Episode 111: Wake Me Up When ‘The Simpsons’ Ends

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A lego recreation of Maggie Simpson shooting Mr. Burns
Trev Grant (CC BY 2.0)

Mike Reiss has spent over half of his life writing for “The Simpsons.” He shares the secrets behind Springfield. Plus, author Ottessa Moshfegh ponders what it would be like to unplug for a year in her novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” and io9 blogger Beth Elderkin talks about the history and the allure of the cliffhanger ending.

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  • Can Sleeping For A Year Help You Reboot Your Life?

    Ottessa Moshfegh is a rising star among young literary fiction writers. Her third novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” was released in July and has received rave reviews.

    One critic wrote it “may be the finest existential novel not written by a French author.”

    The novel is about a woman in her mid-20s living in Manhattan in 2000 and 2001 who is starting a project: sleeping for a year, Moshfegh told WPR’s “BETA.”

    “She has this idea that if she can sleep for long enough, her cells will have regenerated the number of times it would take for them to have forgotten whatever trauma or memory they had been storing in her body and mind,” Moshfegh said. “So she’s doing this year of hibernation in an attempt to start herself over.”

    Moshfegh said the idea of hibernation doesn’t come from personal experience.

    “I wish that it did more because then maybe I would sleep more. But I’m a little bit too high-wired to take on this kind of project. And people have been asking me, ‘Why did you write this book?’ And it’s kind of a fantasy, a project of a fantasy self that could sleep because I’ve always been kind of an insomniac and I’m always really, really tired.”

    The unnamed protagonist doesn’t leave her apartment frequently and occasionally sees friends during the year-long project.

    When the protagonist is not busy trying to rest and relax, she often finds herself watching and re-watching movies (especially ones starring her hero Whoopi Goldberg) and dealing with her friend, Reva, in what is a complicated and competitive friendship. And the protagonist occasionally leaves her Upper East Side Manhattan apartment for appointments with Dr. Tuttle, who is quite possibly the world’s worst psychiatrist.

    “She’s sort of an amalgamation and a satire of some psychiatrists that I’ve seen both in real life and in, like, let’s say, like in media,” Moshfegh said. “She is the comic relief in this book, although she is also in some ways the most terrifying character to me because she has so much power because she has this prescription pad and can dole out whatever toxic elements this protagonist might be requesting. But Dr. Tuttle appeared to me as a character in her totality. She was immediately funny, immediately absurd, and immediately someone that I just wanted to watch do stuff. Like I wanted to be in her space and her home office with all her weird stuff.”

    Moshfegh has created what could quite possibly be the most perfect name for a drug ever — “Infermiterol.” It’s a fictional drug that she considers to be “some kind of hypnotic barbiturate”

    “The names of the medicines are like almost words. They’re associative, right, they’re not literal. So I thought about what Infermiterol was going to do and then I was like, OK, ‘infirm’ is in the word – ‘infirm,’ like not having a strong mind or body. And then also ‘infer,’ which to me meant that much could be inferred when somebody takes this drug. And what I think is ‘inferred’ is that there’s an alternate self that is in control when someone is on Infermiterol. And through that alternate self, things from the subconscious are inferred.”

    Moshfegh selected an excerpt from the lyrics of Joni Mitchell’s “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey” (from her 1979 album, “Mingus”) as the epigraph for the book.

    “It occurred to me maybe three-quarters of the way through this book that what was really deep for me in the writing of this book was different levels of experience and how much we are not in control,” Moshfegh said.

    “And life in contemporary civilization would have us think that if we just make all the right decisions and impress the right people and get the right education and show up and do the right thing, everything will work out fine. Which is ridiculous and I think really dangerous. I was thinking about how much this character seems to be disconnected from herself in the most spiritual way, and I had some compassion for her in her quest to reconnect through sleep somehow, to find this deeper person within her. But inevitably, there are certain things that we can’t control, whether it’s karma or nature.”

  • Longtime Showrunner, Writer Goes Behind The Scenes Of 'The Simpsons'

    If you want to know what goes on behind the scenes at “The Simpsons,” Mike Reiss is the guy to ask. He has spent 30 years as a writer, producer and showrunner for the long-running animated program.

