“Ooh, look at this one: The Hammer of Thor. It will send your pins to . . . Valhalla? Lisa?” – Homer Simpson
“Valhalla is where Vikings go when they die.” – Lisa Simpson
“Oh, that’s some ball.” – Homer Simpson
Posts Tagged ‘The Telltale Head
Today’s post is another installment in our long-running “series” of DVD commentary posts; the lucky victim this time is Season 1’s classic “The Telltale Head.” Featured speakers on the commentary are the episode’s director Rich Moore and writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss. I’ll keep it short and simple (read: descriptive and lacking in any meaningful/substantive analysis), but here are the highlights from their conversation for me:
(Times are approximate)
- 00:17 – Supposedly there were a lot of Elvis sightings when this episode was written, hence the chalkboard gag
- 00:31 – Early intro didn’t have Burns or Smithers in the Homer/SNPP shot
- 01:21 – Directors, well at least Rich Moore in this case, don’t get residual checks when this episode airs. Wah wah.
- 02:08 – During table readings, the episode got big laughs up front and petered out, which explains the reverse structure of the episode as it we know
- 02:34 – This is one of the few episodes that actually has the title after the credits
- 02:52 – This is also Rich Moore’s Simpsons directorial debut
- 03:14 – Episode is full of first appearances – Rev. Lovejoy, Jimbo, Dolph, Kearney, Quimby, Apu
- 03:40 – Homer standing on the couch is where the episode originally started before the structural changes
- 03:51 – This is the first time the family goes to church
- 04:15 – The Simpsons staff is full of football fans, so references work their way into many episodes
- 05:45 – Apparently the Sunday school teacher doesn’t have a name
- 07:15 – “Twister mouths” were phased out in Season 1, but made an accidental appearance in Season 3 thanks to Wes Archer
- 07:37 – Repeat backgrounds are a godsend
- 08:11 – “Space Mutants” was a regular thing that just sort of dropped out of later episodes
- 09:25 – Jimbo is named after Jim Brooks
- 10:50 – Apu wasn’t originally intended to be an ethnic character, but Hank Azaria added the accent during the table read and the rest is history
- 11:17 – It’s still a five-fingered discount even though the characters only have four fingers
- 14:07 – Rich’s father called after this show aired to ask if Homer was based on him
- 14:27 – Bart’s first ninja costume
- 15:30 – Intent of the episode was always to be played as “live action” with interesting composition and shots rather than the flatness associated with many early episodes
- 16:50 – At the table read, the fact that the Jebidiah’s head was cut off didn’t resonate with the group as much as the denizens of Springfield
- 17:50 – This is where shit gets weird: the head starts talking. This didn’t get many laughs initially
- 18:22 – You rarely see Moe and Burns share a scene together
- 18:31 – First episode where Smither’s affection for Burns is notable
- 18:40 – Around the middle of the first season, Sam Simon declared that Smithers should be gay, but not to make a big deal about it. The audience caught on quickly though
- 18:57 – First Sideshow Bob, who is both silent and looks nothing like his later incarnation
- 20:40 – First mob made up of supporting characters and not generic people
- 22:04 – The early internet was a cruel mistress in pointing out animation inconsistencies and other flaws (sound familiar?)
- That’s a wrap!
“That one looks like a school bus going over a cliff in flames with kids inside screaming.” – Jimbo Jones
Like any other organization or group of people, a school has a natural hierarchy. The adults are separate from the kids, obviously, but even within groups there are levels and layers. For the adults there are staff and faculty, for the students there are grades, gender, circles of friends and lots of other ways the students sort themselves out. One of the things that made Springfield Elementary so compelling and recognizable as a place, even though it’s fictional and inhabited by people with bulging eyes and no chins, is that the show captured the social ecosystem of a grade school with such trenchant clarity.
Among the kids in Bart’s class we have Milhouse, a weak kid who latches onto Bart, Martin, a true nerd who kisses the teacher’s ass, Sherri and Terri, the goody two (four?) shoes twins, and Nelson, the kid who gets to be the bully by dint of being bigger than everyone else. “The Telltale Head” shows us some of the kids outside of Bart’s class, specifically the three older bullies: Dolph, Kearney and, above all, Jimbo.
Whereas Nelson is in the same grade as Bart and therefore serves as his daily tormentor, Jimbo and his cronies are older. They wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to harass Bart, but he’s much too small fry for them to care about on a day to day basis. In the school hierarchy, Jimbo and company are far above Bart.
