Gabriel Morton versus The Simpsons: The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

Gabriel Morton versus The Simpsons: The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire

I can recite whole episodes of this fucking show by heart. It’s my third parent and, much to the chagrin of my biological parents, the one I spend the most time with. When I die, my life won’t flash before my eyes, but I’ll get a pretty kickass Simpsons marathon. It’s the cultural product this period in history will be known for and it will be studied and deconstructed at least until The Humungus’s raiders destroy the last library. It began, in Australia, on February 10, 1991 which was over a year after it had premiered to great success in the US. The speed of cool is a damn sight faster in the age of the internet, so back then you just had to hear about things like this and wonder if you were ever going to get to experience them. Fortunately, Channel 10, which would later become a Simpsons rerun network, bought it and I’ve been using it to replace useful information in my head ever since.

Every week, I’ll be watching the episodes, in order, relating how they interact with the brain of an obsessive as I go. I hope to complete this before the series is finally cancelled. I have also bitten off more than I can chew.

My recollection

This is the one where they got Santa’s Little Helper which is interesting cause they didn’t change canon much but did so twice in the first season alone. It’s an odd way to set up for a series that has gone on to make jokes about its lazy status-quo resets. I don’t remember any standout lines from this episode nor do I have any little obsessions with it so I’m just gonna tuck in.

The Episode

This is kind of a weird story because the US episode 1 and the Australian episode 1 are actually different episodes. Animation delays meant the US series was aired out of order and, while the Australian order isn’t the originally planned one either, it bears a closer resemblance to the original. While I do think the Australian order makes more sense, the fact that it still differs from the planned order means I’ll be going with the US order as canon. This means the first episode, instead of Australia’s fun Bart the Genius introduction, is the a remarkably bleak Christmas Special with no title sequence. We are off to an amazing start, fuck yeah, the goddamned Simpsons, let’s do this.

Holy fucking shit this episode is miserable. Not miserable as in terrible, miserable as in genuinely sad. The whole thing is a grim inversion of Christmas positivity whose happy ending is more fluke than miracle. Bart gets a tattoo, forcing Marge to spend her Christmas savings removing it thinking that Homer’s Christmas bonus can make up for the shortfall. Meanwhile, Mr Burns has eliminated the year’s bonuses in order to protect executive salaries. The rest of the episode is Homer shouldering a brutal emotional burden because nothing is funnier than watching a lower-middle class father torture himself physically and emotionally to save his family from heartache brought upon them by corporate greed.

Not as quotable as “I call the big one, Bitey”

There is genuine comedy to be found in the actual dark and certainly the value of humour when reflected off sadness with actual venom is doubled. Rick and Morty manages this a lot. The scene at the end of Auto Erotic Assimilation where Rick tries to kill himself is effectively played for genuine pathos and the reality of this sadness adds to the character moments that form the scaffolding for the absurd humour. As a series, and in later episodes, The Simpsons manages this too but as a first goddamned episode none of the counter-jokes work because they are at the expense of the things that are causing Homer, a character who hasn’t done anything to deserve this, genuine pain. And, like the above picture, the animators do go to commendable efforts to communicate Homer’s suffering. Scene after scene is a man dying inside trying to protect his family from pain, I wanted to marathon a comedy goddammit.

Later series made light of the fact that Homer’s various, bored-writer induced moonlights in other jobs were at the expense of him ever doing any work at the power plant. Ha ha, that’s Captain Wacky for you. This episode highlights the fact that he’s just worked a 15 hour day to make sure his family have a nice Christmas.

A season 3 episode, Lisa’s Pony, did similar things but the comparison really serves to highlight the genuine pain Homer goes through in this episode. In Lisa’s Pony, Homer’s troubles are punishments brought on by his drinking, he has Marge to confide in and support him, and the resulting fatigue is played absurdly for laughs like with the asleep-at-the-wheel dream sequence. In this episode, Homer suffers because of a dimwit son and an employer’s anti-worker management style. He suffers alone (mostly), because he is trying to spare Marge pain, and all of this is drawn out in excruciating and well animated scenes of real family drama.

