Category: Gabriel Morton versus The Simpsons

You won’t enjoy it on as many levels as I do

Treehouse of Horror

Treehouse of Horror

My Recollection

Wow, this is like 3 episodes at once! My parents explaining the references to me. The Bart ravens marching around Homer’s head, chanting, “Nevermore”.

I saw my first set of strange old man testicles on Halloween 1999. There’s a certain confronting aspect to seeing old man testicles when you’re 16. One expects wrinkly, as one is, by this stage, very familiar with one’s own, but there’s a crepe paper like sub-layer of wrinkliness to old man testicles that give them the appearance of a delicately dehydrated rose petal.

We weren’t in costumes, exactly. We were stoned, scumbag teenagers wandering around Graceville on the off chance we could mooch some lollies. Halloween is now on the final stretch of being wholly adopted by Australia, but at the time nobody else was really doing it. We were high, bored, the internet had to be called on the phone, and so we left the house in the dumb hope something would happen.

Graceville was, and probably still is, a mix of the middle-class and retirees with just enough strange ferals thrown in to spice things up. This is something Australia does a bit, chuck a few lumps of Housing Commission in with the normals in the honestly positive desire to prevent the creation of ghettos like Goodna. This made the night a fucking dice roll as we could knock on the door of: a confused old person who’d either gently close the door in our face or give us a pear; a middle-class house with primary school aged kids who’d actually give us some Milky Ways and shit; and last but not least, weird shitcunts who’ll call us faggots, traitors, or jokingly threaten to molest us.

Two of my friends had actual masks, showbag leftovers, so they’d knock on the door while myself and another would linger further back. Milky Ways had made us confident, perhaps dangerously so, and what started as a quite timid exercise had grown into a near demand turned into a warped bark by the discount plastic skull wrapped awkwardly around my friend’s colossal combination of hair and noggin.

“TRRAAWK AWR TRREEEEETCH”, he bellowed at a door.

The door was haphazardly affixed to a high set house and we were uncomfortably arranged on the slightly too steep and slightly too narrow staircase that lead directly to it. Their under the house bit wasn’t sealed in, this was a warning. This old guy opens it up and is weirdly happy to see us so it took us a minute to realize his balls were out and about level with with Skull Kid. The thing about thinking you can see balls is that your brain will go out of its way to see them as anything but balls because balls are, at the very least, an awkward situation.

They didn’t flop right. For a while I was certain they were the front bit of your pyjama/boxers that had bunched up in an odd way, but nobody makes boxers with that unmistakable meatiness to them. We were looking at balls. Was he crazy? He sounded alright. Was he a feral? His house didn’t smell like sour milk and curry powder. There were no easy answers and, like Final Jeopardy, even harder questions.

He didn’t acknowledge the balls. We didn’t acknowledge the balls. He gave us some Le Snacks which aren’t candy but also aren’t bad when you’re high but also aren’t worth balls. We called it a night.

The Episode.

Like when mum accidentally measured your height with the permanent nikko, Treehouse of Horror is an important and obvious maturation marker for the series. The Simpsons, both show and family, are now enough themselves that they can afford jaunts into the blatantly intertextual and wildly non-canon. Although, this is not done without some audience guiding framing devices. Speaking of which, this episode has two. The first is Marge’s cold open warning to the audience about the scary nature of the episode. This is a reference to Edward Van Sloan’s similar warning from the 1931 Frankenstein that takes on an unusual reality level here.

Marge doesn’t exist, a fairly obvious statement but Marge’s animated nature means she doesn’t exist twice. Live actors in character and full makeup can assault your reality by existing in front of you, Johnny Depp’s visits to schools as Jack Sparrow are good examples of this. This is not something voice actors can really do except in the unlikely scenario that the animated character is based on them and even then the animation/reality line is so fundamentally firm that one always has to actively suspend disbelief. But if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then oh my god that’s actually Jack Sparrow. Pro wrestlers are the best at beating this. A kid knows Jack Sparrow isn’t real, even if he’s right in front of them, but you can actually meet THE John Cena and it’s really him right there. But this can never happen with animation.

Animated Marge addresses the audience as Marge. Not as animated actress Dolores Meatskull who plays Marge and not as voice actress Julie Kavner via an animated Marge avatar. It’s a voice actress playing a character as that character but in a fashion where she is aware of the falseness of her own reality. Imagine meeting Jack Sparrow and instead of Johnny Depp capering around you get a shattered man broken by the realisation that his whole existence is simply a few glances from idiot gods. Marge maintains her sanity though, testament to just how durable a housewife can be.

