Archive for the 'Compare & Contrast' Category

30
Apr
15

Compare & Contrast: Making Flashback Episodes Worthwhile

Lisa's First Word14

“Can you say David Hasselhoff?” – Bart Simpson
“David Hassahof.” – Lisa Simpson
“Can you say Daddy?” – Homer Simpson
“Homer.” – Lisa Simpson

The Simpsons did its first flashback episode way (way) back in Season 2.  “The Way We Was” introduced us to Homer and Marge as high school kids who had never even met; and along the way answered one of the fundamental questions of the show: why, exactly, is Marge with Homer?  Over the next four seasons they flashed back three more times, each time showing the birth of one of the Simpson kids.  “I Married Marge” showed us Bart’s accidental conception inside a mini-golf decoration.  “Lisa’s First Word” put the family in now their iconic house and showed the beginning of Bart and Lisa’s never ending rivalry.  “And Maggie Makes Three” completed the set and showed us that there was no sacrifice too painful for Homer to make for his kids (well, not the boy, but you know what I mean).

And Maggie Makes Three16

Genuine character development, a concept unknown to Zombie Simpsons.

These episodes do not, strictly speaking, fit chronologically.  If Bart was conceived after his parents saw The Empire Strikes Back in a theater, there’s no way he can be two years older than Lisa, who was born in the summer of 1984.  Similarly, if Homer and Marge were leaving high school in 1976, Homer wouldn’t be twenty-four-years-old in 1980.  But it doesn’t matter because background numbers that only the dedicated will ever put together aren’t the point.

By spacing events a little further apart, they gave themselves more defined cultural targets than just borderline meaningless shorthand like “The 70s” or “The 80s”.  So not only do these four episodes form a coherent whole while filling in the background of our favorite family, they do so while making pointed fun of distinct slices of American culture.

Homer and Marge are in high school in the mid 1970s, then Bart’s birth is the early 1980s, Lisa’s the mid-1980s, and Maggie’s the early 1990s.  Poking fun at Ms. and “makeout music” becomes Yoda and John Anderson, which becomes the 1984 Olympics preceding an hour long episode of Mama’s Family, which finishes up with the “clear beverage craze” and “information superhighway”.

I Married Marge15

Homer Simpson, early pioneer of the sarcastic t-shirt.

That level of specificity is missing from “The Kids Are All Fight”, as is any meaningful background on the family and/or general cultural coherence.  They tell us Lisa and Bart are two and four, but neither of them acts anything like a two-year-old or a four-year-old.  They use film development as a justification for looking back, but it’s not like many people were still using film in 2009.  The flashback idea that used to be so carefully handled has become just another excuse for a weird, semi-magical adventure in a “past” Springfield that is indistinguishable from the one they usually use.

They do make a stab at showing us a little family development, but it’s pretty halfhearted.  You see, Bart and Lisa used to fight a lot (and they will make sure you understand by stating so explicitly many times), and now they don’t.  The eventual story reason they offer for this is that Lisa “gives in”.  There are large scope problems with that (we’ve seen them fight countless times, and Lisa clearly hasn’t given in), and there are small scope problems with that (the wacky adventure they go on is more about Bart bolting than Bart and Lisa fighting).  But what really makes the kids’ story ring hollow is the way that conclusion glosses over Lisa’s surrender.

A show with characters who are faintly recognizable as human beings, or even one with just a little heart, could do a lot with a younger sibling resigning herself to years of dangerously crazy behavior from her brother.  There’s a plenty of material there for emotion, comedy, and fun generally, but Zombie Simpsons brushes any of that off for action scenes of Bart riding a big wheel through traffic and cutesy title cards announcing each new wacky scene.

Storytime Title Card

How whimsical.

For proof of this, look no further than Ralph Wiggum’s brief cameo.  Since this is Zombie Simpsons, he appears out of nowhere, then gets into the wheel of a semi-truck, then is shipped off on a boat.  They put him next to Lisa, but he hadn’t been there the last time we saw her and the two of them don’t interact at all.  He just pops in and then starts talking.

Oh, Hai, Ralph

Hi, Ralph!  Uh, how did you get here?

Here’s the entirety of his dialogue:

Your brother is stupid.  Bye bye.  The wheel I’m inside goes round and round, round and round, round and round.  The boat I’m aboard goes up and down, up and down, up and down.

