Lisa the Beauty Queen

Lisa the Beauty Queen

There’s some old advice on narrative writing from Arthur Quiller-Couch about murdering your darlings, by which he meant ornamental prose. The phrase has since evolved to “kill your darlings” and expanded to include characters, plots, or any other bit of a narrative that, attached to it as one may be, clogs the whole. It’s close to the “git gud” of literature, advice that chides but doesn’t actually advise, and seems comically hypocritical when Couch’s original style guide is written in early 20th century prose that time has made impenetrably ornate. Like a lot of bad advice, it’s true but entirely unhelpful.

Lisa is a mother of darlings. There is a gap between her chronological age and emotional maturity that gives her a possible story span that shames the rest of the cast. Homer can be serious but never clever. Marge has more emotional depth but is locked into dull possibilities. Bart can exhibit some moments of maturity but is too much his father. Lisa can be a child getting up to mischief with her brother or a politically aware leader whose oratory can bring down a corrupt senator, even in the same episode. This episode’s writer “likes writing (her) the best” because she is the “one character not ruled by her impulses”, and this shows in most of her focal episodes.

The thing that makes murder your darlings less than useful advice is that great, popular, and successful works are filled with them, which is precisely how they become darlings to us. If those darlings survived, then which ones should be getting cut? Perhaps my insecurity is driving me to kill everything that would be making me beloved and wealthy.

There are several good Lisa stories in Lisa the Beauty Queen. The first one is a story about a little girl feeling ugly, a matter that can become terribly serious when driven by a precocious intellect and unencumbered by life experience. The commentary mentions that Yeardly Smith’s voicework is “effortlessly emotional and touching”, and this talent is on full display here. Smith so frequently imbues Lisa with the genuine feelings her character is given to express that it becomes easy to take for granted, but there is a particular waver in her voice on the line, “Dad, do you think I’m ugly?” that wrenches at the heart and sets the stage for another excellent story with her and her father.

Why the father is an interesting point. A modern series would make this a story about the broader female experience, connecting daughter to mother with some points about society and self-image along the way. Marge’s only entry into this part of the narrative is a comically inept attempt at cheering her up, which can strike one as odd, even poor writing. But Marge has no sexual history outside of Homer, whom she married straight out of high school, and is an archetype of a bygone era when parents, let alone sitcom parents, rarely dealt with anything. What on earth would she know about being attractive? Granted, Homer knows less, but this is also the point. Marge is entirely out of her depth with this problem and thinks too much to do anything but fret about it. Homer is driven by a myopic need to protect his daughter that blinds him to exactly how deranged his solution is.

And it’s incredibly deranged. The idea of parading an eight-year-old girl, whose developing self-image has just taken a serious blow, in front of people judging her on exactly the metric that wounded her is madness, but the story cleverly wields Homer’s innocent stupidity to make it work. His unflinching belief that she is beautiful and just needs to have it proven in an official capacity would be beyond a live action dad and it’s interesting to see the series use Flanderisation for the emotional depth it typically thwarts. It’s also tragically wasted.

A beauty pageant is a bit like a sporting contest in that it has built-in narrative, so inserting one into your story requires care. The big game/match/meet will typically be the entire third act as a highlight reel of it will provide ample room for the expression of whatever plot threads or themes you’ve got lying around. A less common, but perfectly acceptable approach is to make just getting to the dance the final moment. Eliminating the competition narrative highlights the story narrative and will emphasise ideas like “journey over destination”. From acapella singing competitions to boxing, and even child beauty pageants, plenty of works throughout history have tread these paths because they work.

What they don’t do is have the competition take up the second act, because that wastes the first act’s conflicts and leaves you with a third act to fill.

Narratives can shortcut development by relaxing to an existing status quo, a thing The Simpsons does a lot. Making a soccer game the third act of a movie about soccer works because the characters played soccer to begin with. Little Miss Sunshine worked because the Little Miss in question wanted to compete in a beauty pageant. Lisa doesn’t compete in beauty pageants. Competing in beauty pageants is entirely out of her established character. Competing in a beauty pageant is also the last thing she wants to do per her beautifully presented, seriously treated emotional pain over her self-image. The narrative demands work to explain this change, as it is going against the status quo. The narrative does not do this work.

Homer sacrificing his Duff blimp ride is a good point around which to hinge a daughter’s realisation that her father loves her, and any subsequent personal discoveries you want to derive from that. Perhaps something deeper about confidence, self-perception, the usual. This would make a great second act point that leads to the final act being the competition. Even coming second is fine, Rocky did. Resolving it in thirty seconds, eight minutes into the episode is both a woefully inadequate resolution to the weight of the presented problem and completely bloody resolves it with thirteen minutes of show to go.

The particularly baffling thing is that any understandable reason for this is not forthcoming. Maybe you just wanted to do a funny beauty contest episode and your 35-year-old comedy writing man-brain didn’t want to deal with the minefield that is child body image issues. Fine. The second act is basically this. Gone is any mention of Lisa’s problem, but we have who appears to be a villain in Amber Dempsey. I say “appears” as she’s only villain by virtue of being introduced as the competition in a competition narrative while committing the unimaginable sin of not being the protagonist. Throw in something as immoral as cheating via illegal eyelash implants, however, and you’ve got your basic villain trope recipe cooking. Lisa has to beat this person or learn something about herself trying. Classic. No way to fuck this u—

Children are great vectors for mature narratives because they can act in the kinds of unassuming, earnest ways that make stories easy but seem absurdly naïve when done by adults. Lisa’s youthful activism can create narratives by pressing through obvious eventualities or limitations that more experienced adults would expect. An adult would have dozens of reasons not to fight the Laramie company, and activist narratives typically have to demonstrate some impassioning motivation to pick these fights. Lisa can simply march forward in the knowledge that she is right and the ignorance that being right doesn’t matter. Mr Lisa Goes to Washington used this a little, but later episodes completely utilise this to great effect.