    Reiss now shares his secrets in a new book called “Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets, and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons.”

    Reiss told WPR’s “BETA” that the decision about which jokes go in and which jokes don’t is “a completely democratic process. I call it a ‘laughocracy.’”

    He explained that when the team is rewriting the script for an episode, there are six to eight writers sitting around and everyone starts pitching jokes. If a joke makes more than half of the writers laugh, it goes into the script. And then, they have a tape reading in which the cast reads the script out loud. Again, a line has to get a laugh. Two months later, there’s a screening of the show in rough, animated form. There are about 40 people watching and — you guessed it — the line has to get a laugh. (Are you noticing a pattern here?)

    Regrets? Yeah, Reiss said he has a few.

    “My biggest regrets over the years are jokes I almost killed because I thought, ‘This is not funny.’ And then we put it in the script and it got a huge laugh. Or somebody will even say, ‘That’s my favorite joke.’ And I feel terrible about that,” he said.

    How about an example?

    “Any ‘Simpsons’ junkie will know the joke where Homer is about to lose his dental plan,” Reiss said. “And he finds out Lisa needs braces. And so, Jay Kogen and Wally Wolodarsky wrote this script where for three pages, the script is just, ‘We need a dental plan,’ ‘Lisa needs braces,’ ‘We need a dental plan,’ ‘Lisa needs braces,’ over and over. And I didn’t think it was funny and my partner Al Jean didn’t think it was funny. And we’re about to cut it and Jay and Wally, the writers, said, ‘You gotta give this a shot, we think this is really going to work.’ And we read it out loud with the cast and oh my God! It not only killed then but it’s one of the favorite jokes in ‘Simpsons’ history. And we couldn’t see it, Al and I did not see it on the page.”

    Reiss said that one of the four seminal episodes of “The Simpsons” is “Moaning Lisa,” the sixth episode of the first season. Reiss co-wrote this episode with Jean. The show’s executive producer pitched them the idea in three words — “Lisa is sad.”

    “It didn’t seem like a great use of the animation medium,” Reiss said.

    “Marge has this epiphany that she’s being a not-great mother by trying to cheer Lisa up and tells her if you want to be sad, you can be sad,” he said.

    “So we did this episode. Even when it was done, I think nobody had much faith in it. And we put it on the air and the public went nuts. And editorials were written about it. And everybody realized, ‘Oh, ‘The Simpsons’ is not just this slapstick show.’ ‘Oh, it’s not just this naughty show for boys.’ It’s got genuine heart, it can tackle complex emotional issues, it can look into the emotional lives of small children,” he said.

    When asked, Reiss wasted no time in identifying who was his favorite character to write for.

    “Oh, that’s really easy. It’s Homer because Homer’s just a comedy writer’s dream. He has everything wrong with him, every comedy trope. He’s fat and bald and stupid and lazy and angry and an alcoholic. I’m pretty sure he embodies all seven deadly sins,” he said.

    Are there any tricks to writing for Homer?

    “John Swartzwelder, who’s written 60 episodes of ‘The Simpsons,’ said ‘I write for Homer as if he’s a big dog.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, he really locked into something.’ Homer is just pure emotion, no long-term memory, everything is instant gratification. And, you know, has good dog qualities, too. I think, loyalty, friendliness, and just kind of continuous optimism,” he said.

    While the show has become a beloved cultural touchstone for decades, “The Simpsons” has become a point of controversy in recent months.

    Comedian Hari Kondabolu made a documentary last year called “The Problem with Apu,” in which he criticized a ‘Simpsons’ mainstay, the Kwik-E-Mart proprietor Apu, as a poor representation of South Asians and a character that was voiced by a white actor, Hank Azaria. Reiss said he agrees with the points that Kondabolu and others have made about the character.

