Bristol native and his wife Denise vacation to fun places like North Korea, Libya, Iran—and Broadway
When Mike Reiss takes a vacation, he often skips over the tried and true and heads for global hotspots like Iraq, Libya and North Korea. And cold-spots, too, like the Antarctica, Lizzie Borden’s home in Fall River and a mini-sub cruise a couple of miles beneath the North Atlantic to see the sunken Titanic.
With his wife Denise, the intrepid explorer of the two, they also hit the more-traveled destinations as well. Through it all, they joke about awful hotels, hideous tour guides and less-than-wondrous dining experiences in their popular “What Am I Doing Here?” podcast. If the humor and surreal sensibility of the podcasts remind you of a wildly popular TV series, it’s no wonder.
Mike Reiss at various times has been a writer, producer and showrunner of the Emmy Award- and Peabody Award-winning animated series “The Simpsons” from the day it began nearly 30 years ago to the present.
But that’s just one of many roles for Mike Reiss, who was born and raised in Bristol, Conn. He is also an author, screenwriter and playwright. He has now parlayed the couple’s unusual global jaunts over the decades into one of the most wickedly funny podcasts around.
So far, they’ve created more than 40 15-minute-or-so podcasts packed with tell-it-like-it-is travel info from “hotspots and hell holes” with gags galore mixed in—certainly more than Radio Lab. And the laughs can even come from unexpected places.
“The hardest part of this recent trip was getting out of Canada,” said Mike Reiss, who had just returned from his latest trip to visit the submerged Titanic. “The airport was like the fall of Saigon and that’s when you discover that Canadians aren’t nice all the time.”
Mike Reiss, 62, is a bit of an animated character himself with a wide-eyed face that teeters from LOL to WTF. Denise adds her own wry commentary to her husband’s global kvetch-a-thon.
The podcasts started when a friend, knowing of the Reiss’ years of unusual travel itineraries and subsequent wild anecdotes, urged Mike Reiss to try his hand at the downloadable entertainment format. He invested in tech equipment, hired a producer and recorded a handful of test shows.
“It was a nice pandemic project since we weren’t traveling,” he said.
Bleav, the company that has several hundred podcasts in its roster, liked what the couple had done and suddenly “What Am I Doing Here?” was available to a wide audience of “Simpsons” fans and those armchair tourists who wanted something more unchartered—and with a touch of Homer and Marge.
Mike Reiss pointed out that his podcasts are substantial. “It’s not like others. I found that about 95 percent of other podcasts are people interviewing a friend—and because I’m a great go-to guest, that friend is often me. But this one is fully produced, like a radio show.”
The podcasts feature sound effects, a theme song and guest voices, like Trevor Morris, who also happens to be the doorman of the couple’s midtown Manhattan high rise.
On Poop, North Korea and Broadway
Among his most popular podcasts is the one on toilets around the world.
“In Cuba, every toilet is broken. Every single one. The Cuban flag should have a broken toilet on it…In Europe, you’ll encounter a different obstacle: the bathroom attendant. This is a woman, it’s always a woman, generally old and bitter at the hand life has dealt her. She guards the entrance to the public bathroom like a troll in a fairy tale. To get in, you have to give her a small local coin. If you don’t have one, you must give her a large local coin…For an additional fee, you can also purchase toilet paper. The bathroom attendant will dole that out in meager squares as if she were dispensing original Lincoln letters.”
Another podcast centers on his own neighborhood: Broadway.
“Mind you, I don’t hate all Broadway shows. Just a very small vast majority of them…Only one comedy in recent memory has won the Tony for best play. It’s by Christopher Durang, who may be the funniest person to come out of Yale since Dick Cheney…”
One hilarious podcast focuses on his trip to North Korea.
“[North Korea] is the second most surprising place I’ve been to after Harvard. In fact, Harvard and North Korea are pretty similar institutions: scary places run by evil men completely cut off from the real world. There are only two things I took away from Harvard that I treasure to this day: my wife and a pile of library books—and they’re both stacked in the bedroom…A few weeks later, we got a call from the North Korean embassy. They examined my credits and determined I was no threat to their government. Anyone who works for Fox as long as I have knows how to respect an evil empire.”
Skip the Lights
Mike Reiss said travelers should listen to his podcasts, “because I’m the only one telling the truth. I’ve told people the Northern Lights aren’t worth the trip. We gave it two shots. We went to Iceland and then Alaska in the wintertime. They’re just not that great and no one will ever tell you that.”
He stated that, so far, he’s never received any complaints from any hotels, regimes or Broadway producers.
“If something is truly outrageous, I change names—though people can usually figure it out who or what it is—except for that one hotel in Peru which I said was the worst hotel in South America and I used the real name and I stand by it.”
