled the place with funny games like Pac-Rat, Escape from Grandma’s House, and Robert Goulet Destroyer. Remember, this was 1988. It’s no joke to say that the fastest-paced, most irreverent comedy on TV at the time was “The Golden Girls,” a show about three corpses and a mummy.”
He paused then said: “I broke into sitcoms writing a script for ‘The Golden Girls.’ Now I am one.”
Check your ego at the door
Every episode of “The Simpsons” required a team effort no matter who wrote the first draft.
“Somebody writes a script — and they write the very best script they can, knowing that it will go to a room full of writers who will sit there and change it a line at a time,” said Reiss.
Often it will go to a second writers room for polishing. Then, they read the script out loud with the cast to hear how it sounds, how the story is tracking, and rewrite it again. The animators create a rough black-and-white storyboard, which is again critiqued by the creative team, and a rough animation called an animatic is developed and shown to a group.
“We see what's making people laugh and we fix what's not working,” Reiss said.
Even after an episode is sent off for full-color animation, changes are made based on audience reaction.
“You have to pity a poor joke that’s in the first draft of a script because it’s gotta make a room full of people laugh four or five separate times to make it to the finish line.”
By the end of the process, about 80% of the original script will be changed — almost always for the better.
“There’s no room for ego in this process,” he said. “If a writer fights to preserve his original script, he’ll probably get fired.”
Say no to A-holes
Due to such a collaborative process, success in the writer’s room requires a delicate balance of talent and attitude. One irritating or obstinate writer can bring the entire machinery of the show to a halt.
“Long before ‘The Simpsons,’ I worked with a writer who was very talented, but he was also an A-hole. The boss called him in and said, ‘we love the work you’re doing here, but everyone thinks you’re an a-hole. So, we’re going to have to fire you unless you can, you know, stop being an a-hole.’ The guy said, ‘let me think about it.’ He went home that night and returned the next morning. He said, ‘I discussed it with my wife and she agreed — I can’t stop being an a-hole.’”
Kidding aside, Reiss said they suffered few such writers on “The Simpsons.” They lost writers who complained about the process and some just didn’t work well with others. But mostly, they succeeded because the show is continually staffed with professional comedy writers who take their profession of being funny quite seriously.
“People expect our writers’ room to be a raucous madhouse, but it’s not; it’s a serious place of business,” he said.
“Every few years, a news program sends a camera crew to observe the Simpsons writers at work, and every time, the crew gets bored, then angry and storms oﬀ without a second of usable footage. This is because our writers aren’t clowns or performers — they’re introspective, hardworking people who will spend two hours trying to think of a title for an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon.”
Keep pitching no matter what
Mike Reiss believes that there’s a perfect joke out there for every setup; it’s just a matter of having the patience and stamina to find it. Like that “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoon title “Of Mice and Manslaughter.”
“I would sometimes see Mike and Al sit on a joke for an hour,” said a young writer on “The Critic.” “If they didn’t like the jokes, there were times they would just sit there pitching. Or in silence. For so long. Watching them try to figure out what was strong and what wasn’t was how I learned to be a comedy writer.”
That young writer was Judd Apatow, who went on to produce “Freaks and Geeks” and direct “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Funny People,” starring Adam Sandler.
The lesson Reiss points out is that the first idea is not necessarily the best. Neither is the thirty-first. But a solution to every problem can be found with perseverance.
“Just don’t say ‘thinking outside the box,” says Reiss. “It’s a cliché. That’s not thinking outside the box.”
When will it all end?
When will it all come to an end?
“It’s rude to ask,” he said. “It’s like asking your grandma when she’s going to die. “She doesn’t know, and she doesn’t want to think about it.”
The original version of this article appeared in Next Magazine, Issue 5, May 2019. Subscribe here.
David Ball is a contributing writer. He is founder of B2B Writers. Find him on Twitter @Ball_David.
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