Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons by Mike Reiss with Mathew Klickstein is a 2018 nonfiction comedy memoir detailing the author’s lifetime of experiences as the longest-serving writer and producer on the iconic American cartoon series The Simpsons. Written in a fun, irreverent style, Reiss shares background on the show’s conception and the writers behind the groundbreaking first season and beyond, as well as many other amusing anecdotes about the cast and crew that helped make it all possible. He also shares some of the finer details of the creative process, offering a glimpse into just how much work goes into making a single episode. Also included are pieces of interviews conducted for this book with legends of the series including Al Jean, Conan O’Brien, and more.
Growing up in the 1990s, getting to watch several episodes of The Simpsons a day on TV was among my favourite pastimes. Though the series has continued all these years later, I have long stopped keeping up, so it’s actually reached the point where there are countless more episodes that I haven’t seen than those that I have. Still, the first 12 or so seasons remain dear to me (and frequently re-watched), so when I first heard about this book I was very excited to learn more in depth about the creation of the series and the people behind it. In many respects, this book did deliver on what I wanted, but by the end I came away from it less satisfied than I had hoped.
Being told from Mike Reiss’s perspective specifically, it was understandable that the earliest chapters of the book were more about his personal history with writing comedy and for TV, especially as he was part of the original writing staff for the series before moving on to becoming a show runner and then continually working on the series up to the present day. It didn’t dwell on these details for long either, and soon chapters became delightful pieces of insight into the creation of the show and the thoughts and feelings of the people making it, with some helpful details about the television industry at the time and what their expectations were.
What I found most fascinating was the deeper look at the creative process behind an episode being made, most especially with how much isn’t planned. Learning, for instance, that for a while Ralph was simply a child that would appear at Springfield Elementary before they decided to make him Chief Wiggum’s son was quite a surprise. In my mind, the character is firmly cemented with that backstory, so I loved learning about such a hidden detail I would have never thought to look out for.
Apparently, episodes almost never end up the same as their original scripts either. As they are work-shopped and put through the production process, almost everything is revised and refined until it’s something almost completely different. This inspired a great amount of appreciation in me for just how much collaborative work goes into any sort of production, even outside of animation. So often we want to attribute a show’s or film’s greatness (or even failings) to a singular person, such as the creator or director, but so much work goes into such projects from so many different people that that isn’t quite fair to do. Spontaneous creation is hard, so it’s humbling to imagine, especially as an outsider to the industry, all these creative voices competing and cooperating toward the same goal and somehow making something so groundbreaking.
Where I found myself disappointed with the book actually had to do with the author himself. Though for the most part I found his writing style amusing to read, his sense of humour was hackneyed a little too often for me. Certain jokes just wouldn’t land, often coming off as awkward in a printed context, or were just too corny. One section that is meant to demonstrate certain joke-telling structure especially irked me, as the example jokes were lame and the punchline at the end was that the jokes were lame, which doesn’t make up for all the eye-rolling that got me there. Now all I can vaguely remember is there being a bunch of bad Kim Kardashian jokes and not the actual lesson he was trying to teach.
The third and final section of the book was also entirely too much about Mike Reiss’s life and other projects, which is the real sticking point for me with this book. I bought it under the impression that this book was about The Simpsons through the lens of Mike Reiss, but that’s only really half true. While this section continues the “Burning Questions” about the series between chapters to keep things Simpsons-related, it betrays that this book is really a memoir about Mike Reiss’s career, with a greater emphasis on The Simpsons than anything else. He’s a fine author, corny jokes notwithstanding, but I didn’t buy this book to read about Mike Reiss. So, despite the good amount of insight the book gave me into the creation of the series, I’ve come away from it hoping I can find another than delivers on its promise better.
Springfield Confidential, despite my disappointments with it, is still a good read. As a longtime fan of The Simpsons who never really looked into any behind-the-scenes content, it definitely had a good number of insightful gems to keep me more happy with it than not, whetting my appetite for something more in depth. That being said, you really should know going in that you’re getting nearly as much about the author’s history separate from the show, despite the series being the likely reason you picked it up in the first place, and in a book that isn’t especially long already you might find it to be overall shallower than you were hoping.
My Rating: 3 out of 5