Category: Gabriel Morton versus The Simpsons

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

Itchy and Scratchy and Marge

Itchy and Scratchy and Marge

My Recollection

Maggie bashing Homer in the head. Marge episode. The frightening wide-eyed stare of “nice” Itchy and Scratchy.

My neighbour in Goodna was a kid called Steven. His father was a stunted wookie with an 80 IQ called Devlin and his mother was a garbage bag full of cottage cheese. He was so skinny he could fit behind the gas bottles behind the house and the one time I used the toilet there the paper was a school exercise book. The only time he got a good Christmas present, a working 50cc peewee motorbike, his dad insisted on using it first and his huge ass blew out both tires while Steven watched. His relationship with his father was tense.

Feral families don’t have pets so much as they just cohabitate with animals. I’ve seen two kids sharing a room because one of the rooms was the dog’s and the fact that I was never sure whether that arrangement was the dog’s idea or not pretty much answered the question. Sometimes they are fun animals, like a friendly dog with its own room who only occasionally tries to rape you. Sometimes they are insanely dangerous things hemmed in by 7 foot high chicken wire that turn the back yard and rear door into absolute no-go areas. Sometimes they’re a savage duck that only likes Devlin.

Most animals are just kind of there. They react to things and that’s about it. Any negative experience you have with them — being bitten, chased, or what have you — are side-effects of natural systems that aren’t really about you at all. Then there’s birds. Birds are smart and can fly. This means they aren’t besieged with the kind of minute-to-minute mortal terror that occupies the mind of something like a mouse. They can sit up on a pole, far from any threat, and get fucking bored. Birds are one of the few animals that will look at something that is neither food, foe, or mate, and decide to interfere in its existence purely for the chuckles. This has always given their misbehaviour the tangy aftertaste of thoughtful malice you just don’t get with anything else.

I don’t remember the duck ever being a duckling and with that goes the only explanation I could ever have for why a duck liked Devlin. Nothing liked Devlin. Trees instinctively fell on him. I spite of this reality, he and the duck got along. I subscribe to the theory Steven advanced, that Devlin and the duck were exactly the same type of asshole, because Steven’s relationship with the duck was tense. I’ve had relatives who had birds as pets and it’s left me with a negative to confused view of the idea. In retrospect, having a corner of a room you can no longer access because a sulphur crested cockatoo will go berserk is strange. Can I pet it? No, it will screech and bite you. Can I feed it? No, it will screech, bite you, and eat the food once you’ve run away screaming. Does it fill the house with pleasant music? No, it sounds like Gilbert Gottfried stabbing another Gilbert Gottfried. Even with this as my baseline understanding of bird pets, the duck was a bad pet.

Stealth sections aren’t a fun addition to most games and they’re even less fun when a psychotic bird imposes one on your house. I found this out by taking a normal step for a small male child of about 11 and being told that it was too loud. Too loud for what? It turns out there’s nothing in the human fear instinct pile that corresponds to hateful quacking so I stood there wondering what the fuck that sound was until it had chased me out of the house. Don’t step too loudly. Don’t make eye contact with it. Don’t speak above a whisper. These were the rules a child had to live by because of a duck. Steven had a tense relationship with his father. Steven had a tense relationship with the duck. This was one tension too many.

A critical state is, broadly, a point at which a system can change. Think of sand in an hourglass and the way it doesn’t just pile up forever. Critical states are whole circumstance before collapse, not the individual cause. Because sometimes, particularly in large or baflfingly complicated systems, the catalyst is an impossible variable to know. It might be the very first grain has been on an odd angle this whole time. It might be a particularly fat grain about to tumbled down on top of the pile. I cannot remember what started the fight because it ultimately doesn’t matter. Steven, Devlin, and the duck were a critical state. Then there was a collapse.

A broken human is an amazingly capable thing because when you’ve nothing left to fear you suddenly find yourself without any limits.

When Steven broke, he did the last thing I expected him to do and picked up the duck. Among the list of things the duck didn’t like — Steven, being touched by Steven, and being picked up by Steven —  it was most certainly not prepared for all three to happen at once. It went into an apoplectic fit of beaks and feathers. At the sight of this, Devlin entered a similar state but struggled to get out of the semi-collapsed yard couch he was aggressively gesticulating from.

To throw something is to toss it with the intent of being caught. To peg something is to throw a thing with the intent of it fucking caning whatever you’ve pegged the thing at. Steven pegged a furious duck into his hollering father’s face and the following explosion of feathers, toothless hillbilly, and mindless rage was something to behold.

Animals react to things like being pegged at a face and having something pegged at their face with a near equal level of directionless hostility so it wasn’t too surprising that what started as a fight between Steven and Devlin became a kind of brawl between Devlin’s face and the duck. The duck didn’t fucking care what it was doing, like a slightly vexed Donald, it was just thrashing whatever was nearest. Devlin seemed to want a peaceful resolution to this but couldn’t decide whether he wanted his arms to wobble him up to a standing position or deal with the bitey ducknado assaulting him so neither happened. Devlin’s face was furious at both these problems but could do nothing but endure an horrendous pinching until the duck tired and waddled back to its corner of the yard.

The cottage cheese, disturbed from playing Centipede on an Atari, wandered into the back yard and began a quick assessment of which party she could give away with the least effort. Steven didn’t have to stealth level around his own home anymore and I eventually got to watch Devlin get regularly bitten by his own dog.

The Episode.

There’s a moment in the commentary track for Itchy and Scratchy and Marge where they argue the episode isn’t trying to make a point. This is a variant of the Idiot Defence. Letterman used the Idiot Defence a lot. He’d argue some point, sometimes quite articulately, but because he has to speak to a broad audience that would contain the exact morons he had contempt for, he’d finish his piece by grumbling that he was an idiot and struggled with these ideas. It’s called the Idiot Defence because only an idiot could fall for it. This episode’s makers don’t want you to think they have a point, lest they upset any idiots, but they do and its existence creates a very strong episode.

There’s a tension between comedy and narrative. For a comedy to work, it needs to make you laugh so this prioritises jokes over everything else and is what generally separates it from a drama that’s funny. Shows like The Simpsons (and other animated sitcoms), 30 Rock, and Community will often run multiple plot threads, ones that typically shorten and weaken other dramatic elements, as they need the surface area for more jokes. This is why you see a lot of multi-thread storytelling, something that makes sense in hour long programs, jammed into 22 minute comedies. It mostly works because the comic characters tend to be more archetypal and require less fleshing out to feel appropriate for their worlds, but the current era, and its easy to binge/catch up distribution methods, has spoiled us with serialisation to make up for the shortfall. The Simpsons has always played loose with its serialised elements. They’re definitely there, think of the character growth and life changes for Apu, but it is often hard to tell which bit of what episode is going to be blessed with absorption into the canon. Its unreliable nature, and relative scarcity besides, means the show typically relies on the multi-thread approach as enough good jokes easily drown out the bad ones.

