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From Near ‘Simpsons’ Spinoff To A Check Against Hollywood Ridiculousness: Why ‘The Critic’ Still Matters

When Jon Lovitz was asked during a radio interview in September 2015 if he would ever consider bringing The Critic back, fans everywhere rejoiced when he replied, “I would do it in a second.” Jay Sherman would likely thrive in this era of the internet critic. He’d be a king among mere mortals, freed from his television shackles and shouting, “It stinks!” across the digital universe. Just thinking of all the new movies The Critic could parody is enough to bring a smile, but there are a few problems that have kept this triumphant return from happening.

For starters, sadly, some of the show’s core cast members — Christine Cavanaugh (Marty Sherman), Doris Grau (Doris Grossman), and Charles Napier (the one and only Duke Phillips) — have passed away. Additionally, co-creator Al Jean is preoccupied with his obligations to The Simpsons, so he would be unable to join Lovitz in Jay’s Maron-like resurrection. But the biggest advantage, and the reason fans should get their hopes up, is that there’s simply more opportunity today for an animated series like The Critic than there was in 1995, when all it took to torpedo the series was a network president who didn’t get the joke.

To find out why we have yet to see a Sherman revival, we spoke with The Critic creators Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who were also more than happy to tell us how Lovitz came to be such a darling denigrator and why ABC and Fox just never gave The Critic the chance it deserved.

Out of Krusty the Klown’s ashes rises Jay Sherman

Jean and Reiss served as showrunners for The Simpsons in seasons three and four, but what they really wanted was to create their own show. Simpsons creator Matt Groening approached them with an idea for a Krusty the Clown spinoff, and so they came up with a list of ideas for Springfield’s favorite funnyman. One idea was that he’d be a single father living in New York City, and he’d have to deal with his “nerdy kid, a Ted Turner type, and they’d have a crappy makeup lady,” Reiss recalls. Basically, Krusty would have been Jay Sherman. But then…

Mike Reiss: We pitched it to Matt and suddenly said, “Nah, I changed my mind. I want to do a Krusty the Clown reality show,” so his new idea was going to be Dan Castellaneta in real life going out in Krusty the Clown makeup and having these life experiences, working on a tuna boat or delivering a baby. [Laughs.] The Krusty the Clown spinoff never happened, the Krusty the Clown live show obviously never happened. Al and I just put all those ideas on hold. A little while later Jim Brooks came to us.

Al Jean: We had a deal with Jim Brooks to do a show after we had worked with him on The Simpsons and he wanted to do a morning show, a live-action morning show, behind the scenes of like, Good Morning America. Mike said it would be funny if there was a Gene Shalit-type film critic who worked on the show, and so we were thinking about that idea. Jim came in one day and had seen an advanced screening of the film A League of Their Own. He said, “What do you guys think of Jon Lovitz?” and we said, “We love Lovitz.” We had had him on the episode “The Way We Was” that we wrote on The Simpsons, and he said, “Okay, that would be a great guy to play the film critic.”

Reiss: We were all old professionals, and we made such a rookie mistake. We wrote the whole pilot for a show about a critic and didn’t tell Lovitz. I have to remind you, it was a live-action sitcom. We said, “Jon, you’re going to play a critic,” and he said, “Well no, I’m not, I’m a movie star now.” He turned it down and we were in a panic and Jim was saying, “Maybe we could go after Martin Short, or someone like that,” and we just said, “No, we wrote this for Lovitz, it’s gotta be Lovitz.”

Jean: Lovitz was just way busy and couldn’t have time to do a live-action series, that’s a big time commitment. I suggested, “Why don’t we make it an animated show? If it’s animated then we can do all these movie parodies that we want to do,” and Jim and Mike were both very enthused by that and so we wrote an animated pilot.

Reiss: No animated show in history, I think, was ever created this way, where the very last creative decision to be made was to make it animated.

Jean: We did it exactly backwards. We wrote it and then sent it to Lovitz without actually having signed him to do it. [Laughs.] We sent it to him and he did enjoy it and he had one condition and that was the critic couldn’t look like him, which is a little tricky trying to do. [Laughs.] Now he thinks the critic does look a little like him, but he’s fine with that. That was the origin of the idea.

