From The Simpsons to Shakespeare

DOHA: Mike Reiss says “The Simpsons” doesn’t plan to make a big deal about Donald Trump over the next four years.

“I think we’re sticking him in somewhere because we can’t ignore it,” he says. “It takes us a year to make one episode of ‘The Simpsons’ so we’re never topical. We can’t even begin to guess what America’s going to look like a year from now. He’s such a gift to satire but you won’t be seeing a lot of Trump on ‘The Simpsons.’ We got through eight years of George W. Bush and never mentioned him once.”

Reiss has been involved in dozens of television and movie projects over the years but the American comedy writer and producer is best known for his work with animation, having won four Emmies writing for “The Simpsons,” and contributed to two dozen animated films, including the “Ice Age” franchise, “King Fu Panda” and “Despicable Me.”

In Doha to present a talk on writing and producing animation, Reiss is participating in Qumra Talks – a new series of industry talks staged during the Doha Film Institute’s film incubator platform, now in its third year.

“It’s a nice job,” Reiss says of his years working on “The Simpsons.” “This is the [series’] fourth wave of writers. They’ve been working together for 15 years, a lifetime for TV, so we all get along. After 29 years I love seeing these guys at work.”

Like many animated and non-animated U.S. series before it, the premise of “The Simpsons” comedy is a slice of American culture that, as some have noted, isn’t particularly diverse.

“The only Arab character that I’m aware of,” Reiss recalls, “is one episode [in which] a Jordanian family moves into the neighborhood. We tread lightly. We don’t want to offend. The only interesting thing about that is that ‘The Simpsons’ has gone on so long, there are things we used to be able to do, I’m not sure we can do anymore.

“[The South Asian shop owner] Apu, for instance, used to be this beloved character on the show and Indian people would say to me, ‘Well he’s the only Indian on TV,’ so they liked him. Now they don’t. Or young people don’t. They don’t like that it’s some Jewish guy from Queens is doing the voice of Apu. We don’t know how to handle that. I think we’re treading lightly on ethnic stereotypes.”

Yet Reiss says the reason he’s devoted his career to animation is the freedom it offers to comedy.

“It’s just more fun,” he smiles. “I spent 10 years writing for live-action sitcoms and you couldn’t make fun of the characters because the characters are being played by human beings. ‘Roseanne’ is a great example. Roseanne would sit and insult everyone around her, a great show, but no one could say ‘Shut up you fat pig.’ No one ever called Roseanne fat. I’m like, ‘Well, she’s the boss.’”

“The Simpsons” initiated a florescence of similarly premised adult animation on American TV, with titles like “The Family Guy” and “South Park” particularly prominent.

“I love ‘Family Guy.’ I don’t like ‘South Park,’” Reiss smiles. “I think most of ‘The Simpsons’ writers are of the opposite opinion. That’s just how I feel. Most of the big animated movies I’m supposed to love, I don’t love.

“One thing I do love about ‘Family Guy’ is that it shocks me. South Park is very proud of the fact that they make an episode in six days. I go, ‘You guys make an awful lot of money at this. Why don’t you work eight days? Why not a month?’ I think it shows. The show’s a little light on comedy. If you watch four shows in a row you see, gee it’s the same.”

“The Simpsons” made the leap to the big screen in 2007 and Reiss takes some pride in its status as the second-biggest 2D animated movie of all time, after “The Lion King,” with half a billion dollars in box office. That doesn’t mean he, or anyone else involved in the series, is anxious to make a sequel.

“We didn’t want to make the first one,” he says. “They’d been asking us for 15 years and we said, ‘Why would anyone pay to see ‘The Simpsons’ when they can get it for free on TV? It was Fox came to us finally just with market research. We worked very hard on ‘The Simpsons Movie,’ but there was a clause in our contract saying we could pull the plug on it any time, if we thought it wasn’t going right. It came out. The critics were happy. The public was happy. ‘Okay, we said, let’s not do that again.’

“Why not? It just drained resources away from the show. But I think we will do another one. It’s a bit like having a baby. You have to wait until you forget the pain of having had the first one.”

Though he’s been writing for television and film for two decades, Reiss says much of his work has involved improving on other writers’ work.

“There’s nothing harder than writing an original animated script,” he says. “It usually takes about four years to make one of these animated movies. [The filmmakers are] sitting with the material for a long time or you’re testing scenes.

“They’ll go, ‘This isn’t working. This isn’t working.’ Sometimes they’ll just say, ‘Punch up the whole thing. Make it funnier.’ Other times it’s more targeted. ‘Nobody likes this character. Make him funnier.’ Other times they’ll give you a list of 10 jokes that aren’t working. ‘Give us something good.’ I know it’s not art exactly,” he laughs. “It’s like Sodoku, a little mental challenge. I really enjoy it.”

Reiss’ latest writing projects won’t be found on television or in the cinemas but on stage. He has three plays in production this year – in Connecticut, Colorado and in Bristol, in the U.K.

“They’re not hard to write but they sure are hard to get produced,” he says. “You know, plays lose money so no one’s anxious to make a new one.”

The Bristol Shakespeare Company took great interest in Reiss’ “spin” on Shakespeare’s “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.”

“My premise was let’s do a production of Shakespeare’s worst play,” Reiss smiles. “Let’s have one character in the background, some minor page, saying, ‘Oh, this is terrible!’ He just has a running commentary throughout the play. ‘Why is he doing that? What does she see in him?’

“It turned out to be the Mystery Science Theater version of Shakespeare. There was at least one Shakespeare company that was deeply offended by this, but Bristol snapped it up within three days of my finishing the play.

“A friend who’s a Shakespeare scholar convinced me to do ‘Two Gentlemen.’ It’s a great choice because it’s a bad play, a terrible comedy without a single memorable line and the worst resolution of any Shakespeare play. All the plots suddenly resolve themselves for no reason. Everyone’s horrible to each other throughout the play, then they turn on a dime. It makes a really great ending for the show.”

Qumra runs through March 8.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 06, 2017, on page 11.




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