It’s easy to look at a broken lamp surrounded by rotting foodstuffs and forget that it’s also garbage. It’s similarly easy to look at Marge as the suffering angel surrounded by pigs. The glimpses we get of her in most other episodes lean into the archetypal and non-serialised, housewife generally and cop episode for example, and these tend to obfuscate her more than develop her. So we’re left with a woman in the shadow of Homer, a chaotic monstrosity, in which she will only ever look a saint. What flaws that get their own episodes, gambling addiction for instance, are always treated as problems Marge is a victim of. She is seldom overtly treated as bad so you can only catch glimpses of real faults in the corners of focused episodes like this one.

We get to see a lot of Marge here, it’s her story and her quest. The obvious things part of the not-message this episode has, like the hypocrisy of some crusading nitwit demanding an end to only the art she doesn’t like, are depicted as only the overzealous result of a core positive trait. But with time and focus we see more.

Marge is not a good mother. Loving to the point of anxiety, sure, but fretting and parenting are different things. Marge dumps her child in front of the TV and this child immediately imitates what she sees as though there’s no other competition in its developing mind for behavioural role-models. What does Marge do all day that this is Maggie’s reaction to violent imagery? Lisa doesn’t do this sort of thing at all. Even Bart, gob of novelty malice as he’s frequently depicted, doesn’t just bash Homer over the head. Marge spends all her time with Maggie and yet it’s like she’s not there at all.

Marge is present in her children’s lives as a being but not as a parent. She cares a lot, but it is a care mutated by domestic stagnation and garden variety ignorance. She is bored by her children, so rather than spend time with her youngest, she reaches out for the broader recognition she craves and becomes an activist, guaranteeing her less time with her child. We never see her address this problem in her own child at all. The most she interacts with Maggie after this is to say, “Bad baby” before abandoning her to campaign against Itchy and Scratchy. This is like starting a letter writing campaign to change leash laws while the dog is still mauling your child.

And all of this is excellent.

Archetypes are easy but will inevitably skew dull, particularly when they are the actual Nuclear Family. The other characters developed softening and hardening traits that gave cookie-cutter beings depth. Marge has always been a tough one to do this to as narrative balance requires a straight-man and the resulting victim status makes polluting her with genuine awfulness dangerously close to punishing viewer sympathy. There are other instances (I don’t count her getting drunk in season one as being on-character though so I exclude it) of this throughout the good years and I’ll bring them up as we go. They’re often, and by comparison, surprisingly brief but they add depth to a woman whose character is often little more than an archetype draped in baubles. This episode’s focus gives her the time and narrative developments to be whole and it’s a pleasant change. Remember, a bad character isn’t the same as bad characterisation.

Beyond a better look at Marge, the episode’s singular focus makes it a structural feat, albeit one aided by the setting. Crafting a structurally cohesive ensemble comedy, or anything really, is tricky when you’ve broad character variety. Coming up with reasons for all the characters to be together or a story that naturally involves all of them can be hard and many shows struggle with this. Archer particularly resorts to lazy contrivances it then obnoxiously plays of with self-awareness. The core narrative of this episode is a godsend for being naturally imbued with things for everyone to be doing and the story fills these gaps well. The result, like a lot of focused Simpsons episodes, is a story where even the absurd detours feel necessary to the story. The musical interlude where the children return to the idyllic hobbies and manners of a never real yesteryear is silly, but it’s a silliness that narrative impetus casts as a brief detour from the norm with the promise of a return to normality functioning as a stabilising agent.

It would be easy for Itchy and Scratchy and Marge to be a real drag of an episode. Its core plot point is identical to last week’s Bart the Daredevil. It’s a Marge episode. And it’s about something as fundamentally stupid as a crusading ninny whining about cartoon violence. I said at the start that the directors commentary tried to fob off any point and I called them liars but now I’ll meet them halfway. There is a point, but each character’s individual ones are treated as it while they’re on screen. This focus of theme, plot, and character lets side characters operate in ways that are minor but still meaningful, resulting in an episode that stands out as one of season two’s betters.

Yours in going to Janey’s to watch cartoons, Gabriel.

 

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts

Marge is actually a good cook here, with a wide variety of spices and MSG. This is pretty much ditched for a later characterisation of her being a boring cook who doesn’t even know what oregano is.

The whole scene of Homer being bashed is a quite accurate parody of Psycho made easier by it arriving on VHS around when this was written. Homer’s tongue waggling scream and the brief but focal shot of him being bashed in the head are great visual gags.

 

Things like the multi-threading for more joke potential aren’t hard rules, but they are rules. Reducing the number of active points in your work puts more weight on the ones that are there. If that focal story you have winds up weak, then that’s going to basically collapse your whole thing. It’s not impossible, just much harder and often not worth the risk. Later series, like the aforementioned 30 Rock and Community, use serialisation and the ability to target more sophisticated audiences to craft densely layered narratives and meta-narratives which gives them access to the best of both worlds.

The joke of Marge being in an Itchy and Scratchy episode about cartoon violence while herself in a cartoon about cartoon violence is a level of meta made fun by its depth and, for its time, freshness. Homer laughing his ass off at the obvious parallel, to Marge’s frustration, is a great example of a joke that works to use and build character as opposed from taking away from it. Many shows use absurd reality levels of similarly ridiculous premises, South Park and American Dad come to mind, to do both but getting it to work within a dryer, realer setting is real skill.

“Dogs Tricked” on Marge’s list of violent events is amusingly incongruous and I’m a sucker for a basic list gag.

Roger Meyer’s reply is great and I wish more creators would reply to loud morons in similar fashion.

“There’s peas everywhere”

One of the last appearances by Marvin Monroe. He was making fun of the early wave of bullshit TV psychiatrists, pre Dr Phil, and his list of  topics, “women who love to much, fear of winning, and sex-aholism” were the clickbait of checkout aisle rags.

Krusty’s character in these early seasons was refined but quite different from the one that ended up taking over. His naivety and illiteracy were dumped for the more fertile ground of bitter comedy legend that a bunch of comedy nerds would know intimately.