Reiss: Before the show we needed a look for our character. That’s something that’s so great about The Simpsons. It looks so unique, it looked like nothing else you’ve ever seen except it’s instantly likable. That’s a really hard thing to capture and we just didn’t get it on The Critic.

Jean: The original drawing was done by David Silverman and that was loosely based on Andy Kaufman. Then, in the second season, it was refined. The first drawing had a totally flat head and was kind of stiff. The second season was a much better drawing, I thought, where he had much bigger eyes and was much more appealing.

Reiss: Jim Brooks had the idea the critic would be adopted and he would be a little Jewish orphan man with these ultra WASPy parents. And we said, “We need pictures of WASPs, a couple of WASPy people we can use.” He said to Al and me, “Bring in your Harvard yearbook, that’s going to be full of WASPy people.” And we did and the father and mother on The Critic are both drawings of two, what they call “Housemasters.” Two people who oversaw the dormitories at Harvard, they were exact renderings of these two, including the critic’s father always holding a cocktail in his hand. That’s because the photo we took from my yearbook is one of the housemasters holding a drink.

“It STINKS!”

Producer James L. Brooks helped Reiss and Jean find a home for The Critic at ABC, which aired it on Wednesday nights behind the immensely successful Home Improvement. Despite the popularity of Tim Allen’s show, though, The Critic failed to keep viewers tuned in. In fact, ABC fans hated it. The show was canceled halfway through its first season, but Reiss and Jean knew they had something good, so they took it to Fox, where it should have been the Pippen to The Simpsons’ Jordan.

Reiss: Jim Brooks had a deal with ABC, and ABC said, “Whatever you bring to us, we will do 22 episodes of, no matter what idea you come in with, we will do 22.” So we came in, and said, “It’s an animated show about Jon Lovitz as a film critic” and they said, “We won’t do it.” Then we negotiated them down from 22 episodes to 13 episodes. And we got the go-ahead and ABC, even though they canceled the show, they were great.

Jean: We had so many cancelations that there are different reasons. [Laughs.] On ABC it didn’t do well and I understood why they canceled it because it was following Home Improvement, which was a number one show, but it was really not the same kind of show.

Reiss: A couple days after the first episode of The Critic aired, an ABC secretary walked in with a big box and I said, “What’s in the box?” And she said, “Hate mail.” Sure enough, if it was from people who were deeply offended by The Critic and the problem was we were on ABC and ABC, at that period, was a family network. They had TGIF and Home Improvement. It was all fun shows for the family, that was the target audience. We came on and it was funny because the show was much tamer than The Simpsons but much raunchier than anything else on ABC.

Jean: Then we got to Fox and were right after The Simpsons, which was much more compatible. We held 88 percent of the lead-in and that was a really good number. Lucie Salhany, who was the president of Fox, left the position before the show came on and the new person, who I won’t name, didn’t like the show. I was very aggravated because it placed us with two things, one was a show called House of Buggin’ and one was a show called Too Something, and I liked the performers a lot on those shows, but they weren’t doing nearly as well in the ratings and we knew it and yet we couldn’t get picked up.

Reiss: The new president hated the show. He hated it. And a network executive can hate a show but still see if it gets good ratings and they’ll support it. But not this guy. And I’ll name the man, you’re not supposed to name people you don’t like in Hollywood because someday you’re going to work with them again, and I can say I will never work with this man again. His name is John Matoian, he was the president of Fox, he was there very, very briefly. He would call us saying, “I hated this episode, I hated this episode,” and one week he brought us to his office and said, “I’m going to show you the show and you tell me why it’s funny.” So, he starts playing the episode of The Critic and his assistant starts laughing and he says, “Why are you laughing?”

Jean: Mike and I wanted to feature a lot of movie parodies and references, so that we shared with The Simpsons. But it was really its own thing, as much as it could be. And in some ways, I think it hurt a little. Our ratings when we were at Fox were very good. They shouldn’t have canceled it but it always helps in animation when it’s a show about a family. Family-centered animation shows have always done really well.