This moment contrasts well with the show’s earlier, stupider direct address to the audience: Bart’s warnings re the horrors of war at the end of Bart the General. When using atypical grammar in creative writing, the general rules are be consistent and know why you are doing what you are doing. Consistently broken rules with a coherent purpose create stable alternative realities. Haphazard, meaningless rule breaking structures nothing and is indistinguishable from error. Audience acknowledgement from characters, particularly characters who aren’t playing at playing themselves as in later episodes like Behind the Laughter, is the atypical grammar of reality. Marge’s address to the audience breaks a rule for a reason (technically two) and that reason remained consistent even after it wasn’t really necessary anymore.

The first technical reason was that it was a legitimate warning to the letter writing imbeciles. I feel it necessary to address how silly that may sound considering the nature of our media HERE IN THE FUTURE, but yes, the whining imbeciles had a much tighter grip on things a mere two decades ago and the horrifying content of this episode would have been enough to set them off.

Second, it’s a big fat signal to the audience that the normal rules are not in effect. Most animated series share a similar, animation level of reality. Even shows like Invader Zim, which had serialised plot and character developments, operated within an animated realism that allowed characters to end one episode as sentient baloney and start the next episode without that being an issue for the narrative to resolve. The animated sitcom has a stronger tether to natural reality, flexible but not breakable like baloney Zim, so the more unreal the more the show has to cordon it off with framing devices. Marge’s intro, in all its reflexive glory, is a loud announcement that the following events are fictional within fictional. This is the “why” that validates Marge’s over Bart’s fourth wall break.

This overt warning to the audience is not the only reality structuring device the episode uses. Once the episode proper starts we are brought to the one and only eponymous Treehouse of Horror as Bart and Lisa trade the scary stories we see. This is an actual framing device, an in-universe reason for the presentation of an anthology of stories. These are another tool of reality construction that has found a home in the reality subversion efforts of many modern film and television works. A film, regardless of how realistically presented, is trapped in an inescapable structure of audience and viewed work. The existence of a shot or a printed word shines light on the authors, printers, set designers, caterers, and various other behind the scenes apparatus required to pull off a magic trick. This gave rise to the “found footage” method of subverting the need for even that fairly unconscious suspension of disbelief.

There’s been a trend in some modern sci-fi films of putting lens flare into space action sequences. At first, this seems as unnecessary as putting a secondary framing device into an animated sitcom but there’s a point to it. There’s a kind of arms race between creators and audiences forcing the former to get craftier as the latter get more aware. We know the space battle is largely or entirely  computer generated, there is no lens of a camera to create the flare. By adding it, it triggers audience awareness of the reality behind cinema and suggests that this reality was at work above some distant planet where a teamster crew in space suits fussed over cables and camera placement in zero g. The audience awareness of the machinery of cinema magic is co-opted and a secondary level of unreality is given the trappings of a primary. Similarly, Bart and Lisa’s fake world is granted legitimacy through overt use of a narrative tool it could ignore (later seasons, with the acceptance of the Halloween tradition to stand on,  eventually did).

Free from any consequences, the Halloween episodes become a toybox for the writers and this most obviously manifests in each being an overt parody or homage. Bad Dream House, Hungry are the Damned, and The Raven begin a tradition of the show spoiling 20-30 year old pop-culture by basically being The Amityville Horror, the Twilight Zone episode To Serve Man, and duh.

The Raven is the most obvious with Poe even being a credited writer for the episode. Narrated by James Earl Jones, the piece is more an animated performance of an edited down version of the poem with Homer, and Bart as the titular Raven, giving voice to their spoken lines around Earl’s unsurprisingly lovely reading. What makes this homage over parody is it’s more The Raven with Simpsons bits than it is The Simpsons with Raven bits. Like instead of a pizza with pepperoni on it it’s a giant pepperoni with bits of pizza dough on it and that gives me an idea, I’m going to be rich, see you fuckheads later.

There are only 12 additions, 3 are addressed interruptions by Bart, 4 are lines from Homer not in the poem but related directly to his actions presenting it, one is Lisa and Maggie’s cameo as censer wielding seraphim, and 4 are actual jokes. Two of those last 4 jokes scarcely stand out: Homer reading a book called “Forgotten Lore Vol. II” and references to Poe’s other famous tales as Bart’s Raven drops the books on Homer’s head. The painting of Marge as Lenore has an extra framed painting to complete her hair but it’s really the final one, a dizzy Homer seeing a Warner Bros style marching garland of ravens, that stands as the only real interjection into the poem.