The banality of the Marge-approved Itchy and Scratchy is an exaggerated but not by much prod at the awful “positive” children’s programming you’d see around and still sometimes do. Nickelodeon’s 1991 run of madness, while not the first or only, fucking set a tone for children’s animation actually being deep and interesting. Prior to that it was almost universally awful. Go watch an actual episode of He-Man, it’s on Netflix, I dare you to sit through a whole episode. Now imagine everything was that.

The great fiction of this episode is a moral crusader relenting after being confronted with a basic hypocrisy.

There’s a moment when Marge is dragged back on Smartline to discuss the statue of David and the animators gave her angry eyes by mistake. She’s not mad, she’s smiling and her tone of voice isn’t negative, and it fixes itself after a few seconds but dammit it’s a funny shot.

Maggie is seen here getting the idea of how to shoot from an episode of I&S which I’m taking as a long term setup for her eventually gunning Mr Burns down.

Bart the Daredevil

Bart the Daredevil

My Recollection

The fucking cliff fall. The kids running away when Bart hurt himself trying to ramp the car. Truckasaurus.

Growing up, the neglected kids were a lot more fun than the abused kids. The latter were twitchy and while they could occasionally flip out in an entertaining way, it would usually last well beyond funny and get deeply into disturbing before an adult subdued them. Neglected kids weren’t traumatised by some esoteric combination of Poppers and the theme to Lift Off so they were a lot more fun. Neglected kids just wanted the attention, any attention, they didn’t get at home. I like to laugh at absurd, dangerous behaviour I’ve too much sense to engage in myself and they liked to see a human face smile at them so we got along well.

A ten year old boy is a collision of evolutionary forces demanding it survive while daring it to attempt the mortally dangerous to improve its social standing. This is an amazing balance you could watch play out in the backyard haggling over precisely what constituted a feat of bravery. The higher the better: jumping off a roof is cooler than a fence. More objects, more better: jumping off a roof in a fridge box is cooler than without. Flips were like hundred dollar notes. You’d heard of them, some even claimed to have seen them, but nobody ever brought one out when you were there.

But there exists a tipping point.

A dare can’t be blatantly lethal. “Headbutt that oncoming car” isn’t a dare, it’s what you say to someone you don’t like. Anything deemed absurd will be shunned by the group as it throws the precarious balance out. The dares have to escalate. Overshoot and you hand power back to the victim who’ll always opt for something boring like climbing the big tree.

A common feat, but still a feat, was going down a hill on a skateboard. Skateboards were everywhere in spite of the fact that not a single child in my neighbourhood could actually ride one as intended. So all we did was sit on them and let gravity or siblings we’d bullied into being engines do the rest. Going down the steep hill on an actual skateboard was daring, but those things were like sitting in an SUV. The banana boards, slivers of used soap with wheels attached, were not.

These things were everywhere in spite of nobody ever admitting to buying one, the coat-hangers of child possessions. I had one. I don’t know why. I never asked for one and certainly never indicated an interest in skateboards, but, nonetheless, I had one. They existed about the suburbs like they were manifestations of the town’s desire to see injured children. It got its wish.

Malice driven design philosophy is not something you see often and, in spite of several personal injuries, my natural ability to appreciate all arts forces me to admit that these were marvels at what they did. They were absurdly fast, could never quite accommodate both buttocks, and taunted you with good steering that a low height meant would shred your knuckles if you dared entertain the idea of not careening in a straight line. Like biological weapons, they were deemed unfair and inhumane, then stricken from the list of sane dares.

But then there were the neglected kids. The neglected kids were the cryptocurrencies of the volatile childhood dare marketplace, daft things most never really understood aside from their unusual ability to escalate beyond all of your careful modelling. They had to be carefully managed because even the adults knew they had no wills of their own which meant an event would be traced to the source of the idea, me, before anyone got yelled at. There was a Goldilocks Zone to keep them in, but it was one so beyond what we were used to that it became prized.

Neglected kids ate the banana boards up. At their house, going for a ride down a hill meant being tied to a barrel and hurled at a cousin. A board and wheels? Luxury. This disruptive innovation blew the dare economy wide open. When dreams become realities you race like mad to keep your fantasies ahead of the curve. So we came to an equally omnipresent wheeled menace of trash suburbs: the abandoned trolley.

Trolleys and the ending of Labyrinth were some of the first lessons a kid from my generation could have about how sometimes things don’t work the way they look like they should. Something that moves like an Escher drawing looks didn’t require experimentation to be out of bounds any more than one would wonder what a lion’s fang tastes like. It just was through an innate sense of the screamingly dangerous. Gravity had rules. Wasp’s nests had rules. The hill had optimal routes. But the trolley was alien logic, even thinking about it left you missing time and covered in scratches.

The neglected kids operate on a kind of zen logic that beats the non-euclidean torment fields of rickety wheeled suicide cages by simply not caring. If [attention] then [do], was as deep as the process got. With that, Alan got into one at the top of the steep hill beside Goodna State School.

I refused to even hold the trolley. I wanted my hands clean, by any measure, and I was not certain I wasn’t about to witness a death. Everyone else was simply too excited to care. This was it, the definitive it, we were actually going to see it. A bit like the arcane rules of No Homo that bros use to fuck each other without having to accept unpleasant realities, dares often had weird little caveats that meant nothing but provided the dareee with a sense of control over their doom. “Okay, I’ll jump off a roof but only after 3pm”, that sort of thing. Alan’s was that the trolley had to be released, not pushed. In a way, I kind of understand. He was here to be sacrificed to the judgement of the gods, not to be jester for some base mortals. And so he was released.

If you were to ride a trolley down a hill, what kind of trolley would you choose? The shambolic piece of crap or the shiny new one? Like most dungeon riddles, this is counter-intuitive. A shitty wreck would either seize up and go nowhere or run a near 90 degree turn before stopping in a gutter. This newer one’s functional wheels meant it went straight for quite some time and, in the process, gathered quite some speed. The anticipation was at a level that we were hugging, gouging, and hitting each other just to relieve some of the tension.

I’d like to tell you that he got to the bottom of the hill unharmed, defying both his own sad fate and our cruel need to see someone else suffer. People like the happy lower class stories. I like the happy lower class stories. But they’re the exceptions that, in a way, enforce the rule.