When Bart and Jimbo first meet, we see this discrepancy in Bart’s awe of Jimbo (“you’re the worst kid in school”) and Jimbo’s total ignorance of Bart (“what’s your name, man?”). As the story progresses, we see Bart trying as hard as he can to hang out with the older kids his idolizes, so he goes along with things he isn’t comfortable with (stealing from the Kwik-E-Mart, stoning the statue) while struggling to seem cool.
For his part, Jimbo plays the elder bad boy perfectly. He’s okay with boosting candy and Playdudes and throwing rocks at inanimate objects, and he likes that Bart’s got a smart mouth and willingness to go along with stuff. But he’s willing to dropkick Bart out of his orbit in an instant once it becomes clear that, for all his enthusiasm, Bart is still too much of a little kid to hang out with them.
Later episodes would use both sides of the relationship. So Jimbo and Bart will work together when their interests are aligned (like the escape from Utility Basement B in “Whacking Day”), but Jimbo will easily turn on Bart when that suits him (“As soon as the check clears, I’ll let you go”). When he wasn’t around Bart, Jimbo (and Dolph and Kearney) were the show’s way to make fun of sullen teenagers. They’ll chase Bart down for doing ballet, but they’ll also rush off to the library to read about the Founding Fathers because of Ralph’s moving portrayal of George Washington.
Like so many of the other recurring minor characters, Jimbo and company made Springfield feel more like a real place. They didn’t have to be good or bad, and none of them ever really got their own episode, they just had to be there, acting like the mostly harmless juvenile delinquents that they are.
“Well, that’s my story. And if you still want to tear apart this young Sunday school student as he stands on the brink of salvation, I await your wrath.” – Bart Simpson
“Aww.” – Crowd
“Somehow I don’t feel like killing anymore.” – Krusty the Klown
“Neither do I.” – Mrs. Krabappel
“Alright, Kogen’s got Wolodarsky open in the end zone . . . he throws it . . . it’s complete, touchdown!” – Radio Announcer
Yesterday, Jay Kogen, one of the original writers who departed in Season 4, went on Reddit for one of their “Ask Me Anything” posts. He talked a lot about the old days of the show, working with Bryan Cranston on Malcolm in the Middle, and just television writing generally. I’ve pulled some of the highlights below, though there is much, much more at the link.
Turns out they had to fight for one everyone’s favorite sequences:
[–]nschug 717 points 21 hours ago
What is your all time favorite Simpsons joke? Also thank you for doing this.
[–]JayKogen[S] 2022 points 21 hours ago
We had to fight hard for Homer falling down the canyon in Bart the Daredevil and it worked well. My favorite was getting put in the ambulance then it crashing and him falling down again.
More on “Bart the Daredevil”:
[–]tedistkrieg 36 points 1 day ago
I wrote a research paper in college about the types of humor used in the simpsons and I used the most memorable scene in Bart the Daredevil with Homer falling down the gorge. I thought it was a perfect example of the humor used.
What made you decide to have him fall down the second time?
[–]JayKogen[S] 68 points 1 day ago
as I just wrote, i just thought going through that long bit again was pure joy.
[–]hollaback_girl 459 points 21 hours ago
What’s your favorite moment from in the Simpsons writing room? What’s your most memorable?
[–]JayKogen[S] 1155 points 21 hours ago
My partner Wally threw a cup of mashed potatoes onto the ceiling tiles and they stuck as a clump there. The potatoes remained there for many many years.
[–]JayKogen[S] 1855 points 21 hours ago
I also remember pitching a joke for one of the treehouse of horror episodes where Burns is taking Homer’s brains out of his head and puts it on his own with the brain stem hanging down and says "Look at me! I’m Davey Crockett!" and then laughing at my own joke(which I never do and is not considered good form) for five minutes, falling on the floor and possibly farting. Embarrassing but true.
On black Smithers in some (but not all) Season 1 episodes:
[–]ErikF 801 points 21 hours ago
When you created Smithers, was it your intent from the start to make him gay or was that something that evolved?
[–]JayKogen[S] 1485 points 21 hours ago
Originally he was gay and black. And we actually drew him purple in his first show. But we thought it was too much so we just kept him gay.
The oft asked “what is a writers room really like?” question:
[–]OccupyTamriel 305 points 1 day ago
How’s the atmosphere in the writers team?
