As much as the introduction of DVD commentaries promised revelations inside the creative process, plenty of times they offered more insight into the banter of the people involved, as seemingly important scenes sail by unexplained. Longtime Simpsons producer-writer Mike Reiss, a frequent presence on the hours and hours of commentary tracks for the show, offers a sort of corrective for that in his book, Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, And Outright Lies From A Lifetime Writing For The Simpsons. The book reads like a slightly more focused commentary track as Reiss answers fans’ burning questions; explains the show’s process; offers insights on characters, jokes, and controversies; and digs into his life as a comedy writer inside and outside of The Simpsons. Like a commentary track, Springfield Confidential meanders, but it’s a lot easier to skip to the interesting parts here.
Springfield Confidential, also credited to Mathew Klickstein, loosely hangs together in three acts, imitating the traditional setup of a TV episode: act one (Reiss’ career pre-Simpsons), act two (a deep dive into the show), and act three (a potpourri of Reiss’ work outside The Simpsons, notably on The Critic). Each chapter comprises short, easily digestible chunks that may or may not have much to do with what comes before or after them. The “Meet The Showrunners” chapter, for instance, begins by explaining the thankless task of running The Simpsons, then segues into a discussion of the classic “Cape Feare” episode, then moves to a short explanation of how the writers pad the show, then closes with how the show seldom uses technological shortcuts (on animation or music, for example). It’s as if Reiss and Klickstein (who wrote a lackluster oral history of Nickelodeon) had a bunch of bullet points to address before they started the book and loosely grouped them into chapters.
For hardcore Simpsons nerds, little in Springfield Confidential will qualify as new information, and some of it is super basic for the Comic Book Guys among the show’s fan base, who do not need to hear yet again where Springfield is/isn’t, or where the Simpsons got their first names.
The hook is that Reiss filters it through his experiences and opinions, and he has an endless supply of both. In a chapter on the supposed Simpsons/Family Guy rivalry, he notes that some of the show’s writers take/took issue with Family Guy, and though Seth MacFarlane’s show never bothered him, he quickly dispatches with Archer (“overrated”), South Park (“same show every week”), and BoJack Horseman (“never seen it”). In the opening chapter of act three, “On Comedy,” Reiss tries to discern what makes comedy work, and in the process takes down people like Chevy Chase, Nichols and May, and Jimmy Fallon (“Fallon is just no laff spelled backward”).
In chapter eight, “Four Episodes That Changed The World (Kinda),” Reiss goes deep on how specific Simpsons episodes altered the course of the show, and later in the chapter, in a section subtitled “Homer’s Massive Boners,” he explains the four regrets he has about the series.
Don’t expect to see Apu among them. Reiss addresses the recent controversy around the character for two pages in the 10-and-a-half-page “Meet The Characters” chapter. People incensed by the show shrugging off the issue this past season won’t find any relief in Springfield Confidential. While explaining how Apu was never intended to be Indian—Reiss wrote, “THE CLERK IS NOT INDIAN,” in the stage direction for Apu’s debut episode, “The Telltale Head,” only to have Simpsons co-developer Sam Simon overrule it—he acknowledges he’s heard “more and more complaints about Apu” from young Indians who grew up being “taunted in the schoolyard by being called Apu.” “That’s not racism,” he writes. “That’s just saying kids are dicks,” as if it can’t be both. He also calls Hari Kondabolu’s The Problem With Apu “a nasty little documentary.”
Reiss’ candor frequently skews as dismissive or glib, which can be funny (as in the chapter about The Critic’s tortured existence, wherein he calls out by name the Fox exec who killed the show) and other times shortsighted (see the section on Apu). The whole book reads as quickly written and a little undercooked. Springfield Confidential is fitfully informative, but too self-satisfied and meandering to do justice to The Simpsons. Hopefully some day someone will be up to the task. Ball’s in your court, Al Jean.