It isn’t even a good Ralph-ism.  He just tells us what we’re seeing, and it goes on so long that he uses more than twice as many words as “Super Nintendo Chalmers”, “I bent my wookie”, and “Me fail English?  That’s unpossible” all put together.  Even if you don’t care about him materializing and not having anything to do with what was happening, that’s just awful.

The final evidence that story coherence and relatable characters don’t even enter into the thinking at Zombie Simpsons comes one scene later, when we see Chief Wiggum for the first and only time.  The whole second half of the episode is about Lisa and Bart getting into trouble unsupervised and Homer and Marge’s panicked search to find them.  Ralph Wiggum is doing the exact same thing as Bart and Lisa, but all we see Chief Wiggum do is interview Gil (for some reason).

Wiggum doesn’t know that his kid is roaming the streets, and the episode seems to have forgotten it completely as well.  There isn’t even a blithe, expository explanation because, as far as Zombie Simpsons is concerned, the Chief and Ralph are just one scene props.

There isn’t even any connection to the fact that this is a flashback.  Like most of the people, places and events we see in “The Kids Are All Fight”, both of them could just as easily be doing and saying the exact same things in the show’s regular timeframe.  When The Simpsons went to the past, it went with a purpose and made fun of everything it saw.  When Zombie Simpsons goes to the past, it trips backwards, stares blankly for a bit, and then continues stumbling around like always.

06
Mar
15

Compare & Contrast: Lisa Goes to SNPP

Bart on the Road12

“Lisa, you’ll have a fine time at the plant with Dad.  You’ve been interested in nuclear power for years.” – Marge Simpson
“I’ve signed numerous petitions to shut down that plant!” – Lisa Simpson
“Well, there you go.” – Marge Simpson

Per Wikipedia, Take Your Daughter to Work Day started in 1993, but:

The program was officially expanded in 2003 to include boys; however, most companies that participated in the program had, since the beginning, allowed both boys and girls to participate, usually renaming it “Take Our Children to Work Day” or an equivalent.[5]

In 1996, The Simpsons invoked it as “Go To Work With Your Parents Day” so that Principal Skinner could squeeze an extra day into spring break and keep his middle seat on his flight to Hong Kong (“Custom made suits at slave labor prices”).  That sent Lisa to work with Homer, and Bart, after trying to stay home, to the DMV with Patty and Selma.  It was a quick setup to get the episode going and, befitting The Simpsons, showed how high minded, well intentioned ideas could be taken advantage of for selfish reasons.

Today it is 2015, twenty-two years since the concept was hatched and twelve since it officially changed to include both girls and boys.  Zombie Simpsons, ever the creative laggard, simply called it “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”, which is both a verbatim use of someone else’s words and inaccurate.  In another context, that might be impressive.  Here it’s just lazy.

And the problems don’t stop there.  At the plant, Lisa does basically nothing.  First we see her in the auditorium while Burns exposits a bunch of stuff we don’t see.  Then she stands in a hallway and asks Homer a couple of questions about the plant (he doesn’t know the answers).  Then they go to the cafeteria where her lunch got ruined.  This is everything she says while she’s there:

Dad, what does that do?
Who’s that guy?
Where do those pipes lead?
Is it called the cooling tower because there’s-
How many kilowatts-
How many kinds are there?
Oh, no, my almond milk leaked all over everything.  Dad, do you have anything I can eat?
[30 so so seconds of montage]
Wow, Dad, thank you.

Literally her only line that’s longer than a few words is her expositing something we’re seeing as she says it.  She doesn’t actually do anything the whole time she’s there.

SNPPBackground

Get used to this view.

In the interests of fairness to Zombie Simpsons, here is an equally context-free version of Lisa’s entire dialogue from the first time she went to work with Homer in “Bart on the Road”:

No, thanks.  Do you have any fruit?
Why are there so many burnt out ones?
Maybe we can make your job more fun.  What are those?
Well, what if we used our imaginations.
Houston, we have a problem.  Homer 13 is spinning out of control, I’m going after him!

For starters, she’s actually speaking in complete sentences.  Better yet, when she does ask questions, it’s not a series of unrelated ones, she asks about actual things we see: Homer’s contention that “purple is a fruit” and his inability to change tiny light bulbs without an assistant.  Then we get to see her actually do something, playing with Homer in the radiation suits and pretending a stapler is a radio.

Bart on the Road13

Characters doing things!  Neat.