This tone of respect for the original work is most visible in the piece’s highlight: Dan Castellaneta’s voice work. There’s an old thing about why Mel Blanc was such an amazing voice actor and it was because he was able to do his characters, like Bugs and Daffy, doing impressions of each other. Blanc could inhabit, not just multiple voices, but multiple characters at once, channelling one’s ideas of the other to inform his impressions.  There’s a hint of this in how Castellaneta plays Homer here. There’s a passionate anger in the second last verse that is simultaneously so perfectly of the original poem and so perfect a piece of Homeric anger directed at Bart that even Castellaneta’s added grunts of frustration feel as though Poe wrote them himself.

Hungry are the Damned is a degree up on the reference-o-meter as it is a direct parody of a single work but with a few additions and twists. If you aren’t 50 or a dork who enjoys doing their research, this episode is based on To Serve Man, a Twilight Zone episode about super-intelligent black men from the future come to exact revenge on whitey by eating him.

Bruh

Have you ever read a Goosebumps book? You know, those things for teens where there’s always a twist at the end that’s both so obvious yet so disconnected from the plot that the books have to be written around them like they were there before any of the rest of the book? If you answered yes, congratulations, that’s Twilight Zone. Hungry are the Damned is literally this but with a twist and by twist I mean straight.

In fighting games, there’s a strategy called a “mix up”. Basically, it means doing something unexpected to trick your opponent into defending incorrectly, e.g: you do an overhead (which hits ducking characters) then you do a low (which hits standing characters). This will ruin beginners but as you start to play against more experienced folk you need to get a bit cleverer. This is when you bust out the “no mixup mixup” or: doing exactly the same thing 8 times in a row because your opponent is expecting you to mix them up. It’s zigging after you’ve already zigged and nobody expects a zig-zig which you can tell because that’s not a term. Hungry are the Damned does this, it sets up the classic twist of (spoilers) To Serve Man, that they are eating people, and instead makes the cookbook an actual cookbook for making food for people instead, turning Lisa into the bad guy. Ha ha, classic mirth. Like the twist based media it’s parodying, there’s little in it aside from the obvious.

Bad Dream House is the prototypical Halloween story. It uses a direct source, The Amityville Horror, but one that sits within a broader sub-genre, haunted house, that allows for both an anchored plot to parody and a wide variety of other material to reference. The result lacks the legitimate dramatic punch of The Raven, the historical relevance of Hungry are the Damned, or any major talking points, but it more than makes up for it in being really goddamn funny. This is the toybox in all its glory.

The episode wraps up with Bart and Lisa both disappointed that none of their scary stories really hit the mark, while a terrified Homer trembles beneath them. I always found this odd as I’ve never been bothered by a story, I need a solid visual element to really get to me. Generally this manifests as the physical revulsion to body horror, which I love, but Eastern horror has gotten to me a few times with unusual peeking.

This gives me the willies. Yahoo Serious is under your bed right now and he nibbles your Achilles tendon while you sleep.

Yours in saving a few thousand dollars, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

The reason this episode, and particularly Bad Dream House, is so funny is because of a thing forgotten by later Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and almost all of Family Guy: brevity. Normally, the about 6 minutes that Bad Dream House gets wouldn’t be adequate but, pursuant to the toybox idea, every element that would normally eat time or distract from the humour comes preloaded in The Simpsons‘ established world and framing devices. So there’s both nothing to do but be funny and very little time to do it in. The result has some early throwaway lines, funny dialogue with an often conscious level of attention not drawn to it, that stand the test of time. Among my favourites are:

  • Marge’s offhand mentioning of a moat as one of the house’s features. This is the sort of blink and you’ll miss it joke that you can kind of be unsure you even heard and it tickles the absurdity glands nicely.
  • The kitchen vortex, Homer throwing the orange into it, and the letter “Quit throwing your garbage into our dimension.” The dry way this is presented juxtaposes with the strangeness of the event itself and twists the questions left by the gap into the daft.
  • Homer saying, “Okay boy, let’s see you talk your way outta this one” as he rescues Bart from a poltergeist attack. What gives this one a little extra oomph is that there two reasons, antipathy toward Bart and a desire to ignore the problems of the house, for Homer doing something so insane as blaming Bart for being attacked by a ghost.
  • The trailing off line, “We get a bunch of priests in here…” as he tries to talk Marge out of leaving. Similar to the vortex joke, this one works by suggesting something big and silly but then cutting it off. Like the horror of the unseen, the lack of any literal thought allows for pure feeling to fill the gap, a little like the “Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Pinky?” jokes from Pinky and the Brain.
  • The Ghandi tombstone in the Indian burial ground under the house.
  • The call to the real estate agent where it becomes clear that Homer was told about the haunting several times and he wasn’t paying attention because the house was so cheap. His slow relenting as he realises he’s at fault is both an excellent parody of the moment from Poltergeist and wonderfully in character.
  • The family’s overall blase attitude to living in a haunted house.