Of course, Lisa would pick a fight with the Laramie company, they’re evil. More modern competition narratives weave the evil company/sponsor in as a way of giving the primary human antagonist a redemptive moment—as making someone who wants something as much as you evil is a poor moral—but either way, it’s a great narrative form that Lisa is perfect for. It’s a shame this one is three minutes long.

Each of these is a great Lisa story. A heartfelt character piece about a father and a daughter struggling to navigate the modern world’s cruelties. A competition story whose beauty contest setting is perfect for jokes. A story about standing up for what’s right against a far more powerful adversary. Over the course of the series, each of these actually has been a great Lisa story, sometimes several.

There’s a point in the commentary where they mention that the writers had a hard time finding a third act for this episode and it’s interesting that this is brought up as it shows that there was at least some awareness of a problem even if it’s the wrong one. There’s even some dialogue to stitch parts together. Lisa mentions that she wants to make the world a better place which does connect to the anti-smoking quest. She and Homer have a heart-to-heart at the episode’s conclusion that pays lip service to the actual problem from the start of the episode and, in isolation, is a nice scene. But Lisa the Beauty Queen doesn’t have a third act problem.

The episode is overpopulated with darlings, each starved to a gaunt shadow of its potential. In many other contexts, who lives and who dies is a hard decision, and when your Lisa idea works so well it can be hard to let it go. But when you’re a popular television series that’s going to need stories for the foreseeable future and, ultimately, the unforeseeable future, then there’s no excuse. Anything here would have worked; everything here does not.

Murder is a harsh concept, invoked to match the perceived emotional attachment to the little baubles we adorn our creations in. But the finality of the idea serves only to make those baubles ever more important. Scootch your darlings, gently nudge them out of the way until some other time. A good idea never has to die, your darlings don’t need to be murdered any more than my cat does when she’s sitting somewhere inconvenient. But they do need to be moved, or you wind up with an episode as clogged as a case fan full of cat hair.

Yours in being homely as a mule’s butt, Gabriel.

Breakdown.

1:24. The Simpsons uses a lot of bootleg carnival music I don’t recognise or have heard outside of it. I can’t imagine much carnival music still being in copyright, so I wonder if this is just stuff Fox has in its audio bin. This shot looks like it warps the geography of Springfield Elementary, but this could be a case of front and back looking identical. There aren’t many schools like this in Australia at all, so it’s altogether possible.

1:26. To be fair, calling a school fete, “The Happiest Place on Earth” really feels like picking a fight.

1:29. Blue-Haired lawyer is an interesting character as he’s one of the few who’s remained nameless and hasn’t had any focal episodes despite many appearances. This probably stems from the fact that he’s deemed the villain lawyer, and is barred from representing the family proper. He’s based on horrendous human being Roy Cohn, a Nixon era monstrosity who claimed he wasn’t gay in spite of openly fucking thousands of men.

I like that the two goons are the only two goons we see around this period as it makes sense a small town would only have a couple of freelancers everyone hires. I imagine these are the goons who muscled Homer out of his muscle for hire business.

1:40. There’s a moment here before Skinner kicks ass where he takes a slight breath between the words, “well”, and “so did you” which I love. It’s such a beautiful little detail and one that helps balance the Green Beret aspect of his personality with the dork principal part. It’s a switch that he has to turn on.

1:43. Tracheal hits fucking suck. I’ve copped a few close to bad shots in the throat and it always gives me the willies. The fingers can be used for this, but the extra few centimetres of range really aren’t a good trade on the risk unless you’re going for a claw around the windpipe. Watched a friend march a particularly large, violent drunk out of the Fortitude Valley Pig and Whistle like that once.

1:52. Back in one of the poorly supervised free sport periods in high school, a guy booted a basketball with all his might. The thing sailed in a high arc around 20-30 metres toward what appeared to be harmless wall, only to have said space suddenly filled by the head of one of the skater kids getting some practice in. It hit him with the kind of immense force and dull weight that knocked him several metres off the board without shattering his skull. Fortunately, skaters have the bodies of a stretch Armstrong filled with rubber bands, so the wounds were only superficial.

The inevitability of the briefcase impact turns the ran distance and slow journey of the throw into excellent tension build, while the nearly unseen impact inverts the expected comic violence. Excellent gag.

1:55. “Copyright expired” is a terrible line, even for Skinner.

2:00. I’ve never seen these clown water balloon things and don’t quite get how the water is supposed to fill a balloon that has it’s own tension and is above the water’s entry point. In Australia, we have these weird rotating clown heads with sexdoll gape mouths you put oversized ping pong balls into that fall into prize slots below. It’s weirder, but at least I get how it works.

2:05. Bart being actually good with cards reminds me of how he was naturally good at making cocktails and I think to how he’s defined as a useless failure mostly against a particular variety of American morality. These are skills you can make some good money off of.

2:12. Smoke bombs are surprisingly easy to make, though we could never figure out how to make them just burst like this.

2:14. There’s a lovely way that the normal within the ridiculous becomes funny, the straight-man principle, and the background character’s weak little cough at Bart’s smoke works like that. It lends this banal realism to the smoke that counterpoints the absurdity of vanishing within a puff of it.

2:17. Never tried Haggis as I’ve not been in any position to get what I could reliably assume to be a good example of it, but I’d try it if one came up.

2:28. Characters slumping into their own, lonely failure within these little cutaway gags is a fun Simpsons staple that adds a note of pathetic humour to the moment.

