Multiple Emmy Award-winning U.S. writer and producer Mike Reiss was one of the first members of the original “The Simpsons” writing team in 1989 and still works on the show, now in its 29th series, albeit one day a week. He is currently at the Doha Film Institute’s Qumra event to give a master class on writing and producing animation to aspiring Arab animators. In Doha Reiss spoke to Variety about the global reach of “The Simpsons” and why the show’s alleged predictive aspect is just a fluke.
It’s hard to find a country that doesn’t like “The Simpsons” but the show reaching TV audiences in the Middle East made a bit of a splash. How do you feel about it?
It boggles my mind. You know, we write it in a little room in L.A. We don’t even think: ‘will they get it in the Valley? Or will they understand it in Tennessee?’ So the fact that they like it here in the Arab world is mind blowing.
Part of that splash is because when “The Simpsons” first aired in the Arab world, on MBC in 2005, it got a “culturally modified” makeover in which Homer Simpson became Omar Shamshoon, and he didn’t drink beer and ate Egyptian beef sausages instead of non-Halal hot dogs.
When I heard these stories, I thought they were an urban myth. I didn’t think they were true, because I could not believe Fox and Matt Groening would sign off on that. But so be it.
Is there anywhere in the world where “The Simpsons” do not click?
There is a funny aspect to “The Simpsons” in that they have a liberal stance and an anarchic stance, but they also want world domination. It drives some people [at “The Simpsons”] crazy that the Japanese don’t watch our show. We cannot get them interested. Japan is the biggest market in the world that we haven’t conquered. I think: ‘why do you care? We’re not Alexander the Great, we’re just a cartoon show!’
Another curious thing about “The Simpsons” in an Arab context is that an Egyptian TV channel in 2014 claimed that a specific 2001 episode of the show titled “New Kids on the Blecch” had somehow predicted or anticipated the Arab Spring, and what followed, because a Syrian opposition flag is displayed on a jeep in that episode, written when the Syrian opposition didn’t even exist. They even cited this as evidence that the Arab Spring was a U.S. conspiracy. Have you heard about this?
Yes, I’ve heard of it. You may have heard the other one, where we predicted 9/11…I’ve seen the still; I know the flag that they are referring to. We pulled it out of an almanac.
It’s also been said “The Simpsons” predicted Donald Trump becoming president in an episode in 2000 titled “Bart To The Future.”
That was just a joke. I saw a video on YouTube called something like ‘ten predictions “The Simpsons” made that came true.’ Number one was Trump. I thought: ‘that’s great!’ And then number two is about a lemon tree being cut down in France. It drops off very quickly after President Trump. We are not that predictive. Trump is just one of those special cases: sixteen years ago we were thinking: ‘what’s the dumbest thing America could do, and then they did it!’
Despite how you feel about Trump being president, do you think it is a boon for satire writers in the U.S.?
Not at “The Simpsons.” We write the show a year in advance. It would be my fondest dream that we write a Trump [themed] show, and when it airs he’s not president anymore. But we’re never topical on “The Simpsons.” We address kind of larger societal shifts and trends, not topical news stories. But I do think Trump has been great for political satire. “The Daily Show” has never been better, SNL is relevant again. I recently watched Seth Meyers, I watch all the late night people, and it’s good. They have something to attack, and something to make fun of, and [they are] not just spinning a bunch of old jokes.
What else do you have going on at the moment besides “The Simpsons”?
I have been writing some plays and also a couple of kids books. My latest play is a musical called “I Hate Musicals: The Musical.” It’s the closest thing to autobiography I’ve done. It’s about a middle-aged TV writer who has one last chance at a meeting with a [TV] network. In the middle of the meeting the big L.A. earthquake hits, and he’s trapped. The whole play is him reviewing his life, characters from his life coming back. We kept staging this play and everybody liked it, but it never really clicked. Finally someone said: ‘why don’t you just make it a musical?’ That made all the difference, and everyone who had rejected the play picked it up. It will have its premiere in September.