Brush with Greatness

Brush with Greatness

Here you go, nutmeats, the audio is at the top.

My Recollection

The screaming, wet children writhing around Homer. Ringo Starr. Genitalia.

The stalemated trio sprawl across the Gold Coast hinterland like sleeping kaiju. The Big Three –Dreamworld, Wet and Wild, and Movie World– seem so dominant that it’s hard to imagine a state that could possibly be otherwise. But otherwise it was. Prior to the resurgence of videogames, prior even to my time, a populace without a million reasons to stay home roamed the suburbs and fed an ecosystem of tiny, strange theme parks.  

The Mirage Grand Prix was one such oddity. Nestled like a 1979 flavoured bumhole between the twin cheeks of Oxley and Inala, it featured go-karts, arcade games, and a giant waterslide. But nobody really wants to drive go-karts around a bumhole while their wet brother zaps himself on a derelict The Simpsons arcade cabinet, at least not once the Nintendo 64 existed, so it eventually shut down.

It didn’t shut down because my brother got zapped. Like all the “some kid died there” stories, this one wasn’t true. Unlike all the “some kid died there” stories, the one at Amazon’s, where we went for year 6 and 7 end of year parties, was absolutely true. A kid died there in 1999, a final straw of various expenses that resulted in it shutting down a bit over a year later.

But I was there in 1995 with a bunch of other kids trying to get one of them to shit somewhere other than a toilet.

I don’t like the movie The Human Centipede exactly, but I like that it exists. It feels like a box we needed ticked, and, now that it is, we can move on. A similar drive makes me look at messed up things on the internet. I don’t ever have to wonder what it looks like when someone tries to do a poo into someone else’s bum. I’ve seen it, that’s that covered. Given that a giant waterslide is just a crazy straw version of a toilet, there’s a part of me that needs to see someone shit down one. Preferably while going down it themselves, but if life’s taught me anything, it’s how to settle.

Amazon’s Aquatic Adventureland was an intoxicating cocktail of chlorine, urine, and heights. It was more stimulation than a feral kid could handle, so they weren’t, and the chaperones had either given up trying or were attempting to stop the triple Down Syndrome brawl that would always break out when you got the three of ‘em together.

Trying to get someone to shit down a 5-storey waterslide may seem like an odd task but then you’ve probably never spent time with someone who’d piss in their own tent. William pissed inside a tent we all had to share once, then used a pillow to mime aggressively fucking the bearded Christian who came to tie down a loose flap. The resulting fight for the corner farthest away from William was one of the few times I’ve ever won anything that mattered. Someone called him Pissrape Pete and it stuck, despite that not being his name.

We’re killing time walking up the stairs toward a wet tube talking about various funny anti-social behaviours. I wasn’t the first to bring up shitting down one, but I certainly seconded the motion. William was with us, and even though nobody said it, nobody had to. We were saying this in front of him with the tacit understanding that we expected him to do it if we just said how cool it would be. This usually worked for most William related destruction and a lot more besides. Harnessing William brought with it the kind of near reverential fear of 1940s atomic energy. We were scientists prodding something we didn’t fully understand, getting it worked up and folding it back onto itself occasionally provided us with glimpses into the very nature of the universe. Other times it threw a chair at the old lady teacher even the other delinquents didn’t fuck with. Because she was old.

Socially engineering William Energy while at a water park was dangerous territory, there were a lot of things for him to climb and die on, so veering toward the disgusting instead of the dangerous was a kind of compassion. This compassion served as the five-minute walk a fat person uses to justify a terrible dietary decision, and we greedily took the same liberty as we drove William with more ferocity than usual.

If anyone was going to just shit on a waterslide it was William, and dammit, the internet barely existed. But something happened that day and I’m still not quite sure what. William chickened out. He looked like he was going to slide his shorts that he said were swimmers but weren’t down over an ass we’d all seen more times than we wished we had, but then he just hopped down the slide. There’s only so disappointed you can be at the top of a slide, though, so, making sure to not be second in case he was shitting farther down, I enjoyed my go.

Some of you are probably thinking that the life guard less than 2 metres away from William stopped him. He pissed inside, and I want to stress the inside part, of the tent we, and I want to stress the we part, had to sleep in. Some of you are probably thinking the thought of getting in trouble stopped him. He threw a chair at the old lady teacher and seemed otherwise incapable of positing possible future states.

