From Cambridge to Springfield
George Meyer and Mike Reiss had good reasons to feel like misfits from their first days at Harvard. Having attended public high school in Tucson, Ariz., Meyer “was utterly unprepared for Harvard.” Reiss, a product of Bristol, Conn., nearly failed his first college exam, the first step in a loathing for the Ivy League institution that continues to this day.Rather than drop out and deprive themselves of four years of coasting, Meyer and Reiss sought refuge in The Castle – the red-brick fortress that for nearly 100 years has been the home of the Harvard Lampoon. There Meyer (Class of ’77) and Reiss (Class of ’81) found exactly what they were looking for: fellow misfits. A quasi-acceptable alternative to Psychology 101. Laughs.”It was collegial anarchy – people hiding from their problems and trying to crack each other up,” said the 48-year-old Meyer from his home in Bel Air (the house happens to be the former home of late basketballer and legendary fornicator Wilt Chamberlain that Meyer and his live-in partner, former Aspenite Maria Sempel, bought “in a crazy rock-star mood,” says Sempel). “I really felt like I had come home. I chose classes based on how few lectures they had per week, so I could spend time at the Lampoon.”Reiss didn’t even have to find The Castle. Apart from being able to brag that he went to Harvard, the only lure the school held was the Lampoon, the country’s oldest comedy magazine.”The Lampoon is what brought me to Harvard,” said the 45-year-old Reiss from his Los Angeles home. “When I grew up, the National Lampoon was the funniest thing in the world. And to hear that it came out of the Harvard Lampoon … Except for the Lampoon, I felt lost and adrift.”Reiss ticks off a list of things about Harvard that turned him off: the faculty’s thorough lack of involvement, the absence of intellectual stimulation. And then there are the atrocities that Reiss terms “aggressively useless” – like the film program that allowed only documentaries to be submitted for students’ theses.
The atmosphere at the Lampoon of the late ’70s was a combination of comedic intensity and a relaxed attitude toward reality. The competition for one of the seven spots offered each semester is stiff. “You’re there with the funniest people you ever met in your life, shooting the breeze till all hours – but at a very high level,” said Reiss, whose first application was rejected. “And the best stuff would stay right there, and the magazine would get thrown together at the last minute and not be very good. It tended to be very inside and experimental.”The Lampoon was supposed to be published five times a year; they were lucky to get out four issues. Among the memorable editions from Reiss’ years were the MADvocate, which merged the pretentious campus literary magazine the Advocate and MAD magazine, and the annual spoof on the college newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, the one issue that was accessible and popular.The environment where Meyer and Reiss have spent most of their working lives isn’t so different from that at The Castle. As writers for “The Simpsons” since the show’s beginnings, Meyer and Reiss have, for 16 years, been thinking up ways to make their colleagues laugh. Things have changed in “The Simpsons'” writing department: the original team of eight is up to 25. Reiss, now a consulting producer or some such thing, comes in one day a week – Tuesday – to consult on scripts, a job he likens to a tenured professor. Meyer devotes his time to the “Simpsons” movie, the super-secret project about which Meyer can say little. (They’re shooting for Christmas, but Meyer says it’s unlikely to happen.) But the process hasn’t changed much from the days when “The Simpsons” approximated a standard sitcom, Mr. Smithers was black, and “The Simpsons” was a huge hit. Or even from a decade earlier, when Meyer and Reiss sought shelter from Harvard proper. “Everything is done in a room, collectively. We go through one line at a time,” said Reiss, who counts Meyer, as well as Al Jean, Tom Gammill and Max Pross, as those who have traveled from Cambridge to Springfield, home of “The Simpsons.” “And it ties into the Harvard Lampoon – that’s all we were doing, eight or 10 of us throwing out ideas. It’s a twist of history that how the Harvard Lampoon operated is just how the TV industry works.”Making the jumpThe roster of Harvard Lampoon alums is reasonably notable, and includes Fred Gwynne (class of ’51), who played Herman Munster, George Plimpton (’48) and John Updike (’54). Still, in the Meyer-Reiss era, nobody looked at the Lampoon as a stepping stone to anything.”There were very few people who went on to writing careers,” said Meyer. “People wanted to be lawyers or investment bankers or maybe academics.”A career as a comedy writer was barely imaginable or desirable. “The idea of writing professionally,” said Reiss, “it wasn’t looked down upon. But the world of movies and TV seemed an entirely other world. You didn’t think about who wrote those things, or how could I get there from here.”