And when you put the context back in, her visit in “Bart on the Road” shines even more.  Here are those lines with Homer back in them:

Homer: Donut?
Lisa: No, thanks.  Do you have any fruit?
Homer: This has purple stuff inside.  Purple is a fruit.  Uh, oh, this is a map of nuclear sites around the country.  As a safety inspector, I’m responsible for changing most of these light bulbs.
Lisa: Why are there so many burnt out ones?
Homer: Cause they won’t hire an assistant.

Compare that to Homer and Lisa’s first scene in “The Princess Guide”:

Lisa: Dad, what does that do?
Homer: I don’t know.
Lisa: Who’s that guy?
Homer: I don’t know.
Lisa: Where do those pipes lead?
Homer: Not sure.
Lisa: Is it called the cooling tower because there’s-
Homer: Not my department.
Lisa: How many kilowatts-
Homer: Look, sweetie, would you like to go to the cafeteria and get some ice cream?
Lisa: How many kinds are there?
Homer: Twelve.

This actually ends with a joke, so by Zombie Simpsons standards it’s pretty decent.  But look how much thinner it is than the same scene in The Simpsons.  There, Homer and Lisa have a real conversation that also happens to crack wise about how horrible a place Springfield Nuclear Power Plant really is and just how boring Homer’s job is.  Zombie Simpsons is one note schtick designed to setup a lone ice cream punchline.

From there, of course, Season 26 Lisa sits around while Homer goes off on the episode’s first montage.  (There will be more, oh, yes, there will.)  In Season 7, on the other hand, Lisa and Homer start playing astronaut in the radiation suits, which ends with Homer telling us that it’s a lot more fun with a second person.  The difference is simple: in one she’s a real character visiting her dad at the plant, in the other she’s a prop.

The mindless (yet inaccurate) repetition of Take Your Daughter to Work Day, the time killing montage, and the hacktacular dialogue never would’ve passed muster in the 1996 writers’ room.  In the 2015 one, however, they’re good to go.  Maybe they should start bringing their kids to work.

19
Feb
15

Compare & Contrast: Surprise Nuclear Inspections

Homer Goes to College17

“The watchdog of public safety, is there any lower form of life?” – C.M. Burns

It would be one thing if Zombie Simpsons merely repeated ideas and stories that had been done on The Simpsons.  Given the enormous catalog of episodes, it’s certainly understandable that scenes and concepts would need to get recycled from time to time.  Hell, that was understandable way back in the heyday of the show.

For example, Season 2’s “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” has a great nuclear plant inspection, where we see gum used to seal a crack in the cooling towers, a plutonium paper weight, and ankle deep toxic waste.  But all that doesn’t detract in the least from the inspection in Season 5’s “Homer Goes to College”, because instead of showing us the same things again, it gives us a completely different set of horrifying looks into Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.

Homer Goes to College18

Looks comfy.

For starters, the inspectors show up during nap time, where meltdowns are averted by sleepy hound dogs and Smithers is curled up at Burns’ feet.  When the surprise inspection team rings the bell, Burns denies them entry and tells a pathetic lie about old fashioned cookies before the inspectors start hacking at the door with an ax.  The inspection hasn’t even started yet and already The Simpsons is at full speed, tossing off jokes and ludicrous ideas as fast as possible.

Compare that to the – ahem – “inspection” in “My Fare Lady”.  Instead of nap time and Homer falling asleep on the “Plant Destruct” button (“Please Do Not Push”), Burns just happens upon Moe, who has been hired as a janitor, mopping the floor.  (This whole thing is so inconsequential that we don’t even get an establishing shot and a crow screech.)  That immediately leads to a standard Zombie Simpsons joke, wherein the punchline takes forever to arrive, and is patiently explained to the audience:

Burns: Hey, swabbie, you missed spots there . . . another one there . . . and there!  Every other spot is begrimed!
Moe: It’s called a checkerboard floor, you unwrapped mummy.

At that, the camera helpfully pulls back to show us the aforementioned checkerboard floor.  Hi-larity.

No sooner has that happened then Smithers walks up with a bunch of inspectors in tow, “Sir, the NRC is here for a surprise inspection”.  Huh?  Even by the standards of incompetent Zombie Simpsons Burns, this is head spinning.  These guys just waltzed into the plant without Burns (or Smithers, apparently) even knowing they were there?  Somewhere, Season 5 Burns is scoffing at his successor’s haplessness.  One second they’re not there, the next they are; there’s no lie about cookies, no ax, no nothing.