I still have no idea what stopped him. He made threatening sexual jokes to teachers and his head looked like two peppercorns stuck in a sweet potato. At any rate, we were miffed and an unusual situation developed from that. An implicit understanding psychically shared between a cluster of little shits is hardly a signed contract, but we all felt like we’d been cheated. Now, even though none of us would have had the idea of demanding William shit, we were demanding poo from Pissrape Pete.

In a perfect example of how a changed circumstance can have you chasing something you’d never have otherwise, we were negotiating with William over a new location for him to shit. At many points in the discussion, this boiled down to simply demanding he shit in front of us somewhere. In retrospect, beyond being just dumb, this was potentially dangerous as seeding William with the idea that socially inappropriate defecation was something that would earn him regard had the chance to backfire wildly. We haggled away, ignorant of this.

On the zipline? That would be fucking hilarious.

“Nuh”

How about just in the pool? Nobody would really know it was you and people would find it.

“Nuh”

We wound up watching him shit on the bathroom floor near the urinal trough, as our scientific analysis indicated that inside the trough would have been less funny as it was technically a toilet.

The experience was tremendously disappointing.

The Episode

There’s a physical structure to the way that characters, locations, and universe/narrative developments interact and understanding this is a good way to approach creating or critiquing a work. Vladimir Nabokov famously started lectures on Ulysses with a map of Dublin to plot Stephen and Leopold’s paths through the city. As the intersection of character and location can be an important one, it isn’t a bad bit of general advice, but the maps needn’t be of physical relationships.

Good narratives are closed systems with little waste. Shaun of the Dead is a good example of this. Every zombie you see is a person in some earlier background; shots, lines, and motifs are repeated rhythmically; and the film foreshadows so much it’s almost a palindrome. The opening 20 minutes of Shaun of the Dead isn’t tossed away once the zombies show up, because that would be insane. And yet The Simpsons (and others) grew into a habit of doing exactly that.

This is one of those situations where the idea isn’t necessarily wrong, but the alternative is almost always better. Narrative tightness tends to play a back seat in most sitcoms as most are aiming at light entertainment, and the 22-minute run time favours jokes over narrative, so the habit tends to get a pass as a fundamental trope of the format. It isn’t, though, and you can tell this as its use built up over time and forced the writers to acknowledge it. Nonetheless, the habit has continued and is common in other animated sitcoms.

Visualising this narrative structure creates a kind of body and a head, with a separating piece of connective tissue that’s neither. This neck is the pivot point. Naturally, a face on a chest never has to worry about a broken neck because a pivot is the weak point of a structure. Now, a potential weakness is not something to be so feared that you never have one but building with one means it has to be taken into account. Luke Cage is a good example of this not happening. A villain was well built over the course of around 7 episodes only to be killed and replaced with another for the final 3. That’s 7 hours of emotional investment ditched for a character who never even had the chance to match it. This means the pivot is attempting to hold together elements that are wildly unbalanced and so the poor creature’s neck snapped.

But there are narrative tools, and trope structures one can use to shore up this weakness. Using a Chekhov’s gun style tease, one can build a sub-structure that makes the pivot more of a reveal of the true plot, and horror film tropes have a built-in pivot from not scary to scary, meaning audiences are naturally amenable to the focal shift. Brush with Greatness does something I only really noticed on my watch for this episode and it’s not something I’ve seen sitcoms do very often. This is a shame as it is very good.

Another common element of sitcoms is the B plot, a kind of brain wrinkle to provide more surface area for jokes. Often, these are just sorta there and can frequently be almost entirely separate from the primary story. Brush with Greatness starts with a great opening bit of the family trip to Mount Splashmore and, rather than abandon that for the primary plot of Marge, Burns, and the painting, it moves it into the background as the B story.

It’s a fairly basic task to simply balance elements or maintain enough narrative impetus to either keep the pivot secure or at least get the audience to not think too much on it. But by having the intro shift into the B plot, then there is no pivot at all. What would otherwise be a weakness is now not only a secure structure, but one that makes use of normally abandoned episode sections to create an incredibly tight plot.

