Mike Reiss (Creator - 'The Critic')
'It's Time To Get Critical'
Mike Reiss has won four Emmy Awards for his work on 'The Simpsons', the wacky animated series that has kept America laughing for more than a decade and earned Time magazine's vote as "the greatest TV show of the twentieth century." During his thirteen seasons on the show, Reiss penned eight scripts and produced over 200 episodes. His other television credits include 'The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson', 'Alf', Eddie Murphy's 'The PJ's' and 'It's Garry Shandling's Show', where he earned an ACE award for writing and producing.
Reiss is also the co-creator of 'The Critic'(released for the first-time ever on DVD and in your stores now!), an animated series starring Jon Lovitz as a lovable movie critic. The well-reviewed series has been running on Comedy Central for nine years. Reiss also created 'Queer Duck', the animated adventures of a gay duck. An Internet hit with rave reviews in the U.S. and Europe, the series recently made the jump to the Showtime network.
Back in early 1994 what made you dream up the idea for 'The Critic'? "We [Al Jean and I] had been doing The Simpsons and Jim Brooks came to us with the idea of doing a live-action show set at something like The Today Show that would be like an early morning version of the Mary Tyler Moore Show," he laughs. "And we weren't really loving the idea, but the one part that really appealed to us was writing about a film critic. And again, this was all meant to be live-action and then Jim came to us with the idea of Jon Lovitz and we agreed that he would be perfect as 'The Critic.' And so we literally, without even asking him, wrote an entire pilot for Lovitz as this film critic and then he just said that he couldn't do it as he was a 'movie star.' Because he had been a movie star for about ten minutes he just wouldn't do it, and so the very last decision we made on the show was to make it animated. I don't think any other projects have been conceived that way where the last decision is to animate it. And it was purely to work around Jon's schedule."
What was the reasoning then behind this media-acclaimed TV show only lasting a few seasons? "It's two separate stories. First we were on ABC as Jim Brooks had a deal with them. So, we took them the show and they said up front that it wasn't a show for them as at the time they were a pure-family network and we were coming in with something that we wanted to be very edgy and smart with. ABC couldn't have been more supportive, but it just didn't work there and when they cancelled us we just didn't know where to go. The funny story is that after the first episode aired two days later my secretary walked in with a giant box which was full of hate mail! It was just too shocking for ABC, but when we went over to the Fox network we were considered very mild! So, we took the show to Fox where it should have been in the first place, and the President of Fox bought the show and in the year it took us in-between the time she bought it and the time it took us to get on the air she had been fired, a new President brought in ... and he just hated the show! And this is business as usual in TV. But yes, we were a certifiable hit for a while there and this new President was at Fox just long enough to kill 'The Critic'! That's his one legacy as he was only there a few months!"
What was one of the most inventive and universally-lauded episodes that
you aired that comes instantly to mind? "My favorite episode is the one that had Siskel & Ebert on it. And you have to remember that at this time ten years ago were considered THE most powerful men in Hollywood. And it was an episode where they split up and our critic Jay Sherman is auditioning to be either one of their partners. It was just a particularly great episode and everything worked and it was very funny. They were so eager to please and we even got them to sing! It was just a very solid episode."
How long did it take to create a single episode of 'The Critic'? "It would take no quicker than six to eight months. The trickiest thing with 'The Critic' was we were trying to be timely in parody films, but we had to guess if the film we were parodying was going to be remembered in eight months! And sometimes we would look ahead and then we could parody it preemptively, but that was always risky because some movies would come and go very quickly. But what was nice though was that to make the cut of a movie we would parody on the show we said that it really had to be in the public consciousness. It's got to be a big hit or get a lot of critical attention and because we were that selective you watch these 'Critic' episodes ten years later and you recognize the movies! There are very few that pop up that you wonder just what they're parodying. I honestly didn't expect the show to hold up over time at all."
Was there ever a parody that you wanted to do but were advised not to?! "Yes, the only parody we wanted to do but they just told us not to do it was a parody of 'Schindler's List' ... starring Jerry Lewis! And, we knew it was touchy territory, but we didn't cross the line, but the censor said that we weren't breaking any outright rules on this, but please don't do it," he gently laughs.
What ever happened to 'The Oblongs' (2001) TV series? "Well, I was only there a day a week, but that was just a weird, weird show. I mean, we were just aggressively weird. We were all thinking as we worked on it that it was such an odd bird. And we knew that ten minutes after this show debuts, we'll know whether we're a hit or a complete failure! People were either going to take to it or they didn't ... and they didn't!"
What's next for your creative juices to provide for our thirsty TV
audiences? "I still consult on The Simpsons, as I go in there a day a week, and I’m writing screenplays now. I'm mostly retired as I'm 44 which is considered over-the-hill in the TV business. So, I just do a lot of projects that make me happy. I also lecture at college campuses all over the country just telling them about comedies and such. I write children's books, if you can believe that. So, from 'Queer Duck' to children’s books, but that's about it."
Be honest, should there have ever been a TV series allowed on air called
'Queer Duck'?! "Yes," he responds instantly and emphatically. "I created 'Queer Duck' and I think people judged it by the title, but I have to say that 'Queer Duck' might just be the most rewarding thing that I ever did in my career! I did it for free, so it wasn't financially rewarding, but it was to counteract something that I saw on TV and in movies that really bothered me. Which was that gay people were being used as punchlines. So, I created 'Queer Duck' as a very gay positive thing and just wanted to do a gay Bugs Bunny! The kind of thing where straight people were the Elmer Fudd to the Bugs Bunny's of the world. We put it on the internet and it so worked the way I wanted it to and the response from the gay community was 99% positive. I honestly don't remember any complaints and I was so happy with that. Then it made the jump from the internet to Showtime for a couple of years and we're now trying to make the 'Queer Duck' movie out of it! So, there you go, you've hit a nerve," he laughs.
Is there anything that you've done that you would just love to erase from your resume?! "There's one, and I never bring it up unless I get a direct question like that. I had a three year development deal after 'The Critic' and I went to work with Disney and it was just awful! It was the one time in my career where I just followed money and everyone in town told me not to do it. But, I did it and it ended up to be very, very bad. Nothing good came out of it and again it was these network executives and these studio executives. Disney, as you might guess was more oppressive than most and up until recently Disney has had unflagging success in everything but TV. They've literally generated hundreds of shows and the only success they've had was 'Home Improvement.' Everything else failed and I was a part of that corporate structure and I could never get an idea through to these guys and finally out of desperation I pitched the most derivative idea I could thing of ... and it got on the air and it was awful. And it turned out to be a show that even though it said created by me and executive produced by me and written by me I could not stand to watch the show! And it was called 'Teen Angel.' And it's funny, it wasn't even a flop as much as I hated it. It did okay and was part of ABC's TGIF line-up and was sort of a male 'Sabrina'. I can tell you it was the experience that drove me out of television!"
Finally, describe your future in five words! "Win the lottery, leave town," he laughs.
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
To read our DVD Review of 'The Critic' just click here and be whisked away !
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