An Oral History of ‘The Critic’
Whether it was explosive action movies like Rabbi P.I. and Dennis the Menace II Society or heartwarming family films like The Cockroach King and D.T.: The Drunken Terrestrial, esteemed film critic Jay Sherman always offered the same reaction: “It stinks!”
In an era when film critics like Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert and Gene Shalit were household names, two pivotal writers of The Simpsons, Al Jean and Mike Reiss, decided to create a new series centered around the host of a movie review program. The Critic debuted on January 26, 1994, and it lasted for a total of 23 episodes. The first season aired on ABC, but its cynical, smart and snarky sensibilities never quite fit in with the family-friendly TGIF crowd. The second season aired on FOX right after The Simpsons, where it retained a healthy amount of The Simpsons’ massive audience. Nonetheless, The Critic was unceremoniously canceled thanks to an executive who hated the show, its final episode airing on May 5, 1995.
Years before Futurama and decades before Disenchanted, The Critic was the first show perceived by the public to be a sort of spin-off of The Simpsons. It was created by Jean and Reiss, it was produced by Simpsons executive producer James L. Brooks and it starred Saturday Night Live alum Jon Lovitz, a frequent Simpsons guest star. It also featured the same seamless blend of lowbrow and highbrow humor that The Simpsons had mastered.
The Critic did seek to carve out its own niche though, sometimes to its detriment. Whereas Futurama and Disenchanted made use of Matt Groening’s signature art style, The Critic tried to find its own look. And while Homer Simpson was a lovable moron, Jay Sherman was a self-centered, well-educated elitist who loved foreign films, which made him difficult to sympathize with.
Despite its shortcomings, The Critic has often been cited as one of the best prematurely canceled shows of all time, and its fan base remains substantial to this day. Just recently, when the title of Quentin Tarantino’s last film was revealed to be The Film Critic, legions of Critic fans jokingly rejoiced about Jay Sherman’s return. Many of those same fans have advocated for a reboot of The Critic, chief among them is the voice of Jay Sherman himself, Jon Lovitz, who has frequently expressed his desire to play the character again. But Jean and Reiss, who join us here to talk about The Critic’s brief but brilliant run, aren’t quite so sure the show could make it today.
Mike Reiss, co-creator of The Critic, author of Springfield Confidential: Jokes, Secrets and Outright Lies from a Lifetime Writing for The Simpsons: It was 1993, and Al Jean and I had just finished running The Simpsons. We’d done two years as the showrunners, and we got a development deal with James L. Brooks’ company Gracie Films. Our job was to come up with ideas for TV series for Jim Brooks to take to ABC. We pitched him a few ideas that he didn’t really go for, then he came to us with an idea for a live-action show about the makeup woman for The Today Show.
Honestly, we didn’t love it. It didn’t sound like our kind of idea, but we kicked it around and tried to make it work: “There could be a fat weatherman on the show, and there could be a movie critic like Gene Shalit.” That got us excited — we were having fun with the idea of doing something with a film critic on a daily show.
Around that time, Jim Brooks called us in for another meeting and asked us, “Do you like Jon Lovitz?” We said we loved him and that we’d had him on The Simpsons three times and that he made us laugh. That’s when we came up with the idea, “Let’s do a show with Jon Lovitz playing a film critic.”
Actually, to rewind just a little bit — right after Al and I finished with The Simpsons, Matt Groening came to us and said, “I want to do a spin-off show with Krusty the Clown.” Al and I came up with all of these ideas where Krusty is living in New York and he’s got his own show. He has a Ted Turner-type boss and a sassy makeup woman. He’s also a divorced dad with a little kid. By the time we brought it to Matt though, he’d changed his mind and wanted to do a live-action reality show with Krusty. Neither of those happened, of course, but when Al and I were developing The Critic, we used many of the same elements from our Krusty pitch.
Anyway, we beat out the idea for The Critic, figured out the characters, wrote the whole script and then approached Jon Lovitz. We brought it to him, and to our surprise, he said, “I’m not gonna do that, I’m a movie star!” He wasn’t wrong either. A League of Their Own did very well, and he had three movies lined up after that.
Jim Brooks thought maybe we could go somewhere else, like Martin Short, but Al and I said, “No, it’s got to be Lovitz. We wrote this for Lovitz.” The idea was dying right there, but then Al pitched an idea that I’d brought up earlier: “What if it’s an animated show?” That turned everything around. Suddenly we could work around Lovitz’s schedule and that’s how The Critic became animated.