    “We not only agree with all his points. But everything he said in the documentary, we said three years ago,” he said. “We became aware of this as a problem. It was Hank Azaria, (who) was sort of at the forefront, hearing from Indians they didn’t like the character. So, we did an episode, again two years before Hari’s documentary, where Apu’s nephew came to work at the Kwik-E Mart. The nephew was played by an Indian-American actor. And he said, ‘You are an offensive stereotype. You sound like a white guy doing an Indian accent.’ We did a complete mea culpa. And then, what nobody seems to have noticed, including Hari Kondabolu, is we retired Apu. You haven’t seen him on the show in three years.”

  • From Dickens To 'Dallas': The Cliffhanger Ending Holds On

    Since orators began telling stories and pausing for dramatic effect to keep their audience riveted, the use of the cliffhanger has worked as an effective tool in storytelling.

    Beth Elderkin is a staff writer for the Gizmodo science fiction and fantasy blog, i09. She has written about the history and allure of the cliffhanger ending and she told WPR’s “BETA” that a cliffhanger in its simplest sense is “anytime a story ends without its conclusion, without a resolution.”

    “So it ends on a mystery, something that needs to be resolved or solved by the next episode or installment,” she added

    It turns out that audiences might be a little hard-wired to pay more attention to detail and to stick around if they don’t know the conclusion. Elderkin cites the Zegmarik effect as a possible explanation why.

    In the 1920s, Soviet psychologist Bluma Zegmarik conducted a study where she asked participants to put together a puzzle and then she asked them questions about how they had done it. For some of the subjects, she interrupted their task. Those who were interrupted seemingly had better recall or focus of the task at hand.

    There is an imperative; there is a psychological desire to finish what we started,” Elderkin said.

    Elderkin said the “first concrete example” of a cliffhanger is the Persian tale “One Thousand and One Nights.” The protagonist, Scheherazade, fends off her execution from the king, Shahryar, by enticing him with an unfinished story to be completed the next day and where she then begins a new one further delaying her sentence.

    The popularity of the cliffhanger took off during the Industrial Revolution. Graced with some extra time, workers began consuming media differently. Books were released in installments and the chapters would sometimes end inconclusively.

    “People started creating these magazines, pamphlets,” Elderkin said. “The Pickwick Papers from (Charles) Dickens arose from this time.”

    Dickens would surface as a master of serialized storytelling and a pioneer of the form. Elderkin quips this was likely due to financial reasons in part as Dickens was paid by the word and would have incentive to keep the stories going. He popularized the genre so much that he inspired numerous copycats and actually incited small riots.

    “It got to a point where he would get fan mail with people begging to keep his characters alive or people would start fights because they wanted to be the first one to read the story,” Elderkin said.

    This would come to a head during the release of the final installment of Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop.”

    “People were trying to find out if this character named ‘Nell’ survived and this was a big cliffhanger. So they waited on the shore for the barge to come in with the latest edition. And then, to be the first one to read it, they started a physical encounter so they could find out if she survived.”

    As storytelling avenues grew, the cliffhanger remained an important device. Comic books often used them to keep fans involved, but television shows — in an attempt to make their programs as syndication-friendly as possible — mainly eschewed them. That is, until a pivotal moment in television history.

    Who Shot J.R.?

    In 1980, the hit show, “Dallas” aired its season three finale, “A House Divided.” The episode ended with the main character of J.R. being shot in his office. Fans were forced to spend the summer guessing at both his fate and the identity of the shooter.

    “It was a big risk for both the show and the network and it was a risk that paid off because the nation became obsessed,” Elderkin said. “It was a nationwide phenomenon.”

    Today, most television shows employ cliffhangers almost as a necessity.

    “So much of television hinges on cliffhangers nowadays,” Elderkin said. “Cliffhangers are not only an accepted form of storytelling, they’re almost required now.”

    Shows like “Game Of Thrones,” “Westworld,” “Stranger Things” and “Handmaid’s Tale” all rely on the cliffhanger to a certain extent. Some with more success than others, Elderkin said.

    “It comes with its own risks because sometimes the setup doesn’t work with the payoff,” she said. “At what point does a cliffhanger cease being for the sake of the narrative and for either survival or just to garner interest?”

    Stay tuned to “BETA” to find out.


    Beth’s all-time favorite cliffhanger ending is from Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” book series, “The Subtle Knife.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Beth Elderkin Guest

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