Alan was on his butt in the trolley, riding in the reclined-but-not-quite fashion of an F1 racer, and his vehicle ran true for longer than any of us expected. But the iron law of the underclasses is that the only time something works properly is when it’s setting you up to suffer. Trolley logic asserted itself and Alan’s racer began to turn. 10 degrees. 15 degrees. We could see the demon’s eyes, it was here for Alan, some of the tension broke and the joy chilled. 20 degrees. Near the bottom, though, so maybe he’ll be fine?

30 degrees.

40 degrees.

50.

60.

A pebble hit the front right wheel of the trolley and suddenly 90. The safety cage that is the trolley sides, and that was how one of the better salesmen among us described them to Alan as, mean little when your momentum and your trolley’s momentum differ on a few key points. The trolley rolled. Alan was launched. The launch threw Alan out of the safety cage and the roll brought the other side of it down on his back, slamming him into the bitumen with a kind of meaty wet THACK sound familiar only to wrestlers, butchers, and the bored poor.

It’s okay to abandon your friends to the kinds of injuries that will bring down adult wrath but only if the whole thing was their idea. You get it into your head to show off and all that shit’s on you, chum. But we were part of this. We boosted spirits. We hushed doubts. We looked at each other and waited for him to move. Screaming began.

That he got away with only a sprained arm and some general scratching\bruising is a testament to the durability of your average little shit. There was a good solid minute there, though, where I was already forming a believable story about how I’d happened upon all this after it had already transpired because it legit looked like he’d been totally fucking killed. We did learn an important lesson from all of this: the bar had been raised. Trolleys were possible, but part of a newly established tier of dare most weren’t expected to attempt. Later challengers would come to learn why.

Look, shit was boring before the internet.

 

The Episode.

Homer is a well-meaning buffoon. A malicious, insecure imbecile. A loving father too lazy to manifest that fact in any real parenting. Bart is a mischievous ten year old boy, America’s bad boy. He’s a selfish piece of shit too stupid to ever be a real sociopath. Father and son are a lot alike it’s just the age difference that separates them. Homer is an idiot with responsibilities so he has mentally checked out. Planning for anything better requires a painful amount of hope so he can only cravenly grab at any small positive that wanders into his field of view. Bart’s skilful conniving makes him look cleverer than his father, but the difference exists only because he’s still stupid enough to think his life is a game he has a chance of winning. Typically, their conflicts are an uncaring force meeting an apathetic object but this episode uses all its available tools to explore the connection that keeps their relationship from truly devolving.

Narratives, in all their forms and with all their accompanying component parts, are structures that are as predictable as any mechanism. This is true of most domains. Consider the way an illustrator can look at a reference image, deconstruct it into component shapes, and then turn a few basic lines into a complex new structure. I can’t draw for shit, so to me that process looks like magic. I don’t see animation in the same way an artist does because a lot of the constructive elements are part of that magic. Narrative is the same and, at least until very recently, this has limited what a broadcast sitcom could do.

The finite resource of narrative is time. Whether you’re asking someone to commit a lot of it to experiencing your story or whether network and advertiser conditions limit you to a 22 minute runtime, your character and plot developments are going to be fighting each other for space. The more familiar you are with a subject the less one has to say to explain an element of it. If I say that Mulvey’s treating Freud like a hard science makes her conclusions questionable at best, this will require a lot of explaining to mean anything to anyone who doesn’t already have some opinion on that matter. When a narrative can assume, or is confident enough to demand, a complex existing knowledge in its audience, it can use brief references for large things which frees up time for other stuff.

This episode is about the relationship between Homer and Bart but its emphasis is on their relationship of father and son, and not the more antagonistic one derived from their comic roles of modern Tom and Jerry. This is a more complex game to play, and requires the kinds of time that the nature of the show would otherwise thwart. Signalling a character over comic focus, scenes establishing the more realistic roles of father and son, and building the core conflict are all things that eat precious time. Bart vs Thanksgiving gave the drama its due time and sacrificed all else, creating an episode that’s neither funny nor, due to the limited possible character growth, dramatically satisfying. Bart the Daredevil uses a mix of clever structuring and exploitation of mass popularity to assume higher audience familiarity to be another early example of the kind of layered experience the series came to be known for.

The mirrored opening scenes are an excellent example of how to do several things at once. By separating Homer and Bart in space but making their scenes flow together like they’re one (something Archer does a lot), the episode shows a fundamental connection between the two, that is, one that exists in absence of any other contexts. The only way they’re being the same here is that, on some level, they are the same. There’s a few other scenes with similar outcomes, but few that manage it in so sophisticated and honest a way as they are typically tied to other plot functions. As the conflict between the two is so ripe with plot and humour, it’s the frequently used trope, and the actual connection between father and son is typically only ever seen as the brief moments before their clash or in the resolution. Making it the “happily ever after” or inevitable conflict point of a plot makes it a function or cliche which overshadows its other meanings. This scene can exist comfortably as the conflict point doesn’t come until later in the episode, meaning that it can exist free of these problems and provide a much needed reminder of how much the pair have in common.

Caddyshack is an atrocious mess of independently funny scenes without a lick of coherent point until somewhere around the end of the film when Harold Ramis remembered it wasn’t a sketch show. To fix this, they added a kind of scaffolding narrative drive to give the movie the impression of focal impetus, the fucking gopher. They literally added the gopher after principle photography was finished because there was barely a story without it. There still isn’t a story, the gopher doesn’t relate to anything else, but it’s enough to drape Bill Murray in fine improvisational form on so it’s got that going for it. Normally, adding the point of a piece at the halfway point runs the serious risk of making everything prior to it a bit of a piss-fart about, possibly funny but otherwise useless to structures you need if you want to do anything else (this is something later Simpsons does all the goddamn time). Unlike the bare strand of Gopher in Caddyshack, the mirrored scenes of this episode establish a theme, how Homer and Bart relate as father and son, and a point, their underlying similarity, to create a through-line that later narrative structures actually meaningfully connect to.

In addition to all this, it also has some good jokes. Most at the expense of people who enjoy wrestling, one sly one from Lisa about how the changing attitudes of history resemble the face/heel dynamic of wrestling, and more about how Homer is perhaps a bit too much like his ten year old son. So the scene uses a basic structural trick, mirroring, to build a theme and point while running a general funny Simpsons scene over the top of it. This is one good example of how this episode has its cake and eats it in terms of time spent on drama or comedy without delving into anything too complicated. A recognition that scenes and ideas can play into the plot in indirect fashions and this continues in the next sequence.