Homer feels bad about getting stuck in the slide tube, so he wants to lose weight. Marge is painting because he found her art looking for his exercise equipment. Marge paints Burns naked because he was cruel about Homer’s minor weight loss. There is no point where these two stories aren’t relating to each other in natural ways despite them being two distinct things. Very little just sorta happens from the writer’s fancy that is the never seen greater universe outside the frame.

It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder why you don’t see it more often. I’ve never quite understood the point of the disassociated opening bit and yet it’s grown into a staple of the animated sitcom. My first thought was that they did it when they felt the primary narrative was in some way too weak to carry the full run, but there are good later examples where the actual plot is solid and only let down because of the time constraints created by a wasted opening. Noticing how Marge would later remark on the presence of these shifts, my suspicion is that it became a habit bordering on challenge. A bit like the reverse of a Twilight Zone twist.

One of the most common gaps I read in people’s online writing and discussion on narrative tends to be around narrative weighting. It’s one of those things people know but can sometimes struggle to put into words. The physical structure approach is a good tool, not just for understanding, but also crafting works. Brush with Greatness surprised me in how much better a sitcom can be when things occur as a result of internal processes and not accepted tropes.

This is a classic episode, it’s funny, genuinely well plotted, and its unique structure serves as a great case study for narrative enthusiasts.

Yours in not taking praise very well, Gabriel.

Jokes, Lines, and Stray Thoughts.

This episode is a solid one for things that are absurd but close enough to real, and the circumstances around them, that they aren’t the kind of “joke above universe” types of later funny-but-dumb episodes.

Moments like Krusty saying, “Don’t make me a liar” and “NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW” being screamed as the song lyrics are ridiculous when compared to 90s kids TV by only a slight degree. This proximity nests a second joke in there and adds a second layer to something that is funny through superficial ridiculousness. Top quality.

And now, GREAT MOMENTS IN WHAT THE FUCK BACKGROUND CHARACTERS! Featuring FAT BLACK LISA!

What even is that?

The Simpson kids’ haranguing of Homer is a narrative trick the writers use as a kind of expandable gap filling foam. If the eps a running short, just add another scene of the kids nagging. The scene is just a few shots of the Bart and Lisa being annoying, and never does anything too interesting with that concept, but the shot in the shower is some unintentional magic.

“Faaaaaaaaaather…”

It’s been funny watching fat jokes evolve over the years as 90s fat people wouldn’t even rate by today’s standards. Homer is panicking about his weight and how fat he looks, meanwhile Kevin James was 40 pounds heavier than him in Paul Blart. Homer’s practically an afterphoto now, but in the 90s, he was “get stuck in a water slide” fat.

Speaking of which, the tube scene borders on body horror and is one of the funniest single scenes in the show. It could have been a raw cut to a screaming Homer but there are so many beautiful details that come together to make it a masterpiece of subtle counterbalancing to something otherwise obvious. There’s 2 seconds of just tube which adds anticipation and makes the reveal of a screaming Homer funnier. Then there’s Homer, it’s literally a few frames but his expression goes from anger at being stuck in the tube to horror at the children screaming toward him. There’s even a tone shift in the scream and this gives us two jokes for the one moment in about the space of a second. Then there’s the chubby child limbs jamming past Homer.

Surprise is one of the core elements of a joke. Usually this takes the form of some kind of absurdity, as was expertly demonstrated by Rowan Atkinson in a cupboard. Thwarting this surprise is, obviously, predictability. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Sight gags have a built-in risk on relying heavily on the ultimate visual as the idea of the visual will often be known before it happens. We know the kids are going to run into Homer the second they start going down the slide. The way this joke plays out is a great example of how to counter that predictability and structure a new joke that takes advantage of human nature. By cutting away from the actual impact, and only showing us the limbs, we are given a counter-surprise, a denial of the expected which was absurd in the first place. And this denial uses the primal unknown, similar to things like Edgar Alan Poe’s use of frightening nothings or Arrested Development’s clever use of censorship bleeps, to create something that the animal mind feels as funny without the clutter of the logical mind arguing. It’s a beautiful moment.

Scott Christian, seldom seen reporter.

Krusty’s face is still make-up in this episode. Some consider this a retcon but they do clarify that he had a massive onscreen heart attack that was never shown so I allow that as, absurd as it is, a legitimate explanation.

“Properly sugar coat a response” is a great Lisa line. Compassionate, intelligent, and very cruel.