[–]JayKogen[S] 680 points 1 day ago
The writers room is work. Sometimes fun, sometimes boring. We tend to work as a team. It’s not competitive. If you hear a great joke from someone else you laugh. The more good jokes that you get, the faster you get to go home to your family.
Love for Krusty but not Sherri and Terri:
[–]Cfeds77 209 points 1 day ago
Favorite and least favorite character and was there any episode you regretted?
[–]JayKogen[S] 406 points 1 day ago
In every episode there are moments and jokes that simply don’t come out right and when I watch them now I still cringe. But when I watch the ones I had nothing to do with I can’t see the mistakes. Just the joy.
[–]JayKogen[S] 601 points 1 day ago
I love Krusty and I wrote alot for him. I feel like I helped give him that good old comic feel. Least favorite? Sherry And Terry. We created them and nothing much came of it.
Here’s that Hollywood Christmas parade that was mentioned in Ortved’s book:
[–]brodesto 165 points 1 day ago
What is your most memorable moment while working in The Simpsons?
[–]JayKogen[S] 324 points 1 day ago
Wow, this is odd but I really remember being in a Hollywood Christmas parade as a Simpson writer and thinking that we very strange but amazing.
Not much love for Agnes:
[–]goingglobal 63 points 1 day ago
If you could change any of the characters on the show, who would you change and why?
[–]JayKogen[S] 173 points 1 day ago
Skinner mom bugs me. Not sure why.
On “Treehouse of Horror”:
[–]tedistkrieg 125 points 1 day ago
Did you get to choose to parody To Serve Man for the first Treehouse of Horror? Where did you get the idea for Kang and Kodos?
[–]JayKogen[S] 394 points 1 day ago
We did get to choose the parody. We pitched it. We wanted to spoof the Twighlight Zone. Kang and Kodos were named by Jon Viti who’s a star trek fan. They are all Trek names. I actually drew the aliens. My only drawing on the show. The artists couldn’t figure out what our description of a one eyed octopus with fangs and a space helmet looked like. so I drew it. Loved that. have it hanging in my house.
Apparently Wallace Wolodarsky kinda looks like Otto:
[–]cupofpens2 101 points 1 day ago
Which of your artistic creations most closely resembles you physically? What about psychologically and behaviorally?
[–]JayKogen[S] 241 points 1 day ago
Otto looks like Wally. None of them look like me. I’m alot like Homer on my worst days.
And here’s the pointless and obligatory “what do you think of Zombie Simpsons?” question:
[–]tallandlanky 104 points 1 day ago
How do you feel about the quality of the writing on the show today? I feel as if the current writers are trying to rely on zany antics and celebrity guests as opposed to writing deep, emotionally touching episodes.
[–]JayKogen[S] 105 points 1 day ago
I must say I find the show still great. Every episode still has heart but after 23? years they are still kicking ass. Al Jean and Matt Selman and the rest are great.
Questions like this are utterly and completely meaningless. Maybe Kogen really thinks that, maybe he doesn’t, but he sure as shit isn’t going to say, “They suck” or some variation thereof. He works as a television writer, he knows these guys, it’s just not fair to put him on the spot like that and expect an honest answer.
There’s more at the thread, and like many Reddit “Ask Me Anythings” it gets choppier and less organized as you scroll down (and you have to expand more of the comments to get everything), but it’s a fun read. When not answering questions from Simpsons geeks on-line, Kogen is currently working on a new show called Wendell and Vinnie that’s coming to Nick @ Nite in November.
“You don’t need an introduction, you’re the worst kid in school.” – Bart Simpson
“Thanks.” – Jimbo Jones
Among the many, many things that made The Simpsons great that Zombie Simpsons has lost and/or squandered is any sense of relating to the characters or even simple reality. For all of its energy and outlandish plots, on The Simpsons you always knew that the people involved were reacting in a way that real people might react. The characters had character, and they stayed within those bounds. Homer gets involved in outrageous situations, but he’s still a bungling amateur. Even when Marge was in a desperate flight from the law, she turned the car to get her friend to safety, not to deliberately drive into the Grand Chasm. Lisa may have all the traits of a political crusader in her opposition to anti-immigrant Proposition 24, but she’s still a little girl who wants her mother to buy her licorice.