Reiss, in fact, made the transition to a professional writing career in stealth fashion. He and fellow Lampoon writer Jean were approached by the National Lampoon, a 1970 offshoot of the Harvard Lampoon, to be freelance writers. The two worked for the money, not the notoriety; they kept their professional activity secret for fear their colleagues would suspect disloyalty to the college publication.Meyer made a different career choice: betting on greyhounds. Only when that effort failed did he listen to two Harvard friends, Gammill and Pross, who had a connection in television.”They told me this guy, David Letterman, was going to get a nighttime show,” said Meyer. “I sent some stuff in and he liked it. [Among that stuff: the humidifier versus dehumidifier battle, which Meyer admits he probably lifted from Woody Allen’s “Stand Up Comic” album, and the steamrolling bit.] I ended up living in New York, which was thrilling and terrifying.”While Meyer jumped from Letterman to Lorne Michaels’ “Fridays,” Reiss bounced from the financially ailing National Lampoon to “Airplane II” to TV’s “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” the superb, groundbreaking program that ranked dead last out of 99 shows in its first year.”The Simpsons” is bornIn the late ’80s, both Meyer and Reiss got calls from Sam Simon, who was leading a project to turn “The Simpsons,” Matt Groening’s brief animated feature on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” into a half-hour sitcom. Neither writer jumped at the offer.”At first, I resisted the show, because it felt like a step down, doing a cartoon,” said Meyer. “I saw myself in the Saturday morning ghetto.””I felt such shame: ‘I’m writing for a cartoon on the Fox network.’ I thought if this gets out, I’m ruined,” said Reiss. “Most of us thought ‘The Simpsons’ would run 13 weeks and that’s it.” After a summer of writing for “The Simpsons,” Reiss went back to work on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” which had already been given its notice. “We were writing episodes that we knew wouldn’t even air,” he noted.
It didn’t take long for Meyer and Reiss to reassess the prospects for the yellow-skinned overbiters. One day after the first episode – “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” in which the family’s Christmas money is spent to erase Bart’s tattoo – aired, Meyer suspected the show would catch on.”I heard people talking about it while walking down the street in Boulder, after one episode had been aired one time,” said Meyer. “I thought this thing had some mojo.”Secrets of success”The Simpsons” rode that mojo to No. 2 in the ratings in its debut year of 1989, and Bart Simpson became a cultural icon.In that first year, “The Simpsons” fit into a twisted, cartoon mold of the standard sitcom, with signature phrases and family-oriented story lines. But the writers were not about to allow their success to pen them in. By year three, “The Simpsons” was its own entity, having created a universe of characters – psychopathic barkeeps, disco studs, pothead school bus drivers, horny second-grade teachers – that send up virtually every cultural stereotype.Each member of “The Simpsons” team seems to have a moment of recognition that the show had broken out. For Meyer, it was “Bart the Murderer,” a loose “Godfather” takeoff where Bart is recruited by the mob and suspected of offing his principal. Reiss has a pair of early favorites: “Like Father, Like Clown,” a remake of “The Jazz Singer” in which Krusty the Clown is reunited with his rabbi father; and “Lisa’s Substitute,” in which Lisa falls for her eccentrically devoted substitute teacher. The sub, Mr. Bergstrom, was voiced by Dustin Hoffman, who is credited as Sam Etic, a play on “Semitic.” The character was based on a grade-school teacher of Reiss,’ and the animators drew him to look like Reiss. The real-life Mr. Bergstrom was handicapped; Reiss notes that the cartoon teacher’s only handicap “is that he looks like me.”After “Like Father, Like Clown” – which featured Jackie Mason as Rabbi Hyman Krustofski – the show was flooded with calls from people saying they spoke to their fathers for the first time in years. “That was a real eye-opener,” said Reiss.