2:40. Do these Age & Weight guys actually exist? I can imagine them around the early 20th century and before, but anything after that just seems absurd. Homer does look like shit, I’m one year older than him.

2:43. Rides at major theme parks are scary because you’re really high and going really fast. Rides at carnivals and fetes are scary because they’re operated and maintained by people who live in them and consider accidentally swallowed teeth vitamins.

2:52. This was funny before I’d seen an internet’s worth of carnival ride catastrophe videos. Now it’s hilarious.

2:55. Nice little continuity shot here.

2:59. “I’ll be in Mexico ‘til this thing blows over” is a line that saw a lot of use. A detail I love here is Otto running before he’s finished his sentence and the mob hot on his tail. That they’re in frame at the same time as Otto adds a fun sense of threat to the moment, and is a nice piece of realistic-ish cause and effect. The crowd is odd as it’s all dad models except for one guy with a blue mohawk, who I think has been culturally obligated to appear in any mob scene since Road Warrior.

3:06. Milhouse in his scout gear is a fun detail as going off model is rare and doing so without really highlighting it rarer still. Milhouse is exactly the type of sad dork who’d attend a fete in his little scout uniform, and it makes his beating in Jimbo’s Spookhouse all the funnier. Jimbo’s Spookhouse does sound like a jazz club from the 20s, though.

3:09. The shadow crawl across Milhouse’s happy face as it turns into a sad but resigned realisation is a nice detail that covers the fact that there’s nowhere for Jimbo, Kearnie, and Dolph to hide in a tiny goddamn shed like that.

3:12. It’s time for BLAME THE VICTIM! What the fuck are you expecting to happen in Jimbo’s Spookhouse, operated by school bully Jimbo Jones? And that Bart’s walking up as Milhouse is being ejected means he has to have seen something. That said, Milhouse not saying anything is fucking hilarious. It’s exactly that kind of primary school best friend cruelty that you only realise was shitty with age.

3:20. “Uh-oh” is a great example of using the setup as the punchline. We’ve already seen what’s happening, so hearing only Bart’s realisation and not seeing or hearing anything else reverses the joke path. I do love audio gags where you have to imagine the events, cheap but effective.

3:27. Wow, I haven’t thought about one of those overhead projectors in years. I bet there are still Queensland schools that use them.

3:34. Ah, the first sense of how others see you. There’s interesting literature on the ways minor moments like this can greatly influence preteen self-perception and their subsequent behaviour regarding how they interpret that identity role.

3:39. A part of how the show manages to get away with skipping over Lisa’s opening trauma here is the fundamentally asexual nature of the core family’s models. As the show went on, Groening’s horrific scrawlings grew into a style that artists could add into, resulting in characters that were both more human and more capable of appearing attractive. Lisa’s head is that early caricature style that has to be interpreted as human, so her thoughts on her looks involve things so visually alien as to not register. We feel her pain through the voice acting, but even the show’s attempt at making her “pretty” is to simply add a wave to her odd blonde starfis. A lizard person, indistinguishable from the other lizard people, may lament their dim colouring in a manner we can empathise with on an emotional level, but its distance from our own understanding means we are empathising with the secondary emotion, not the causal problem.

 3:43. The carnival ride still smoking in the school building in this shot is another great use of minor continuity to get more out of a joke. Using the natural environment and basic cause and effect for callbacks lends them comic spontaneity that is itself enhanced by the normality of their delivery.

3:59. “Central pivot irrigation” Perfectly sensible technical jargon is the Leslie Nielsen of language. So dry it’s not even aware it’s in a comedy, but that’s exactly what makes it work.

4:12. There’s a running, not joke exactly, but sadly funny character trait Homer has where his fantasies involving minor wins always become about him being worshipped. Beavis and Butt-Head does something similar. It highlights how stupid their characters are because the fantasies begin with a piece of logic before spinning off into wild animal dreams of status and power. A ride in a blimp would be pretty fun by itself, but Homer translates one minor win into a stadium of people celebrating his existence.

This moment uses that great technique of cutting back to reality before the fantasy is over, letting us laugh at our stupid character as he chants his name. I’m pretty sure the fantasy cutoff technique was used prior to The Simpsons, but the show uses it really well.

4:22. I have never seen a shoe buffer like that, but I suppose I seldom even wear my dress shoes.

4:24. Flanders’ reaction here is, and is meant to be, genuine, but the angle overemphasises his mouth and skews it oddly sarcastic.

4:32. Pursuant to my earlier point about Homer’s fantasies being grotesquely animal, his jealousy over Flanders’ victory comes from the same place. He has a shoe buffer, he neither needs nor wants one, but Flanders won that one so now Homer needs it.

This scene could have just as easily been Homer winning the ride, but the Flanders win before it gives it a sense of real luck outside of the writer-gods. The show’s cynicism combines with the expectation that Homer being a petulant twit about the shoe buffer won’t be rewarded which disrupts the expected narrative pattern. Disrupting patterns on a large scale is risky, but small moments like this work well as they’re supported by the greater narrative.

4:44. I empathise with Lisa, but Christ, it’s a caricature. Photos of your drunk, fat ass mid-bender don’t have artistic license to hide behind. But this is that Lisa space, at once smart enough to have higher expectations, but still a little girl.

4:59. Like, goddamn this line. The breath in it flowing from the sobs turning it into almost a whisper, fragile as blown glass.

5:01. I mean, none of the drawings that get done of me are very flattering and I don’t let it seep into my soul like ice water I constantly try to block even though every tamped flow just causes more holes I didn’t even know were there to start pouring.

5:10. Meta gags went nuts for a while and I’m glad it’s settled a bit. It’s the same thing as a reference, just reflexive, so the unfunny would do it without any thought of using it for an actual joke. This one works because it’s small, and is perfectly within the context of its moment.

