Comedy, says Mike Reiss, is mostly about accident. This flies in the face somewhat of received wisdom. After all, no less an authority than Mel Brooks reckoned that comedy is a close relation to tragedy: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
Reiss started out writing gags for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. It was a proper production line of joke-writing. “My job at The Tonight Show was to write 60 jokes a day, and that’s just too many. Maybe 10 of those were good and the other 50 were terrible. I’d have much preferred to write 20 really funny jokes a day but 60 was the target we were given.
“Anyway, Carson had this act — Carnac The Magnificent [where Carson would pretend to be a mind-reader, who would give the punchline to a joke before opening a sealed envelope to read out the setup] — and one night he picked this terrible joke. The answer was ‘Red Square’ and the question in the envelope was ‘what’s the splotch on Gorbachev’s forehead called?’ And when I say the joke went badly the first time, the audience just kind of sat there in a stunned silence. They hadn’t realised the joke was over, and were sitting there waiting for the comedy to kick in.”
You’d assume that this apparent abomination of a joke would be burned and the ashes tossed out to sea but Reiss says that, through some error, the same joke ended up back on Carson’s script six months later and this time: “It killed. Huge laugh. And I don’t know why…”
But surely a person who has written and produced arguably the greatest television comedy of all time would have access to the secretive Illuminati formula for making people laugh?
“Comedy is still unknowable to me. I’m on Twitter every day and I try to post one good joke. I try to post a joke that gets 100 likes. And I don’t know, from day to day I’m shocked at what gets a response and what doesn’t get a response. The only thing I can say for having done this for 40 years is maybe I’m a little better at it than other people, than people who’ve never done it, but that’s all I know.”
Reiss is coming to Belfast later this month to tell a waiting audience exactly what he doesn’t know about comedy. He’s going to be a speaker at the upcoming RENDR festival, in which the stars and creators of film, TV and games share their experience and knowledge, and to lift ever so slightly the corner of the curtain at the back of the stage.
To say that Reiss graduated from writing 50 duff jokes and 10 gems a day for Johnny Carson is to put it mildly. In 1989 he struck comedy gold by joining the team that created The Simpsons. Even then, accident and circumstance seemed to follow him…
“My first writing job was on a dreadful sitcom, a TV version of the movie 9 to 5. It was literally the worst show I’d ever seen in my life… and then I got hired there. And then I got fired there, which meant that I was not good enough to write for the worst show I’d ever seen. But then, four years later, when I’m running The Simpsons and it’s the biggest show in the land, the woman who hired me rings me up and says: ‘I have a writer I want to recommend.’ All I could say was: ‘Well, you’re an excellent judge of talent…’”
The first morning after the show aired we were already ahead. I think within three weeks we were on the cover of Newsweek magazine
Reiss, along with Al Jean, served as showrunner for The Simpsons during what was unquestionably its golden era, the third and fourth seasons. As writer he’s credited with one of the greatest of all Simpsons episodes, Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious — the Mary Poppins parody episode.
Having been involved in a self-proclaimed “worst show he’s ever seen” and a much-loved but cancelled cop comedy called Sledge Hammer (a show with a cult following in Ireland and Ukraine), when did Reiss know the apparently unknowable — that The Simpsons was going to be a hit?
“I got The Simpsons job because nobody else wanted it,” says Reiss. “Friends turned the job down. I took the job. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing because you know, it’s impossible to remember how people regarded animation in 1989 which is that it was cheap kid stuff. It was on the Fox network, which was very unknown entity at the time. One of the other writers on The Simpsons was the son of a various esteemed comedy writer, and his father begged him not to take the Simpsons job. That’s what a loser of a gig this seemed like.
“So we just had fun. It was just a very fun summer job. We thought nobody was going to watch the show. We thought the show was actually going to be like Police Squad — the lesson of TV up to that point was if you try something new and different, you’ll get cancelled after six episodes. And so we made 13 and we never thought we’d get to show all 13. So that was the attitude that created the Simpsons.
“Then we had a premiere party when the first episode aired. It was in a bowling alley — it was in low rent party — and they showed the first episode on those screens where your score is projected. And you could feel it in the house. You can feel all the people who’ve made the show, watching it going: ‘Hey, this is good. We didn’t know was this good?’ And then the reviews came in. It’s the days of fax machines and someone came in with a pile of faxes all over the country, we’ve gotten, you know, these fantastic reviews saying this is going to change TV. And then the next morning we found out we debuted to the highest ratings in the history of the Fox network. So the answer to the question, when did you know you were ahead? It was immediately. The first morning after the show aired we were already ahead. I think within three weeks we were on the cover of Newsweek magazine.”
Is the creation of comedy about to become much harder? If artificial intelligence can create stunning digital paintings, and instant school essays, surely it too can create comedy indistinguishable from the work of a human? “Everywhere you look some technology has taken somebody’s job,” says Reiss.
“If you have machines making clothes, those clothes used to be made by a tailor. There used to be portrait painters everywhere and then the photograph came along and just kills a lot of their business. And then there were photographers and then there were film shops and now digital comes along and those all went. People don’t even mourn them that much. So now a technology has come for my job and I go, okay, this is what happens. But you know, there are still painters out there and there’s still photographers out there, but they’re people who have to be really good at their job and think differently and that’s the challenge AI presents to me. AI will be able to do the job of mediocre comedy writers or maybe even good writers, but you’ll still just hope that maybe I can be one of the great ones who can do it a little better or a little different than, than a computer can.”
Maybe the secret to defeating some all-conquering AI is that computers aren’t good at making mistakes, and as we now know, mistakes and happenstance make comedy. A classic example is from The Simpsons episode Cape Feare, produced by Reiss, in which the villainous Sideshow Bob steps, for several minutes, on a series of rakes which flip up and hit him in the face. It’s a superb moment of animated physical comedy, and arguably the greatest visual gag in television history. And it was an accident.
“The greatest gag in TV history? Sure!” guffaws Reiss. “I was there and I didn’t think so at the time, but we had the joke, and the show was running a little short, by about two minutes. And it was just me and Al Jean and Al just said: ‘Well, let’s show it again.’ And I go okay, because I didn’t have a better answer. And sometimes that’s how great comedy is written.”
The RENDR festival takes place in Belfast on February 23rd-24th