“The Simpsons” begins its 24th season on television Sunday night, with guest stars including Sarah Silverman, Zooey Deschanel and Justin Bieber getting the yellow-tinted animation treatment this year.
Mike Reiss, who’s been with the show from the start, says pulling in guest stars has gotten to be easy, most of the time, for the groundbreaking show.
He recalls Thomas Pynchon — the reclusive novelist who refuses to be photographed, interviewed or broadcast — cold-called producers and asked to come on. So there he was, appearing animated on the streets of Springfield in seasons 15 and 16 with a paper bag over his head.
“He was just a fan of the show,” Reiss told me from Los Angeles. “Of course, when you hear you have a call from Thomas Pynchon, you don’t believe it. But it was him. ... He loved doing the show and he wrote some great jokes for his character.”
Landing Pynchon, Reiss recalls, emboldened the show to go after that other holy grail of literary recluses: J.D. Salinger.
Their bubble soon burst.
“It was the quickest refusal in ‘Simpsons’ history,” Reiss says. “His representative turned it down in under a minute.”
Such are the anecdotes and odd notes that Reiss will share when he takes the stage at the Wheeler Opera House on Friday, Oct. 5, in a special presentation at the Aspen FilmFest.
Billed as “The Secrets of the Simpsons,” Reiss’ presentation will include behind-the-scenes stories, some gossip on its next two (last?) seasons, and some rarely seen clips.
Reiss says he’ll humor us “Simpsons” geeks who want to pick his brain on what state Springfield is in, what Duffman’s real name is, what Mr. Burns’ actual age might be, and other minutiae.
He says he also has some good stories to tell, for both casual fans and freaks alike.
“If somebody’s been working somewhere 24 years and doesn’t have some good source material, something’s wrong with them,” Reiss laughs.
The existence of “The Simpsons” has been compared to running water and electricity, as the kind of ever-present luxury we get to take for granted. It’s also been around so long, one might wonder how writers like Reiss continue to come up with new storylines for Homer and his clan. (The writers once parodied this phenomenon itself, in their “They’ll Never Stop the Simpsons” song in season 13).
With 550 episodes in the can, one might wonder how the writers keep from repeating jokes and story lines along the way. For that, Reiss says, they go to the interwebs — checking the many blogs and the comprehensive Simpsons Wiki that fans have put together.
“Our fans don’t let us repeat ourselves,” he says. “They bust us every time we do something similar to something we did two decades ago.”
The “Simpsons” show-runner, Al Jean, he says, also has a nearly photographic memory of the show’s episodes in his head.
“I pitched a joke the other day and Al says, ‘Pull up show 7F28, we may have done that’ — a show that had aired 16 years ago,” Reiss says. “He didn’t just say, ‘I think we did that in the show where Grandpa got a girlfriend,’ he knew the actual show number — and, sure enough, there was the joke.”
Internet geekery, he says, has also helped keep the show’s 25-writer staff on their game.
“We read these critiques online and we take a lot of them to heart,” he says.
As some fans grew ornery over the last decade or so, saying the show was losing its bite, Reiss says the writers listened: “One complaint that would come up a lot is, ‘You’re making Homer too jerk-y.’ And after awhile we said, ‘Yeah, let’s maintain a little dignity for him.’”
His work on “The Simpsons” has won the 52-year-old four Emmys, a Peabody Award and various other hardware. More importantly, he half-jokes, it’s won him the chance to do whatever he wants whenever he wants.
“I keep busy, but I’m in a position where everything I do is fun,” he says. “I don’t have to listen to a lot of people. I get to do whatever I want. I can quit jobs in a huff and storm out if I want to.”
These days Reiss lives in New York, flying to Los Angeles one day a week for his gig as a consultant on the show.
“I fly in for 22 hours every Wednesday,” he says. “That’s how much I love my job and hate Los Angeles.”
Along with the “Simpsons” gig he’s written a series of children’s books, penned plays, and works as a “punch-up guy” on animated movie scripts, including the “Ice Age” movies and next year’s “Despicable Me 2.”
While he’s been behind the scenes on “The Simpsons,” Reiss also has become a familiar face in Aspen in recent years. He was on stage several times at the now-defunct U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Last spring Reiss was a juror for Aspen Shortsfest and sat on a panel of comedy writers.
After devoting so much of his life to the stubby-fingered folks of Springfield, he says it never gets old. His favorite character to write, he says, is Apu.
“Apu is fun to write for because he’s always in a good mood,” Reiss says. “So that puts me in a good mood. And I work very hard at my job and he’s someone who works hard, the only person in Springfield who works hard. And I ilke Grandpa — I like characters that only speak in jokes, like Grandpa and Kent Brockman.”