Cult cartoon survives cancellation; movie is now on DVD
By Tim Clodfelter
relish staff writer
Thursday, August 3, 2006
Queer Duck is a survivor, having endured the dot-com bust and cancellation by the Showtime network only to return in Queer Duck: The Movie, now on DVD.
And his creator hopes to be a survivor, as well. As Mike Reiss answered a phone call last week, he let loose a burst of coughs.
“I’m fighting pneumonia,” Reiss said apologetically. “This may be my last interview, so I’m trying to make it good.”
Reiss’ mother was from Smithfield, N.C. He grew up in Bristol, Conn., and attended Harvard University, where he was a writer for the Harvard Lampoon before moving over to television. There, he worked on such shows as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Simpsons, The Critic and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.
In the late 1990s, he left TV to take part in Icebox.com, a Web site that provided flash animation for viewers and creative freedom for the animators.
Reiss’ creations on that site included Hard Drinkin’ Lincoln, a parody of the beloved president, and Queer Duck, about gay cartoon animals. The main character in Queer Duck is a flamboyant Jewish duck whose voice is provided by Jim J. Bullock of Too Close For Comfort. Bullock came up with the character’s catchphrase, “Oh My Gay Stars!”
In addition to Queer Duck, the characters include Bi-Polar Bear, who sounds like Paul Lynde; Oscar Wildcat, whose voice is based on Sir John Gielgud; and Openly Gator, whose voice is reminiscent of Harvey Fierstein. That character isn’t actually based on Fierstein, according to Reiss, who declined to “out” the actual source other than to say that he is a character actor known for gangster roles.
When Reiss was first developing Queer Duck, he was worried that people might take offense at the fact that he is not gay but had created a world of gay characters.
“I’ve, by choice, kept my raging heterosexuality in the closet,” said Reiss, who has been married for 18 years.
He was initially worried about backlash if people felt that he was gay bashing, and he offered to turn the writing duties over to a gay writer if Icebox.com wanted him to do so.
“Most of the problem has been in my head,” he said. “I had that fear early on that people would go, ‘He’s a straight guy making fun of us.’ But people who see the Queer Duck movie refuse to believe I’m straight. They say, ‘No, no, he’s clearly gay.'”
Queer Duck first took flight in 1998, then migrated to the Showtime network in 2002, where the cartoon shorts were paired with the live-action gay drama Queer as Folk. During the flush of initial success, Reiss wrote a screenplay for a feature-length Queer Duck story. Then Icebox.com went under, and Showtime decided that it didn’t want to be thought of as “the gay HBO” and pulled the plug on the show.
But the cartoon had a cult following, and reruns on British television led the BBCto call the show one of the 100 greatest cartoons of all time.
“We’re up there with Fantasia, Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny,” Reiss said.
Reiss dusted off his script, updated a few of the jokes, and pitched it around Hollywood. Eventually, Paramount decided to produce the film as long as Reiss could line up some celebrity guest voices.
“We went 0 for 80 in celebrities; then we went after old friends,” Reiss said.
Among those who turned them down were the cast of Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, Robert Goulet and Max Baer Jr. (Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies), he said. Some of those rejections are noted in the end credits of the film.
Bruce Vilanch and Conan O’Brien play themselves in the movie, and David Duchovny provides the voice of Tiny Jesus. Reiss’ friend Jon Lovitz turned down a role, so Reiss had one of the show’s voice actors – Maurice LaMarche – do a Lovitz impersonation instead and gave him the most humiliating line in the movie.
The movie is not as raunchy as people might expect.
“What you’re watching is a pretty good tour of what goes on in my head,” Reiss said. “It’s ribald, but I don’t like dirty jokes. See, what I like is many, many, many puns and that’s it.”