The goal of the story appears to have been set, Truckasaurus, and naturally, a potential conflict appears in Lisa’s recital taking place on the same night. Deflecting from this as the narrative conflict, and stalling the presentation of the actual one, can build a tension that’s difficult to deal with. The higher the tension the more stress is applied on the conflict as a structural hinge. It’s real easy for this tension to go too far and be irreconcilable (think of any big mystery show with an underwhelming finale), so the sequence is played more for laughs and character, but character that feeds this episode’s Gopher. Of particular note is how the music from the recital, normally things Homer has absolutely zero interest in, gets stuck in his head as they speed toward Truckasaurus. Lisa notes it herself which serves to emphasise the point to the audience but also as an understandable thing for her to openly appreciate given her own strained relationship with her father. This scene, seemingly vestigial as it looks like a come-and-gone conflict, adds to the episode the idea that Homer cares about his children, and is influenced by them, on levels that even he isn’t aware of.

Fusion of absurd comedy and deep drama is very possible, just tricky. Shows that manage well, like Rick and Morty exploit both a deranged core premise and expectation of genre trope knowledge that would have made it an impossible pitch prior to the current era. Having a giant truck dinosaur try to eat the family car is the kind of thing that can completely blow the real drama of a family sitcom from the early 90s, but this episode’s layout has craftily prevented that. Broadcast TV was big on tone signalling, shows would tell you whether it was a funny one or a “very special episode” very early so the broad audience of viewers wouldn’t get annoyed at anything confusing. Signal absurd or dramatic and you can get up to mischief with the break between episodes functioning as a reset.

In this moment, The Simpsons essentially plays all the cards available to it and manages to have a giant robot truck dinosaur not throw the episode’s realism out of balance. Firstly, the carefully layered earlier sequences have been ambiguous enough to leave the tone undeclared, meaning the audience won’t have any stifling expectations built up yet. Secondly, the primary conflict hasn’t presented itself yet, meaning Truckasaurus exists in the kind of separate narrative preamble later series would come to obnoxiously exploit. Thirdly, by season two the show is hugely popular, and has a track record of both real family drama and cartoon ridiculousness. It exploits this, at the time, rare commodity to expect its audience to accept that this universe has both the real and the absurd at the same time, and not just every other week. A final touch is having the Truckasaurus scene followed by a deliberately mundane one of Marge talking to Truckasaurus’ owner about restitution, immediately eliminating the event as relevant to the narrative, and having the family then sit down for the show as promised.

Now the episode finally gets to its premise: Bart wanting to emulate the daredevil Lance Murdoch and Homer’s attempts at talking him out of it. This is a rare form of conflict between the pair because it’s one of the only times that Homer is objectively right and, in a way, so is Bart. Jumping Springfield Gorge will kill Bart. Homer can’t keep an eye on him 24/7. Homer even tries to genuinely communicate with his son, seeing through the sitcom routine of “phoney-baloney” promises. This isn’t the lazy Homer playing the role of Father, his directly addressing the routine he and Bart have breaks that fourth wall, this is a man trying to leverage a genuine connection with his son for their own good. And he believes he is successful.

But Bart is Bart.

Homer’s jumping Springfield Gorge is fucking ridiculous. The whole sequence is a combination of jarring factors that keep the viewer from finding a reality for it. Homer and Bart have resolved their tension so the jump is not necessary, just the intent was. Midway through, Homer celebrates as he thinks he’ll make it, which would be a funny twist, but then he drops like a stone. The basic concept is Road Runner level absurdity, but its execution is, particularly for the era, realistically graphic. A part of keeping comic violence comic is in avoiding naturalistic scarring, but Homer is shown, several times, severely beaten by the fall. It’s so gratuitous that later episodes edited out his second fall and replaced it with another shot of the kids watching from the cliff. A normal person would be dead, a cartoon character wouldn’t be covered in realistic bruises. It’s touching, absurd, brutal, and funny side by side, The Simpsons has announced its reality.

Later, beloved episodes feature ridiculous bullshit as either major jokes or plot cores. Homer goes to fucking space. He causes a meltdown in a test truck. The list goes on. The kinds of absurd reality The Simpsons uses here and in the Golden Era are fairly tame by today’s standards but they were groundbreaking at the time. Other episodes have had glimpses of the mix but this one makes it the complete point. Absurd as it is, it’s the logical conclusion of the established elements of the episode. Homer cares, he subconsciously absorbs lessons from his children, and Bart is just like his father.  Tonally, the episode has kept both strands running, using structural methods to keep either absurd or serious from dominating. When it brings these threads together, it doesn’t decide that one is now and so always was the dominant or “real” story, it concludes the only logical way: by leaving them together but separate. By making the ridiculous the logical conclusion, the ridiculous becomes a comfortable component of Simpsons logic and the rubber band becomes a little more flexible.

Homer’s final line, “try raising my kids” and the hard cut to the credits has a way of making the whole episode look like a shaggy dog story but it’s the kind of necessary direct statement that, “everything’s okay” 90s TV was fairly bound to. The cliff fall itself is a large part of Simpsons history but that’s the kind of “great person” focus that tends to obscure the more interesting parts of the story. Jumping Springfield Gorge is just the end result of an episode that ran a fascinatingly new kind of game with its audience. A game that has a legacy, not just with The Simpsons but with any modern show that blends comedy and drama.

 

Yours in always spelling “Braun” with a “W”, Gabriel.

 

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

There’s a lot of little jabs at wrestling as the show starts. The line “Live, from the Springfield Centre for the Performing Arts” is a good line with a few interpretations: Springfield is so culturally backward that they hold wrestling in their performing arts centre or that wrestling is a performing art. Naturally, Homer and Bart are dumb for enjoying pro-wrestling, and nobody who doesn’t watch wrestling will ever fail to point out that it’s fake, so Lisa does. That said, her line about historical forces changing The Mad Russian to The Friendly Russian, this episode came a year before the full collapse of the Soviet Union, is fun.

Those Truckasaurus things were around a bit in the 90s, though not to that degree of sophistication. I saw one billed as a Transformer which I needed to see because fucking Transformers. It was less a Transformer and more of a Go-Bot but it was still fun. Homer and Bart’s genuine connection over it, and the fact that the trip there itself isn’t a conflict point, is a real touching moment and one that you don’t actually see much in the series.

I don’t know why 1812 Overture was at the end of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8.

As the show matured and Springfield became a more defined character, the population became more predictable. There were eventually pocket characters to fill nearly every role so one-offs like Leo G. Clark, inventor, owner and operator of Truckasaurus and his weird line about how Truckasaurus himself is sorry for the event, are a thing of the past.