This is more than has been in the entirety of earlier episodes and all of it takes place across about 4 minutes. Jokes have a way of stacking, it’s why there are warm-up acts for comedians and the like, get people primed with a few light absurdities like the moat reference and they’ll ride the ratcheting wave of weirdness all the way to Chuckle Beach.

Hungry are the Damned is of historical note because it is the first to feature the Rigellians, Kang and Kodos (as well as Serak the cook in his only appearance), who became the series prototypical aliens and mainstays of the Halloween episodes. They get one really solid joke in too, about English and Rigellian being exactly the same.

 

 

Retrospecticus: Season One

Retrospecticus: Season One

This one time, I moved to Melbourne for a job. Now I don’t mean a career, like one of those fancy gigs where you have a salary and a future. No, I mean a job, like with hours and shit that directly pertain to whether you get paid or not. I was also really drunk when I made this decision. I was really fucking drunk and made the decision to move to a whole new city for a whole same 21 dollars an hour goddamn job. I made that bed and I lay in it for 6 months of way less than expected hours. This one time I also decided to write about every episode of The Simpsons.

There’s a small trickle of money coming in for me now via Patreon. It’s small, but when you are used to living on the bottom that small is large enough. Enough that I felt obligated to it. I felt I needed to do more than the video yammering as, exhausting as a day of that can be, I struggle to honestly treat it like work. I spent a weekend stripping weatherboarding one time, that was fucking work, a lack of air conditioning and Aaron’s peculiar shape don’t add up to the same level of hassle. “So”, thinks I, “I’ll put my degree and decades of honed skill to some use and provide the paying audience with some bonus material. I’ll write about The Simpsons, I think about it at least once a day, how hard could it be to write about it once a week?”

I think I’ve committed myself to over a decade’s worth of work. It’s my bed and I’ll fucking lay in it. Speaking of which, I’ve finished season 1.

I’ve been aiming to make these a mix of entertaining and educational, both a challenge as “The Internet” is a broad target audience, but I’ve not seen much (if any) discussion on any of the major forums outside of mere spouted opinion so I believe I’ve brought up useful ideas. Spouting your opinion is fundamentally selfish. You do it to vent or to feel meaningful, it doesn’t deconstruct or educate, nobody can use it to structure more effective art. People use IMO as a defensive tactic when they lack the vocabulary or knowledge to explain their actual point about a work, if they even understand the difference between taste and assessment at all. So what’s the point? If I’m not going to learn anything deeper than what xXm0viefanXx likes, why should I give a shit? Your taste is meaningless and your assessment is only useful if you’ve managed to separate the two. Otherwise you’re another blithering internet numbskull operating under the delusion that their taste and objective quality are parallel tracks by some amazing cosmic coincidence. Practise by liking something by someone you hate. If you can separate artist and art, you are on your way to being useful.

Go to any thread and you’ll see this in action. It’s a shame as text response is, in the age of mid and post episode threads, probably the most actively engaged form of writing for the average person and the problem is fundamentally an issue of a little education. If this can accomplish anything, a probably naive hope, I’d hope it stimulate a desire to learn a little more about how to better approach the art you like.

So I’ve yammered on about things like reality balancing because that’s at the root of the more vague posts people make when they go on about how something “feels”. In that, the first series has been a fun experience. The balancing act that gave The Simpsons it’s cultural status couldn’t have existed out of the box, at least not in the era it came from. The earlier seasons needed to be simpler to create the baseline reality and character core. It’s this that grounds the wackier absurdity of the golden age and separates it from things like whatever 10 minute animated nonsense-vomit Cartoon Network is currently playing after 10pm. The thing about these grounded points is that freezing them in time is absurd, and eventually the frozen grounded reality dies and leaves only the screwball shit. But between the frozen and the burnout is a Goldilocks zone of yellow cultural institution that couldn’t have existed without the others.

I’m looking forward to season 2 as it is a far more confident season. The intro is solidified into the familiar one which lasted the show’s quality span and then some, only being retired after 19 goddamn years. The story world is on much firmer footing too, with the idea of Springfield being a theatre stage with a variety of semi-regular background characters giving the writers more points to craft jokes around. I’ve not watched any of it in quite some time so I’m hoping for some funnier fare. When I started this, the idea was to explore some of the weirder jokes if only to better understand why some of them have remained with me for so long. Season 1 didn’t give me that, but it proved a nonetheless fascinating journey into the foundations of the show and good fodder for explorations of character, tone, and the construction of fictional realities.