Reiss: We were the show that followed The Simpsons, we got the best ratings of any show that ever followed them, we were doing really well and then he called and said, “Well that’s it, I’m pulling all advertising from The Critic.” And it’s like, “Why? We finally had a success.” This man really had spite or something for The Critic. I used to be very bitter about that, but of course, we got a second chance. Most shows just get canceled, never get a second chance. We got canceled on ABC, we got a second chance, and then it was sort of jerked away from us because of this jerk. He just didn’t like the show, refused to put advertising on the air for the show and that was it. And it’s not supposed to be about personal taste.

Jean: [TV critic] Marvin Kitman loved it. He loved it, kept saying, “Why are they canceling it? I don’t get it. This is the best show,” he was really wonderful. Siskel and Ebert, it was the only television show they ever reviewed and they gave it a mixed review, but they were nice and then we were really excited when they appeared on the show. And a little anecdote about that is I got to direct them. I met them both and went to Chicago. Gene kept going, “Which one of us is best?” And I said, “Oh, you’re both good,” and he’d go, “No, really, tell me,” [Laughs.] I wouldn’t tell him, but the truth is Roger was a little better.

Reiss: Al and I did no research into the world of critics. We never talked to a critic, we never read about the lives of critics. And yet critics would always say, “Wow, you really nailed it. Wow, you really get our lives. Who is this based on?” And there’s an ironic thing in that there’s a critic named James Wolcott who looked exactly like the critic. It was uncanny and we had never seen a picture of this guy, but other critics would say, oh, that must be who it is. The critics loved it and I have to say they were all shameless, I don’t think there’s one critic we asked to be on the show that didn’t do it and they all did whatever we asked them to do. Every critic we had on the show we not only made them do comedy, we made them sing. We made Siskel and Ebert sing, Rex Reed — they would all appear in musical numbers. They loved it.

Could Jay Sherman return today?

The good news is that Lovitz wasn’t saying he’d return to the role for the sake of a soundbite. According to Reiss, the actor has at least tried to bring Jay Sherman back to our screens. But there are still some obstacles, including the fact that some of the voices behind the show’s characters are no longer with us. For that, Lovitz apparently has a plan.

Reiss: Jon Lovitz is actively pitching it to Netflix and he’s actually pitching it as a live-action show and I wish him good luck with it. I want to see what he does and how he does it. Maybe I’ll help out on the show. I think the show would succeed very well now in that there’s a whole culture. The whole country has become much more show business-savvy since then. Animation’s become cheaper and parody is everywhere. It could work animated, it could even work live-action.

Jean: I’d love it if it happened, I just can’t work on it as long as I’m doing The Simpsons, which is too bad. But I’d be thrilled if it came back. If I was free, I’d definitely be interested. Any time you have something that is partly your creation and people still remember it and remember it affectionately, it’s wonderful. One of the best things about it is it was mentioned by Lovitz at the Hollywood Bowl at The Simpsons Show and every time, it would get a big round of applause, which I didn’t expect. It felt so good.

Reiss: There are a couple downsides to doing The Critic again, which is half our cast is dead. The guy who played Duke Phillips [Charles Napier] is dead. Doris [Grau] is dead. The dear girl who played Marty [Christine Cavanaugh], the little boy, is dead. It’s pretty shocking. The other thing is the show was kind of inspired by, Siskel and Ebert — Siskel and Ebert are dead and those kinds of shows don’t exist anymore. Movie critics used to be all over TV and they used to wield great influence and they just don’t. The dynamic isn’t there exactly.

Jean: If we were doing it now he’d be working online all the time and he’d still be trying to get all the free merchandise he could. [Laughs.] It would be a different world but the essence of it was the character in New York and the movie parodies, and I think that would completely work now. He used to have a rarefied job but now you’re one out of 70 people on Rotten Tomatoes. I would explore that world.

Reiss: I have said if we’re going to do The Critic again, make it like Maron. Make it the critic is broke and he’s doing a podcast out of his garage because that’s where Jay Sherman would be today.

Jean: We had jokes about NBC falling to fifth place, which it’s actually insane that it came true. There’s an article somewhere online about things on The Critic that all happened. We had Seinfeld: The Movie, Rubik’s Cube: The Movie, which was like the Battleship movie, Conan replaced by a dancing chicken [Laughs.], Ghostbusters 3 — he was writing a script for that and now there is a Ghostbusters 3. Animation lives forever. To be one of the things that’s lived on, not in the main run but even something in a niche that’s still remembered is wonderful.

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