On Zombie Simpsons the characterizations that kept The Simpsons grounded are routinely ignored, and characters frequently fly off the handle or simply sit there like inert lumps. The last thing they do is act human. In “Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts” this is particularly apparent in the kids. It’s one thing for Bart and many of the school’s other troublemakers to be suddenly enraptured by Theodore Roosevelt, it’s a bit of a stretch for some of them, but getting instantly obsessed with something is an inherently kid thing to do.
What isn’t an inherently kid thing to do is to conquer the school, and what’s an even less kid thing to do is to have Bart, the smallest and weakest of the boys, become their unquestioned leader. Jimbo and his two sidekicks, Dolph and Kearney, were introduced way back in Season 1 as older kids who would never look up to Bart Simpson in a million years. On the contrary, Bart looks up to them, admiringly describing Jimbo as “the worst kid in school” when they first meet in “The Telltale Head”.
Bart copies Jimbo, not the other way around.
The entire plot of that episode revolves around Bart trying to fit in with an older crowd, just as real boys have done since time immemorial. To younger kids, slightly older ones are more familiar and less confusing than the towering adults, yet still clearly cool, more capable, and worth emulating. So when Bart’s initial joy at being included in Jimbo’s gang turns to bitter embarrassment when he’s dismissed for acting too childlike, he tries to redeem himself by doing something he explicitly heard Jimbo say would be cool.
His desire to fit in with the older kids, something to which anyone who has ever been a kid can relate, drives the entire plot. Bart makes a kid’s mistake in thinking that Jimbo and company would be impressed with him, and then makes a second kid’s mistake in actually taking the head. So not only is Bart too childish to hang out with the older kids, he’s also too young to understand that Jimbo and company were just shooting the shit when they talked about decapitating the statue. The entire episode displays an intimate knowledge of the reality of childhood even as it goes through its fictional story.
That was just cloud talk, man.
By contrast, “Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts” displays no such knowledge. Following its story requires you to set aside pretty much everything you know or remember about being a kid. Zombie Simpsons is so set on having Bart become a Teddy Roosevelt wannabe that it forgets that those other kids around him are supposed to be kids as well. So you have Jimbo:
1. Sitting with rapt attention in Bart’s treehouse as Bart runs their new club.
Remember when Jimbo picked up Laura for their date? Zombie Simpsons doesn’t.
2. Standing quietly in the back while Bart negotiates with Principal Skinner:
Jimbo once beat up Bart to take his specialty belt. Apparently, he cares less about hats and glasses.
3. Unquestioningly taking orders to get the students into the gym while Bart plots his next move:
Maybe Bart finally learned the Touch of Death?
4. Fearfully coming to get Bart so Bart can deal with the police:
It used to take a knife wielding maniac to make him scared.
5. Obediently standing by while Chalmers talks to Bart:
Pretty lame for a kid who’s been kicked out of all four Space Mutants movies.
This is Jimbo and the other bullies as props instead of characters. They don’t have any humanity and they certainly don’t act like actual kids. All Zombie Simpsons can think for them to do is stand there and watch Bart.
It’s not like the episode has to be all about them (it is Bart’s last name that’s in the title of the show after all), but The Simpsons knew how to have Bart interact with the other kids. Zombie Simpsons just stands them up like cardboard cutouts. The Simpsons also recognized the fact that Jimbo Jones was unassailably higher in the pecking order than Bart. With its atrophied storytelling skills and monomaniacal focus on what’s happening right now, Zombie Simpsons doesn’t care in the least about that kind of context or humor.
The Jimbo who would’ve beaten Bart to a pulp for cutting off the head of the Jebediah Springfield statue isn’t the same character as the Jimbo who eagerly takes orders from Bart. The same goes for Dolph, Nelson and Kearney. These are the kids who tossed rocks at Bart just after telling them he was their only hope in Utility Basement B. These are the kids who chased Bart out of the school when they found out he was doing ballet. These are the kids who were the ruthless guards at Kamp Krusty.
Zombie Simpsons is fundamentally narrower and shallower than its predecessor because it has a different set of priorities. It doesn’t care about its side characters, it doesn’t care about its setting, it just cares about winding up Bart and setting him loose to do zany things. That inattention and apathy to the kinds of things The Simpsons treated with exquisite care is a big reason why Zombie Simpsons has such a disconcerting air of unreality to it, even in episodes like “Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts” where it stays relatively grounded in Springfield.