I’ve no idea how many of you read these. It is possible that I’m preaching to digital birds. But I undertake things like this selfishly so I’ll be pressing on, regardless. I tend to flip a coin to see if I lock any behind the Patreon wall but now that there’s a decent backlog of example material, more if not most subsequent pieces will become patron content. It’s an incredibly small wall so if you complain about it, congratulations on ousting Mugabe and I hope your money is worth something again one day.

Beefily yours, Gabriel.

The Crepes of Wrath

The Crepes of Wrath

My Recollection

Bart goes to France. The cherry bomb in the toilet always interested me because fireworks were outlawed in Australia so the idea that kids could get a hold of explosives was amazing. I would later download the Jolly Rodger Handbook and make a few of the more basic things that explode along with one remarkably effective smoke bomb. I stopped mucking about with it for fear of injury and because a I had a selection of dirtbag friends who were happy to do it all themselves. Nobody ever got seriously injured, though one time Shane tested his homemade mace on Kyle by saying, “Hey, Kyle” and spraying him in the face with it. It was mostly isocol, tabasco, and salt. I don’t know what the real ingredients of mace are but Kyle screamed and swung blind for a while so this was a fairly effective approximation. It also gummed up the water pistol it was in, so one screaming, blind Kyle was all it was good for. Not great for self-defense purposes but I laughed for 15 minutes, so at least some good came of it.

The Episode

The thing about season one is nobody quotes season one. It’s not that the episodes aren’t ever funny, but the forms of humour that more naturally arise from within the family narrative don’t lend themselves to focal lines. Most of season one has supplemented the lack of great comedy with the kinds of character episodes a show five seasons in can’t. The Crepes of Wrath is a bit of an oddity in that it’s a novelty episode that exists before the show could really commit to the premise or at least fill with good lines. It’s not technically the first of the international stories, that goes to Bart vs Australia, because it’s only Bart visiting France. This split in the family means the action that takes place in France is limited to a few brief scenes that are more about torturing Bart than they are about revelling in the writer’s grasp of international stereotypes. This was probably for the better, given that a combination of the season one writing staff and French jokes would probably be embarrassingly hokey. So the episode is a fairly weak. Limited by the narrative in its ability to really explore character and by its historical position in exploiting more memorable absurdist humour.

Bart arrives home from school to greet a pet frog that has never been referenced again. I get the feeling it’s some long-shot French joke, but its distance from that part of the narrative and later irrelevance suggest otherwise. It may have been an idea for Bart to either have a long term pet, or a series of them, that was abandoned. So now there’s a weird amount of attention to Bart having a pet Froggy that sits in the episiode like a Chekhov’s replica. Bart”s strewn detritus winds up sending Homer down the stairs, where he lays listening to a Krusty doll repeat, “I’d like to play with you” until the batteries die. It’s the best joke of the episode and Homer’s simple, squinting reply of, “The boy… Bring me the boy” when Marge and Lisa get home still makes me chuckle. Adding to this is that Bart is upstairs this whole time. An oversight on the writer’s part but it has a way of adding to Homer’s suffering as he’s either too injured or stupid to call for help, or Bart didn’t reply when he did.

When a real child misbehaves, it is typically spared the level of judgement reserved for adults as there is less expectation of complete agency; instead, behavioural management with the goal of correction becomes the focus. This always starts with environmental factors because, even at their most socially entrenched, these are easier to find and address than the dreaded alternative: nature. Bart has legitimate frustrations, injustices, and abuses that one would expect to see in a misbehaving child. The worst being the prison of his own identity. The self is something people defend, even to one’s own self-detriment, as a terrible but known self is less existentially terrifying than an unknown or changing self. The attitudes about Bart that surround him make even the thought of change the impossible ceding of vital land in an eternal war.

But…

Homer and Marge are neither bad nor inattentive parents, Lisa and Maggie are evidence of that, and later episodes confirm the dreaded alternative. Bart’s behaviour and personality are born out of comic necessity rather than an understandable result of his upbringing and this puts an irreconcilable tension at the heart of it. Bart’s behaviour is destructive, to himself and everyone around him, but sitcom fate makes growth or realisation impossible. Sympathy will never last in the face of constantly avoided, and very much deserved, meaningful consequences so the show does the only thing it can: hurt him. Bart cannot be fixed so he needs to be made to suffer. Even if it’s just to balance scales visible only to the omniscient audience, the child must experience real pain.

Bart suffers in this episode, and it is beautiful. Bart is every child that screams at the injustice of first world luxury, not because of an explanation that veers frustratingly into exploitable excuse, but because “FUCKWITTED CUNT” is written in his DNA. His torture in France is every time you’ve wanted to smash some perspective into a brat’s face. It’s the justice of injustice.