Those days seem long ago. The show doesn’t crack the top 20 these days, and the novelty of a smart-mouthed 10-year-old, a precocious 8-year-old, and a phenomenally short-tempered, shortsighted, id-driven father has worn off. Irreverent depictions of church, alcohol and the city of New Orleans barely cause a stir, and certainly not the public rants they once did. As the show has gotten more sophisticated and expansive, it has become less accessible (though still TV’s longest-running, and inarguably best, sitcom). “You can’t be a Roman candle forever,” said Meyer. “You settle into middle age and become more of a habit than an event. I think our style of humor is always going to be a little bit elitist, or elusive, for some people. Because we never think about grabbing more people. We literally think about nothing but trying to make each other laugh.””The killer is every kid in America watches us, all college kids, all teenagers – and not one person over 55,” said Reiss. “Older people don’t watch ‘The Simpsons,’ and they’re a big, big audience.” Reiss is hardly bothered about the modest ratings. “You can’t be mad at anyone for not watching enough television,” he said. And the lack of an older audience is an opportunity: “Because no older people watch the show, you feel free to drag Grandpa [Simpson] through the mud.”Movie in the makingAt some uncertain future point, “The Simpsons” will retake their place in the spotlight. Hopes and rumors of a “Simpsons” movie have been circulating for years, which is about how long the movie deal has been in the works.When I asked Reiss about the project, he assured me it was in the speculative stage still and might never happen. Only when I told him that Meyer, just one day earlier, had already told me he and a team of six writers had been working on the script since June, with faint hopes of a Christmas ’05 release, did he fess up.Despite his relative forthrightness, Meyer reveals only the slightest taste of the film. “I always felt it would be fun to open up the show and get a little looser and raunchier and more disturbing,” he said. “None of the words that a movie exec likes to hear, but … .”
The writers know the danger of a “Simpsons” movie: How, in 120 minutes, do you live up to a legacy of 350 episodes? But Meyer sees the film as both a way to break out creatively and to step back into the spotlight. “Well, everyone is going to say it was disappointing, it didn’t have this, that or the other,” he said. “If we don’t have a bravura scene with every character, people will point it out. But it’s also a big opportunity to do something on the big screen in a splashy way.”Whether the movie is a monster hit, a major letdown, or both, or even if it never comes out, Meyer and Reiss are content with their jobs. (Both are also remarkably kind: Reiss gave me nearly an hour of his time, the last 20 minutes devoted to trading “Simpsons” dialogue and trivia. Meyer, on my humble request, called my brother to talk “Simpsons,” but only after making sure he wouldn’t be asked to invest in a restaurant.) Sitting in a room trying to force milk out of a friend’s nose with laughter is a good gig – just as it was 25 years ago in The Castle.Both Meyer and Reiss have taken leaves from “The Simpsons” in the past. Meyer left in the early ’90s to pursue some projects that didn’t pan out. Reiss left from 1994-96 to create “The Critic,” an unusual cartoon starring Jon Lovitz as a movie critic that lasted 23 episodes.”It was a nice, smart show,” said Reiss. “But, especially in hindsight, I certainly agree with the cancellation. The plotting was erratic; it had no warmth. It was just funny and it was jokes America wasn’t getting. Around the time it got canceled, I read that the average American watched one movie a year. And we were doing six movie parodies an episode.”With “The Simpsons,” Meyer and Reiss continue week by week to make TV history.”I realized I was doing my best work at ‘The Simpsons,'” said Meyer, “and that I had a great deal of freedom for a TV writer. Probably unprecedented.”Writers’ Room: Harvard Lampoon, moderated by Andy Borowitz and featuring Meyer, Reiss, Jean, Gammill and Pross will be presented at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Saturday, Feb. 12, at 1 p.m. at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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