In Season 5, once the inspectors do get in, we see them testing the plant employees while Burns and Smithers gaze down from above.  Except, of course, for the three workers who’ve been strategically diverted down to the basement with the important job of keeping a bee in a jar.

Homer Goes to College16

I always wondered what these guys did at the plant.  Accountants?

Down in the basement we see a glowing rat, dripping ooze, and several spilled barrels of toxic waste.  No other mention of them is made because it doesn’t need to be.  Moreover, the inspectors have no idea these three geniuses (and the improperly stored nuclear waste) are here.  They’re in the parking lot testing the employees.  Here’s the Zombie Simpsons version of the same thing:

HalfassedInspection

See the glove?  The inspectors didn’t.

While Moe asks penetrating questions like, “You’re the head inspector, huh?”, nothing else happens except the unacknowledged gas leak and the slowly inflating glove.  It’s easily the best part of this scene, but it also makes the inspection team even more bland and boring than they already were.  (Thanks for the meandering story about your Queen cover band.)  The scene is Moe telling them they can’t come in after they’ve already come in, followed by them, despite already being inside and being, you know, federal nuclear inspectors, meekly accepting that and shuffling off screen.

This is basic stuff, the audience getting to see characters with personality do things instead of just listen to somebody we don’t know talk about something we don’t care about and can’t see.  To be fair to Zombie Simpsons, the inspection in “Homer Goes to College” is given more screen time, so things like nap time, bee guarding, and Homer causing a meltdown without any nuclear material being in the truck have a chance to breathe.  But it’s not like “My Fare Lady” was crammed with other great bits.  The episode has three different driving montages, one of which goes on for well over a minute.

Not that extra time would’ve helped.  More lines for incompetent Burns, more background jokes explained, and more of the nothingburger inspection team aren’t going to make “My Fare Lady” any better.  When the NRC shows up in Season 5, there’s a big ominous musical cue, and they begin to methodically test employees.  These nondescript cardboard cutouts (only one of them even speaks) get silence and deserve it.

12
Feb
15

Compare & Contrast: Proudly Fat Homer

King Size Homer20

“I’m sick of all your stereotypes and cheap jokes!  The overweight individuals in this country are just as smart and talented and hard working as everybody else!  And they’re gonna make their voices heard!  All they need is a leader!” – Homer Simpson

Conventional wisdom has it that everyone is getting fatter these days and that’s a bad thing.  Reality, as usual, is considerably more complicated.  Moral panics over fat have been a recurring feature of American culture for over a century; the actual effects of obesity are deeply misunderstood at best; and the amount of societal and cultural abuse heaped on fat people is cruel, idiotic, and generally harmful.  In short, a “fat acceptance” support group (like the one Homer joined in “Walking Big & Tall”) is a thoroughly modern byproduct of something about which America is both obsessed and deeply conflicted.  In the right hands, it’s a target rich environment for comedy.  In Zombie Simpsons, it’s shambolic background for a whole lot of nothing.

Let’s start with what is easily this episode’s go to joke: a rubbery sound effect.  They use it when Homer crams himself into the seats at the theater.  They use it when he finally gets out of his theater seat (and then immediately again when he gets stuck in the door).  They use it over and over again when Homer gets locked up with the other fat people.  They even use it when Albert the fat guy puts a straw in a cup.  It’s in so much of the episode that they may have simply done that last one out of habit.

In addition to being a pretty weak joke (Once? Sure. Twice? Maybe. Three and more? Uh, no.), it neatly summarizes just how vapid the whole episode is.  Their most used gag is that fat people don’t fit into the same spaces as skinny people.  That’s it.

You can see that shallowness all over the place: the only other fat person who gets any lines is Comic Book Guy, and most of what he does is list foods, Homer himself doesn’t actually do anything in the episode besides stand around, and roughly half the dialogue is people recapping things we’ve already seen.  Even the gag at the end about Albert’s ashes needing a lot of urns goes on way too long, and that’s before they literally spelled it out for us.  You really have to wonder at the mentality and incuriosity in the writers room when they do an entire episode on fat acceptance and most of what they come up with is “fat people are big”.

AlbertsAshes

Get it?  GET IT?