A piece of shit can make itself the focus of any teacher’s class time to the noticeable detriment of the ones trying to learn. To someone like Principal Skinner, Bart is a sinkhole people keep paying to cover even as it devours more of the town. Skinner’s hate for Bart is completely counterproductive but completely understandable, the three months without Bart will have been the easiest of his working life. This is also his most successful revenge. Typically Bart serves as the Roadrunner to Skinner’s Wile E. Coyote, which is funnier when it’s a mute bird who may not really deserve it. Bart blows up a toilet and injures Skinner’s mother so he has all of this coming. Speaking of Skinner’s mother, Agnes is first seen here and she is wildly out of character but considering the things that have been done to Skinner’s canon, this is trivial and easily ignored.

So Bart is mailed to France for 3 months while the family receives an Albanian called Adil Hoxha. Albania is kind of an odd duck. It stumbled into it’s own kind of Stalinist Communism after WW2 under Enver Hoxha (whom either Adil is named for deliberately or because it’s the only Albanian last name any of the writers researched) without any actual input from the USSR at all. The hostility it maintained toward the US was the result of indirect American political interference in Albania in the late 40s rather than as a part of Cold War allegiances. It wandered between Yugoslavian and Soviet influence over the years and, funnily enough, had its democratic revolution two weeks after this episode aired. I think it’s a bit of an odd choice of nation to supply a nefarious spy, but they had to give Adil some kind of great fault to make Homer’s preferring him over his own son a more visible moral fault.

Adil dupes Homer into taking him about the plant and taking photos of it for his sinister Albanian masters. There’s a sense that Homer is supposed to be an idiot here but when the intelligent alternative is a suburban dad suspecting a foreign child of being a spy, a plot that would be a message about prejudice in most other shows, the whole thing collapses. The reality of Bart is something Homer notices while Adil is in the house. Without the misfiring cylinder that is his own son, the house is one of near stereotypical familial bliss. Adil’s spy status is an absurd and desperate punishment for this, and serves only to highlight just how right Homer is. Bart, meanwhile, is treated worse than a mule by his French consequences, Cesar and Ugolin. A story that culminates in Bart’s realization that he’s the problem while on a trip to buy anti-freeze. There’s a catharsis to this, both for the viewer and Bart, and his acceptance gives way to the sudden manifestation of the French language skills that save him. It plays out a bit like sudden rain on Dune, but it’s necessary given the constraints of a 23 minute show.

Pursuant to my point about character immobility, Bart’s realization changes nothing. By the next episode, comic fate has reset him back to what he was before and this is why he was made to suffer and will be made to suffer again. Conversely, Homer doesn’t change his mind at all. Even after being arrested as a spy, Homer is sadder to see Adil go than he is happy to see Bart arrive. There’s scarcely even an attempt at having Homer undergo some kind of realization that he actually loves his eternal burden of a child. It’s an odd counterpoint to leave in the show, but better than the typical use of unconditional love to forgive behaviour that is certain to be repeated.

The anti-hero or heel who grows in popularity enters risky territory. An underdog can escape consequences in manners that would be wildly unfair for a champion. An environment of zero growth means smaller consequences and character moments can’t add up, so the show has to create character balance with blowoff episodes where their new god is tormented. Nothing changes in the narrative but the viewer’s scales get reset or tipped away and the process can begin again without fear of overload. The Crepes of Wrath serves as enough torment to make Bart’s bullshit palatable to the audience. It serves this function well but lacks much else to distinguish it. It’s a novelty episode that misses out on the novelty and a character episode with only half a cathartic epiphany. All we really have is the joy of watching a ten year old boy suffer.

 

Yours in needing civil defence plans, Gabriel

 

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts

 

Homer falling down the stairs is funny and a testament to Dan Castellaneta’s voice acting. There’s a high pitch to Homer’s shrieks of pain that help them straddle a difficult line of believable but humorously exaggerated.

Agnes Skinner is just a lovely old lady here, both because she needed to be to add to Bart’s crime and because they were yet to turn Skinner into a Norman Bates without the courage to do anything about it. DVD commentary mentions that this was probably the event that changed her, though this is more a throwaway joke than a real explanation. I can’t even bother to really address it outside of this as it’s irrelevant given what happens to Skinner’s back story later on.

Bart drives through several paintings of the French landscape by Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, and Manet. Running a nice mix of impressionist, post-impressionist, and post-post-impressionist (cubist) art styles.

Apparently Cesar shows up in an episode from season 27 but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Homer really doesn’t end the episode with any kind of revelation that he should love his child and I find that really funny.