Up to now, they’ve visited 137 countries, 36 countries twice and 11 countries multiple times.
“People think we’re trying to see every country on earth and it’s not like that,” commented Denise Reiss, who added that their upcoming trips include Sicily, Malta and a walking tour of Japan. “There are a few places we’re still eager to go: Madagascar, Botswana, Namibia. There’s no grand scheme. Things come by happenstance. We’ll read an article and say, ‘Let’s go there’.”
“We visited Iran and really loved it,” Mike Reiss said about sometimes finding beauty in unexpected places. “I was telling a local at the airport how much I loved their country and he said, ‘If you liked Iran, you gotta go to Syria because it’s so lovely.’ I just feel terrible about what’s become of that place. Ukraine, too. Denise doesn’t put me in danger but let’s just say she gets us out of those places right before all hell breaks loose. On our honeymoon, she wanted to go to Yemen. I told her, ‘I haven’t been to Paris yet—so we didn’t go to Yemen—and now you can’t go—it’s supposed to be the worst place on earth right now—and she’s so mad that we didn’t get the honeymoon in Yemen.”
With around 40 podcasts under his belt, Mike Reiss isn’t sure how many more he wants to do but suspects that they’ll now appear sporadically as time, travel and comedy inspiration allows.
And Bristol, Too
“That’s a great idea,” said Mike Reiss with a glint in his eye upon hearing the suggestion of visiting his hometown of Bristol, Conn. “It would be a sort of homecoming.”
It was quite a wild journey of his own after he left town the first time. After growing up in Bristol, the middle child of five kids, Mike Reiss went to Harvard where he joined the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine—and subsequently to the New York-based National Lampoon after graduation. Then, in the early ‘80s, came gigs-for-gags as a comedy writer for Johnny Carson, Garry Shandling and the “Alf” TV series.
Mike Reiss’ early TV credits also include being the creator of the cult animated series “The Critic” (voiced by Jon Lovitz) and the boundary-breaking “Queer Duck.” He’s also the screenwriter for such films as “Ice Age,” “Love Among the Ruins” and “The Simpsons Movie.”
As someone with a kid’s predilection for appropriate behavior, he is also the author of a series of children’s books, including “Late for School,” “The Boy Who Looked Like Lincoln” and “King Snozzle of Snozz.”
Mike Reiss chronicles the longest-running series in TV history and his role in it with “Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets and Outright Lies from a Lifetime of Writing for ‘The Simpsons’,” co-authored with Mathew Klinkstein.
His stage work includes writing the comedy “I’m Connecticut,” which earned him a special award from the Connecticut Critics Circle when it premiered at UConn’s Connecticut Repertory Theatre in 2011. Others include “Comedy Is Hard” in 2014 and “I Hate Musicals: The Musical” in 2017; both played at the Ivoryton Playhouse.
The podcast is just one of many of Mike Reiss’ most recent side projects. He is developing a stage musical originally planned for Charring Cross Theater in London, based on his children’s book and subsequent perennial holiday TV special, “How Murray Saved Christmas.” But rights issues with Universal, which produced the animated TV show, may scuttle that project. It’s heartbreaking, Mike Reiss reflected.
Also on the horizon is a regional theatre production of “Shakespeare’s Worst,” which played Bristol Shakespeare Festival in Bristol, England in 2017, in which a very minor character on a less-than-stellar work by the Bard has a running commentary of the flop that he’s in—think “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Cranky.”
Also coming up is a Mike Reiss-like take on a classic farce, still in development. He is one of a handful of people still working on the show who have been with the series since the beginning—including creator Matt Groening; producer James L. Brooks; Al Jean, a showrunner and longtime writing partner with Mike Reiss; and David Silverman, a producer-director-animation supervisor. Jean now runs the show with Matt Sellman.
“This is the best season we’ve had in years,” mentioned Mike Reiss since the show began in 1989.
For many years, Mike Reiss used to fly regularly from New York to Los Angeles to participate each Wednesday in the writers’ room going over scripts and shows.
“One day a week is all I’m good for,” said the four-time Emmy winner. “I’ve become a punchline!” The one-day work arrangement resulted in an insider joke about him in a second season episode of HBO’s “Hacks.” Since the pandemic, Mike Reiss now Zooms instead of jets to L.A., giving him more opportunities for him to travel with Denise and still keep his job.
“I was hoping to Zoom from the ship over the Titanic but at the time of the meeting I was two miles deep in a mini sub. No Wi-Fi.”
Frank Rizzo is a freelance journalist who writes for Variety, The New York Times, American Theatre, Connecticut Magazine, and other periodicals and outlets, including ShowRiz.com. He lives in New Haven and New York City. Follow Frank at ShowRiz@Twitter.