Some TV comedies provide glorious lore about their stars’ warring egos or wacky backstage high jinks — from the illicit goings-on of the original “Saturday Night Live” creatives in the ’70s to Chevy Chase’s more recent series, “Community.”
And then there is “The Simpsons,” the animated sitcom that this past April passed “Gunsmoke” for the most prime-time scripted episodes (635 was the record) broadcast on American TV. For the vast majority of the show’s three-decades run — once co-creator Sam Simon made his early exit — “The Simpsons” has relied on affable comic wizards who avoid nasty altercations. So it is upon a workplace of mostly mild-mannered comedy professionals that former “Simpsons” showrunner Mike Reiss pulls back the curtain in his new book, cheekily titled “Springfield Confidential.” Cheeky, because as a behind-the-scenes peek at a long-running Hollywood production, this is no kiss-and-tell tome. Even at its most dishy, it is closer to a sketch-and-kvetch.
Yet don’t let that dissuade you, because “Springfield Confidential” — a title that nods, of course, to the Simpsons’ unmappable home town — offers a wealth of great anecdotes, all peppered with punchlines that make Reiss’s memoir as hilarious as whichever season of “The Simpsons” you recall most fondly.
Reiss, who also wrote for such comedians as Johnny Carson and Garry Shandling, knows how to keep many narrative plates spinning, whether revealing a character’s secret origin or answering the most common questions from fans.
Some of the best details include:
●How the primordial series concept — in transferring from “Tracey Ullman Show” cartoon shorts to full half-hour episodes in 1989 — was nearly canceled. Reiss spreads the game-saving credit to many, including co-creators Simon, James L. Brooks (who first “gave the show soul”) and alternative cartoonist turned mainstream mogul Matt Groening, as well as director David Silverman.
●Just who says “no” to doing a guest shot on the show. William Shatner was the first celebrity to refuse — he would not do self-parody — and Bruce Springsteen also remains a holdout. Prince and George Lucas declined once they looked at the roles written for them. And no sitting American president has provided a guest voice, though the show has come close.
●Speaking of higher office: Reiss recounts how, in an episode from 2000 — in which Lisa Simpson becomes the first straight female president — the phrase “President Trump” was intended as an absurd punchline.
●Speaking of straight: Reiss illuminates a range of character inspirations and origins, including how Smithers, Mr. Burns’s right-hand man, went from black to white — and from straight to gay — in the beginning.
●And Reiss reveals secrets behind the opening-title “couch gags” and chalkboard wordings; points out how many Oscar winners have voiced the rarely speaking baby Maggie; and explains the art of padding a show that must run 20 minutes, 20 seconds on the dot.
Elsewhere, the contributions of SNL veterans Phil Hartman and Conan O’Brien are recalled with extra warmth. And Reiss spotlights the show’s early talent pipeline from the Harvard Lampoon, where he and current “Simpsons” showrunner Al Jean worked after meeting as freshmen. (Another alum, Harvard Law graduate Dan Greaney, also wrote for a rival student publication opposite future president Barack Obama before becoming one of the best “Simpsons” writers.)
Although Reiss shares personal details, including the fact that he grew “morbidly obese” once he became showrunner — an intense job he likens to “crawling nude over broken glass in hell” — he’s wise enough to know that the Simpsons characters must come first. And that’s where some of the real “confidential” faux-tawdry tidbits come into this memoir. Only the diehardiest fans are likely to know, for instance, that every member of the Simpsons nuclear family has done time behind bars.
Reiss also deftly addresses two of the issues that often hang over the show.
The first is that of the character Apu, the Indian immigrant whose accented portrayal by Hank Azaria has increasingly come under criticism. Reiss says he believes that the show has always attempted to write Apu with depth and dignity, yet he seriously weighs the idea that it is perhaps time to say farewell to the character.
Reiss fires back at the complaint that the show isn’t as funny as it was in Season 10 or Season 7 or Season whatever — and he gets deliciously smart-alecky about being asked how much longer the show can go on.
“The Simpsons” endures because at its core it remains about “family and folly,” he writes. He gives the last word on the matter to director-producer Judd Apatow: “You can debate seasons and episodes, but it’s as funny as anything being made right now. . . . Suddenly there was a moment when the world decided, ‘No. We’re never getting rid of this.’ ”
With that, the author has the last laugh.
Michael Cavna is creator of the Comic Riffs column and is the graphic-novel reviewer for The Washington Post.
By Mike Reiss
Dey Street. 320 pp. $27.99