By contrast, “King-Size Homer” also sees Homer become proud of being a fat guy.  But instead of him joining a support group then not doing anything but talk about joining a support group, we actually get to see him be a proud fat guy.  He’s ecstatic about getting out of work.  When Marge calls him on it, he redoubles his efforts to be a “big fat dynamo!”.  At the end, he stands up to the crowd at the theater that laughs at him.  He’s even proud of his “fat guy hat”.  “Walking Big & Tall” tells us (ad nausem) that Homer is proud of his fat self.  “King-Size” Homer actually shows him doing it.

Case in point: fat guy insults.  At the theater, right before the manager attempts to buy him off with “a garbage bag full of popcorn”, the sarcastic guy shouts at him, “Hey, fatty, I got a movie for ya: A Fridge Too Far!”.  That’s a great Simpsons joke: it’s a cultural reference, it’s innovative and mean, it fits the story, and it’s done by one of their best non-named utility characters.  And, of course, there’s little stuff to notice, like how the Squeaky Voiced Teen (who’s taking tickets) and the manager both laugh at first before quickly stopping themselves while everyone else keeps going.

King Size Homer19

On The Simpsons, there is *always* a reason to pay attention.

Compare that to this unedited brainstorm pad:

 Chubby, Chunky, Blob-O, Slob-O, Fat Bastard, Michelen Man, Stay Puft, Chumbawumba, “It is balloon!”, Papa Grande, Augustus Gloop, Beached Whale, Big Boned, Wisconsin Skinny, Butterball, Dump Truck, Jelly Belly, Pudgy Wudgy, Lard Ass, Bloberino, Buddah Belly, Hurry E. Tubman, One Ton Soup, Blob Sagat, Chub Hub, Calvin Coolwhip, Manfred Manboobs, 21-Lump Street, Walking Before Picture, Fatso, Harvey Milk Chocolate, Obese Wan-Canoli, Mahatma Gumbo, Salvadore Deli, Elmer Pantry, KFC & the Spongecake Band, Snacky Onassis, The Foodie Blues, Hoagie Carmichal, and Wide Load

As I said on Monday, there are a couple of decent ones in that mess.  But there is also a ton of filler.  For every creative one like “Obese Wan-Canoli” there are three or four regular old insults (Fatso, Wide Load, Fat Bastard, Chubby, etc.) or unmodified cultural references (Augustus Gloop, Stay Puft, Butterball, etc.).  What’s more, it’s just a list.  This is a Buzzfeed headline in Zombie Simpsons form: 40 Great Fat Insults.  And, like Buzzfeed, you knew a bunch already, and most of them aren’t great.

The Simpsons picked one (1) good one and slipped it into a scene that’s integral to the plot.  If Homer doesn’t want to see “Honk If You’re Horny”, he doesn’t leave the drinking bird in charge, in which case he doesn’t resolve to mend his ways after getting insulted, and, oh yeah, the gas gets vented, preventing explosion.  The entire episode doesn’t work without this scene.

In Zombie Simpsons, the list is the only scene at Moe’s and the only time we see any of those characters.  It’s a one off tangent that has nothing to do with anything, they just had a list and time to fill.

Finally, there’s Homer himself.  It’s not just that we get to see him being a proud fat guy in Season 7, there’s a reason for him to be a proud fat guy.  Homer, being Homer, hates exercise and tries, in Lisa’s words, “abusing a program intended to help the unfortunate”.  He loves not having to go to work so much (“gas, break, honk”), that he overlooks everything else.  In “Walking Big & Tall”, Homer hurls people across entire theaters before happening to walk past the wrong support group.  One of these involves the character being himself and matters to the rest of the episode; the other does not.  Homer, let me introduce Jerkass Homer; Jerkass Homer, please meet Homer.

28
Jan
15

Compare & Contrast: Famously Smart Guest Stars

They Saved Lisa's Brain8

“I wanted to see your utopia, but now I see it is more of a Fruitopia.” – Stephen Hawking
“I’m sure what Dr. Hawking means is-” – Principal Skinner
“Silence!  I don’t need anyone to talk for me, except this voice box.” – Stephen Hawking

Celebrities voicing themselves has long been one of the most widely acknowledged hallmarks of Zombie Simpsons.  In truth, of course, the show had been using self voiced celebrities almost since the beginning.  What changed was the way those voices were used.  In Season 2, Ringo Starr voices himself, but responding to decades old fan mail, not arriving on the Simpsons’ doorstep.  In Season 3, an entire baseball team of Major League players voiced themselves, but that’s because they were all getting paid by Burns, not because they all suddenly decided to go to Springfield.  Self-voiced celebrities themselves aren’t inherently a problem, how they’re used is more important.