Even then, Lovitz was a little reluctant to do it. He didn’t want to be like Alan Reid, the voice of Fred Flintstone. Alan Reid had a great career in the movies, but after he became Fred Flintstone, that’s the first thing you thought of when you heard his voice in a movie. That worried Lovitz, but they offered him an amazing deal. It was a lot of money, and it was with James L. Brooks, so he eventually agreed.
Al Jean, co-creator of The Critic, current showrunner of The Simpsons: As a writer, it’s great to have a voice in your head, and Jon Lovitz has such a distinctive one. We were always writing it for him, but he said the character shouldn’t look like him, so we modeled the original design after Andy Kaufman.
Reiss: Jim Brooks had an amazing deal with ABC. On the strength of his past work, ABC gave him a deal where whatever he brought in, ABC would make and put it on the air for 22 episodes. But even though ABC couldn’t say no when we brought them The Critic, they said “No.” They didn’t want to do it. It was very expensive, and to be fair, it wasn’t a very ABC idea. We went there because that’s where the deal was, but it was probably the last place we would have gone with an idea like this. And so, we had to negotiate with them, and they came down to 13 episodes.
The funny thing about The Critic is that there were nothing but warning bells all the way through. It was like a horror movie where everybody was trying to stop us at every turn.
Reiss: I had a lot of fun making this show. We had a great writing staff of people who were handpicked from old friends and people we knew from The Harvard Lampoon. We also found some great new writers. Judd Apatow consulted on the show, and everyone was a movie nut and everyone was focused and pitched great ideas.
It also wasn’t an oppressive workload like The Simpsons either. We’d done 22 episodes in one season of The Simpsons and 24 the next. It was so hard. I hated it. I gained 70 pounds. The Critic was only 13 episodes, so we had room to breathe.
Casting was great, too. We knew we’d be doing a lot of celebrity impressions, and I love impressionists. They’d just come in and do their act for us; it was so entertaining. We ended up casting Maurice LaMarche, who is the world’s greatest impressionist. Nick Jameson was great as well. He’d do like 30 characters in an episode. Christine Cavanaugh was a lovely person, and Charles Napier was a wonderful character actor who no one ever asked to do comedy before. The makeup woman was played by Doris Grau, the script supervisor on The Simpsons. We created the whole character around her.
Most of all, Lovitz was a ton of fun. For at least a season, he had trepidation about doing the whole thing, but when you put him in front of a mic, he’s in heaven. People have asked me if that’s what he’s really like, and my answer always is, “No, it isn’t. That’s just a character he plays 24 hours a day.” Jon Lovitz is that guy, but it’s a put-on. In real life, I think he has a rather fragile ego and he’s full of self-doubt, but he’s always playing that character and he’s always funny.
Putting together that first season was all a party, up until the moment we came on the air.
‘The Critic’ on ABC
Reiss: Before The Critic came on the air, we had a booth at Comic-Con to promote the show. We had T-shirts made up with The Critic on it and a life-size cutout of Jay Sherman. Man, people walked right past us — nobody had the slightest interest in it. We sold one T-shirt to Bill Mumy and Miguel Ferrer. They went in together and bought one Critic T-shirt. I should have known then it was going to be a rough time for us.
When The Critic debuted, it was part of the TGIF block on ABC, which was nothing but family shows. We followed Home Improvement, this lump of nothing that was just one of the dumbest number one shows in TV history.
Jean: That first night, we retained 87 percent of Home Improvement’s audience, which was an enormous number.
Reiss: We got great ratings the first night, and we got very good reviews. Then, a couple of days later, my assistant walks in with a big box, and I say, “What’s that?” She says, “That’s hate mail.”
The audience hated the show. They especially hated a moment where Jay met this actress, slept with her and Jay’s son walked in on them in bed. The Home Improvement crowd really hated seeing that. By the second week, we were done. It was a 44-percent drop. Variety had said, “The second of The Critic had fans screaming and running for the aisles.” We were doomed.
By episode four or five, we were hemorrhaging viewers so bad that Bob Iger, the head of ABC, called us into his office to say, “What are we going to do about The Critic?” To their credit, ABC was very supportive, and he was trying to be helpful. On his wall, he had the whole ABC schedule on a big chart, and he said, “Where on this board should The Critic go?” I remember looking at it and thinking, “Where it should go is on FOX, after The Simpsons.”
They gave us one more episode, then they yanked us off the air and burned off the rest of the episodes during the summer. ABC did their best, though; the audience just wasn’t interested. I have no ill will toward ABC, unlike part two of this story.
