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When Mike Reiss was giving a speech about children's books at the University of Connecticut a while ago, a passing comment got him thinking about writing a play about Connecticut.
He did, after all, grow up in Bristol, and he isn't just a writer of 18 children's books. He's also been a writer, producer and show-runner for "The Simpsons"; the co-creator of the animated TV show "The Critic"; and a screenwriter for "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," "Horton Hears a Who!" and "The Simpsons Movie."
When Connecticut Repertory Theatre Managing Director Frank Mack broached the idea to Reiss of writing a play about Connecticut - something, Mack told him, that had never been done - Reiss was intrigued.
And he got to work. The result: "I'm Connecticut," a romantic comedy that opened at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre in 2011. It became the venue's most best-selling non-musical in its Main Stage Series. Broadway World Connecticut chose it as the best play of the year.
Now, a new production of "I'm Connecticut" opens Wednesday at the Ivoryton Playhouse. Reiss will be there on June 6, 7 and 8 to participate in talk-backs with the audience.
Reiss is living in New York City now, after spending 26 years in Los Angeles, a city that, he says, "has all the character and charm of a Holiday Inn."
His latest projects include the children's book "Tales of Moronica" - available, he notes, as a 99-cent download on a Kindle - and the play "Rubble," which he's raising money for it via the Fractured Atlas website.
Reiss talked about all things comic during a recent phone call:
"I'm Connecticut" is a romantic comedy, yes, but it has an extra element, too:
"There's so much Connecticut color in there, so much trivia about the state, legends and lore. There's a joke about Windsor Locks in there. You know, David Mamet is never going to write a joke about Windsor Locks, no matter how long he lives."
Reiss sees Connecticut as a metaphor for, well, himself:
"I think the play is very much a manifestation of what I went through when I was 22, 25, when I was out there dating, which is when I realized I'm just like Connecticut. Connecticut is a very, very nice and wonderful place, with nothing interesting about it whatsoever. ... There's no regional accent or special jargon, like New York. There are not a lot of teams you can root for. No noticeable landmark comes to mind. ...
"When I was out dating, I'd go, 'Gee, I'm a really nice man. I have a lot of really good qualities. But there is nothing interesting about me. The girl I'm with would rather be with that loudmouthed New Yorker or that brash Boston guy - he's going to walk home with the girl.'"
On his young years in Bristol:
"I was very happy growing up in Connecticut. I loved Bristol. They were just the most wonderful people. But Bristol is nobody's ideal. Later, as I grew up, I heard so many people hit the same metaphor: they said Bristol is like the town in 'The Deer Hunter.' I don't think they mean Saigon. I think they mean Allentown, Pennsylvania. It's a very green factory town, it's got a lot of woods, and it's got a lot of factories, many of which are not open anymore."
Reiss still works on "The Simpsons," but now it's as a consultant. He flies out from New York City every Tuesday night, works on the show Wednesday and flies back that night:
"Wednesday is just like any other day at the show. It is a nonstop assembly line, and on Wednesday, I step in, and some other tired old guy steps out for the day."
Describing "The Simpsons" writing process:
"This is how we work, and this is how most sitcoms work. Someone will have an idea for an episode, then a small group of people - three or four top producers - will work out a story with him, and he goes off and writes the script. Then the script comes back, and the script is put on a table with 10 writers around it, and they go through it a line at a time. Going, 'Anybody got anything better here?' You go through it line after line after line. You're just sitting there, throwing out lines and ideas. If something makes half the people laugh in the room, it goes in the script. It's extremely democratic. ...
"We rewrite the show from top to bottom eight times in a row. Even if you did a great job in your script and you poured your blood and sweat and tears into it, by the time it hits the air, 80 percent of it has changed. And often 100 percent of it has changed. That's just the process."
As for whether he remembers the jokes of his own that he loved but didn't make it into episodes, Reiss responds:
"I do. But you run the risk of people telling you, 'Well, that's not funny.' ... I'll give you a silly example. We needed the name of a weekly newsmagazine about tar. So I said 'Tar Nation.' I just sat back - well, of course, that's the perfect joke! It didn't go in. Whatever went it was, like, 'Better Tar and Asphalt.' ... When will that opportunity (for that joke) ever come up again?"
Sometimes, though, he can find another place for lost jokes:
"I have an excellent memory for good stuff that gets cut. I think one reason 'I'm Connecticut' was so easy to write was there's a lot of nice pieces in there that had been cut from other things and shouldn't have been. I wrote a film called 'My Life in Ruins,' and a lot of the very best stuff in the play are romantic comedy scenes that were cut from 'My Life in Ruins.'... I see them get huge laughs from the audience, and I go, 'I knew it was a good scene.'"
Reiss says that the writer is the lowest man on the totem pole - in almost every business except theater:
"Here's the thing: in the theater, they do every word you write. In 'I'm Connecticut,' I would go see the play every night. ... There was a line in the play where a guy was supposed to say, 'Who the hell is Jimmy?' Every night, (the actor) would go, 'Whos the hell is Jimmy?' I loved it. I thought, 'Wow, is that a funny character touch.' ... When the play closed, I looked at the original manuscript, and I saw it was a typo. That was it - a guy went out and sold a typo night after night. That made me love the theater, that they'd even do your typos."
"I'm Connecticut," Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St., Ivoryton; opens Wednesday, June 5, and runs through June 23; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wed., 7:30 p.m. Thurs., 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat., and 2 p.m. Sun.; $40 adults, $35 seniors, $20 students, $15 kids; (860) 767-7318, ivorytonplayhouse.org.