5:11. “Ugmo” sounds like one of Moe’s later boxing names.

5:14. Up until I was writing this, I thought Homer said, “Cute as a buck deer” which doesn’t make much sense, but many idioms grow so far from their origin as to be nonsensical. Deer are cute, sure. The line is actually, “Cute as a bug’s ear” which goes toward the “small” conceptualisation of cuteness a bit but is otherwise batshit insane. Grampa’s response of “No! You’re homely as a mule’s butt” is a great use of his quantum presence. It’s funny, but also demonstrates Homer trying to solve this problem with reason. A natural thing to do, but reason has a tough time in fights like this.

5:24. There’s an available advantage to the expressiveness of the animated face, but it’s one that must be built. Homer’s feelings here are more than just empathy for his daughter. He’s feeling her pain, but also his own via his failure to help her, wrapped in various levels of anxiety he’s not smart enough to deal with. It’s challenging for a good actor to express this, let alone some lines representing a face, but a series can develop animated cues that are outside the reach of live actors. Homer’s lightly furrowed brow, upturned gently in the centre, combined with half-pursed lips with a nearly imperceptible downward tilt, merge several forms of emotive Simpson physiognomy into one expression. Each of these blends and stands opposed to the typical hyperexpression of animation, creating something that is complex but subtle, helping better communicate the feeling.

5:29. This move to Moe’s here is a good example of a time/space cut that helps the story. Jumps are necessary in narrative, it’s impossible and wildly inadvisable to show every trivial detail of character movement but done thoughtlessly they can erode a useful underlayer of reality. Homer walks out of Lisa’s room having just failed to help his sobbing daughter, and the next shot is the “Moe’s” exterior. The Moe’s exterior often means failure and here it helps reinforce the previous scene.

5:39. While it still needs cartoon reality to really work, the effort gone into making the beauty pageant solution make sense is impressive. Homer has even less idea of what being attractive is than Marge, so asking Moe and Barney is both funny, as they’re each hideous, and a great demonstration of how fundamentally out of his depth he is.

I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve felt personally physically attractive, and most of those are basically sexual harassment/assault, so I’m always amazed by how some of the most asymmetrical, rushjob excuses for men can operate without the slightest idea that someone may not find them attractive. A great deal of it is covering bluster, but still.

5:45. A consistent thing of Homer getting his ideas from the bar TV is a fertile plot device.

5:50. I fucking love this joke of the father throwing the little girl and her just not coming down so he can deliver the ad patter.

5:54. Jack Larson shows up a few times, then basically vanishes with most of the sinister businessman jobs taken by Burns.

6:27. This Krusty bit is based on a real, baffling thing. Canadian then American variety host Art Linkletter was the celebrity spokesman for the first of the modern versions of “Game of Life”, the boxes of which featured this peculiar image. How things like this are meant to make me buy something have always baffled me. Even if the endorsement comes from someone with meaningful knowledge of the domain the product relates to, I tend to be suspicious. David Lynch could endorse a Transformer, so what? Now, a David Lynch Transformer, that’d get my interest.

6:28. Smoking is one thing, but everyone in the tobacco industry is a valueless scab who should be given “the boats”.

6:39. Assuming Homer’s wallet is empty because he already finished his last beer.

6:48. It’s another testament to the value of having broad utility in your novelty side characters that Homer can sell the tickets to Barney instantly. The idea that he’s cashed up due to human experimentation fits him to a T. The ten seconds used for an ad break gag also covers a plot point.

7:07. I’d joke about the reflectiveness of the spoon here, but I wouldn’t put it past Marge to polish these things to a mirror sheen.

7:14. Marge’s solution here is almost as bad as Homer’s, but there’s a reality to these situations that the sufferer’s rarely want to think about. Having been through a bunch myself, you have two options: not care or do something about it. Everything else is wasted energy and there’s only so much you can inflict your pain on others before it makes you the dick.

7:18. “So you think I’m ugly?” No, you’re 8, you’re nothing. You are a grub crawling about a leaf. At least wait until puberty to develop crippling body dysmorphia.

7:22. Marge is just too old fashioned for this problem and this world.

7:33. That this is Homer’s face while Lisa says, “To shut myself off from the world and never be seen by human eyes again” is amazing. He really thinks he’s solved it and of course he does.

7:34. Homer’s “Uhhh” before “was your second wish to be entered in the Little Miss Springfield Pageant?” is a great detail. Lisa’s reaction is as expected, but the added bit of Homer using the caricature that caused all this in the first place is brilliant. It’s another thing that sounds insane until you realise the level of point-missing that Homer has been operating under makes it perfectly obvious. The fact that he calls it the “funny drawing” really hammers this home.

7:59. Bart with more mature sexual identity again for this Tex Avery wolf bit.

8:22. This is a great moment. The total lack of artistry indicates the total honesty of Homer’s eye gouging comment, which is both funny but also carries the feeling well. It’s got that kind of wrestling promo quality to it where you’re feeling the vague direction of the energy more than the details.

8:23. Giving Marge the last word of that scene shifts the focus to her and lets her carry the edit to this scene.

8:42. Ah, eating pickles alone and sobbing.

8:50. Cooking your eggs before you mix them into the flower won’t make a cake. This moment is great, but in the entirely wrong point. The sad Lisa story we’ve just been told is really important is now over, and she won’t be self-conscious about much for the rest of the story.

8:53. Now we’re at the beauty pageant with Lisa and a pair of who would normally be side characters/friends before one or both of them turned out to be villains and Lisa had to learn something about herself sacrificing her potential victory for what she believes in. Something like this would have worked a little better, actually, as the self-discovery component could have been wrapped up in an expanding confidence theme that grew naturally from the looks plotline. This could then have been rolled into the confidence to challenge Laramie Cigarettes. We don’t get that.