‘The Critic’ on FOX
Reiss: Jim Brooks, being a very powerful man, was able to take The Critic to FOX to air after The Simpsons. During the development of Season Two, there was a chance to re-examine the show a bit. We re-recorded the theme song, we added a love interest and her daughter to give Jay somebody in his life and we redesigned the characters and softened some of the edges.
It was a chance to fix some of what had bothered me about the look of the first season. When we were originally developing the show, I said I wanted lush, painted backgrounds. I wanted them to look like a New Yorker cover and we got that, but when it came to designing the characters, they were designed by committee. We had four very talented artists contributing to the show, but there was no consistency that a Matt Groening would give you or that South Park has.
Jean: Mike is correct about that. If you look at The Simpsons and Futurama, the genius of Matt Groening is that he has these designs that are so simple, but they also convey a great amount of emotion. But with The Critic, it has a “design by committee” quality to it, and I was happy when we redesigned them in Season Two.
Reiss: As part of Jim Brooks’ deal, we got just 10 episodes, and Al and I had to provide two new episodes of The Simpsons. There was also the idea that Jim Brooks had: “Let’s do a crossover show with The Simpsons.”
‘A Star Is Burns’
Reiss: Jim Brooks had done crossover episodes before on his other shows, like Rhoda and Mary Tyler Moore. It was a real TV tradition. He proposed the idea, but the staff of The Simpsons hated the idea. People were making a big stink about it. Many of these were the writers that we’d hired and some had only been there a few weeks, but it became this big issue. We went back to Jim, and he said, “When did this become a democracy?”
We just plowed ahead and did it. The Simpsons episode “A Star Is Burns” was written and produced by The Critic staff. The Simpsons writers had nothing to do with it, but when they were asked if they’d like their name to appear on it, they all said yes and they all got paid for it.
Famously, Matt Groening also took his name off the episode. Matt had quietly said, “I don’t approve of this, please take my name off of it.” Al and I didn’t even notice, but it might have been the Los Angeles Times who noticed it, and it turned into a whole controversy. It wasn’t a big thing, though. It really wasn’t.
Jean: At the time, I know Matt was fearful about there being more than one crossover between the two series. As for me, I thought then and I think now that “A Star Is Burns” is a good episode of The Simpsons. There are a lot of things in that episode that really stand out — like, “They’re not saying ‘Boo,’ they’re saying ‘Boo-urns!’” and “You said the quiet part out loud.” The phrase comes from that episode!
We’ve also done other crossovers on The Simpsons like The X-Files, Futurama, and at the request of Family Guy, we allowed them to do a crossover with us. In a limited fashion, I think it’s great. Why not give it a try? I wouldn’t do it more than once though.
‘Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice’
Reiss: Season Two contains what I think was the best episode of The Critic — “Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice,” where Siskel and Ebert break up and Jay auditions to become both of their new partners, which was a Jim Brooks idea.
Previously, Siskel and Ebert had reviewed The Critic. It was the only show they ever reviewed, but they didn’t like it! They were perfectly game to be guest stars, though, and they did whatever we asked them to do. Funny enough, we talked to them separately, and they were both bad-mouthing the other guy — that really was a fraught relationship. Both called afterwards to say, “I was definitely better than that other guy, right?” It was that petty.
Jean: I flew to Chicago to record them. We recorded them together, and after every take, Gene would go, “Who was better?” I was diplomatic at the time, but now that they’re both passed, I’ll say that Roger was a slightly better actor.
Reiss: One of them clearly was the better actor, and that was Roger Ebert. I say that with apologies to Gene Siskel’s widow.
Jean: The Critic overall — and this episode in particular — is a bit of a time capsule. It was a period when people went to the movies a lot and when movie critics could make six figures, as opposed to now when Rotten Tomatoes has made them sort of a cog in a machine. The Siskel and Ebert episode is my favorite episode, too, but when I look at it now, there isn’t any film critic today that has the clout comparable to those two guys.
Regime Change at FOX
Reiss: During our time at The Simpsons, we saw show after show fail after The Simpsons and nothing held the audience, but we had high hopes for The Critic being put there. Jim Brooks had worked out a complex deal, but FOX was on board and we had the support of the president of the network. Then, in the year it took to make those new episodes, the president of FOX got fired and a new president came in who hated The Critic.