Life on the Fast Lane

Life on the Fast Lane

My Recollection

Homer buys a bowling ball for Marge’s birthday. The raw sexuality of bowling. Homer no-selling getting hit in the head with a baseball.

The Episode

This episode was originally titled Bjorn to be Wild because it was about a seductive Swedish tennis instructor but that would have necessitated Homer buying a tennis racquet which would have required the audience believe he was remotely fit enough to play tennis. This was scrapped and Bjorn was turned into Jacques because French people are funnier by virtue of nobody knowing enough Swedish stereotypes. The episode was renamed Jacques to be Wild which is fucking stupid and so they settled on Life on the Fast Lane a timeless tale about the raw, almost feral erotic energy of the suburban American bowling alley. I was at a party once and a guy was bragging about getting his dick in one of the bowling ball finger holes. The abyssal silence after someone pointed out how fucking small those holes are is something I still think about.

The episode begins on Marge’s 34th birthday, a nice piece of canon utterly obliterated by the rampaging bull that is The Way we Was, and Homer forgetting it. This itself is a fine, and oft repeated, piece of Homeric stupidity but the gag is overdone by having Homer think it’s his birthday. As Homer grew from comic buffoon to a parody of a parody of a parody of a retarded person I can only begrudgingly respect Family Guy for at least making Peter medically retarded and getting it over with. This is an early glimpse of that level of stupidity but it does lead to the first instance of one of my favourite gags, the audible footsteps leading to the car as Homer races to the mall to buy Marge a birthday present.

Later episodes have focused on Homer’s failures to accomplish this basic task through the lens of a more believable character flaw. Sometimes he’s cheap or legitimately poor. Sometimes it’s the fact that he hasn’t planned at all that makes the gift a desperate, last minute thing. He’s selfish, certainly, but it’s a kind of ignorant selfishness that eschews the planning that would indicate active malice. Homer buying Marge a bowling ball, one engraved with his name, is a character damaging level of contempt and not a moderately understandable side-effect of comic boobery.

The pair are a somewhat tragic couple as the sitcom format can rarely give either their due spine or brain. The episode explores this well and, though it ends on a glossed over romantic moment to essentially reset the status quo, it’s done in a way that gives Marge a much needed sense of identity separate from the family structure. Marge’s response to Homer’s stupid gift, the hilarious decision to bowl out of spite, is the episode’s first look at this identity. This leads her to the Bowlarama, and to Jacques, the bafflingly seductive bowling alley guy. Jacques is another one of A. Brooks’ contributions but he’s not really given much to work with aside from “seduce Marge”. This binds a lot of what Jacques says to the context of the moment and stifles Brook’s natural absurdity leaving Jacques to be a fairly forgettable character. Aside from a few background appearances in later episodes, this is his one and only, and it’s unremarkable.

I’m operating on the idea that the whole concept of a bowling alley as a place where a Lothario will loiter to demonstrate his bowling skills and bang bowling groupies is an overt joke and not a reference to the now lost historical significance of bowling alleys. I refuse to believe that bowling alleys were ever a place that could encourage sex. It is impossible for the bowling motion to appear attractive to any sexual orientation or gender, you look like a bloated ibis trying to shake off a parasite, and bowling has the social capital of an ashtray full of light beer. The idea that a creature who looks like a haunted pear could be deemed seductive while excelling at a sport played primarily by cholesterol is too demented to be taken seriously but a fairly good gauge of how starved Marge is for the sense of value Jacques provides.

The episode differs from others that focus on the marriage in that it’s not about one party making amends but about how an event can drive a wedge into a relationship. The bulk of the narrative agency is in Marge, and Homer’s more passive, internal scenes serve as an excellent narrative balance point that keep the focus on the split as opposed to the sides in it. Coming off the stupidity of the ball itself, the internal focus  of Homer’s narrative moments keep the writers from making him launch into any screwball crap that would pollute the core of the episode. Aside from a small early gag where Homer tries to do dinner, his appearances hearken back to the realistic misery of a man too stupid to fix the problems that hurt him. He tries talking to Marge after she comes home from another sexy bowling lesson with Jacques, but simply gives up after briefly staring at the wall. “Nothing” is all he says when asked, and the fade out returns some dignity to the man that the ball purchase took away.

His discovery of a glove that Jacques bought for Marge is enough to send him into a deep depression that leads to one of the best moments in the episode. After Bart pelts Homer in the face with a ball during a game of catch, with Homer reacting to neither the ball nor the pain, Bart panics and gives Homer the advice that he’d once given Bart.

“You said, when something’s bothering you and you’re too damn stupid to know what to do, just keep your fool mouth shut. At least that way, you won’t make things worse.”