Fucking Ringo Starr. This is a good “as themselves” guest role, short and relevant. In case you don’t know, he’s spent the last several years completely insane and making absolutely ridiculously shithouse MS Paint art that he sells for obscene quantities

This is “Bad Finger”. It costs 1800 pounds

Marge being bullied out of art is funny, and fits the general flow of her having her personality crushed

Lombardo is another good Lovitz guest role

The guy painting the stair railing red has stuck with me for years. It could have been the wall or, you know, anything that would be getting painted red. They went with stair bannister.

Lombardo’s geometric art teaching precedes the “draw the rest of the fucking owl” gag by a bit

Homer is several kinds of clashing unfit at once. Generally, while heavy guys have abysmal cardio, they will be able to lift a decent weight due to hauling themselves around. His inability to lift even a few pounds is a nerd writer’s idea of unfit.

“I don’t take praise very well” is a great line from Lombardo and demonstrates how much character you can get across with just one line.

Homer munching rice cakes and his singlet tan are maintained across the episode to good effect.

Burns having his portrait done is probably the most external part of the narrative. It’s not bad, but it is a good way to illustrate the way that things from outside the frame in a false universe are just there when compared to things threaded into seen motivations within the frame.

Some early signs of gay Smithers with the “somebody down here likes you, Sir” line but it still feels more toady love than gay.

Look, it’s Carl with Lenny’s voice. Someone should have written a helpful guide as to who was who on their hand.

Homer’s scream at Burns is great and a testament to Dan Castellaneta’s value as a voice actor. So much of Homer’s great moments involve him screaming and Castellaneta can manage to make a cartoony response feel like it’s coming from a real place.

Burns’ line, “you’re pleased with your current appearance” is vicious

“Another day in this suburban nightmare and I’ve had needed half a white Valium” is a nice line of his as well and delivered with a speed I love for verbal humour.

Marge, and the show, make an excellent point about the nature of art and how much any work is part narrative. By writing the story of the Nude Burns in front of her audience, she won them all over. It is a good reminder that the art is not just the artefact.

They had to argue with Fox to say genitalia. Genitalia. Fucking times change.

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8 Replies to “Brush with Greatness”

  1. On the subject of the narrative thing, I think the Futurama episode Bendin’ in the Wind does something similar. Fry gets ahold of the VW van, then Bender gets injured as a result and becomes a folk singer, and then Fry and most of the rest of the cast become hippies and follow him around as a result of owning the van.

    1. It shows up occasionally, there’s even a few other Simpsons episodes that do it. Doing it all the time would get dull but the alternative we got was far worse.

  2. Overall, I’d say this is my favorite episode of season 2. The jokes are great and the story really carries it. Burns is a compelling man-child ogre.

    Watching it back, I weirdly noticed the two mermaids at the opening holding the hoop for Krusty to burst through. In my head canon they were the most attractive employees of the park that were used.

    Homer, in this episode at least, is about 40 pounds lighter than my current weight (that’s after me losing around 50 pounds through diet and exercise, so at least i’m putting in the effort) and he’s also drawn to look more out of shape than usual, all bulge and more pronounced man boobs.

    I could have gone my entire life not knowing how much that picture Starr drew sold for and my life would be much happier.

    Is Ringo the first cameo appearance by a major celebrity in the series? I can think of a few that had significant voice role (Dustin Hoffman is in the next episode) but not as themselves.

  3. Apparently Ringo Starr makes those incredibly shitty drawings and auctions them off because someone will buy anything with his name on it. He gives the money to charity so it could be worse. I don’t know what kind of maniac would pay that much for something like that, though.

    1. At least they’re for charity. To be honest, some of them work as bizarre pieces of novelty art. Bad Finger is a hell of a conversation starter, at least.

  4. Probably the one thing that always stuck with me about this episode is homers swim shorts going from a smiley face to a frowney face near the beginning. Never found it massively funny but I always wondered if it were actually possible. What really stands out on rewatch is how in the early seasons they tried to make Bart’s catchphrase “Bitching!”, unless I’m mishearing. Kind of surprised they got away with that as often as they did.

    1. I don’t know if they were leaning into it as a catchphrase as he already had a few and “bitchin'” is far tougher to copyright both due to common usage and the fact that it would have been too sweary for the 90s.

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