When you think of TV shows with Jewish themes, a few immediately come to mind.
Seinfeld. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Curb Your Enthusiasm. Broad City. The Goldbergs. Rhoda. The Nanny. The short-lived Brooklyn Bridge.
If you want to stretch it a bit, add shows like thirtysomething, Rugrats, Will & Grace and Welcome Back, Kotter, to name a few.
How about The Simpsons?
Most definitely, according to Mike Reiss, the longest- serving writer and showrunner for the animated mainstay, who spoke March 10 at the Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to tout his forthcoming book Springfield Confidential.
Reiss noted that half the show’s writers are Jewish as are three of the main voice actors — Julie Kavner (Marge Simpson), Hank Azaria (Moe Szyslak, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, Duffman) and Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner).
“The place is sort of like a kibbutz, only more Jewish,” he said, throwing out one-liners that would have made Henny Youngman proud.
Reiss showed clips of a few Jewish moments in the show, including the backstory of Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofsky, better known as Krusty the Clown, the son of Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky. The rabbi was voiced by Jackie Mason; Reiss described him as one of his favorites among the 800 or so guest stars the show has featured.
There also are several recurring characters in the show who are portrayed as Jewish, including Duffman, Superintendent Chalmers, Dolph Starbeam and a nursing home resident simply known as Old Jewish Man.
Reiss grew up in a Connecticut town where he was the only Jewish kid in his high school. Still, he joked, his father wanted him to only date Jewish girls. Although he’s not religious, Reiss enjoys his heritage.
“I do like the Jewish culture, and I do like being Jewish the way the Irish like being Irish,” he said.
His story ideas come from everywhere, he said, indicating that some of his childhood memories made it into early episodes.
“I write comedy because I can’t help myself,” he said. “What would I do if I couldn’t write comedy? I’d write for Jimmy Fallon. Fallon spelled backward is ‘no laugh.’”
Both in an interview before his speech and during his hour-long presentation, Reiss tossed out numerous tidbits about the show — including an item that recently made news.
A third-season episode Reiss wrote called “Stark Raving Dad” was pulled from syndication last week because it features a character voiced by the late Michael Jackson. The singer was accused of sexual abuse by two men in a new HBO documentary.
“It breaks my heart — just the other day, I got a check for $13 for that episode,” he joked, then noted that pulling the episode was the right thing to do. He also said he was most proud of that episode prior to the recent hubbub.
Yet he noted that political correctness is a tricky issue, citing contentions that the show’s Indian convenience store owner Apu is stereotypical.
“You never know when you’re pulling a string where it stops,” Reiss said.
But the evening was not for weighty societal issues, as Reiss dished out several interesting nuggets about the show.
Michael Jackson had approached the show about appearing and even wrote some of his own jokes. His acting, however, was terrible, and the singing heard on the show was done by an authorized sound-alike named Kipp Lennon (youngest brother of the Lennon Sisters singing group).
Most guest characters appear on the show because their children encourage them to do so. In the case of the Rolling Stones, the grandchildren were the impetus.
Of the guest characters, Oprah Winfrey caused the most headaches. “It only takes 10 minutes to do The Simpsons, and she only gave us five,” he said.
Every living ex-president has turned down the opportunity to appear on the show.
Reiss’ favorite character is Homer. “Homer is a comedy writer’s dream,” he said. “Homer embodies all the deadly sins.”
“Sooner or later” another movie will be made.
The Simpsons Movie script was rewritten 166 times. A typical episode of the show goes through five rewrites.
Reiss explained the origins of Marge’s big blue beehive hairdo. Simpsons creator Matt Groening originally thought the show would be short-lived and survived by his original comic strip Life in Hell, which featured long-eared rabbits. When The Simpsons went off the air, it would be revealed the hair was covering her big rabbit ears. Groening stopped drawing Life in Hell in 2012.
Venezuela canceled the show, saying it promoted bad U.S. values — and replaced it with Baywatch.
[email protected]; 215-832-0797