On The Simpsons, not only was there always a reason for some famous person to be there, but what they were doing was always a takeoff on who they were and/or why they were famous.  On Zombie Simpsons (in addition to being used far more often), the self voiced celebrities usually appear out of nowhere.  And once they are on screen, frequently don’t do much more than be their normal selves.  This is how famous street artists repeat their names and do nothing else and the entire cast of American Idol pops up just because.  It’s straightforwardly uncreative and almost always looks and feels like nothing more than a plea for attention.

All of those negatives apply to Elon Musk’s episode.  He literally drops out of the sky at random, and (like Lady Gaga) once he’s in Springfield he just kinda acts like an even more exaggerated version of himself.  Look, there’s drones and electric cars and friggin’ hyperloops!  Aren’t they funny?

LandingCraft

Too bad Kang and Kodos weren’t in there.

Even the episode’s attempts to show how his crazy ideas backfire falls apart.  Everything he does works, and Springfield becomes a futuristic utopia right up until Burns fires everyone.  Does Musk react to this?  Nope.  He disappears entirely as Springfield falls apart, showing up only at the end to act hurt that Homer doesn’t want to be his friend anymore.

They could’ve shown Musk as Shary Bobbins, a noble creature whose best efforts are eventually overwhelmed by the inherent crappiness of Springfield.  Or they could’ve shown Musk as an evil, Hank Scorpio-esque nutbar who loves his inventions more than people.  Or, with just a few tweaks, they could’ve shown a Musk vs. Burns battle for the soul of Springfield.  (Burns would triumph, of course, because good is dumb.)  But they didn’t do any of that.  They had Musk show up, then they drew some of his stuff into Springfield, then he vanished while everything fell apart.  This is about as shallow and pointless as it is possible to be given the enormous amount of screentime he got.

DisappearingAct

The episode manages to find him again, but only with binoculars.  He is apparently unaware that all of his improvements to the town have become failures.

Compare that with Stephen Hawking’s brief appearance at the end of Season 10’s “They Saved Lisa’s Brain”.  Now, by Season 10 the show was already falling apart, and Hawking’s sudden arrival isn’t without its share of problems.  Not only does he drive up with no warning whatsoever, but after he scoops Lisa up in his flying chair to save her from the mob, they land all of thirty feet away while the episode forgets completely that a riot was going on.

But Hawking still has both 1) a reason to show up and 2) is given some things to do.  He’s there because eggheads have taken over the town and he wants to check it out.  This still being The Simpsons, their efforts were doomed from the get go and he finds nothing of value in their little experiment.  Moreover, only on The Simpsons would Hawking be a bullying and arrogant dick who insults everyone and uses an extend-o-glove built into his chair to punch Skinner.  Yes, he is smarter than everyone else, but he’s a jerk about it, and that’s what makes it work.

They Saved Lisa's Brain7

Stephen Hawking: Face Puncher

Of course, The Simpsons also knew enough not to try and string that out for an entire episode.  Hawking is only in two scenes, one of which is an epilogue that doesn’t affect the story.  They don’t build the whole thing around him because even in Season 10 the show could still recognize the limits of a guest star.  In the filler laden wasteland of Season 26, weak guest ideas are asked to carry the entire runtime, and even a world famous inventor and entrepreneur can’t make that work.

15
Jan
15

Compare & Contrast: Hypnotic Personality Changess

Clemens

“What about Clemens?” – C.M. Burns
“Sir, he’s in no condition to play.” – Mr. Smithers

A person suddenly changing their whole personality basically only happens in fiction.  It can be the steel screw who becomes a softy, the wallflower gaining rock solid confidence, even the idiot who’s suddenly smart.  The usual way to do this is with a bonk on the head, which generally comes complete with a second one near the end to put everything back the way it was.  (NOTE: Brains don’t actually work that way, please do not attempt at home.)

Sometime in the very early 1990s, a then unknown Judd Apatow sat down and wrote a teleplay that took that tried and true television premise and applied it to Homer Simpson.  The twist, if it can be called that, is that instead of his noggin getting a floggin’, Homer got himself altered through hypnosis.  A few meaningfully pronounced words, and, presto change-o, Homer Simpson thinks he’s a little kid again.  Hilarity is presumed to ensue.  (He and the episode would’ve been better off if he’d cornered the real-estate market instead, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The problem is that this premise is parchment paper thin even before you start noticing all the holes in it.  The go to joke for the personality switch episode is “whoa, s/he’s acting totally out of character”, beyond that there isn’t much there.  What’s worse, your character’s normal personality is the one that makes sense in context.  Having them act completely abnormally is generally an awkward fit, at best.

