You might not recognize his name at first, but Mike Reiss is a legitimate legend of comedy writing. For the past twenty-five years, Reiss has worked on the Fox series The Simpsons and, with writing partner Al Jean, is responsible for penning some of the show's best early episodes, including "Stark Raving Dad" (in which Michael Jackson famously guest-starred); "'Round Springfield" (featuring the death of Bleeding Gums Murphy); and "Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala-Annoyed-Grunt-cious" (the Shary Bobbins episode) among them. The pair also ran the show during its third and fourth seasons.
Show-running, Reiss says, nearly killed him. Now, he just commutes 3,000 miles to Los Angeles from his Manhattan home, then back, once a week to serve as a consulting producer. That has afforded him the opportunity to write plays. Rubble, his latest, is premiering at the Players Theatre in this season's FringeNYC, with a cast led by noted comedy writer Bruce Vilanch and character-acting mainstay Jerry Adler.
TheaterMania chatted with the jovial Reiss about the genesis of his playwriting, getting trapped in the rubble of Los Angeles, and why he's genuinely looking forward to the upcoming TV crossover of The Simpsons and Family Guy.
Where did this play, Rubble, come from?
My friends and I went out to see this extremely well-regarded play one night, and it just sucked. And I was so embarrassed that I dragged my friends to this. I remember walking out saying I could write a play like that. I started out with "Here's what these pretentious New York jerks would like," and then all this kind of whimsy came in, and I said, "I better put some musical numbers in."
The more general answer is, I love that genre of movies. There are a shockingly large number of movies about people trapped in an elevator, in rubble. There's a Ryan Reynolds movie where he's trapped in a coffin and it never got dull. I've written a couple of plays, and they're big sprawling things, so I said, "Let me write a play that's a real play."
I'd say this is pretty sprawling, considering [SPOILER ALERT] the set is destroyed in an earthquake between the first and second scene. Can that be achieved in the FringeNYC?
It's going to be tough, as economical as I tried to be. The biggest thing with the Fringe is that you have no storage space, and you get fifteen minutes to put it up and take it down. We have this enormous hunk of rubble and don't know what to do with it.
You also have a cast led by two very well-known performers, six-time Emmy winner Bruce Vilanch and Drama Desk nominee Jerry Adler.
That was it. My director knew him, and at first I thought, "Bruce Vilanch? He can certainly play a middle-aged comedy writer." We had our first reading, and it was an eye-opener about how perfectly he gets it. I've been watching him in rehearsal and he's great — he nails the lines and is a wonderful physical comedian with a big, expressive face. I think people will be impressed how he exudes pathos, as well. He said he was very excited to play a Catholic heterosexual. And Jerry Adler was in my first play, so I wrote this part with him in mind. Any time I got the chance to, I expanded the role. We're just amazed at the level of people who've come in and volunteered their time for this festival. He's schlepping in every day from Connecticut for rehearsals.
Are you a theater geek at heart?
No. I never even liked the theater at all. And then, we were in Los Angeles, and an awful lot of the play is my life, I'm embarrassed to say. I lived in Los Angeles for twenty-six years, and then we moved to Times Square. If I get a good running out my front door, I'm on stage at Phantom. So I see a lot of theater here, and you sort of pick it up. You say, "I get this. I get how this is done." The way I got into this at all … I never had any desire to write a play. My wife and I were in London, and we were trying to get tickets for Waiting for Godot. We waited in the cancellation line for two hours, and I said "Hey, this could be a play called Waiting for Waiting for Godot." So I wrote it and that was it, and I met someone at a party who said, "I'll put that up." It went over so well, and I remember sitting in the audience saying, "It's not that good."
How is writing for television different than writing for theater?
TV writing is done collaboratively — ten writers in a room, beating out a script, often subject to notes from censors and network executives, and limited by budgets and time restraints. In theater, the writer is the boss. In my first play, I'm Connecticut, an actor repeatedly performed the line "Who the hell is Jimmy?" as "Who's the Hell is Jimmy?" Later, I realized it was a typo in my script, and this guy dutifully performed it every night. Theater seems limiting, but it isn't: you can hang a paper lantern and tell people they're in Ming Dynasty China, and they'll buy it. The biggest difference between theater and TV is that theater pays nothing. It's inspiring to see that everyone in theater is doing it because they love it.
Does the "it's not as good as it used to be" talk about The Simpsons anger you?
The biggest thing with The Simpsons is, if the show gets weirder, it might get too self-referential, because we're desperately trying not to repeat ourselves. Tell us somebody who Lisa can get a crush on that hasn't happened. We've done every single member of the Simpson family has gone to jail. The show has to get a little weirder and faster-paced. We go "Here's an episode like the old days" and we get comments like "Oh, that's boring." There's no model for us. There's no template for what a series should be like in its twenty-fifth year.
As a fan of The Simpsons, I have to ask, are you excited for the upcoming Simpsons/Family Guy crossover?
I think it's super cool. When Family Guy came on the air, it was not popular among the Simpsons writers. I loved it and I had to keep it a secret. It was a dirty secret that I was watching Family Guy every week. It's really evolved into its own thing. I find it so bracingly funny. We've had the crossover script sitting on the writers' desk and I don't want to read it; I just want to see it like everyone else.
Are you still working on The Simpsons while getting this play ready for production?
Every Wednesday I fly to Los Angeles, I work the day at The Simpsons, and then fly back. I really hated running the show. I was working a hundred hours a week and gained seventy pounds. The Simpsons is a fun place to work, but it's not fun to run it. I love my one-day-a-week job. It sounds crazy to have a six-thousand mile commute to work. I love my job, but I love living in New York.
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