His apology gift of a half bottle of domestic champagne is one of those good escalation jokes. It’s torn open already. People have been drinking it. But it’s sorta breezed by so, a bit like Call of The Simpsons’ joke with Marge organising squirrels, it doesn’t outlast its welcome.

Bart watching Homer getting pulled out of the wrecked car and shouting, “Pull, you dogs!” to the struggling staff is a goodun. It’s one of those jokes that works for the audience but also makes sense to be funny within the show’s universe. A real pet peeve of mine, and a thing now gladly fading, was the sitcom habit of filming all these people doing and saying funny things without having anyone in the world acknowledge that they were funny. Makes the thing feel like a dry Powerpoint about jokes as opposed to a stand-up comedian.

Lance Murdoch is an hilarious glimpse into the past. I’m sure these carny monstrosities still roam some carnivals and fairs but a combination of motocross events and Jackass really fucked the old Daredevil game hard. The absurdity of his pool of death is a very modern Simpsons joke and the image of him being dragged back into the water by a lion is a funny one.

Later Simpsons basically outlawed anyone having hair like Bart and Lisa, but in these early episodes you can still see some abominations. This thing in the audience looks like that photoshop of Mr Burns’ face on Lisa.

The kids scattering after Bart brains himself is a great shot and a funny slice of life. It’s not that we don’t care a friend of ours got hurt, it’s just if he did it doing something he shouldn’t have been, we don’t want to get into trouble. There tends to be a directly proportional relationship between the amount of damage a child has visited upon itself and the amount of trouble the bystanders get in.

Doctor Hibbert makes his first appearance in this episode! I’ve heard he’s getting retired because he’s based on notorious rapist Bill Cosby. An odd choice if true because I doubt many modern viewers would even be aware of that.

Lance being an absolute fuckknuckle and egging Bart on is true to the carny way and a funny twist on old sitcom expectations.

Otto humming a riff on the bus intercom and his remark about it being for “emergencies only” when Bart wants to use it is a solid double up.

Stuntman or bootleg Jackass is one of the few things Bart seems to be actually good at.

The final run of jokes as Homer is brought up out of the gorge is a solid one. His head is bashed on the cliff, the ambulance drives straight into a tree, Homer falls out the back, nobody tries to stop anything, Homer goes over the edge again, and finally, Wendell about to throw up.

Okay, now, the cliff fall. The 90s were an era where your video game characters could gut each other ONLY IF their blood was green. That was the weird, meaningless concession the hordes of conservative mothers gave us and it was the one we took. Showing red blood, even today, is still a big fucking deal for only stupid reasons. Most shows get around this by having their aliens bleed black or blue or whatever. So for The Simpsons to show Homer bleeding actual red blood was a big deal. That they’d spend this coin on this scene is a fucking mystery to me.

FUNNY!

 

NOT FUNNY!

I find the mere existence of this moment so fucking absurd that it transcends itself and becomes fucking hilarious but I’m a mutant.

The episode I have, the episodes that get broadcast in syndication, and (interestingly) The Frinkiac’s archived version all censor the second fall. Since it doubles down on something already ridiculous, it’s very fucking funny, so here it is in GIF form.

american_healthcare.gif

 

Dead Putting Society

Dead Putting Society

My Recollection.

Hey, putt-putt, which is what mini golf was called in Brisbane for some reason. Brisbane’s smaller population means any novelty ideas like putt-putt come and go as they lack the constant numbers to survive. The only one I can think of that still operates in the Brisbane area is a windmill-free one at the local driving range. I actually quite enjoy it. “MY WIFE’S SUNDAY DRESS” was oddly specific to me as I’ve never been to church. A focus on the Flandereses.

There are two main spider archetypes: web and active. The prototypical latter is the Huntsman spider. It’s the one you’ll find in, or often under, Australian houses and makes up for a lack of core bulk with more hairy leg than a body positive book club. They’re otherwise harmless ghastly horrors who can move faster than you blink. The web ones shit a small house in the corner of yours and then just sorta hang out. The indoorsy ones are largely tiny and typically helpful in dealing with mosquitoes and flies, but the outdoorsy ones… Those are something else. Brisbane’s most common of these is the Golden Orb Weaver. I know them from when I used to live in Ashgrove.

The curb of Ashgrove road is lined with leafy trees. The houses that line Ashgrove road have front yards and these yards also feature leafy trees. The result is a footpath that’s little more than a concrete whisper of suburban safety drowned out by screaming green madness. At night, the street lights that were meant to provide a sense of daylight safety just acted as bait to lure you through the deciduous dark. And in that dark lurked the Orb Weavers.

You’d never see them. You’d only ever, were you the fortunate one walking a few steps behind, see the spasmodic panic karate of a human trying to simultaneously get out of a spiderweb while trying to figure out if the spider is still in it. The way you can tell the difference between a cockroach and a spider crawling on you is in the way they step. There’s a slow deliberateness to a web dwelling spider’s that typifies it from the mad scramble of the common roach. You will always tell yourself it was a cockroach, though, as the alternative invites the terrible idea that it could still be on you somewhere. Waiting, some say biding.

The local driving range was open at all hours because apparently golf people are fucking lunatics. I don’t know what sort of problems someone needs to have to see them whacking balls at 4:30 in the morning but by the looks of things I’ll stick to my poor person hassles. One thing I’ve noticed about the properly wealthy is that anything that affects them personally is an injustice they won’t stand for so the driving range, and by extension the putt-putt course, were licensed to serve booze from 5am which was about when we’d be finishing work. Our discovery of this would eventually ruin it for everybody but until then we’d roll up sometimes and get wankered while playing putt-putt. Surrounding the course were leafy trees and equally enthusiastic shrubs.

Sometimes, it was about the game. Other times, it was about the drinking. I was with a beanstalk glassy, and a giant manager who I’d already tapped out with a triangle lock on the 7th hole. Today was about the drinking. Frustration boiled over on the dastardly 15th and my manager whacked his ball off into deepest, darkest buttfuck, a cluster of bushes woven together by crisscrossing succulent protuberances, and he barrelled off after it. Another thing about the Golden Orb Weaver is that they cohabitate. Dozens will share a web that can span several meters and be thick enough not to see through from one angle yet be invisible from another. From my vantage, a hole ahead, I could see the unnervingly cumlike streak of sticky white nightmare. My manager couldn’t.

