“To make a tired point, which one of us is truly crazy?” – Leon Kompowski
“Not me, I got this!” – Homer Simpson
Posts Tagged ‘Stark Raving Dad
"Sir! I’m so sorry my grocer committed you. We’ll never shop there again." – Mr. Smithers
Like the practice of medicine in general, the treatment of mental illness has a longstanding history of cruelty, incompetence and abuse. People have undergone everything from lifetime confinement and mind changing drug regimes to electric shocks and lobotomies because of pseudo-scientific theories that often had (and have) more to do with the ignorance and prevailing prejudices of the people administering the "treatments" than they do with making the patients better. On top of that is the frightful prospect of a mentally healthy person becoming trapped in that system and subject to its tender mercies, a fear that has driven fiction of all kinds for more than a century.
Serious drama, horror schlock, dark comedy and more have long used that and related ideas to provoke and entertain. Some, obviously, work better than others, and there’s no way to guarantee success; but you can guarantee failure by using that powerful, well explored, and deeply rooted concept as a quick and haphazard plot twist to clean up a half-formed story and the flimsy character at its core. In a nutshell, that’s what happened to "Diggs", a Zombie Simpsons episode so ill conceived that they couldn’t even bring themselves to put a pun in the title.
You want to do an episode about a lonely boy who’s a one kid falconry club at Springfield Elementary? Fine. Weirder shit than that has happened at Springfield Elementary. You further want to reveal that said lonely boy is actually seriously mentally ill? Okay, that’s a bit heavy for a shamelessly stupid show like Zombie Simpsons, but isn’t necessarily a problem. Oh, you want to have the kid be involuntarily committed, have Bart find out, have Bart’s parents react with horror that he even knows such places exist, have Lisa(!) go along with it unquestioningly, then have the kid leave for a day to wrap up the plot before biking happily back to a life at the mental institute he clearly doesn’t want to be in? Those are gonna cause problems.
To see just a few of them, take a quick look at the dinner scene where Bart has printed out (yeah, I know, ignore it) the name of the mental hospital where Diggs is being taken. Bart can read. He can certainly understand the words "Psychiatric Hospital" on the page he printed. He hands it to Marge and this is what happens:
Marge: If this is what I think it is, it’s not a place we should ever ever take a little boy.
Bart: Then why is Diggs there?
Homer: Because it’s his home forever.
Marge’s reaction is bizarre in a couple of ways. First, she’s just accepting that some kid is being permanently taken to a mental hospital? That’s very un-Marge. Moreover, what’s with the weirdly callous and fearful attitude? Even if we spot them her acquiescence in this, the Marge we know and love would reassure Bart, tell him that the hospital is going to help Diggs, maybe even often to see about visitation. Instead, she not only views it as a hopeless place too horrible to even speak of, but makes Bart feel even worse about his friend going there.
And all that’s before we get to the glaring elephant in the room: how come nobody has asked about this kid’s parents? He’s supposed to be an elementary school student for fuck’s sake! And not only does he not have any parents, none of the adults we do see care about it either. Are they on vacation? Did he run away? Did Voldemort kill them in the Simpsons universe too?
It’d be one thing to overlook all that in a regularly nonsensical Zombie Simpsons episode that’s flopping all over the place anyway, but they play this seriously . . . over . . . and over . . . and over again, complete with sad piano music each and every time. Diggs and his bleak future are clearly the biggest element of the story now, but the episode spends most of its remaining time on a bunch of falcons we hadn’t seen before, then ends with Diggs riding off to his fate. How is the audience supposed to react to this? It’s like watching someone do bad stand up right next to someone who’s getting beaten and handcuffed.
Are you sad? Well don’t be, because here comes Milhouse!
Even topics as dour as getting hauled off for no cause can be funny, of course. For starters, it helps to not have it be about a little kid. (Unless it’s a Halloween episode and Bart saw a gremlin on the side of the bus, and even that made more sense than “Diggs”.) More importantly, it has to fit in with the universe you’ve created and the story you’re telling, which brings us to "Stark Raving Dad" and "The Old Man and the Lisa". In one, Homer gets committed to the New Bedlam Rest Home for the Emotionally Interesting by his boss for wearing a pink shirt to work and flunking an obviously idiotic take home personality test. In the other, Burns gets committed to the old folks home because two grocery clerks decided he wasn’t capable of being in society.
