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Kiss and Tell

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Kiss and Tell
Al Jean and Mike Reiss remember development hell.
Written by Richard Stayton (From the Summer 2004 issue of “Written By”)

This document is done.

For more than 20 years they were partners in so many ways: roommates at Harvard, sharing bylines at the Harvard Lampoon, editors at the National Lampoon magazine, a writing team for the HBO series Not Necessarily the News and then The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, staff writers on the first season of a new series called The Simpsons, co-creators of the animated The Critic. The luck of Al Jean & Mike Reiss abruptly ran out when the writing team accepted a lucrative television development deal. For three years the pair labored over unproduced pilots. Teleplay after original teleplay, meeting after meeting, pitch upon pitch, mountains of notes. Once freed from development hell, the team dissolved. Al Jean returned to The Simpsons, where he’s now executive producer; Mike Reiss took a hiatus from television, became a best-selling children’s book author and screenwriter–but always on spec.

Today, Reiss again works with his fellow Harvard alum, this time as a consultant on The Simpsons. In Jean’s Fox lot office, the two friends recently discussed Shut Up and Kiss Me, one of the pilots they wrote during development hell and which Written By selected for this unproduced teleplays issue. [You can read the complete script of Shut Up and Kiss Me at click on “publications” in the left-hand sidebar, then on “Written By”, then at the bottom on “Selections from previous issues”, then scroll down to “Summer 2004/Unproduced Scripts/Must-read TV”, then click on “Shut Up And Kiss Me”. BTW, there’s also a great Charlie Kaufman script right underneath it!]

Richard Stayton: Did you always pitch together as a team?
Al Jean: Yes, until Mike in ’98 didn’t want to do as much full-time.
Why did you decide to stop writing teleplays?
Mike Reiss: In our career together over 16 years, we might have had three months of downtime. We were always working, always managed to go from job to job. But I hadn’t been through [development] before, and I realized nothing good can come through this process.
Al Jean: I’ve had a lot of success in TV, and the last thing people want to read is a writer whining. But what’s not good for anybody involved is that you write these things, and then they get shot down. It’s a waste to everybody involved, to the people who spent money on it, the people who write them. Maybe they should try to give [a script] a shot the way it is, rather than monkeying with it too much. If you liked it originally, there must be something there that you’re responding to.

Mike, you’re now a consultant?
Mike Reiss: Yes. Al was my partner. Now he’s my boss, and it’s working out. The show is written collectively. Al has to oversee everything, but it’s written by 10 people sitting around a table, or actually two groups of 10 [around two tables]. Then I come in on Tuesdays, and I’m just one of those 10. I’m not any better. I’m just a little older.
What’s the key to The Simpsons success?
Al Jean: People always ask what’s the secret and how do you stay great year after year. There are many reasons for a show to succeed, but a big one here is there are no executives involved. We don’t answer to the studio. We don’t answer to the network. We don’t have executives coming to our readings and telling us how to change our scripts and what we can do and can’t do. We just never had them, and the show seems to be doing okay.
What led you to that development deal?
Al Jean: We were hired by Sam Simon to be the first staffers on The Simpsons. He and Matt Groening and Jim [Brooks] were turning Matt’s shorts into a series. And because we had more experience than the other writers who came in after us, we were running the show. Sam turned it over to us in seasons three and four. So at that time, if you had a credit like that, you would get a lot of development offers, and we went to Disney for three years.
Mike Reiss: A lot of people almost wisely get a development deal and use it as a long vacation. And every three months you pull yourself together and set up a meeting where you’ll pitch a bunch of different ideas. But Al and I have a very good work ethic. We were relentless.
Al Jean: When we were at Disney, our first project was a thing we sold to NBC. Then Disney bought ABC, and this project we had got tied up in a sort of battle between Disney and NBC over what would happen to a show that Disney owned. If NBC aired a couple of years and then didn’t want it, could [Disney] then take it back? It’s all very complicated and boring, but after one year of development, we said, “Let’s just write as many pilots as we can because there are so many fluky ways that they fall through that you want to have as many horses in the race as possible.”
What are some of the fluky ways that pilots fall through cracks?
Al Jean: The biggest one is casting. You’ll write something and you’ll go, “This is a starring vehicle for a Ray Romano type.” But there’s only one Ray Romano type, and he’s got a show. And the [actors] who are good are so in demand that it’s very hard to find a cast where you have three terrific leads.