“If you’re gonna binge, you better purge” is a goodun.

9:01. Child beauty pageants are grotesque and should be banned. There are dozens of competitive things that indulge the “I wanna be pretty” instinct but still have some redeeming element, dance for instance, but these are literally “how hot is this child” and that shit ain’t right.

9:14. Adamantium infused eyelashes for that snikkety-snikt. This whole section feels like it should matter more. I love the dry cynicism in the voices of these pageant girls. Paraguay as the home of illegal eyelash implants is a good example of the exotic distance multiplier. Everywhere has some cultural stereotypes you can use for this, and the template works well with the spurious rigour principal.

9:23. Marge with the glass of wine here is interesting. The modern Wine Mum, like Linda Belcher, is a good comic archetype as it’s an acceptable form of feminine soft alcoholism that can motivate funny behaviour but not be too tragic. The odd thing about this moment is that it fits the joke of Marge’s fantasy perfectly but doesn’t fit her. She’s not a casual drinker, ever, and it wouldn’t really work for her when Homer’s the comedy drunk. Similar to how Bob Belcher rarely drinks.

9:29. The commentary mentions that the Jack Nicklaus fantasy was purely for comedy, which is good as I looked him up and yikes. Outside of having a body like Captain America, it’s an uphill battle trying to figure out what women find attractive and something like this would have been troubling data to square.

9:44. The fact that Bart’s drinking red, presumably cordial, creates an parallel with Marge’s wine which creates the beginnings of a structure around his odd knowledge of beauty pageant details. There are a few bits like this with Bart, Homer too, where each will demonstrate a surprising amount of knowledge of something well outside their standard character. Only ever touched on, they work as suggestions of something deeper rather than out-of-character moments. I love the stare from Marge and Lisa after Bart’s erotic growl. The art style’s eyes are really good for a deadpan reaction.

9:56. I’m a sucker for comedy titles and this is a goodun. There are so many salons that you see a few with terrible puns.

10:08. “Don’t worry, I am well protected” is a good line. This stylist is based on Jose Eber, a famous Hollywood stylist. These days he wouldn’t look out of place in a Robert Rodriguez film.

10:10. This sequence is interesting as it explores the oddity that is the Simpson head physiology. This is probably the first time we’ve seen something approximating Lisa’s scalp, her 22 Short Films bit finally let us get a look at it, but things like this are a novel marker of a transitional period in animation. Heads like Lisa and Bart’s don’t show up much these days, even in cartoons that have less than representational animation styles.

10:16. This bit reminds me of something from the Once Upon a Time in Mexico commentary track where Robert Rodriguez was talking about how he’d almost written himself into a corner with his story idea. Having a drug dealer played by Willem DaFoe is cool and all, but when your story is about said dealer finding a body double to fake his own death, you now have to find a Mexican guy who looks like Willem Da-fucking-Foe. In an astounding coincidence, exactly that being happened to be a set carpenter already working on the film so that problem resolved itself almost immediately, but the concept highlights an issue with this plot. Lisa, an unchanging, almost iconographic drawing of a little girl, has to be changed in a manner that leaves her identifiably prettier than before. This is functionally impossible, so they opt for the comedy no-change, and just put a minor swirl into her hair.

10:29. Homer’s right, but like a lot of things that are correct about women, the inverse is also true. I’m functionally dead inside now, but in my youth the faintest bit of praise or compliment would be the highlight of my year. Various studies have demonstrated that, while nearly every other form of reward suffers from diminishing returns, praise never gets old. The basis for every militant group is basically pats on the head and a sense of meaning.  

10:42. The thing where Homer is leaning toward something sexual, only for it to not be, is a quality bit, but I love how it fits in with his barely sapient fantasising. The overt signs of Marge’s frazzled hair and glum look contrasting with Homer’s ad campaign combination of smile, drink, and hammock highlight how every one of his fantasies is about status.

10:51. I mean, women are suckers for compliments, but they can also detect sarcasm. Hoooo boy, can they detect sarcasm.

11:14. The honesty of “Nope, that’s it” really sells it. The look on his face is that even he knows it.

11:18. This sequence reminds me of a few jokes from the last episode, where they are the kinds of gags that needed to be threaded naturally into the plot. Cutting to a whole new location just to show that complimenting women works, when we just fucking saw that, is garbage. This is awful work I’m surprised got though so many filters. That said, I miss Doris Grau.

11:37. I can recite the dance instructor’s instructions verbatim. They’ve slipped into the spot of my brain that used to remember phone numbers. I love the way he says, “shudder”, I feel like this may have actually come from read stage directions on scripts.

12:12. Bart’s ability to walk in heels extends from his earlier pageant knowledge, but is getting out of the realms of believable without needing some addressing. The commentary mentions that this shot of him in the Bettie Page pose felt like one that would freak people out.

12:24. Bart’s “You’re not ugly” line is another good one that merited a much better episode.

12:26. The pretentiousness of “Ye Olde” combines will with “Off-Ramp” and is nicely boosted by, “WE’RE NOW RAT FREE!”

12:30. This whole sequence plays out like the final act of most of these sorts of movies, just skipping everything but the protagonist points

12:54. The commentary talks about wondering if Pahusacheta is Apu’s kid, ignoring the fact that Sanjay is there for a reason. She is later confirmed as Sanjay’s when she refers to Apu as “Uncle Apu” in Grade School Confidential.

12:55. MacArthur Park is a long-ass song because it was conceived as three songs in one, each with its own movement. The bit everyone knows is from the first one. The tabla is a percussion instrument that a kid in my primary school played for a fete. Apparently, it’s not meant to be played alone.