Inadequacy twists the people you love into the tools of your own torture. Fuck I’m glad I did this series.

Homer really loves his family, and this love fuels his self-loathing when catalyzed by evidence that others do better than he does. The episode grinds Homer’s inadequacies into his face, ostensibly for laughs, but these laughs have to come from somewhere other than the whims of fate or they’re just cruel. It’s the difference between laughing at an adult in a wheelchair because they tried to jump a jet ski from their roof into a kiddie pool, and laughing at a child in a wheelchair because of a birth defect. Homer’s just not that bright, not in a comedic buffoon sense but in a real, there has to be a loser for the winners to step over, sense. I’ve seen this in the outer suburbs from folk who, much like myself, would consider anyone lower-middle class to be rich. It’s fucking depressing, they’re aware that they are one of the limiting factors in their lives but they lack the skills to do anything about it. You see these brief moments where they dream of better only for them to quickly correct themselves because they know enough to know that hope is the primary vector of suffering. The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire drew this for us to watch, neat.

I’ll just never be good enough

The thing about primates, one of the sadder things, is how much envy is hard-wired as a survival tool. Monkeys and people alike flip their shit if presented with evidence that someone is getting more than them and this is how a pile of otherwise disparate biological functions motivate a whole to pursue beneficial behaviours. This uses the same neural pathways as physical pain and the initially ignores any cognitive interference like whether or not the difference was earned. This episode cruelly applies this to torture ol’ Homer some more. It’s not enough that he’s worrying about how he’s going to save his family from misery, he has to see other people manage a life he struggles in with ease. Homer’s jealousy of his neighbour, Ned, is typically used to highlight a negative trait of Homer’s. Again, though, with other episodes and with a backlog of character and story build up, this can be correctly demonstrated against Homer either actually having things pretty good or being undeserving through lack of care or effort. This is the first fucking episode and Flanders is on screen only to be so very nearly sarcastically nice when the pair bump into each other. Fuck you, Flanders, Homer just walked out of the cheap shit store, of course the nice presents are yours, you cunt.

Homer’s only release in the episode comes after Bart pulls his Santa beard down and discovers the second job. Homer confesses what has happened, but that Bart doesn’t show any awareness or guilt over his causal role in events sucks any chance at a real catharsis from the moment. Bart can’t shoulder any of the emotional weight, so the relief Homer gets is little more than the superficial release one gets with confession. The sliver of renewed self-respect Homer gleans from his son’s almost admiration would be scarce succour by itself and is worst than nothing considering what comes next.

This episode has been building the tension of the threat of a ruined Christmas against the audience expectation of the Christmas Miracle. In yet another brutal kick, Homer’s hours of labour are, after removal of various fees and taxes, thirteen dollars. Hard work did not pay off because fuck you. Fuck you for being poor and kind of stupid. Live this indignity in front of your ten year old son, you fucking loser. You can’t get out of this yourself, you just have to hope that some all-powerful entity fucking cares about you enough to tilt things in your favour. Thirteen dollars is nothing. Homer has done everything right and still failed. This is the miracle leverage. Barney suggests betting it on a tip he has at the dog track, a 10-1 which would turn his useless $13 into a presumably viable $130.

There’s a fascinating sense of generational change in what happens next. Bart uses explicit reference to the Christmas miracle trope and how TV has taught him to believe in it to convince Homer to go place his bet on Whirlwind. While at the track, Homer hears that a new dog has been added to the race, Santa’s Little Helper, at 100-1. Homer is now 100% behind the idea of the Christmas miracle and that he deserves it. Bart begs him not to, acting as the voice of a more cynical modern viewership, but Homer is from an older generation where miracles are real so he bets on Santa’s Little Helper. This hope in a hackneyed old trope is about the closest to a dramatic flaw he exhibits all episode and, while it’s cruel, it does serve as a bold opening statement for the series on how it will relate to expectations built by some 30 odd years of prior sitcoms. This new show is Bart, not Homer.

