In 1993, Al Jean and Mike Reiss left their position as showrunners of The Simpsons. Over four seasons, they helped transform the cartoon from a strange fad into the beloved show we know today. With that accomplishment behind them, the two headed to ABC to create their own series. Considering The Simpsons found its comedy and heart in the typical American family, it seems strange that Jean and Reiss decided to base their new show on the world of movie criticism. But The Critic, which debuted in 1994, has retained a dedicated fanbase since it first aired. The success of a show so small in scope may seem strange now, but considering one of Jean and Reiss’ influences, it makes perfect sense. Jay Sherman owes his baldness to Gene Siskel and his gut to Roger Ebert, and Critic fans may very well owe their favorite show to the unlikely comedy stylings of the famous duo.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s first televised review aired in 1975, and over the next twenty-four years they graced the airwaves with their unique brand of criticism. “I was a devoted fan,” recalls Mike Reiss, “My friends and I would deconstruct every episode on Monday morning like it was Lost.” They’re compelling critics, and their grasp of the medium helped make them the unofficial face of film criticism. Chicago comedian and music blogger Sean Rose is an outspoken fan of their work. “[T]hey manage to make their criticisms as entertaining as any movie they’re reviewing, which is so, so hard to do,” Rose says, “They love movies so much. They live and bleed it. They’re great critics because they let that love seep into every review.” But Siskel and Ebert needed to be more than skilled critics in order to win the hearts of the American public. By being so passionate about their love of movies, Siskel and Ebert ended up being quite funny.
It’s almost shocking how funny Siskel and Ebert are. Their reviews, while insightful, are elevated by an easy chemistry and sense of humor. “They’re perfectly matched opposing forces. It’s beautiful,” says Rose. “Roger is this thoughtful, artistic soul. Gene is the pushy, no-bullshit reporter.” Their contrasting personalities, along with their academic knowledge of cinema, helped fuel the humor found in their reviews. “These seemed to be two equally bright, articulate men, and yet they’d often have diametrically opposed opinions,” says Reiss, “Often they couldn’t believe what the other one was saying.” Apart from their thumbs, Siskel and Ebert’s’ arguments may be what they’re most famous for. Watching a Yale graduate and a Pulitzer winner fight like children over movies certainly contributes to their appeal. “Watching pushy Gene goad Roger into angrily defending Benji: The Hunted is so funny,” says Rose. But their humor extends beyond these conflicts. “ “[T]hey are funny people, even when they agree,” Rose continues, “Watching them both eviscerate North is both compelling criticism and funny TV.”
While their show was on the air, Siskel and Ebert seemed to be just as famous for their comedic touch as they were for their film criticism. They were a secret weapon for David Letterman, who lovingly thought of himself as “the third Siskel and Ebert”. They were tricked into an argument by Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, and they were featured in the memorable Critic episode, ‘Siskel & Ebert & Jay & Alice’ (“I was surprised they agreed to do every single thing we asked of them – including singing a love song to each other.” says Reiss of the episode). Their personalities, perfectly suited for film criticism, translated well beyond their show. “There’s a real honestly there that is rare in any television program,” says Rose. By being truthful on camera, Siskel and Ebert showed us that they were real people and not carefully constructed television personalities. “They really seemed like friends, having a personal discussion – the way two pals might argue about a movie in a bar,” says Reiss, “It’s a sense I never got from any other duo that replaced them.”
In the twenty-four years that they were on the air, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert put all of themselves into their reviews. The way they enthusiastically tackled movies, and each other, make them just as an endearing presence now as it did when their show was first broadcast. From such a simple premise- two middle-aged movie critics talking about movies - comes such a wellspring of humor. “The Critic began as a show about behind-the-scenes life at The Today Show,” says Reiss, “Al and I quickly realized the only character we really loved was the on-air film critic. And nobody better embodied that than Siskel and Ebert.” The Siskel and Ebert rabbit hole is a deep and rich one, and their enduring popularity is a testament to comedy that comes from a place of honesty and love. That honesty and that love may very well be the secret of their success.
But Reiss suggests another possibility; “People love the subliminal visuals of a fat guy next to a skinny guy.”
Stephen Winchell is a writer and performer in Chicago. You can see him every month in the bizarre variety show, The Telethon.