Mike Reiss

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

We’ve focused on the Simpsons and used them to show the endowment effect:

Today we’ll highlight Mike Reiss; writer, showrunner, and jack-of-all-trades for The Simpsons. In Springfield Confidential Reiss admits that he wasn’t the funniest staffer (but definitely in the top ten) and tells many great stories.

The Simpsons were expected to fail. In a writer’s room survey every writer said they thought the show would last six weeks, except for one. He guessed thirteen. “I took the job but didn’t tell anyone what I was doing,” Reiss wrote.

With this attitude, they made something new. “Maybe that’s the secret of the show’s success: since we thought no one would be watching we didn’t make the kind of show we saw on TV; we made the kind of show we wanted to see on TV.”

Much like Alice Waters, this was something that no American enterprise had ever done.  Investor’s know Mark’s maxim to be different and be right, but how does someone go about this? Reiss’s career is a clue.

“Although we bounced from job to job (Airplane 2, Alf, Johnny Carson, Sledge Hammer, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show) and took whatever came our way, all these sitcoms taught us valuable lessons that we were about to use on The Simpsons.” Reiss and writing partner Al Jean also wrote for the Harvard Lampoon.

Actors like Arnold Schwartzenegger and Jenna Fischer advocate for reps, reps reps.  Brian Koppelman’s does too. Jim O’Shaughnessy said that to understand art, “you want to look at tons of art.”

One kind of art is graffiti and former NYPC officer Steve Osborne wrote, “To normal people, graffiti looks like some nonsense written by a two-year-old child with a crayon, but to the trained eye it contains a wealth of knowledge.”

An investor or writer can figure out if something is good if they develop “a cold eye to the work.” Koppelman said of this objectivity, “If you want to be a screenwriter read a thousand screenplays and watch a thousand movies and then you will have a frame of reference for the work if you’re honest enough with yourself.”

Reiss built a reservoir of experience. At The Tonight Show, he wrote sixty jokes a day. He learned, “night after night, one out of every three jokes would bomb.” Reiss also learned to find secrets.

Both Peter Thiel and Ben Horowitz have addressed the value of secrets. On the a16z podcast, Horowitz told this story about Brian Chesky:

“He wondered why there were even hotels. He researched hotels and finds out that hotels have only been around a hundred years. Before hotels, there were inns and beds and breakfasts. You’d roll into town and there was some old lady who would rent you out a room.”

“The reason why that starts to lose out to Hyatt, Hilton and those guys was that you didn’t know what you were going to get at the inn.”

“So Brian said, with the internet, I could rate every room, every air mattress, and every house to a finer degree than the Hilton can. I can get the best of beds and breakfasts and hotels in one product.”

“That was the secret he learned along the way.”

Reiss’s learned secret was the punchline.

“I’m not a spiritual man. I don’t believe in ghosts or astrology or reincarnation. And if the Dalai Lama is so godlike, why does he need glasses?… I have only one supernatural belief: No matter what the setup, there’s always a perfect joke for it. It may not be a great joke, but it’s always the right joke for the moment: it’s there in the universe waiting to be discovered.”

With Reiss’s attitude and experience, The Simpsons succeed. They also had a good culture. Reiss reprimands the reader, “if you want dirt, dig a hole.” Except for a hire or two, the show had very few assholes. Even better, they had fewer executives.

The problem with television executives is that they step outside their circle of competency and violate a decentralized command structure. Reiss wrote:

“When Homeboys in Outer Space premiered, the Los Angeles Times called it ‘the best new comedy of the season.’ And then the executives got involved: they shot down every story pitched to them and assigned us a supervisor who told us, ‘I come from soap operas. I don’t get comedy.'”

“The true secret to The Simpsons’ success is the valuable input of network executives. We don’t have any.”

Beyond the stories in the book, Reiss repeatedly address the question Why/How did The Simpsons work? Reiss repeatedly gives the same answer; a variety of reasons. Their great writers. There were no actors (“Actors in live-action shows get bored doing the same role week after week.”). There was a meritocracy, (“The writers’ room is a democracy where you vote with laughter – like a kibbutz, only more Jewish.”)


Thanks for reading.


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