Mike Reiss: It’s always been the very stupid part of the pilot process. Even though TV kind of comes on year-round now, they shoot all the pilots at once. You’re all fighting for the same talent. It’s really dumb. There’ll be an actor who’s in hot demand. Six pilots want him. He’ll make one that doesn’t get on the air, and suddenly he’s out of work for a solid year.
Al Jean: That’s why I think Fox is smart to do this [current] year-round development because then maybe you’ll have fewer pilots competing for the same people, and maybe you’ll actually have staggered shooting and they’ll have more chances to get your show on. Another way that pilots can fall through is turf battles between the studio and the network. What happened to us at Disney was really bizarre. Disney would give us one set of notes, and ABC would give us another. I heard many people at Disney go, “Oh yeah, Disney says don’t do what ABC says.” It’s the same company! Why do they have two sets of people giving completely different notes? It’s probably been streamlined since we left because we were there right when they first merged. But when we were there it was kind of chaotic.
So as a result you decided to write numerous pilots.
Mike Reiss: We just kept going back to our bosses: “Here’s six more ideas for a series,” and all [the ideas were] fleshed out. And we would come up with ideas for talent they had under contract.

Al Jean: The second [development] year, I remember there were four [specs] we wrote. But for whatever reason they didn’t get picked up. We wrote this [Shut Up and Kiss Me] on spec, and we wrote one called Teen Angel that Disney did shoot and did get on ABC for one year. It was Mike’s idea originally, and the two of us wrote the pilot.
Mike Reiss: Well, I don’t need credit on Teen Angel.
Al Jean: It got on the air because that was when Disney had TGIF and all their shows went to CBS that year for some reason. So ABC suddenly had this huge hole in their Friday lineup, and they had a big hit with Sabrina, so we said, “Well, why don’t we do a male version of Sabrina, more or less?” And it was a case of something where they needed shows for that night. We found some really excellent kids to put in our cast. That’s how you get on the air. You don’t go to the network that’s got a bunch of hits and doesn’t have room for you. You go to the place that has some holes where you can maybe find a spot. Then they’ll give you a chance.
What are some other reasons that good scripts fall through the cracks?
Al Jean: That year to me was a blur because we really were trying to do four of them at once. And the strategy was correct because if we just had the three but not Teen Angel, we wouldn’t have gotten one on. Once that got on, I thought, Well, we have a development deal. At least we got a show out of it. We tried our best. Of course, that experience was mixed too. I really enjoyed working with the cast and the directors. But we would get notes from 12 different people–literally, 12 different people. There was one executive I liked, and she gave me some notes, and I could tell her heart wasn’t in them. I said, “I guarantee in a week you’re going to tell me to do the opposite.” And she said, “I know. But my boss said…” A week later she said, “Well, here’s that call and you’re right.”
Why all the notes? What is that about?
Mike Reiss: I’ll be candid because I keep trying to burn all my bridges in Hollywood, and they keep building new bridges and tunnels and stuff. But TV executives are the ruination of TV. We’ve seen not only their numbers but their sphere of influence grow and grow in the 20 years we’ve been doing it. And executives are why TV is bad. I can’t say everything would be a masterpiece if there were fewer executives, but I always think everything would be a letter grade better. And that’s just because they meddle and interfere too much.
Al Jean: Individually, you’ll deal with people and you’re like, Oh, they’re smart and their ideas seem good. Then the collective mentality comes in. I remember somebody told me they were shooting a pilot. And I think they said–and they weren’t exaggerating–that 30 people were congregating to give notes on this pilot. Thirty people from different production companies and networks. That makes no sense. Let’s say that when Jim Brooks, my boss, was doing Mary Tyler Moore he had to answer to Grant Tinker and then maybe one guy at CBS and that was it. One reason these reality shows may be popular is they’re back to the single creator. I don’t think they have 100 people deciding how Survivor’s going to work.
Do you hate focus groups?
Al Jean: It’s funny because I actually am less of a critic of testing.
Mike Reiss: I’m for testing too. I would have no problem if we did everything by testing. I’d rather have a focus group of 15 people they found at the mall than 15 people who have MBAs and live in Brentwood and work at the studio.
Al Jean: What it comes down to is that these corporations spend a lot of money trying to create shows and make them successes, but they could do it more efficiently. The reason people think sitcoms are failing now may be that there’s too much micromanagement and too little of an ability to just say, “Well, we like Ray Romano and Phil Rosenthal. Let’s just trust them to do a show.” When that happens, it works.
Mike Reiss: When it was such a huge hit, a lot of the networks tried to do their version of Seinfeld. One thing people loved about it were those four plotlines that would interweave so beautifully. But when you [must] pitch those intricate plotlines to the network before they get on the air, their interest wanes. They can’t follow everything. They’ll say it’s too complicated. That key element that was so great to Seinfeld, you never saw it anywhere else. And after Friends they just kept saying everybody’s got to be this adorable 20- to 30-year-old romantically. I remember during our development time an executive saying, “People don’t want to see ugly people on television.” This is at the time when Roseanne was the number-one show on television, about a whale married to a hippopotamus.

