Earlier this spring The Simpsons aired its 636th episode, passing Gunsmoke as the longest-running scripted television show in American history. When “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” the show’s first episode, premiered on Dec. 17, 1989, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation was the No. 1 movie in America and Taylor Swift was 4 days old. For most of the 1990s, The Simpsons was the best show on television, and while it’s no longer that, at nearly 30 years old it’s become a cultural institution in a way that no show of its kind ever has. Friends of mine with whom I grew up watching new episodes of The Simpsons on Sunday nights now have kids of their own who watch new episodes of The Simpsons on Sunday nights.
Mike Reiss is one of the very few people who has worked continuously on The Simpsons since its first episode. Along with his longtime writing partner Al Jean, he was the showrunner on The Simpsons’ third and fourth seasons, which are widely regarded as the beginning of the show’s ridiculously long apex. Reiss, along with co-author Mathew Klickstein, has now written a memoir titled Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies From a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons. It’s the first book of its kind by a true Simpsons lifer and offers an informative, frequently hilarious, and occasionally frustrating glimpse into the long career of the world’s most famous four-fingered family.
Reiss announces at the onset that Springfield Confidential will be structured like a Simpsons episode, partitioned into four “acts”: setup, complication, resolution, and coda. The book opens with the story of Reiss getting the job, fresh off a stint writing for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Reiss recalls that no one on the writing staff thought that the show would last more than six weeks, which doesn’t seem like retrospective false modesty. When The Simpsons premiered, it was the first animated prime-time show in a generation, the brainchild of an underground cartoonist airing on a network that was still an afterthought. “After eight years writing for films, sitcoms, and even Johnny Carson, I was now working on a cartoon,” recalls Reiss. “I was twenty-eight years old and I thought I’d hit rock bottom.”
The show’s premiere was a critical and ratings triumph, and within weeks, America was mired in Bartmania. (In 1990, Bart Simpson appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone.) From here, Springfield Confidential jumps headfirst into the show’s early-years feud between creator Matt Groening and showrunner Sam Simon. After The Simpsons became an overnight sensation, everyone wanted a piece of the subversive “genius” behind it, a role that the scruffy and sardonic Groening fit into more snugly than Simon, a sitcom prodigy who’d previously overseen Taxi and Cheers. Groening got the accolades, and Simon felt slighted, poisoning his relationship with what should have been the crowning achievement of his career. (Simon died from cancer in 2015.) It’s a sad but moving story about creativity and ego, as well as a window into what made The Simpsons so great from the beginning. When Groening’s spiky and cerebral irreverence was wedded to Simon’s sublime grasp of the history and form of the American sitcom, a revolutionary work of art was born.
After recounting this saga, Reiss suddenly declares that it’s “the one dark secret of our show, the lone bruise on the Simpsons banana. That’s all the gossip I’ve got.” The fact that this announcement comes at the end of the book’s first chapter portends one of the book’s recurrent shortcomings, especially when measured against the title on the cover: namely, Reiss’ happy-go-lucky aversion toward dirtying his hands with conflict or complexity. Reiss’ book is stuffed with jokes, many of which are really funny: About two-thirds of the way through, there’s one at the expense of Moe, my favorite Simpsons character, that made me laugh out loud in public. But it never feels like Reiss fully settles on what sort of book he’s trying to write, a behind-the-scenes tour of an iconic show or a personal memoir of a life in comedy writing, with the latter often feeling a bit half-assed. For instance, a lengthy section toward the end of the book about Reiss’ public speaking career falls flat because it seems to come out of nowhere, with little work being done to tie it back to the rest of the book. Such passages start to read like a student essay that’s struggling to make the word count.
Springfield Confidential works best as fan service, and I don’t mean that as a dig. Reiss knows his audience, and it’s unlikely that many people will read this book who aren’t already Simpsons obsessives. I found myself fascinated by a section in which Reiss painstakingly details the nine-month, 23-part process involved in making each episode of the show, from conception to air date, as well as banal production details like how much celebrity guest stars get paid (shockingly little). And there are tasty tidbits galore, such as the fact that “I call the big one Bitey” doesn’t translate into foreign languages, or that it wasn’t until the show’s fourth season that the writers decided that Lisa’s classmate Ralph was the son of the Springfield Police Department Chief Wiggum.
But Reiss’ tendency to scurry over more treacherous terrain can give the sense that Springfield Confidential isn’t really “confiding” all that much. To get the most zeitgeisty question out of the way, Reiss does briefly address the ongoing controversy over the voicing of Apu and does so defensively and poorly, describing Hari Kondabolu’s The Problem With Apu as a “nasty little documentary” that’s been “a problem for us at The Simpsons,” before brusquely conceding that “times change” and “as a white Jewish guy, I can’t tell Indians not to be offended by another white Jewish guy playing an Indian,” even though he’s basically just done that. There are ways to discuss this topic with genuine nuance and humility—as Hank Azaria himself did just recently—but one gets the sense that Reiss is simply too close to it. He’s dedicated more than half his life to this show, and he defends it with the ferocious irrationality that a parent would his child.
This brings us to another, still larger Stampy in the room that Reiss’ book mostly sidesteps: the sheer length of time that the show has been on and the messier implications of its record-setting run. The Simpsons hasn’t been what it once was for an awfully long time, and the shagginess of its later years has now, from a strictly chronological standpoint, vastly exceeded its first decade-plus of sustained greatness. There are certainly worse crimes than a TV show in decline. After all, as Reiss would argue, the show is still profitable, its makers still presumably enjoy making it, and an audience presumably still enjoys watching it, so what’s the harm?
But when The Simpsons began, it was, among many other things, a satire of the American sitcom itself and all its limitations, limitations that the show quickly set about exploding. One of its best episodes, the Season 8 masterpiece “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” is a brilliantly self-reflexive half-hour riff on the cynical measures taken by beloved television shows that have run out of ideas. That episode is now 21 years old. In a brief segment toward the end of the book, Reiss addresses the charge that the show has gone downhill by pointing out that when TV shows get old, “they get either weird or boring,” then declares that “we’ve opted for weird.” But recycling plots and putting characters through increasingly convoluted plotlines isn’t really all that “weird.” Rather, it’s usually the most predictable feature of run-of-the-mill, not-all-that-great sitcoms.
Springfield Confidential ultimately feels a bit overly protective of The Simpsons’ legacy, which is as understandable as it is unnecessary. The show’s influence over 21st-century comedy is nothing short of monumental, and it’s hard to argue that something has worn out its welcome when we live every day in a world that it made. To choose just one example, I’m amazed at how frequently The Good Place, probably the best comedy on network television right now, feels like a live-action version of the Simpsons, even down to the characters themselves. Springfield Confidential doesn’t quite do justice to its subject, but how could it? Mike Reiss wrote the goddamn Simpsons. It can be up to the rest of us to write the great books that the show deserves.
Springfield Confidential, by Mike Reiss with Mathew Klickstein. Dey Street Books.