I first felt the difference between the speed of thought and the speed of consciousness when I saw my brother about to step on a huge dog turd but failed to warn him. The pieces are all there, but you only realise you knew them in retrospect. My manager pushed his way into the bush and the crew of my mind desperately screamed at a deaf captain. My first coherent thought, “fuuuuuuuuck” came when I saw a big dent hit the massive spider web and tear an otherwise patiently aloof coterie of now annoyed Golden Orbs away. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone else do anything like that. It’s nuts, a rule unwritten because it is so innate, like how you don’t expect to have to warn someone not to kiss a shark’s eye socket.

The bushes rustled.

I don’t think a written language exists that could render the sound I heard phonetically, I can only describe it as a terror yodel. A shrieking mound burst onto the green. This mound was a living combination of haphazard bush components and hollering drunkard held together with erstwhile spider palace and furious inhabitants. The screaming manbush hopped about slapping himself and screaming, “ORBS! FUCKING ORBS, CUNT!”

Had this scene occurred a few hundred years ago the event would have marked the birth of a new mythical forest imp or cryptid. Beware Tangled Bevan, children, he upset the Spider house and they cursed him to dance in town squares at night. His hooting draws people but should any touch him they become stuck and he dances them back to the Spider Queen to pay his debts. His sticky hooting can be heard on warm evenings in the towne of Bris’ Bane.

“Ooooooooooooooooooooooooorbs… Cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnt”

I witnessed it myself and I’m still not sure.

The Episode

This story is a fantastic journey into the cosmic nightmare that is Homer’s existence. It’s him at his worst, but his worst in a way that lets us see into the motivations of his actions and those of his ilk. It’s the tragic flipside to his comic persona, something that can never truly grow so it manages the only change it’s capable of: inversion.

Homer is a buffoon.

The dramatic parallel of the buffoon is the oaf. An oaf is large, strong, dumb, and, above all, insecure. Their size or positions of power can never be enough because they are just smart enough to know they’re stupid or incapable of advancing and that makes them lash out with what creativity they do have, cruelty.

A buffoon may be as large and stupid, he may even cause the same amount of damage, but his well meaning imbecile stare and lack of basic agency rob any of his actions of cruelty. This is mostly Homer’s role, both because the show is a comedy but also because the utility of a loser to laugh at is thwarted if his alienating degree of stupidity is overcome by empathy for his ultimately miserable position. The audience has to identify with parts of him but the whole needs to remain closed off behind a wall of exaggerated traits. Season one dabbled in Homer as a person and the results were astonishingly bleak. As the series wore on, he nestled deeper into the buffoon role. Anything else will either veer into raw misery or become a character change that the series eternal status quo cannot allow, so his only other alternative is the oaf. This episode is a journey into the grotesque depths of pathetic insecurity of that oaf.

The amazing thing about an idiot as a character is that you can make them inconsistent and it won’t break the story world because the character’s stupid inability to understand their own inconsistencies is perfectly consistent. So Homer can be both a hardworking, caring father who’d do anything for his kids and a lazy thug who bullies them into competitions to fulfil his own selfish need to win something. What makes Homer a tragic character of near epic quality is that he’s just verging on smart enough to realise this. It is the kind of grim existential suffering one would expect as punishment from a particularly angry classical god. It also gives the audience a window into sympathy for the oaf, which is actually pretty rare.

Most narratives construct themselves thematically around punishing socially reviled traits and rewarding positive ones for a few reasons. Structurally, the themes have to parallel the narrative so there needs to be a sense of change with closure and this lends itself to moral conclusions. People look to fiction, its easy solutions and caught criminals, for a sense of justice that doesn’t exist in the real world and this necessitates the punishment of bad behaviour. And, ultimately, because audiences are dense pieces of shit who don’t like to be challenged. Neither of the first two rules are set in stone in any way, but the test audiences will hate anything else because open ended, ambivalent fiction, or anything where the bad guy just wins because it’s a cruel existence and fuck you, is essentially antithetical to the reasons people watch shit in the first place. If we wanted a cruel pile of unrelated events with no purpose we could just live our lives.

Homer is jealous of Flanders. This is a bad thing so he has to be humiliated. In order for his humiliation to be just and not unpleasantly cruel he can’t be sympathetically jealous so he has to be a villainous oaf. Because he’s a main character and needs to be able to shift back, he’s given moments where we can see into the oaf and experience a little sympathy for a bully. Homer’s complex nature, that of a spinning coin in a changeless void, give him the one thing an oaf never really has access to: introspection. Oafs (oaves?) can gain insight, but it is typically a one way character development from oafism to some form of redemption. Homer cannot be redeemed so we are left with his Idiot Zen existing as both Idiot and Zen, interacting but separate.

The line,

“Because sometimes the only way you can feel good about yourself is by making someone else look bad. And I’m tired of making other people feel good about themselves.”

is both a comic treat of wordplay and a level of insight that’s usually toxic to an oaf. When you’re a shit person who makes other people’s lives hard, insight becomes impossible as the thing you see hurts you. The oaf is trapped in a prison of being a loathsome cunt where the key to its freedom is so hot it’s burns to touch. This line is like someone punching you in the face while saying, “sorry, I had a difficult childhood”. It’s a level of insight that should at least begin to confront the behaviour. The, “admitting you have a problem” part of the journey of the self. It’s Zen answering a question Marge asked the Idiot, but they pass each other like strangers.

One time I visited one of my bullies’ homes and their couch was the back seat of a Toyota. It was just there in the lounge room. The back seat of a car. An axle with cardboard was the coffee table. Now that I think of it, I get the feeling the entire place was, in some way, furnished by a wrecked car. When you’re dumb and miserable, happy people are living claws in your soul, and you can’t make yourself happy but you can make them feel bad or, better yet, look worse. The tragedy is the unspoken, and funny, part of the word play. “I’m tired of making feel people feel good about themselves” is a passive plea whereas any form of “I want to feel good” would be an active demand. It’s the Toyota car seat, the note of sadness that explains everything. Homer feels bad all the time and he’s just smart enough to know he’s basically the “there” in everyone else’s “there but for the grace of god go I”. All he wants is to feel what he sees everyone else feel.

Humans can live in unbelievably shitty circumstances without complaint provided they don’t see, or are otherwise distanced from, a possible alternative. Monkeys given asymmetric reward treats are fine until the poor loser getting stiffed is shown he’s missing out and then he goes batshit. This sense of exclusion is strong and ignores reason. FMRI scans show these areas light up with pain whether your exclusion comes from people you like, people you hate, or from people being rewarded for work you didn’t do. Flanders and his family are the perfect knife to twist into Homer. Throughout the series, he can cope with a lot. But Flanders always gets to him.

