Homer's Odyssey: Behind the scenes at The Simpsons

Tuesday, April 2, 2013 - 2:09pm
Sharon Aschaiek

About 300 celebrities have appeared on The Simpsons, among them Paris Hilton, who, after being called a “moron” on the show, sent the writers a thank-you basket of cookies. Elizabeth Taylor once played baby Maggie, and her only line was “Daddy”, but it took nine takes because she kept using a sexy tone of voice. The one star who keeps turning down their invitations is Bruce Springsteen.

These were just a few of the behind-the-scenes insights about one of television’s greatest series shared by long-time writer Mike Reiss during a talk Monday afternoon at U of T Mississauga. Organized by the Department of Visual Studies and held at the MiST Theatre in the Communication, Culture and Technology building, the event provided students with an inside look at the challenges and rewards of creating The Simpsons. The four-time Emmy Award winner shared stories, jokes and highlights of his involvement with what is now, in its 24th season, the longest-running American sitcom, animated program and primetime scripted TV series.

Reiss began with a video clip montage of well-known segments, including astronaut Homer munching on floating potato chips to the soundtrack of the waltz song Blue Danube, and those featuring theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and actor Leonard Nimoy as Star Trek’s Spock. Over the next 90 minutes, the New Yorker discussed his work on the show and his other projects in television, film, web entertainment and books.

As an original writer for the show, Reiss helped introduce the dysfunctional but lovable middle class Springfield family to TV viewers in 1989. He became an executive producer for the show’s third and fourth seasons, overseeing writing, animation, voice acting and music. He has continued writing for the show on a regular basis. “Someone asked me, what would you do if you couldn’t write comedy? I’d write for Jay Leno,” he joked.

The show today has 23 writers—including three Canadians—who develop 22 episodes a year. The process starts with one writer producing a script, and then everyone collectively rewriting it—usually about eight times from top to bottom—and it takes about eight months to produce a single episode. He said writers get ideas from popular culture, including movies and other TV shows, and their own lives.

Reiss’ many other creative projects have included producing Queer Duck, a web cartoon that evolved into a TV program and movie, and the animated show The Critic; and writing the screenplays for Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Horton Hears a Who! He has also published 18 children’s books, including his newest, Tales of Moronica, a Kindle e-book available on Amazon.com. His first children’s book, How Murray Saved Christmas, is currently being adapted into a Christmas special for NBC that will air in 2014.

A hit show in 71 countries that was nominated for its first Oscar this year, The Simpsons shows no signs of slowing down. Indeed, during the audience Q & A, one student asked about plans for a Simpsons finale. “We have no idea how to end the bloody thing,” Reiss replied, adding that he is inspired by the enduring success of the program Saturday Night Live and the James Bond movie franchise, so “I hope it doesn’t end any time soon.”