Irreverence was the theme of the evening (Feb. 21) as one of the sharp satirical minds behind the nation’s quirkiest cartoon family addressed a rapt audience at Harvard Hillel’s Rosovsky Hall.
Mike Reiss ’81, a founding writer of the animated series “The Simpsons,” gave the crowd what they came for with an hourlong stand-up routine peppered with sarcasm and profane punch lines. His younger audience members and their parents, all equally adoring fans, roared their approval.
The event was co-sponsored by Harvard Hillel and Learning From Performers, a visiting-artist program sponsored by the Office for the Arts at Harvard.
The TV show — which pokes endless fun at the middle American household, pop culture, and virtually everything it can think of, except, according to Reiss, “The Church of Scientology” — is the nation’s longest-running sitcom and longest-running animated series. It has won numerous awards, including four Emmys for Reiss.
In addition to his involvement with the popular TV series, Reiss worked on “The Simpsons Movie,” which was released last year. He also created the cartoon shows “Queer Duck” and “The Critic,” and has written several children’s books. He is a regular speaker on the college circuit.
An excited crowd, ranging from distinguished academics to eager middle schoolers, waited patiently in a line that snaked around the spiral staircase at Harvard Hillel at 52 Mount Auburn St. The diverse groupies are a testament to the broad appeal of the country’s lovably dysfunctional, two-dimensional characters.
A policeman checked tickets at the door, and those who couldn’t get in stood and watched the presentation through the hall’s glass windows. The Hillel building sits just across from the Harvard Lampoon, where Reiss got an early jump on comedy writing, serving as co-president of the organization’s humor magazine during his college days.
“You can stop. You can stop. Two hours ago you never heard of me,” he teased the group, which gave him a rousing welcome.
The English major and one-time Leverett House resident interspersed his talk with clips from his work, including a take from one of his “Simpsons” episodes where a Mary Poppins look-alike realizes the unpredictable family of five is not for her. The decision comes after a snappy family serenade with lines like “I’d rather drink a beer than win father of the year” from the infamous slacker patriarch, Homer.
The skit ends with the nanny floating up to the skies with her black umbrella, and being abruptly sucked into the engine of a passing jet.
The Rosovsky Hall crowd loved it.
“I killed Mary Poppins; it’s on my résumé,” Reiss confessed to howls. Reiss said he took the script to Julie Andrews herself, the original Mary Poppins, who turned him down in explicit terms.
“That’s on my résumé too.”
Why does he write? “I can’t help myself,” he said, noting that if he wasn’t a writer he would have probably been the funny lawyer, who gets all the laughs in court as his client promptly heads to the gas chamber, “for jaywalking.”
Close to half of the 23 writers on “The Simpsons” are from Harvard, said Reiss, whose college roommate, Al Jean, is the executive producer for the show. The group, which creates 22 episodes a year, culls its material from the everyday — TV, movies, books, and frequently their own lives. When one writer went to China to adopt a child, the story quickly became a show titled “Goo Goo Gai Pan,” where Homer impersonates a Chinese acrobat and poses as another woman’s husband in an attempt to help her adopt a little girl from China.
Reiss chided the academic set for trying to analyze the show and for its constant “you’re so topical” refrain. He explained how the program’s production schedule, which can run from eight months to a year for one episode, means it’s often out of date. In one instance, a joke about aging star Rex Harrison quickly lost its punch when the actor died just prior to the show’s airdate. When Reiss inserted the name Redd Foxx, in an effort to salvage the gag, the actor died only hours before the show was to run.
The incident, Reiss said, reminded him of his grandfather who once told him, “Michael, God hates you.”
The show is famous for its celebrity guest voices. According to Reiss, the key to attracting them is simple.
“If the celebrity has kids, the kids will make them do the show.”
Reiss said the one voice that has eluded the show so far is that of a U.S. president. According to the Harvard alumnus, last year they came close with Bill Clinton. But in the end, the former commander in chief sent a letter of regret that included the line “I would never do anything that might bring disgrace to the office of the president.”
“Sometimes,” said Reiss, “they write the jokes for you.”
The nature of the show’s global popularity has to do with its universal themes, ventured Reiss.
“Americans look at Homer Simpson and go, ‘That’s my dad,’ and foreigners, they look at Homer Simpson and go, ‘That’s an American.’”
In the question-and-answer session, an audience member asked how the writers coaxed the reclusive author Thomas Pynchon out of his shell to record a segment for the show.
“He called and said, ‘I want to be on your show,’” explained Reiss, who said members of the staff flew to New York to tape the segment. Not long after, they got a call from the author, saying he wanted to do it again. Soon he was calling regularly.
“The Simpsons office,” guaranteed Reiss, “is the only place you hear, ‘Thomas Pynchon’s on the phone,’ [and the reply], ‘Tell him we’re not in.’”