13:06. I have to appreciate the industry of the bullies. I’d have stolen a bunch of smaller, portable things, but going for the whole Squishee machine is dreaming big.

13:14. Lisa cues up the final act here with her remark about making the town a better place. This is the kind of bare minimum connective tissue I expect in other weakly plotted episodes. Had this episode had one less plot, it may have been able to hold on the slender threads it has, but it’s still nice that people bothered.

13:18. Krusty’s assistant, Lois Pennycandy, makes a brief and rare appearance here. One of the earlier series commentary tracks, probably Like Father; Like Clown mentioned the idea to turn her into a bigger character, but she eventually vanished instead.

14:04. To this day, I have no earthly clue what putting petroleum jelly on your teeth is supposed to do. What the fuck is a frictionless smile? Gums sticking to your teeth? Don’t you salivate? Well, whatever, at least it gives us the joy of Homer eating an entire tub of it. That can’t be good for you.

14:21. Lisa’s act is based on Donny and Marie Osman bits and some Tina Turner. It’s some old-man shit, even for me.

15:06. The commentary mentions that every one of these judging situations has a character that looks like they are supposed to win. Speaking of judges, this is an insane lineup. What looks like Gerald Ford, the old lady from the ice cream story, the barber who later tries to pay Bart in hair, and a janitor. This just demonstrates that there is no stereotype for a paedophile.

15:16. Krusty’s bit here is a reference to Vanessa Williams, whose transgression is something history has made the response to quite embarrassing. I do love Krusty’s half-remembered vagueness about the thing he’s talking about, though.

15:34. The fact that Lisa even got second is writer magic, but that she’s still bummed out is irritating. It’s not like this is even your thing and coming second is a comment on you. If I got called second most fuckable guy in a room full of guys, I’d still feel pretty good about myself.

15:43. The lyrics to this song are fantastic and the repeated T line still sticks in my head.

16:05. The Simpsons predicting stupid online fads before there was even a line to be on. I love the way the food waster looks to the camera as the milk pours out. He wants us to know he knows we see him.

16:08 Scott Christian is reasonably common around this period, then largely vanishes. He does show up occasionally, but these are often many seasons apart.

16:15. Ah, when umlaut white’s and their big box stores were a novelty.

16:26. Great use of the moment to do a Hindenburg callback with Barney and the blimp.

16:51. The lightening being so dramatic on the TV is a good way of communicating the severity of the strike while not having to show it. Bart’s “Nope. Metal” is great delivery.

16:59. Doing a “Lyndon Johnson swearing in after JFK’s assassination gag” so we’re about ten years away from mainstream 9/11 bits.

17:04. I don’t know if an 8-year-old being struck by lightning would leave her fine, but then what do I know? Maybe children are largely lightning resistant, and we get more vulnerable to it the longer our fontanelles are closed. Maybe if I pried my fontanelle open with a screwdriver I’d be able to withstand any number of electrical attacks.

17:24. Krusty getting struck by lighting is funny, but were I Lisa, I’d be taking off that tiara and getting down from that box. “I deserved that” is a good scene cap.

17:31. The tail end of this episode has some chuckles but is the narrative dregs. The haphazard collection of comic cutaways is probably a better idea than leaning into the seriousness of the anti-smoking narrative this late, though. Regardless of what’s going on, having too much plot weight this late in the story would unbalance it terribly.

17:41. I love the distant wolf howl for the chamber of horrors shot. Diegetic or not? We’ll never know.

17:45. Here it is, the last smart thing Ralph will ever say and it’s weird. Not sure what a chewing gum walk is. Assuming it’s a reference to an ad in some way, as googling it only brings up this episode. Also, she looks the same as she did the other day! What the hell is wrong with you children?

17:56. Lisa pre-empting Australian refugee policy by a few years.

18:10. I love that this sequence with Bob Hope goes to the trouble of having it’s own slimy agent type and that it mirrors the earlier Krusty moment.

18:25. Bob Hope telling golfing jokes about Greg Louganis was dated for this gag, now it’s a hyperdated time vortex that swallows all relevance.

18:26. Love a good gag at the expense of hicks.

18:34. That the tiara and sceptre remain melted into almost grotesquely biological shapes is a chuckle.

18:37. “LITTLE Miss Springfield”. This whole sequence really emphasises the way the writing process attaches jokes to a plot, because this whole thing is such an isolated oddity. Like, why is Lisa there at all? I get that it’s funny, but there’s no other context that explains it beside comic inversion. It would get a chuckle at a table but lacks meaningful connection to anything else.

18:44. Apocalypse Now reference with the stage storming, which is funny if you don’t think too much about it.

18:48. Always loved Hope’s “Set me down at that boat show” as it feels like he’s going to land and start hosting it.

18:51. This series of scenes use cultural awareness of pageant winner activities as their logical foundation. Better examples will use this, but as part of a more complex structure. This is akin to making a wall out of mortar.

19:00. “Mmmmmm… classy”

19:20. Every other mascot is depicted as being a fake head with visible people eyes or some other telltale marker. Menthol Moose has none of these, making him some kind of horrifying moose person.

19:24. The hocked gob of phlegm is so visible for a frame that it’s burnt into my head.

19:36. Fat people salute ice cream

19:45. This anti-smoking stuff isn’t subtle, but then, have you ever looked at actual cigarette marketing materials? Cigarettes taste like ass hair in a bong, and you’re a moron if you smoke them.

19:54. The organic eyes on Menthol Moose confirm my suspicions. I can tell a furry from a real were-beast.

20:07. While this crusade doesn’t come out of nowhere, it’s both within character and mentioned earlier, it’s still too big a thing to be doing a whole ninety seconds before the end.