Forget about what happened to Homer and Burns once they got where they were going ("Diggs" didn’t show us where its title character was going), and just compare the who and the why. Homer gets sent up by his boss, which is a pretty terrifying prospect for anyone who’s not in management. Burns gets sent up by a couple of dudes at the store, which is pretty terrifying for anyone. Both are egregious abuses of authority, but they’re also absurd. Real life grocery store employees cannot sign commitment papers, which is what makes doing it on The Simpsons so enjoyable.
Similarly, both Homer’s and Burns’ transgressions were ludicrously minor. Homer wore a pink shirt and checked some boxes wrong (or, rather, let Bart check them wrong); Burns couldn’t make up his mind about a condiment. Neither can get you committed, much less by people other than doctors and judges.
Both cases take that dark concept and make it funny by changing and exaggerating it beyond reality while leaving it recognizable. In other words, by satirizing it. Zombie Simpsons, by contrast, took a very sad real world situation and . . . left it very sad. I’m not sure what that’s called, but "boring" and "not funny" would be a good start.
As I said on Monday, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they dumped "Diggs" at 7:30 instead of the usual 8pm. Zombie Simpsons episodes are typically some combination of dumb, nonsensical, boring and just plain bad; but "Diggs" managed to stand out for not only being all those things, but also stapling them to a story that would’ve been hideously depressing if it weren’t so mind numbingly stupid.
“Mr. Simpson, after talking to your wife, we believe you’re no threat to yourself or others.” – New Bedlam Psychiatrist
“That’s the most flattering thing anyone has ever said to me. Could I have it in writing, please?” – Homer Simpson
“Of course.” – New Bedlam Psychiatrist
“We want Michael! We want Michael! We want Michael!” – Crowd
“Here he is, here’s the guy want to see!” – Homer Simpson
“He’s three hundred pounds!” – Apu Nahasapeemapetilon
“He’s white!” – Woman in Crowd
“He’s dressed without flair!” – Moe
“Boooo! Boo!” – Crowd
It would take an awful lot of words just to catalog, to say nothing of exploring or explaining, the myriad of mistakes that comprise “Lisa Goes Gaga”. The episode had it all: bizarre and comedy free flights of fancy, unvarnished celebrity marketing, excruciatingly bad exposition, magic powers, characters acting bizarrely out of type (Lisa, Skinner, there were a lot), pointless and unrelated scenes, and, to top it all off, the entire thing may or may not have been the dream of some anonymous backup dancer. But all of those problems cascaded from one central failing, the inability of Zombie Simpsons to handle the very famous.
Whether or not you are a fan of her songs or of the outsize public persona to which her music is only tangentially connected, Lady Gaga is undeniably one of the most famous and discussed people on planet Earth here in 2012. She’s enormously popular with her fans, of course, but she’s also reached that rare level of fame where literally anything she does is news to the celebrity press, and her statements and actions frequently push beyond the paparazzi ghetto and into regular news. Even a passing familiarity with popular culture requires you to at least know who she is.
This is Wikipedia’s list of Season 23’s guest stars:
Aron Ralston, Jane Lynch, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, Tim Heidecker, Gordon Ramsay, Eric Wareheim, Neil Gaiman, Andy García, Kevin Michael Richardson, John Slattery, Matthew Weiner, Kevin Dillon, Janeane Garofalo, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Dana Gould, Ted Nugent, Armie Hammer, David Letterman, The Tiger Lillies, Jeremy Irons, Michael Cera, Jamie Hyneman, Adam Savage, Julian Assange, Kelsey Grammer, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Jackie Mason, Robbie Conal, Ron English, Shepard Fairey, Nicholas McKaig, Kenny Scharf, David Byrne, Glenn Close, Brent Spiner, Kevin Michael Richardson, Steve Coogan, Treat Williams, Bryan Cranston, Eric Idle
There are a lot of recognizable names on that list, but in terms of raw fame, none of them are even in the same league with the one time Stefani Germanotta. Parts assigned to a bunch of television chefs, or a talk show host, or even some well known movie star are basically interchangeable. There are, after all, quite a few television chefs, and if Jeremy Irons doesn’t want to be the talking bar rag, there are plenty of other respectable British actors with great voices out there. There is only one Lady Gaga.
