‘Simpsons’ writer to speak in BART country

Friday, April 20, 2007 | by dan pine

If the terms "Eat my shorts," "Hi diddly-ho, neighbor" and "D'oh!" mean anything to you, most likely you're a fan of "The Simpsons."

But how many fans know that Springfield — the hometown of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie — has a Lower East Side? How many know that Ken Brockman, Springfield's pompous TV news anchor, was actually born Kenny Brockelstein?

For that matter, how many know Springfield has a Jewish deli called Tanner's Fatty Meats?

Ever since the popular animated series premiered in 1989, "The Simpsons" has revealed a not-so-hidden kosher side. And Mike Reiss, a Jewish writer-producer with the show from day one, had a lot to do with it.

Reiss will appear in the flesh to deliver a lecture called "The Simpsons and Other Gentiles I Have Known" at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El on Wednesday, April 25.

His one-hour talk, this year's Paul Matzger Young Leadership Lecture, is all about the Jewish influences in "The Simpsons."

"I can talk for an hour about Judaism on 'The Simpsons' because I can talk for an hour about anything on the 'The Simpsons,'" Reiss said.

Though Reiss has several road-tested lectures at his fingertips, the Jewish speech is his favorite. "It's the funniest one," he says. "It's the smartest one. You don't have to be Jewish to get the speech. You don't even have to watch 'The Simpsons' to get the speech."

From the beginning, Jewish in-jokes have leavened the show. Krusty the Clown, the boorish children's entertainer, routinely bandies about words like "putz," "yutz" and "meshuggah." His father, Hyman Krustofsky, is the town rabbi (of Temple Beth Springfield).

And in a hilarious takeoff on the Exodus story, Bart's buddy Milhouse (as Moses) leads the Israelites across the desert, then turns to Lisa Simpson and asks, "It's clear sailing for the Jews, isn't that right?"

Lisa replies, "Well, more or less."

Not only has "The Simpsons" become an enormously popular global phenomenon, the Jewish angle of the show has proven equally compelling to some. Search Google for "Simpsons and Jewish," and more than 1 million results come up.

Reiss, apparently, was one of the few people left on Earth who hadn't grasped how popular the show has become.

"It's been an eye-opener going out and meeting students who have whole conversations in Simpsons lines," he says. "It's isolating in that we don't have a studio audience. Until I started going on the road, I didn't realize what an impact it had. This [show] got into people's souls."

The Bristol, Conn., native grew up one of his town's few Jews ("We were one-tenth of 1 percent of the population, as numerous as albinos," he said. "They didn't even know to hate us.") He had considered a career in animation from the start, but veered off into live action TV comedy, cutting his teeth on shows like "Alf," "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and "The Tonight Show."

He is also co-creator of the animated series "The Critic."

After more than 15 seasons with "The Simpsons," Reiss is today what he calls "a tenured professor" on the writing staff, putting in about one day a week as a consultant. That allows him time to pursue other interests, like his own Web-based animated show, "Queer Duck," which is about, well, a queer duck.

A full-length "Queer Duck" movie was one of the unexpected hits of the San Francisco International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival last year.

He's also an award-winning mystery writer and children's book author. Reiss's Christmas story for Jewish kids, "How Murray Saved Christmas" (one of his four published books) was a surprise bestseller.

Though Reiss and his wife have no kids of their own, he realized he would be the perfect person to write children's books.

"I started researching and I discovered that none of [the great children's book authors] had children. I said to myself, 'Hey, I hate children. I can do this!'"

Though he went the bar mitzvah route as a kid, Reiss says these days he is not so observant. But that doesn't stop him from mining his Jewish past for jokes. "I look really, really Jewish, so I'm saddled with that."

And as "The Simpsons" moves forward to its third decade (and on to who-knows-how-many more), Reiss may be one who goes along for the whole ride. Either way, he's sticking with the pen and ink set.

"Almost nobody who has gone from live action to animation ever goes back," he says. "I never want to write for human beings again."




Mike Reiss
will speak 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 25, in the Meyer Martin Sanctuary at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. Admission is free. Information: (415) 751-2535.