20:11. Is dog-napping that big a deal? Has it been ever? I know someone tried to steal Lady Gaga’s dogs, but that’s gotta be a rarity.

20:24. Ah, the off-brand nerds. A few get quasi-recycled into the familiar trio, and one of them seems to be a prototype of Data. Man, guy in the bottom left is stunned, STUNNED that Americans waste money on their shithouse chudball instead of fixing their imbecile infestation.

20:26. There is no way the nerds wouldn’t already know this. I sure hope someone got fired for this blunder.

20:28. The weird “gneeeeeeh” noise the nerds make as they run fucking cracks me up. I’d do it whenever I was bothering someone and still do it when I pester the cat today.

20:31. The idea of nerds rushing the field is funny. The idea of a whole team of meat-golems being frightened by that is funny. The subheadline of “NERDS PUMMELED IN FOOTBALL MELEE” is funny. Each of these leads into each other, and the unseen consequences leading to the lowered relevance of the final subheadline gag creates its own nested surprise element. I fucking love this gag.

20:56. Ah, the smoke-filled rooms. I wonder if they’re vape filled now. I don’t really know what the Wiggum gags are here for, they’re not very good. Probably a time fill as the next scene is the denouement.

21:26. You can enhance a surprise by putting distance between setup and payoff. A lot of movies will have a character see a thing that the audience can’t, as that micro-mystery gets a quick and often bombastic payoff, usually in the next scene. This works just as well for gags like Homer’s “Okay” bit. It could have also been a visual gag, but the use of Brockman’s dry diction and official status lends some extra comic juxtaposition to the moment.

21:36. This is a really good conversation between Homer and Lisa which really only happens as a necessity following the sloppy plot. Typically, Homer and Lisa’s resolutions involve relaxing back into the expected loving relationship, so the show can get away with avoiding complex conversations. These conversations can be tricky, but they pull it off well here. Homer’s “was I drunk” line is both funny but also a useful way of getting him out of having to verbalise feelings that are a bit beyond him to express. Lisa can easily carry the weight of both, and her explaining it to her dad is the perfect excuse to verbalise the underlying idea of the episode.

It’s a great scene. It’s just the pair of them, and with the TV as the only light the scene takes on unusual significance and shadowed depth. These moments are so much a trope that doing them repetitiously is turned into its own joke, but variety in the family wrap-ups allows for better moments. This is the level of conclusion the first act warranted, and it’s a bummer the story wandered into the forest the way it did.

21:55. Man, on the headphones, you can REALLY hear that goat’s every suckle.

The First Annual Gabriel Morton Awards for Outstanding Achievements in the Field of Simpsonness.

Best Line

While the editing left a bit to be desired, it does make for good line opportunities, so this is a strong field. Getting, “Nope. Metal” to be funny takes good work, and Cartwright’s delivery is has the perfect combination of dryness and pause to turn the mundane into a standout. Sudden Grampas are generally always funny, and having him shout, “No, you’re homely as a mule’s butt” is a great addition. The use of “homely” is a great choice. It reflects Grampa’s generation, so it’s natural to him, but stands out to us as a bit archaic. Another goodun is Bart’s simple, “Uh-oh”. The comedy comes from the balancing act that is getting such a small line to communicate so much. But the winner is…

There’s a clear horror on Otto’s face that says he knows this fuckup is big, but it’s contrasted with a resolved calm in his voice that gets this line over the mark. He already knows what to do. There’s no lying or not realising what has happened. He just has to pop down to Mexico till this thing blows over, which suggests something like this has happened before. These elements alone are good, but a thing about Simpsons lines is their broader applicability, and this is one of those ones you can use on any of your own fuckups. Even if you’re the only one who laughs.

Best Sight Gag

Bart in the Bettie Page pose is a solid entry through its subtlety and Krusty being struck by lighting is conversely solid for its outright silliness, but each was otherwise par. You generally can’t go wrong with wires sticking out of Barney’s head, so it’s an early runner up. It’s simple, but the added detail of each ending in frayed, bare wire suggests the kinds of unspoken more that add a kick. The thing about a blank stare is that it’s a great response, but hard to do in real life. If the person you’re speaking to is already looking at you, they’ll see the change, which sorta ruins it, or you won’t have changed at all which nullifies it as a statement. Cutting to one is always welcome and doubling it in the face of Bart’s unusually detailed awareness of beauty pageant minutia serves as both a great joke by itself but also a light wink to the audience. But the winner is…

The thing about this shot is that, like all good sight gags, it works prima facie, but, like all really good ones, goes a lot deeper. Continuity within cartoons is an odd thing. The reuse of assets creates a nearly alien flawless continuity of spaces, but the medium is frequently built around these spaces undergoing huge changes that get undone in seconds. The Simpsons has a few pieces of strong continuity, like Senor Xt’Tapalatakettle in the basement, and will occasionally work to reference things like Homer’s space voyage or his Grammys, but neither of these is quite the natural continuity of cause and effect our reality burdens us with. Using it is something more shows should do, as this creates the perfect structure for very clever jokes like this. We’ve already seen the wrecked carnival ride joke, but having it still there as it would be uses it again while adding the enhancing silliness of the idea that everyone there is just okay with that. It’s funny, and it speaks to the nature of Springfield’s citizens.   

Best Overall Joke

The process of refining petroleum jelly into the substance we know today was patented when miracle cures were still a thing, so among its initial uses was as a pectin replacement in jams. It’s among the least edible things that’s perfectly edible which is what makes Homer finishing a tub of it so funny. Things like shark eggs and HotWheels are funny, but daft enough to require hiding, eating this is insane but still a viable behaviour. Spreading it out over the run of the pageant is a good idea that lends a sadly believable rate of consumption to it.  

