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From Springfield to Greensboro: Mike Reiss of ‘Simpsons’ fame bids shalom

by Mark Burger

It’s been nearly a quarter-century since Mike Reiss was hired by the fledgling Fox Network as a writer for its new animated sitcom, “The Simpsons,” and he recalls his feeling with crystal clarity.

“I thought I’d hit rock bottom,” he said. “There hadn’t been a successful prime-time animated series since ‘The Flintstones.’” “The Simpsons,” a comedy about a dysfunctional suburban family created by cartoonist Matt Groening, was spun off from Fox’s “The Tracey Ullman Show,” the critically acclaimed, award-winning (and lowrated) comedy/variety series headlined by the versatile British actress and comedienne.

“I figured we’d last six weeks,” Reiss recalls.

“A lot of good, quirky shows tended to last six weeks — like ‘Police Squad.’” Another writer thought “The Simpsons” might last 13 weeks. Quips Reiss: “He was closer than the rest of us.” “The Simpsons,” of course, lasted longer than six weeks, or 13 weeks, or even 13 years. The series, which became a global phenomenon among all ages, is currently in the midst of its 25th season and has run more than 500 episodes to date. It is not only the longest-running animated series in TV history, but one of the longest-running series’ period. “We’re all flabbergasted,” Reiss says.

On Thursday, March 13, as part of the 2013 Triad Jewish Film Festival, Reiss will discuss his career in a lighthearted, laugh-filled program entitled “‘The Simpsons’ and Other Jewish Families,” which will be held at Temple Emanuel (1129 Jefferson Road, Greensboro). Tickets are $10, and the presentation is recommended for mature audiences.

“One of the goals of the festival is to build bridges of understanding, this year through showcasing Jewish identity,” explains festival director Rachel Wolf. “Mike Reiss helps us look at Judaism and the Jewish experience through comedy and laughter. It is important to be able to laugh at yourself, and Mike’s writing on Jewish topics and stereotypes and the Jewish characters he has created on ‘The Simpsons’ definitely make us do just that. We can be self-deprecating and laugh at ourselves as American Jews and hopefully the rest of America is laughing with us.”

Reiss, who also wrote for Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” and “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” stepped away from “The Simpsons” after four years simply because he was exhausted.

“I was miserable,” he admits. “I loved the job, but it was such hard work and long hours….”

At the time, there were only a handful of writers working on the series. Now, however, more than two dozen writers toil on it. “Everyone works to a level they’re comfortable with,” he says, and having so much creative talent involved “preserves a nice level of quality.”

Indeed, even after more than two decades, the series remains fresh and vibrant, which is a foremost concern.

“Everybody cares very deeply about it,” says Reiss. Besides, he laughs, “everybody’s scared to death of being the guy who wrecked ‘The Simpsons’!” Some years ago, Reiss began touring colleges across the country discussing his career, which also includes such animated series’ as “The Critic” and “Queer Duck.” So successful were these tours that he expanded them to include hillels and Jewish film festivals. “We’ve never not had a full house,” he says. “At the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival we even outdrew Kirk Douglas’ lifetime achievement award. Take that, old actor!” A few years ago, there was the very real possibility that ‘The Simpsons’ might be canceled. Not because of declining ratings, but because yearly incremental raises among cast and crew had made it one of the most expensive half-hours in television. In a show of solidarity that still impresses Reiss, everyone across the board agreed to a salary cut in order to keep the series on the air.

“Nobody complained,” he says. “That says a lot about how much we care. We love doing it.”

As for the future of “The Simpsons,” he says, “There really is no end in sight.”

The prolific Reiss has also worked on screenplays (including Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Horton Hears a Who and the liveaction comedy My Life in Ruins), and his first play, I’m Connecticut, opened to great acclaim in 2011. He’s also written 18 children’s books — including seven about Christmas — and his latest is Tales of Moronica, about the dumbest kingdom in the world, now available as a Kindle download for 99 cents.

“It is hard to find really smart, witty and fun comedies with Jewish themes for the festival,” notes Wolf. “Mike is our knight in shining armor when it comes to Jewish comedy, and we are so excited to bring someone with his talents to the festival and the Piedmont Triad.”

The Triad Jewish Film Festival runs through March 16. Most of the films being screened will be shown at the Regal Grande Theatre (3205 Northline Ave., Greensboro). For a complete schedule of events and ticket prices, visit the official Triad Jewish Film Festival website: mytjff.com.

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