What makes the episode strange, and doubly so as a first fucking episode, the whole thing just depressing. Homer does nothing but work hard and try, and both of these are punished by uncaring fate. The “miracle” of Barney’s tip isn’t much more than a coincidence one could encounter in real life, but it’s Homer’s hope in the reality of miracles that draws him into actual folly. Homer does everything right and fails. Homer hopes and fails. It’s admirable, and expected, for the writers to avoid the Christmas Miracle because its age, and the fact that it’s brutally fake to anyone actually miserably poor, makes it an unsatisfying conclusion. But what’s a Christmas Miracle trope without the miracle? Fucking unrelentingly sad. The brevity of the final scene, Homer arriving home and ready to finally confess only to have everyone delighted by the dog, is telling as it allows the episode to gloss over the lack of real resolution. There’s no moral about family or consumerism as a hollow joy. Homer doesn’t get to tell his wife what happened and how hard the last few days have been, Bart goes unpunished, and the novelty of the dog can only last so long, but they fade out on a happy family so MERRY FUCKING CHRISTMAS.

Jokes, lines and stray thoughts.

There is fuck-all in the way of the kinds of jokes the series became known for. The thickly layered, intertextual and absurd style of later seasons, the style that encourages multiple viewings, isn’t on display here. But there are one or two moments.

Marge keeping the Christmas fund in her hair, reminiscent of the Super Globetrotter Sweet Lou, is a solid sight gag.

Homer chomping down on a child’s doughnut is similarly funny but it comes after him admitting that he hasn’t eaten, making the whole thing another grim indignity to be endured by the working poor.

 

Early Simpsons was fairly poorly animated and loaded with errors, this episode benefits from being the 8th actually produced but there’s a few amusing mistakes and some interesting differences in early character behaviour and appearance.

Lisa is meant to be wearing tights, they just weren’t coloured in. The result is a girl who is clearly naked but has no visible genitalia, suggesting a dark sub-plot where Lisa underwent unnecessary gender normalisation surgery and was left with nothing but a sheet of scar tissue where once was a 3 inch clitoris. My Magic Arts Degree 8 Ball says this is mostly true.

 

Homer doing his actual fucking job. Look at it! Like the sound of a dial up modem, modern generations have no idea that such scenes were once necessary.

 

My friend went to a school where a kid brained himself over the holidays and eventually came back retarded. I feel like this is what happened to Ralph because he has about 3 season of being an unremarkable kid until the writers needed a fun-tard to kick around. On the one hand, I love fun-tard Ralph, on the other, something clearly happened that they haven’t explained and this keeps me awake at night.

 

How the yellow skin affected the hair and several other elements of the Simpsons universe physiology and physiognomy weren’t ironed out in the early seasons and the results are things like this mysterious bowl cut kid and a few other lazy monstrosities you don’t see past season 4. He looks like one of the Happy Little Elves.

 

The show has gotten mileage out of the old animation gag of the silhouette and eyes combo but I highlight this scene because it’s not funny and just well done in a season fairly bereft of quality animation moments.

There’s a few other little things, Barney being blonde, Moe having black hair, and some other animation oddities but they impact little on an episode that is one of the technically superior of the first season. It’s also a stand out for being one of the few episodes to make permanent changes to the canon, the addition of Santa’s Little Helper, but as here it is a season premier it is less of a change and more an establishment. It’s been odd to go back to this at the age of 34 and watch Homer struggle. The earlier seasons are light on the jokes as it is but at least they’ve got better comedic premises and lighter fare to work with. The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire has been a depressing experience. A largely humourless look into a man tortured by problems he doesn’t deserve but is too stupid to really solve is too judgemental a mirror for a man writing a catalogue of Simpsons reflections to gaze into.

Next Week

Bart the Genius.

By Gabe.

 

7 Replies to “Gabriel Morton versus The Simpsons: The Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”

  1. This is a wonderful idea. I have very similar opinions on The Simpsons, and I’ll be interested to see this evolve once we get to “A Streetcar Named Marge” and “Monorail” territory. Goon on ya, Morton.

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