How did Shut Up and Kiss Me emerge out of this development deal?
Mike Reiss: Disney was saying, “Among everybody’s duties in development, try writing pilots just on spec.”
Al Jean: Larry Levin wrote a show called If Not for You on spec, and CBS bought it. So Disney said, “Oh this is a good way to sell. Rather than try to pitch an idea, write the whole script out because it doesn’t take that long, maybe a month. Then you can maybe even have a couple networks competing to pick up your show and give you more of a leverage when you’re trying to get the best deal.” My recollection is Mike said, “Oh, we should do sort of a behind-the-scenes at a McLaughlin Group style show,” which was before Hardball.
Mike Reiss: It wasn’t even that inspired because it was a time in television where every show on TV was about people with their own TV show, like Murphy Brown and Home Improvement. Everyone had a TV show. At the time we liked The McLaughlin Group, and it had been parodied to death. It just seemed like a good vehicle and a way to sort of do the kind of contemporary writing Al and I do.
Al Jean: I like doing satirical shows like The Critic. We like doing TV parodies, but also you want to have characters people like. So the idea might have seemed more novel at that time. It was a little bit also based on the real life Mary Matalin and James Carville. Also David Brinkley had been doing election coverage on Clinton, and he just started talking about what a bore Clinton was: “I can’t listen to him anymore. He’s just boring.” We thought that’d be a funny character, this guy who’s been on the air so long he doesn’t really hear what he says anymore.
Mike Reiss: The premise, of course, is a romantic comedy between the conservative woman and the liberal guy on the panel. But for the emcee of the group, we wrote it for Jon Lovitz. Whether it would have been him or not, we wanted just a really big, pompous, funny, arrogant lead. And that’s Lovitz.
Al Jean: Also, the liberal journalist is a little bit based on a guy we knew in college, Laurence O’Donnell, who’s now a commentator on several shows. He guest hosts Hardball sometimes, and he’s a writer too. He wrote for The West Wing. An articulate guy who says it like it is.
Mike Reiss: It’s one reason we submitted this [teleplay to Written By]. I was always very, very proud of this script where I just thought it gave us a chance to be writing for smart, articulate characters. We could write smart. And they’re witty people. Real-life, bigger-than-life characters. We had good models for who these people would be and how they’d interact. We had a vision that chunks of the show would be written very close to airtime so we could actually comment on what was in the news, and it could be very timely and pointed.
Al Jean: Like we do on The Simpsons. We don’t do Jay Leno–style jokes because we’re not current enough for that. But we’ll do jokes about trends, like the Patriot Act or prescription drug prices. Things you could do on the show that you knew would still be topics that people would be interested in a couple of months after you filmed it.
So what killed Shut Up and Kiss Me?
Mike Reiss: It was never shot at all.

