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My Book Is Porn? Sure Did Fool Me

September 12, 2004|Mike Reiss | Mike Reiss is a writer/producer for "The Simpsons" and the author of five children's books, including the bestselling "How Murray Saved Christmas" (Price Stern Sloan, 2000).

The rules governing what we may or may not say are a little hard to follow. This year, for instance, Howard Stern's trash talk lost him six radio stations ... then gained him nine more. The FCC imposed a $500,000 fine on radio stations for broadcasting the very same word Dick Cheney saw fit to use on the Senate floor. And churches urged families to see a blood-soaked, R-rated film in which Jesus gets the bejesus beat out of him.

I've observed these shifting sands personally during my years of writing for "The Simpsons." When the show debuted in 1989, it was slammed by President George H.W. Bush. His wife called it "the stupidest thing [she] ever saw." Churches condemned the show, and schools banned Bart T-shirts.

It was in reaction to this that I started writing children's books. This was a stretch for me because I hate children. I have no kids, but neither did Dr. Seuss, Beatrix Potter and Hans Christian Andersen. You wouldn't want your kids within a mile of Lewis Carroll. My books share the Simpsons sensibility: wise-guy humor with appeal to all ages. But I kept the language clean and the messages upbeat.

Well, things have changed in the last 15 years. "Simpsons Studies" is now taught on college campuses, and clergymen routinely mangle our jokes in their sermons. Meanwhile, to my utter amazement, my newest children's book -- the sweetest of the five I've published -- has been branded "vulgar" and "obscene" by angry, vocal readers who just don't get it.

The book is called "The Boy Who Looked Like Lincoln," and it's about an 8-year-old who looks exactly like Honest Abe: He's got the hat, the mole, even the beard. The unhappy boy is sent to a summer camp for kids who look like things: toasters, bowling pins, the Titanic. In the end, he learns the valuable lesson that looks are not important; it's your character that counts. This doesn't explain why supermodels make so much more than schoolteachers, but hey, it's just a kids' book.

The reviews and feedback on the book were positive. But then some readers began to complain on Amazon that it was "inappropriate" and "shocking." They told righteous tales of hiding the book at school fairs and ripping it off library shelves. I even got a nasty letter from a school librarian in Massachusetts.

Oddly, they all seemed to like the book and appreciate the message, but they found the last page pornographic. I was baffled. On the last page, the boy who looks like Lincoln hopes he can help his little brother, Dickie, a baby who, it turns out, looks exactly like Richard Nixon. If they had said the joke was dated, or easy, or over kids' heads, I might have agreed with them. But pornographic?

I think I've figured it out: These people assumed the baby was named Dickie because he looked like ... well, I can't say it. I'm in enough trouble as it is. Let's just say they couldn't tell our 37th president from parts of the male anatomy. Some might argue that Dick Nixon himself had that resemblance, perhaps accounting for our endless repulsion and fascination with the man, but how could people not recognize that the baby in the picture was Dick Nixon? He had a 5 o'clock shadow, he was waving two Vs for Victory ... the kid had a little tape recorder, for crying out loud.

I'm afraid the sweetest book I'll ever write has gotten the same reaction that greeted "Lady Chatterley's Lover," "Tropic of Cancer" and Janet Jackson's breast. It's been loudly denounced by people whose knowledge of American history starts with the bicentennial. It's also a little scary that most of my critics proudly bill themselves as teachers and school librarians. As for me, I've learned three things about the self-appointed watchdogs of modern morality:

1. They have no sense of history.

2. They have no sense of humor.

3. They have filthy, filthy minds.

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