“Bart’s New Friend”, as Zombie Simpsons so often does, brings out the worst of this old and not terribly good premise.  By making Homer a little kid who’s friends with Bart, they not only have to shoehorn Kid-Homer into all kinds of bizarre places, but also gave him nothing to do while he was there.  When he (twice) shows up to play with actual kids, he doesn’t interact with them or really do anything, the episode just wants us to know he’s there.  The same is true when they’re at home, where all that happens is “Homer is a kid”.  The family barely reacts and nothing outside of that is even happening.

The beginning of the episode is Homer working a ton because he’s now the only safety inspector and actually has to do his job.  That whole rationale is dropped completely for the rest of the episode until a lone mention at the end that the other guy game back.  We don’t see anything with the plant or Homer’s co-workers after their safety inspector reverts to childhood.  Lenny and Carl don’t try to take him to Moe’s to jog his memory, Burns doesn’t disbelieve his story, nothing.

Similarly, Marge, Lisa and Bart don’t have anything but Homer going on.  Basically the only time we see any effect on anything is Homer’s brief appearances with the other kids, but even those are glossed over to the point of barely happening.  Here’s the dialogue from when Bart and Homer are playing in the park:

Bart: If you wedgie me, my friend will beat you up.
Dolph: That’s not your friend, it’s your screwed up Dad.
Jimbo: Pretty sad, really.
Kearney: We’ll leave you alone.
Bart: You did it, Homer!  You saved me from the bullies!  You’re the coolest kid I ever met.
Milhouse: What about me?
Bart: You’re in the top hundred.
Milhouse: Boo-yeah!
Bart: Now you’re not.
Milhouse: Oh.

For one thing, this is hacktacularly expository.  Bart and Dolph explain what’s going on, then Bart recaps it for us (“You saved me from the bullies!”), but nobody actually does anything but stand around.  More importantly, in that entire scene Homer doesn’t say a single word.  He is literally a prop.

Silent Homer

Please do not interact with the story’s main character.

That silent cameo is about the closest this episode comes to actually showing us some of the effects of the tortured premise it went out of its way to employ.   This is the mid-life crisis equivalent of buying that sports car model that was cool when you were fifteen and then leaving it in the garage.  It was a dumb idea even before they didn’t try to have any fun with it.

Compare that to the time The Simpsons employed the exact same premise with, of all people, Roger Clemens.  In just a few quick scenes, Clemens goes through an identical story to Kid-Homer, and we actually get to see some of the effects of it, with Clemens being unavailable for the championship game and clucking away instead of pitching.

Better yet, it’s one of those perfect note jokes that builds on everything around it.  A man acting like a chicken is one thing; maybe it’s funny, maybe it’s not.  But a big league star pitcher acting like a chicken because he was hypnotized by a quack on orders from an evil rich man who paid him to be a ringer in a smalltown softball game?  That’s so good that your final (non-song) call back to it can be a minor part of a still photo and it’s still hilarious:

Homer at the Bat12

Look at Roger Clemens, he just did an entire episode of Zombie Simpsons in two scenes and you can tell it just by looking at him.

A young Judd Apatow who didn’t know how to write yet may have once pronounced himself satisfied with this, but The Simpsons did it better in less than a page.  Bloated out to full script length, it’s typical Zombie Simpsons.

 

19
Nov
14

Compare & Contrast: Pranking the New Teacher

The PTA Disbands16

“Kids have been doing that one since my day.” – Marge Simpson

Rather than get into the nonsensical pageant of the transmundane that was the last third of “Blazed and Confused”, I’d like to take a look at a small moment from the beginning that illustrates the general shallowness of this episode.  Specifically, the way that Bart’s closet/skeleton “prank” fails as both a prank, a joke, and as a part of the rest of the episode, especially when compared with Bart’s similar actions in “The PTA Disbands”.

While the backstories differ considerably, the immediate situation in both episodes is remarkably similar.  In each one, the kids have a new teacher about whom they know basically nothing other than, as Bart says, “They’re trying to teach”.  Also in each, Bart has prepared an elaborate booby trap to welcome the newly unfortunate teacher.  This is where the two episodes diverge.