Seeing that people have turned, not even competitive eating but simply gorging oneself into a spectator event, one can argue that wasting food is another Simpsons prediction. The joke itself feels like a Swartzwelder, an almost aggressive simplicity, and coupled with the smiling look to the camera that challenges the audience to do anything about this, it’s a great gag.

The foundational principle of inversion is about a simple as it gets, but like a simple recipe, good chefs can make them dazzle. A cluster of nerds saying, “Let’s get ‘em”, and charging a football field is a very simple comic inversion. Spicing this moment up is a noise and you already know the one I’m talking about. The “Nyeeeh” sound. It’s funny by itself, but the way it aggressively escalates like a long Dalek sentence has peppered this simple sequence up. The joke has a logic, though, and it’s one we expect. What’s the version of the inversion? Footballers beating up nerds. This is the unspoken reality that is the premise of the joke. Having the footballers gasp in fear of the nerds, say, “Let’s get outta here” and flee the field, is a secondary inversion layered under the first that uses the unspoken premise as setup. This is all good by itself, but the cut to the newspaper is the masterstroke. It’s a narrative tool and this aspect of it, the headline and pictures, are naturally eye grabbing. But beneath this is the final layer of the nerd gag, NERDS PUMMELLED IN FOOTBALL MELEE. It’s perfect because it makes humour out of collapsing the inverted reality the last scene’s focal gags were built on and suggests a great scene where the two groups finally confronted each other, only for each to realise what was about to happen. It’s great, but the winner is…

WHEEEEEeeeeeee…

When you are watching these shows on TV, you can’t pause or rewind it. It happens and then it’s gone until next year’s summer break when Channel 10 would play it as its fresher repeats. It’s a part of the viewing experience that had to be sacrificed for the current bounty, and I wouldn’t trade it back, but it is occasionally missed. What it meant was that you could think you saw something in a show but have no way of confirming it. This is part of why the ad won, a contextual element of the experience where we argued over what happened.

The joke itself is also beautifully constructed to lean into this. It’s a great example of how to have skipping the punchline be the punchline. “Weeeeeeee…” and then immediately turn to the camera and have characters dumping relevant plot to immediately engage the logical parts of the brain. Oh, a beauty contest, Homer will probably enter her. Hey, that cigarette executive is a real sleaze, and this is an ad for cigarettes. Hey… did that little girl just disappear into the sky?  

Understating the weirdest parts of your jokes feels like a lost art among modern programs, drunk as they are on finally being able to do whatever they want. While it’s important to go through a period of that, this joke wouldn’t work nearly as well with every character hooting about a missing kid.

Best Shot

Our first runner up is our good friend Milhouse, seen here being peered down on by an uncaring universe that can’t even enjoy his suffering like we do. Some shots of highly stylized animated figures are an avoided struggle because odd heads and impossible noses make them look unintentionally ridiculous from certain angles. None of this applies to Milhouse because anything that makes him look ridiculous fits him. Here we peer down on his vacantly hopeful eyes, sad little shout outfit, and know that his horribly proportioned physiognomy is somehow his fault.

The Shadow over Milhouse isn’t the Lovecraftian horror I’m writing about a town where Milhouse faced grubs crawl into and commandeer the inhabitants, no it’s just another lovely shot that let’s us revel in an innocent child’s pain. As a depression sufferer and torture enthusiast, I can tell you that a big part of suffering is in the anticipation. As Milhouse’s suffering is our joy, the viewer gets to see the shadow creep across our poor innocent’s face moments before he realises what’s about to happen. We are gifted with the joy of knowing he’s going to suffer and then the joy of seeing him knowing he’s going to suffer. He has earned none of it; but deserves all of it.

But the winner is…

There are more dynamic shots, like dangling Bob Hope, and a few other creative ones but each of those was either a reference or in logical service of movement. There have been a number of final hugs in this family sitcom and many take place in the searing light of the sitcom world, simply because there’s no reason not to. Though he hosts the evening news, many of Kent Brockman’s reports take place in this light, so there was no reason to do anything different here. But different was done and the moment was far richer for it.

The lower light collapses the now warm colours of the room around the pair, who are deepened with shadow. It’s the cinematographic equivalent of the hug itself.

Freeze Frame Fun

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4 Replies to “Lisa the Beauty Queen”

  1. Interesting if differently horrifying fact: only about 10% of people hit by lightning are killed. Granted that probably rises if you’re only eight, but it’s quite possible she’d just have scars and permanent hearing damage.

    I’ve eaten haggis, it’s fine – like spicy sausage meat. The Scots just didn’t have the marketing nous that regular sausages use to pretend they’re not also minced up assorted animal bits.

  2. Hehey great words, thanks for compiling them into something coherent. Just wanted to say the freeze frame you got there of Lisa is worth the price of admission alone.

  3. Chewing gum walk is probably in reference to the brand Wrigley.

    I don’t think I’ve ever paid full attention to the ‘NERDS PUMMELLED IN FOOTBALL MELEE’ sub-headline. Once again we see part of the magic of the Simpsons golden era is the willingness to put in great jokes that will either go over the head of or not be noticed by the majority of the viewing audience.

    1. Also a casual observation. Most episodes even in the golden era had first acts that felt disjointed from the following two, but one of the things that really signaled to me the declining quality of the show was more and more episodes where the 2nd and 3rd didn’t really flow properly. Reading your episode rundowns has made me realize that this wasn’t exactly a new problem, just one that occurred more frequently and more apparently as time went on. Even when it occurs in these earlier episodes the quality of the scene to scene writing helps cover up a lot of wider plot short falls.

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