That yawning fame gap means that you have to do something special for her. Just having her show up as somebody’s girlfriend or rival won’t fly. Even more importantly, it’s a fantastic opportunity. Someone who draws that much attention from that many places opens up a nearly unlimited array of potential subjects and stories. Zombie Simpsons wasted all that by having Lady Gaga not just play herself, but play herself as Lady Gaga the Megastar.
We’ll do what she did, and that’ll make people like us, right?
(Second image shamelessly yoinked from here.)
Twenty seasons ago, The Simpsons took a similar opportunity with Michael Jackson – who was, relative to the time, probably even more famous than Gaga is now – and turned it into one of their most memorable episodes. Crucially, they did it by stripping Michael Jackson of everything that made him Michael Jackson the Megastar: his looks, his fame, his fashion, his sex appeal, everything. All they left him with was his talent and his voice, which, if you’re having him play a fictional cartoon character, are the only truly important parts.
Creative, recognizable and funny will always be better than mindless repetition.
They understood that exaggerating the already exaggerated – and that kind of globe spanning fame is nothing if not the exaggeration of one person into something more than a person – was pointless. Once someone has actually taken a chimpanzee with him on tour or gone out in public wearing a dress made of meat, there isn’t anything you can do to make the situation meaningfully stranger. Trying to compete with things like that by making them even bigger or weirder isn’t the least bit creative, it’s just an animated imitation of something someone else is already doing. If news broke tomorrow that Lady Gaga was touring in a pink and purple train with giant shoes on its drive wheels and a built in concert stage, you might be impressed, but you wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.
By contrast, making Michael Jackson an ordinary person is a real feat. Unexceptional and unremarkable are two things Michael Jackson never was. From the time he became famous as a child right up until his death, Jackson was always larger than life. But on The Simpsons (and really only on The Simpsons), he was just a guy, a bricklayer from New Jersey who liked it when people were nice to him.
That humanity is why the story in “Stark Raving Dad” has such heart to it and why the episode is unique among all the things Michael Jackson was famous for. Bart and the rest of the town love Michael the Megastar. For them, it’s about the album sales and the dance moves and the one white glove covered in rhinestones. For Leon Kompowsky, however, those things are incidental to Michael Jackson, the talented boy who loves his sisters and writes songs for them.
The only time “Lisa Goes Gaga” even hinted at that kind of depth and creativity was when Lisa went off on Gaga for giving people false hope and unrealistic expectations. All the positive attitude and self confidence in the world can’t change the fact that sometimes people fail, that sometimes life gives you lemons that cannot be turned into lemonade. But the episode dropped that idea almost as soon as it considered it, and ended with Lisa doing things that the overwhelming majority of Lady Gaga’s Little Monsters will never get to do: meet her and sing with her and experience even a little bit of what it’s like to look upon the world from that tremendous height. After all, there’s a parallel universe somewhere in which Germanotta stubbed her toe before an audition or didn’t meet the right people and today she’s wearing regular clothes and working at a temp agency for slightly more than minimum wage.
The Simpsons openly contemplated that idea by showing that what made Michael Jackson special would’ve still made him special even if he’d been a fat mental patient who dressed without flair and never sold a single record. After all, his music could reach deep and bring people together even when it was played on an overturned waste basket. Massive fame and all the glitzy trappings that come with it may be nice, but they are too impersonal to define a person or their talent. Zombie Simpsons was too distracted by the shiny objects to notice that, so they mistook Lady Gaga’s fame and the pizzazz that comes with it as an end in itself rather than as a side effect of something more important. Once that mistake was made, the episode never had a chance.
“Aw, she looks sad.” – Leon Kompowsky
“That’s cause she knows you’re looking at her.” – Bart Simpson
“Although I’m aware you’re looking at me, I would look exactly the same even if you weren’t.” – Lisa Simpson
[Initially scheduled this for pm instead of am. Whoops.]
“We call this guy The Chief. He’s been here in 1968, never says a word, never moves a muscle.” – Leon Kompowsky
“Hey, Chief.” – Homer Simpson
“Hello. Well, it’s about time somebody reach out to me.” – The Chief
Happy 20th anniversary to “Stark Raving Dad”! Original airdate: 19 September 1991.