“I won’t even subject you to the horrors of our Three Stooges ward.” – Dr. Hibbert
[Note: Crazy Noises for “Faith Off” and “The Mansion Family” will be along on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.]
It’s not exactly news that the show increasingly relied on weird, hyperactive nonsense as it flew apart at the seams and became Zombie Simpsons. The world of Springfield, which originally had been a recognizable if exaggerated stand in for real life, increasingly became the kind of stylized pseudo-reality where actions didn’t really have consequences and physical realities change from scene to scene. The simplest way to see this is to look at the basic stories of so many episodes in Seasons 10 and 11: there’s the Loch Ness Monster, there’s Bart downing a satellite with a tank, there’s Homer and company breaking into Rupert Murdoch’s Super Bowl suite.
But it wasn’t just the big events of the stories that reveal this new commitment to silliness over everything else. Consider the scene in “Faith Off” where Dr. Hibbert shows Homer and Marge some of the other patients in his care. Homer has managed to get a bucket glued to his head (which itself is more than a little reminiscent of Bart getting novelty items glued to his face in Season 9’s “Lost Our Lisa), which gives Hibbert a chance to simply raise some blinds and show off three patients with “traumedy” injuries.
Here’s everything Hibbert says to introduce them:
Hibbert: I’m afraid it’s hopeless. Beneath that bucket he’s more glue than man.
Marge: So he’s stuck like this forever?
Hibbert: Oh, now don’t fret. These days, the victims of comedy-traumas, or traumedies, can still lead rich, full lives.
And that’s the whole joke. The episode pans over each of them, Hibbert doesn’t really say anything after that, and then it’s time for Homer to continue living with the bucket on his head. It’s far from the worst scene in the episode, but it is the kind of unremarkable filler on which Zombie Simpsons leans so heavily. There isn’t anything going on here more than, hey, we drew these slightly amusing pictures that make so little sense that we hope you’ll giggle at them.
Contrast that with a superficially similar scene in “Bart the Daredevil”, where Hibbert shows Bart some of his other patients in an attempt to prevent Bart from again trying to copy daredevil stunts. Here’s the dialogue:
Hibbert: I think I know something that might discourage him from this sort of behavior. Bart, in this ward are the children who have been hurt by imitating stunts they saw on television, movies, and the legitimate stage. . . . This little boy broke his leg, trying to fly like Superman. This boy’s brother hit him in the head with a wrench, mimicking a recent TV wrestling match. I won’t even subject you to the horrors of our Three Stooges ward.
Marge: Gee, I never realized TV was such a dangerous influence.
Hibbert: Well, as tragic as all this is, it’s a small price to pay for countless hours of top notch entertainment.
Unlike the guy with the swordfish through his chest, this scene has more than one thing occurring. Not only are Bart’s motivations and antics central to the plot and Hibbert’s patients believable (if funny) exaggerations, but we’re also treated to that wonderful meta joke where Marge, Hibbert and Homer take a (rather mean) potshot at the show’s critics. It’s one of the subtler “think of the children!” jokes the show ever did, but there’s no mistaking that they’re not only calling television “dangerous”, but saying that it’s perfectly okay for it to be so.
The whole scene and all the gags it contains work because they aren’t filler, aren’t just silly drawings and cheap jokes. We get a callback to earlier in the episode with the wrench, we set up the central conflict of the rest of the story (Marge and Homer trying to stop Bart from being a daredevil), we get the subtle glance at the fourth wall with the meta-television joke, and there’s even some token Stooges silliness (though it would be awesome if real hospitals had Three Stooges wards).
These are just two small scenes, but there’s no denying that each one is attempting very different kinds of entertainment. Zombie Simpsons wastes time because, well, what else are you going to do once you’ve gotten a bucket stuck on Homer’s head? They’ve left anything that could be called recognizable reality behind, so they’re left with nothing more than eating clock with a few drawn out sight gags that don’t make any sense. The Simpsons doesn’t waste time or drop all pretense of reality because it knows that killing time isn’t funny and that for satire to work things can’t be boundlessly silly in one scene and totally normal in the next.