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'Springfield Confidential' review: 'Simpsons' showrunner Mike Reiss takes fans behind the scenes

"Sprinfield Confidential" by Mike Reiss with Matthew Klickstein (Dey St., June 2018) Photo Credit: Harper Collins

SPRINGFIELD CONFIDENTIAL: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for “The Simpsons,” by Mike Reiss with Mathew Klickstein. Dey St., 299 pp., $27.99.

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. 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, “Springfield Confidential.” 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 hometown — offers a wealth of great anecdotes. 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’ right-hand man, went from black to white — and from straight to gay — in the beginning.

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 die-hardiest 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 used to be — 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.

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