April 2006 | Mike Reiss '81

Mike Reiss '81 (Writer & Director)

By Steven Hanna GSA '01, '08

“The basic thing is,” laughs Mike Reiss '81 by way of introduction, “I hated Harvard. You couldn’t find someone with a lower opinion of that place than me. I hate the place, and I hate the education that I got there, and the one thing I like and that I owe my entire career to is, obviously, the Harvard Lampoon. And you’d think I could at least thank Harvard for the Harvard Lampoon. That would seem natural. Except that Harvard hated the Lampoon, and could not have been more antagonistic to it at the time. I can’t thank the Lampoon enough, but I have really nothing good to say about Harvard. I admire their selection process, and I felt everybody I met there was quite remarkable, but I think they manage to round up many, many brilliant people and then do absolutely nothing with them or for them.”

A professional comedian for two decades running, with stints penning gags for Johnny Carson and an ongoing gig consulting on The Simpsons, Reiss definitely knows how to lay the groundwork for a good joke. Which is why, listening to this mini-tirade delivered in his good-humored voice, colored by a touch of reediness and full of the chuckles that signal he’s far from the grumpy old man his words might suggest, you begin to suspect he’s setting you up for a killer punchline. That he never manages to get to it – I interrupt with a question midway through, destroying his momentum and completely ruining the effect – is the fault of this being an interview rather than one of the philosophically comedic lectures he regularly gives at college campuses through the Greater Talent Network. He manages to return to his point eventually, praising the Harvard Lampoon rather than Harvard itself as a great training ground for pro comedy, but you can detect a note of mild annoyance at the way I’ve derailed the bit. “It was always a pretty great, solid group of people who got onto the Lampoon,” he concludes, “and once we got on, all we did was sort of hang around the building and do what writers do on a TV show. We would just sit around and take a joke and kick it around the room and embellish it, and try to top each other, and it was funny. What they’d been doing at the Lampoon for a hundred and twenty five years coincidentally happened to be what TV writers on sitcoms do.”

Not that people realized this from the start. Nowadays the way Harvard grads pack the Simpsons writers’ room makes some people think there’s a trap door beneath the commencement stage that leads straight to the Fox lot, but as Reiss recalls it, when he first came out from Cambridge, “there was no Lampoon network. I was, like, the third or fourth writer to come out to Hollywood. It just was not done in those days.” He goes so far as to laugh at the idea of a “Harvard network,” noting that “when I left college, I moved to New York, and two of my best friends from the Lampoon were working for Saturday Night Live, and instead of putting the touch on them, I never talked to them. I didn’t call them because I didn’t want to look like I was hitting them up for a job, and I think that might be kind of common among Harvard grads, or at least the Lampoon grads. They didn’t want to look overeager, and they’d rather starve than beg their pals. But the Lampoon, I would say, was primarily disenfranchised Harvard students.”

With his writing partner, current Simpsons showrunner Al Jean, Reiss parlayed a lucky break getting a job coming up with jokes for Airplane 2: the Sequel – “a comedy so bad,” cracks Reiss, “it won an award in France” – into a writing position on a dimly-remembered Daily Show precursor, Not Necessarily the News. Modestly, Reiss claims that he and Jean were the first of an illustrious crew to file through that HBO news parody, creating what had to be the youngest “old boy network” in history: “The producers really liked us,” he remembers with a laugh, “and they said ‘Are there more of you at Harvard?’ And they realized that every year they could hire a new team off of the Harvard Lampoon, have them split scale – so they were working for half of the lowest you could work for – and that they would do kind of dependably good, prolific work. It was sort of sweat-shop labor, but, although nobody has ever really traced the origins of this, I would say at least ten writers on The Simpsons spent time at Not Necessarily the News.” If that trap door really exists, in other words, credit Reiss’s generation of Harvard grads with marking out the square on the ground where it would eventually be built.

“Having been one of the first guys out here,” Reiss goes on, warming to the topic of a Harvard – or rather a Lampoon – presence in Hollywood comedy, “I watched this kind of horrible boom happen, where there were so many Harvard people working, and working on cool jobs, and it was concomitant with this explosion in the number of sitcoms on TV. It was when Fox first came out, and then the WB and UPN, and UPN was almost entirely sitcoms, so there were about a hundred sitcoms on television, and so anybody who thought he could write comedy had a job. What I noticed were a lot of bozos, a lot of Harvard people – and not Lampoon people, but just general Harvard people, or Harvard Business School people – coming out here and going ‘Oh, this is the next investment banking! This is the next gold rush!’ And they stunk. And then suddenly the sitcom format died, and the networks started to collapse down, and now there might be thirty sitcoms, where there were a hundred, and all those guys who came out here sort of for the money, are out of work. It was a very sort of ruthless, Darwinistic thing how all these guys found themselves without work, and the people who are left are the people who have a real passion for this, the people who do this because this is what they would do, whether it paid or not.”

Proof positive that Reiss falls into the latter category is his current passion for writing children’s books, which he says pays hardly at all, or the hard and somewhat thankless work he’s put into the upcoming feature-length version of his animated internet show, Queer Duck. “I don’t know if anyone else is going to like it,” he muses of the Queer Duck movie, “but this is a unique experience – I’m going to say almost in the history of entertainment – which is, I wrote this thing, and they said, ‘Make it.’ Paramount Studios said, ‘Make it.’ And we shot my first draft, and I put some of my friends in it, and, you know, it’s all me. And if this thing stinks, it’s all my fault.” It’s unlikely that it does, but you can see for yourself when the film comes out on Paramount Home Video on July 17th. As for Reiss’s opinions about his alma mater, it’s always good to be reminded that it’s not about the school you come from, but about the training in your craft that you received there, whether at the Lampoon or elsewhere. “I do what I do for a living,” Reiss notes, “not because I went to Harvard or wrote for the Lampoon, but because I would do this all the time anyway. I’m always making jokes, and if I wasn’t a comedy writer, I’d be that bad lawyer who makes jokes all the time. I mean, it’s just what I do.”

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