The moment is beautiful because it’s Homer’s advice, so everyone ignoring it turns it into good advice. Bart ignores it when he, in absolute panic, blurts it at his father with no idea of the situation let alone how this advice would apply to it. Homer ignores it, probably more willfully, as he takes a moment the next day to tell Marge how much he appreciates how she makes his sandwiches. It’s a gentle moment that fits the episode’s construction and counters the earlier scene where he actually did keep his fool mouth shut. Most of what happens is really the result of a lack of communication between the two, and the episode emphasises this by keeping Homer and Marge apart for the bulk of the scenes. Homer doesn’t try to make some great speech or promise anything he can’t deliver because season one Homer may be stupid but he’s smart enough to know that he’s stupid, it’s why he ignores his own advice, and there’s a vulnerability to his last ditch effort being something so innocent and innocuous that makes it more honest than any confident assertions of change.

Marge is a woman bound by innumerable ruts and stifled dreams so the personality that results from this is little more than a cheerfully blithe coping mechanism, a fact even she is unaware of. Her naivety is something the story emphasises as she’s easily overcome by Jacques’ paint-by-numbers seduction. But there’s something behind the facade her life has beaten into her, and this episode hides a glimpse of it in the space the narrative leaves unfilled. We never see why Marge changes her mind and the audience is never overtly reassured as to her commitment or reasoning. She is simply presented with a choice and makes it, her reasoning is her own and its invisibility to anyone else both emphasises this and casts the rest of the episode in a different light. We’re seeing the surface of Marge be easily overcome, and we expect a naive dingbat who thinks bowling is hurling a ball anywhere in a bowling building to be an easy mark for someone like Jacques. But at each point with him she is fully aware of what is going on. She reminds him she’s a married woman because she absolutely knows what he wants. She agrees to meet him anyway. None of her decisions were those of a rube being fooled, the Marge within was actively choosing. Her invisible decision at the end was the last in a series of them, it was just the only one influenced by Homer making an honest effort to appreciate her.

A sitcom relationship is always going to be a grossly stupid one as the combination of format stability and absurd hijinks is an impossible one to support. This tends to put a use-by date on characters, as they’ll either have to fold back in on themselves to keep the format going or be dragged down into the pit of stupidity. Marge and Homer have suffered these fates a the years have dragged on and, in all fairness, the first gentle descent did make for a funnier show during the high period. But comic gems like season 5 were elevated to cultural icon status because of the combination of depth and humour, and that depth is born in episodes like this one. Life on the Fast Lane is, save for a few moments, consciously unfunny but the reality of a relationship like Homer and Marge’s isn’t a funny one.

 

Yours in keeping his fool mouth shut, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

The opening shot of the house is one that I don’t think was ever repeated and is canonically incorrect for a number of reasons.

Certain strains of humour and horror work best when we they work on what we can’t see. I’ve seen my brother slip over a few times and it’s funny. One time I took a shower and the bath mat was somewhere else so the floor was completely wet as I was leaving. I tried to warn my brother as he went in but he ignored me because we were arguing about something. As I’m walking away I hear: SQUEEEK, THUD, “GAAAAAAH!” and laughed so hard I cried. This is the principle the “running out of the house” gag works on, the THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD of Homer sprinting out of the house leading to the sound of a car screech away while the shot lingers on the silent family is funny where just showing him leave the house in a hurry isn’t. It’s a great joke template they expanded on a few times to great effect.

Homer buying Marge a bowling ball with his name on it is retarded and not comedy retarded. They kind of set up for it by having Selma remind Marge of Homer’s other shitty gifts but this still requires so much thought that it becomes actively cunty and not humorously stupid.

A restaurant where people sing at you seems fucking awful. I’m pretty sure these existed as some early 90s fad.

Taking up a whole hobby to spite someone is fucking magical and it’s made funnier by the fact that Marge goes to a bowling alley with a ball and seems to think you just throw the ball anywhere within the building. What did she think this was? Like some kind of Frisbee golf with a bowling ball?

The Simpsons and King of the Hill have both made jokes about how the wives have large feet. This must be some kind of joke template leftover from the 50s or something because Jesus fucking Christ, who cares? Unless you have actual flippers that aid your movement through water or feet that are like gorilla hands, women’s feet are only interesting to people who want to fuck them.

Jacques screaming, “FOUR ONION RINGS”  from the lane makes me chuckle. It’s an example of one of those innocuous phrases that kind of slips into a meme because its initial use is so peculiar it makes any subsequent use seem contextually valid by comparison.

The bowling references in the background art, like the 3 hole moon, were a novel touch for 1990, particularly as they were not part of a dream sequence.