Al Jean and Mike Reiss (Seasons 3-4)
You may also remember them from: The Critic, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, Queer Duck, Teen Angel
The Simpsons itself has joked about the number of Harvard alums in its writers’ room, but when Al Jean and Mike Reiss took over as showrunners in Season 3, it was the ascendance of two men who met there as freshman. Both wrote for The Harvard Lampoon, the school’s humor magazine, which would also provide a springboard for fellow Simpsons writers like Conan O’Brien, Jeff Martin, and Jon Vitti and offered a space for the two men to hone their comedic voices before they hit it big.
Their efforts as college students quickly led to jobs in television, writing for shows as diverse as Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, ALF, and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. That got the attention of Sam Simon, who brought the pair on as the very first staff writers hired for the nascent series. With the benefit of writing for the show from the very beginning, Jean and Reiss truly understood these characters and their offbeat ecosystem, which allowed the pair to take the show in familiar but novel directions when they became showrunners.
It was a daunting task. Jean in particular remarked on how much pressure they felt not to “screw up this thing everyone loves.” But that anxiety led to repeated, devoted script rewrites and some of the series’ very best episodes. Jean and Reiss presided over the era of the show where The Simpsons became The Simpsons, offering the defining take on Springfield and almost everyone who called it home.
Homer fully and finally became the well-meaning dope who could save the nuclear power plant with a game of “eeny meeny miny moe” and spend 10 minutes daydreaming about The Land of Chocolate. The family dynamic solidified with Bart softening a bit from his hell-raiser roots, Lisa doubling down on her plight as the nerdiest Simpson, and Marge seeking occasional escapes from her put upon domestic existence. It’s the era that cemented what The Simpsons was and is in the popular consciousness.
In short, this is the period of the show that Family Guy’s Peter Griffin was referring to when he drunkenly confessed, “We act like we didn’t take a lot from The Simpsons, but we took a lot from The Simpsons.” This is where the show’s penchant for classic movie parodies and cultural references of all stripes took hold. It’s the point where loonier gags and more absurd humor began to seep into the series’s DNA. It’s where guest stars started to become a more consistent presence, whether they were musicians like Michael Jackson, Tom Jones, and Sting; legends like Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, and Johnny Carson; or a collection of MLB all-stars.
It’s also the incredible stretch of the show that gave us the Flaming Moe, Colonel Homer, Unkie Herb, Kamp Krusty, Mr. Plow, the Monorail, and “I Choo Choo Choose You.” In this era, the series found the creative voice that all future installments of the show would be measured against. As much as Groening, Simon, and Brooks set the stage for the show, it’s Jean and Reiss who took that stellar early work and carried it forward into one of the strongest, most-defining periods of the superlative series.