I know you’re not supposed to mention people by name, but I’ll mention his name: John Matoian. He came in as president of FOX and was there for a very brief time. As far as I know, he was never seen again. As far as I know, this man only existed to cancel The Critic.
Jean: When The Critic debuted after The Simpsons, it did really well. On ABC, there was a huge drop off after that first episode, but at FOX, we retained nearly 90 percent of The Simpsons’ audience every week. That made it the second highest show on FOX at the time, so it should have gotten renewed. It was canceled due to politics.
Reiss: Finally, here is a show that can follow The Simpsons and maintain the audience. John Matoian said, “I’m glad they liked the show. Let’s see how they do next week with no advertising.” After that, we were still doing fine. But week after week, John Matoian would call us up and say, “I just wanted to tell you, I hated this week’s episode.” He just loved hating our show.
Then, one day, he called us in for a meeting with the FOX brass and said, “I want to play an episode of your show, and I want you to tell me what’s funny.” He put the show on, and it started playing and all the younger executives were laughing. They knew they weren’t supposed to like this. They were supposed to not laugh and make the boss happy, but they were cracking up. John Matoian turned around and went, “Why are you laughing!?!?”
Jean: The thing that really cracked them up was Hee-Haw: The Next Generation. He was so mad at them for laughing at that.
Reiss: He was just a dick. Shortly after that, he canceled The Critic and replaced it with a show called House of Buggin’ that he had generated. Not long after that, he was gone.
Now, here’s the part nobody knows: At the time, there was a new network starting up — UPN. We went to UPN, and they were considering doing The Critic. They wanted changes, though. Mainly, they didn’t want so much of the critic in it. They wanted to focus on the son and his friends at school. That’s where I said, “No.” It was enough. I didn’t like where they were going, and I couldn’t take being canceled by three networks in three years so that was it.
‘The Critic’ Webisodes
Reiss: Around the year 2000, everyone was creating content for the internet. Jim Brooks came to us and said, “Do you want to create The Critic shorts for the internet?” By then, Al and I had amicably broken up as a team, but we came back together to write these. We also got Jon Lovitz back. What sold us on the idea was that a movie could come out, and two weeks later, we could have a parody about it. Normally, there was a nine-month gap from writing an episode until it aired, so this was impressive to us.
We did 10 of them. We wrote them, produced them and then they sat for a year. It took longer than it would have taken on television. I was so frustrated about this that I quit the project, and Al did the last one by himself.
Jay Sherman in Repose
Reiss: Al and I were the first people to create an animated show from The Simpsons, and our idea was “Let’s do everything differently from The Simpsons.” Everything about The Critic is separate from The Simpsons. It’s urban, not suburban. Jay is single, he’s not married. He’s smart, Homer’s stupid. He’s rich, Homer’s middle class. Also, we made it so different from The Simpsons that it failed while The Simpsons succeeded.
Jean: I’m proud of The Critic. I always laugh at Lovitz, and Maurice’s impressions are brilliant. It’s also gotten a tremendous post-cancellation respect from a lot of people. It’s not The Simpsons, and that was by design. With both The Critic and Futurama, there was a conscious effort not to make it too much like The Simpsons, which is why neither show is about a nuclear family. Because of that, both of them had a more difficult time finding an audience.
Animated shows in particular do better with a lead-in with the same kind of humor, and after The Critic, Fox began putting all kinds of animated shows after The Simpsons, like King of the Hill and Futurama. That could have been The Critic, especially since it did well in the ratings on FOX, but I’m also happy to have been on The Simpsons all these years, so it all works out.
Reiss: To date, I have very mixed feelings about The Critic. I’m very disappointed in my own work on the show. For my book, I had to go back and watch the shows again after not having watched them in years, and when I watched them, I said, “Wow they’re funny.” They’re really funny and they’re really smart, which I’m really proud of, but that’s it. They lacked the emotional depth of The Simpsons. I wish it’d been more heartfelt, and I wish there’d been more nuance to our characters. It didn’t have to be as big and as popular as The Simpsons, but I wish it had the heart and resonance that The Simpsons has had.
A Critic reboot comes up all the time. Jon Lovitz, who was so reluctant to do the show at first, wants to do it again. He’s even said he’d do it in live action. I’m probably the most reluctant to do it for many reasons. One thing is, half the cast of The Critic is dead. The Critic was also a parody of a thing that was very popular at the time, but critic review shows like Siskel and Ebert don’t exist anymore. There’s no powerhouse like that. People don’t even go to the movies anymore. I’m happy people remember The Critic and like it so much, but it’s of another time.