Al Jean: Disney had the script. And when you have a script that nobody’s seen, you try to create a lot of interest and send it out and sell it. Get five people to read it, and if they all like it, you could have some sort of bidding war. Maybe one [network] would offer you six episodes guaranteed or something. So they sent it out. At the same time under contract they had Courtney Thorne-Smith, and they were looking for a show for her. And we thought, Oh she would be good to play the woman in the show. We met with her, and she was really funny. So we said that [she liked the script], and [Disney] pulled the script back from the people they had sent it to because they wanted to see if they could patch her to it. We were told that by pulling it back, everyone thought there was something wrong with it. It was just one of these things where perception is so different from reality that we never got any bids on it after that. And subsequently Al Franken had a show in the same area.
Mike Reiss: Right, and it was the great Catch-22 of TV. They said Al Franken’s got a similar show in development, and if that’s a hit, then this will be too close. And if that’s a failure well, we don’t want to make another.
Al Jean: When Teen Angel got shot, they said, “Okay just put all your time into that.” Development’s a great thing to get, but on the other hand it’s a process that can be very infuriating for everybody involved. This is an example of why.
Mike Reiss: Al had one of the great Hollywood definitions. He said the development field is where a studio pays you a lot of money for the privilege of ruining your career.
Al Jean: I said that after [Shut Up and Kiss Me]. But I think I was saying it like every other week for a while. The other that was aggravating was the one that got caught in the gears between Disney and NBC. There was a script that people really liked called Little Monsters. Actually, that one Disney did invest some money in. We even, at one point, took it to CBS, but it was very late. The two experiences put together just made me decide that it’s such a crazy process, and I really wanted to come back to The Simpsons, which I did in ’98. I just thought that here you were producing material. Working for Jim Brooks, you really feel like there’s creative control over the material. You get to do what you like, and people really like it, and you get to keep shooting it. You don’t have all these monkey wrenches that people keep throwing in the works. I did say at Disney every other week, “Boy, I wish I was back on The Simpsons. Just everything was just so much easier to do there.”
Mike Reiss: The entire Disney experience just so embittered me against TV and gave me such a bad feeling about television. I just left. I saved my money, and the Disney development deal had given me both the means and the motivation to leave television altogether. So I quit the business about six years ago, and then little fun jobs keep driving me in bit by bit, including consulting on The Simpsons.

Al Jean: He’s being modest.
Mike Reiss: I remember one story I thought illustrated everything. We were doing Teen Angel, and we’d already been cancelled but were still making episodes just to serve out the order. I’d done this second cut of editing on an episode of Teen Angel that would probably never air. Having done the second cut, I had to send it to the network, send it to the studio for their notes on that path. And I get a call, and the network says, “There’s one scene that’s a quarter-second too long.” And the studio said, “There’s one scene that’s a quarter-second too short.” It was the same scene. A quarter-second, a few frames. And it was completely contradictory notes. So I did everybody else’s notes all the way through, and I just left that scene the same. I sent out the third cut of editing to everybody, and both people called me the next day: “You didn’t do my edit on that one scene!” How can anything get done, fighting over a quarter-second on a cancelled show?
Al Jean: The saddest thing is there was one executive, right toward the end, where we’d done 17 episodes and they’d shown them all, and he was saying, “You know, if you weren’t a Disney show, ABC would probably pick you up. But there’s so much bad blood.” I go, “Wait, if I wasn’t owned by the same company that owns the network, I would get picked up?” What are you supposed to do? It doesn’t make any sense. When the monopoly isn’t working in your favor, then what are you doing?

Mike Reiss: Again, it sounds bad because I guess I thought of the idea. But I just thought Shut Up and Kiss Me was our big, smart idea where we would have had a sitcom on the air that came right from our hearts, and we could write to our strengths on it. Reading it eight years later, I thought there might be three lines that had to be adjusted. If anything, it seems like it’s more in tune with the times now than it was then. TV news has become sort of a sitcom.