I got punched in the face for using faggot words by a person whose home was furnished like we were already in Mad Max. In this, you can understand Homer’s outburst at Flanders. He’s still a giant, barely sapient cunt, but far too often the behaviour of people is dismissed as the unfathomable mania of the underclasses. There’s reasons to all of it. Even Homer’s embarrassed by his outburst. Under questioning from his wife, the logical part of his brain can’t find the reasons his feelings had.

His brief glimpse of how shitty he is is just more torture so he becomes desperate for any relief, Bart’s apparent talent for mini-golf is that relief. When you spend most of your time drowning in your own stupidity, any moment when your head is above water is a blessing. Homer’s Idiot Zen is less a coherent worldview and more a messy coping mechanism given form by the boundaries of his universe. His dreams are seconds on dessert because he’s taught himself that anything more is foolish hope. Hope is the most important part of suffering, it’s the reprieve that keeps you from acclimatising, and it’s something so alien to him that when a realistic one appears it intoxicates him.

His fear of losing his one guilty hope is present in his entire approach to the competition. Aggression and hate are the only things it even occurs to Homer to impart to Bart. Hate the picture. Think of the putter as a gun. Win or you’re out of the family. The mania of a cornered animal. The oaf lashing out. And the oaf must be punished.

Wrapping Bart up in this is a good split of the tension. If Bart wins, the oaf is rewarded. If the oaf is punished, then so is the otherwise innocent Bart. This along with the incredibly in character line, “The father of the boy who doesn’t win” sets up for a good finale and lesson on the self. Bart and Todd eschew the shiny rewards of competition for inner peace. Homer demands his punishment, but his shame and rage make him the only one who suffers as Flanders relaxes into the spectacle. The oaf’s socially reviled traits are punished and the vector of that punishment is entirely his inability to let go of hate and fear. This lends it a cosmic justice that a simple loss would have lacked.

On the secondary characters, Lisa and Flanders both get a fair look in with Bart having a few moments in spite of being a pawn and Todd having probably the most actual story he’s ever had.

Flanders’ happy life is the perfect counterpoint, and torture, for Homer but it’s a fundamentally false happiness. There is little to Flanders, even in these early stages, that is his and not the result of his faith. His calm comes from an external structure that he has abdicated his own mind to. Like most of the religious, it’s not even his God that serves as the actual source of his strength but the long-suffering mortal, Reverend Lovejoy, who loses pieces of himself so Flanders can function. We get a glimpse into this parasitic relationship in this episode with the first of Flanders’ annoyingly pointless calls.

That said, we do see some other, actual human behaviours. Homer gets him mad several times and we won’t see that again for a while. Like Todd’s being an actual human boy, I’m so used to the alternative that it’s these earlier examples of actual humanity from him and his father that feel out of character. It’s automatic to assume the later forms to be degradations from their earlier and thus truer selves. Bu while their ultimate fate is deranged parodies of themselves, that is also the fate of the entire show. Characters in early seasons often change as they grow into their definitive selves, like Zoidberg becoming the cast’s psychic toilet in Futurama, and I lean toward that here.

Lisa is in fine form this episode as she becomes Bart’s Master. She far-too-easily takes on responsibilities beyond her age in the face of Homer’s malicious incompetence. This and the line, “It’s times like this that I’m glad dad has little to no interest in almost everything I do” are small apertures that provide a much larger look into the realities of living under substandard parents. The mixed blessing of the grimness of the situation coupled with the strength to survive and even thrive in spite of it. Lisa is strong, but it comes from something very sad.

This is an episode of Bart being a normal boy I’d forgotten as it is far more understated. He has significant focus but it’s only as a function of Homer’s story. As he himself says, he is a pawn. But as a pawn he can exist without the constraints of narrative focus and the character tropes those force. Homer is both villain and main character here so there is nothing left for Bart to do but be a 10 year old boy forced into competition by a zealous father. But his journey into zen is like most of his other personal growth, a temporary thing that ends when the episode does.

Dead Putting Society is a great character episode with a tight internal structure that the series has largely been lacking. There’s no hanging plot threads or baffling holes, the narrative, themes, and characters all interact to create a tight web that leads to a satisfying conclusion. It’s a slow burner of an episode whose memorable moments are the kinds of small and subtle ones you can miss on a single viewing. The story is singular, but it is woven with other characters and moments in natural ways that really show how lazy other story shifts can be.

Homer is a vile oaf who gets his comeuppance but we get an insight into the sad mind of one, even if it has to come via the words of a nerd writer.

Yours in describing this all to a psychiatrist one day, Gabriel

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

There’s an amusing gap between Bart’s “still just a potato”, implying that he’s a poor student, and his use of obscure ditto marks.

Homer is probably right about Elf Grass.

Homer noticing Maude’s butt is the start of a long running thing where he is clearly attracted to her.

“Beggers can’t be choosy”, “Too bad we don’t live on a farm” (in response to a free protractor), and “Jack Nicholson himself couldn’t make it” are great examples of Homer’s general ignorance that used to be threaded throughout his lines. The kinds of little mistakes that suggest only a superficial grasp or misunderstood point that better fill out the kind of dumbass Homer is. He knows of these things but not enough to get them quite right.

Bosom is a hilarious word in general and takes on added humour when used in the archaic form for general chest and not specifically a full titty. Flanders’ sound when he is caught delivering the letter is also pretty funny.

Hey, here’s a journey into the past, Lisa goes to a fucking library to research putting! A fucking library! You had to get up, put on pants, go to a building that had hours, go to a catalogue that was a piece of furniture filled with paper, walk to where the books were supposed to be, hope they were actually there, and then take the books home before you could get an answer to your question. I’ve looked up a vast quantity of putting tutorial videos in YouTube while I was writing this, and I’m still covered in chocolate from shame-eating a sweetened Christ-Rabbit in the middle of the night.

The process of naming the putter is funny. Bart engages in this process with the enthusiasm of a cat being walked on a leash. Mr Putter is delightfully comic zero effort only to be topped by “Mom” when Homer demands a female name. It’s a good one-two but both lefts and the second hits harder for some reason. It hides a second layer of absurd in an even less expected fashion multiplying the effect.

A weird sighting of make-up free Krusty in the pool hall.

Bart whacking the ball, hitting the gorilla, and nearly hitting Homer is a well constructed moment. Shot, shot, shot/sound, sound, sound and then the final shared shot of the pair looking at each other. It’s a small but nifty example of how balancing elements creates good scenes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.