In “Blazed and Confused”, Bart has hidden a remote control car and a skeleton in the closet at the back of the room.  His plan is to bump the car into the door a couple of times to get the teacher to investigate; when the door is opened, the skeleton drops from the ceiling, presumably frightening the teacher.

JustConfusing

This is, to put it mildly, a very pedestrian prank.  It wouldn’t be all that hard to set up in real life.  Unless the person involved was very high strung or this was being done late at night on Halloween or something, it probably wouldn’t frighten anyone so much as briefly puzzle them.  For proof, look no further than “Bart Carney”, which did the exact same thing as an example of something that was indefensibly lame.

Bart Carny5

“That was just confusing.”

To be fair to Zombie Simpsons, upon seeing Bart’s hapless skeleton trick, Milhouse says that it’s only kinda scary.  So they’re aware that this is not one of Bart’s masterpieces.  But they still have him go through with it, thinking it’ll work.  It’s Bart doing what so many characters do in Zombie Simpsons: act contrary to who he is.  Similarly, later in the episode, Marge will blindly trust Homer to do something that the Marge of Season 6 would never blindly trust Homer to do.  The situations and story requirements are so dumb that they require the characters to act like lifeless versions of themselves just to get from scene to scene.

Bart’s prank, which they show us twice, is something the Bart of “The PTA Disbands” would scoff at.  He’s the kid who hung a giant log from the ceiling to smash some unsuspecting teacher back into the blackboard.  It would probably be fatal in real life, but that doesn’t matter because this is a cartoon and nothing bad actually happens.  Bart leaps to his mother’s rescue, and she, having nearly just killed, fondly intones that kids have been attacking their teachers Ewok-style since she was in school.

This is one of those multi-layer jokes that made this show so damned funny.  There’s 1) the over the top violence of it, 2) the fact that little 10-year-olds are vicious enough to plan it, 3) that 10-year-olds have always been doing that, and 4) that all of this is considered so normal that nobody is even upset.  And none of that even takes in the context: Bart having to be reminded of them by Milhouse, the list of already dispatched teachers, and Bart suffering the beginnings of the perpetual embarrassment of being one of his earnestly uncool mother’s students.

The PTA Disbands15

And Milhouse didn’t even have to stick his nose through the hole.

The blackboard shattering impact of the log isn’t any kind of stand alone joke or punchline.  It’s a fast and necessary part of a complete scene where each element complements and exaggerates every other.  The last line before it comes crashing down is Milhouse’s, “I meant the other bobby trap!”, a statement that wouldn’t make sense if we hadn’t already seen Bart brush the thumb tack off Marge’s chair, or rush up there in a panic, or the rest of the scene that explains what they’re doing.

By contrast, the last line before Season 26 Bart starts his effort at teacher warfare, is Bart saying, “I will not.  Anything to delay a spelling test”.  What spelling test?  What is Bart hoping this hapless thing he once saw in a broken down carnival ride is going to accomplish?  Cause this guy to run off screaming?  Prime him for the most traumatic hose soaking of his life?  We sure don’t know.  He’s trying to get out of something the audience neither knows nor cares about, and what he’s doing wouldn’t work anyway.  In and of itself, the prank is dumber and weaker, and outside of that it dangles (literally) in the middle of the scene with hardly a connection to outside events.

You can see this same isolation and lack of connection throughout “Blazed and Confused”.  The scene where Jason shows up to murder the park ranger was just a random thing dropped into the middle of the episode.  There are literally no characters at “Blazing Guy” other than Lassen.  Everyone else in attendance is just a one note blip, on and off the screen for whatever reason they happened to be there.  Lassen introducing himself in Skinner’s office hardly needed to be there.  And, given that his face cutting was probably the creepiest thing he did, the episode likely would’ve been better off without that entire scene.

Zombie Simpsons never bothers to weave a joke or a scene together with everything else.  They just stack a few things up and hope a couple of them land.  And if Bart’s prank doesn’t work, who cares?  Maybe the next thing will.  The Simpsons didn’t do that.  It made each part of the script, down to individual lines and words, aspects of a coherent whole that builds on itself.  That intrinsic context and support can make a murderous “prank” hilarious, just as not having context and support can drain the fun from great ideas, and leave bad ones hanging lifelessly from a thread.




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