Armin Tamzarian, Ken Keeler, and The Simpsons Horde

“This is so weird, it’s like something out of Dickens, or Melrose Place.” – Lisa Simpson

A little while back, Dave, Mad Jon, Bob Mackey and I chatted about that most infamous of Season 9 episodes, “The Principal and the Pauper”. Mackey had me stumped in several places because he, unlike the rest of us, had listened to the DVD commentary. The very short version of all that was that Ken Keeler, who wrote the episode and has since gone on to a long and gloriously funny career at Futurama, had defended it in ways Mackey more or less agreed with. I finally got around to listening to that commentary.

Keeler’s defense of his episode breaks down into two related parts. First, he thinks his point was missed. He was trying to satirize the audience of the show for being irrationally committed to what they already knew and too resistant to change. Second, he thinks fans take too much to heart in general, and that as a result they were overly harsh to an episode that had a lot going on besides its unorthodox plot.

Before we get to that though, it’s worth remembering that Keeler is one of the good guys and deserves a very big benefit of the doubt. In addition to being on The Simpsons for its last really good years, he wrote for The Critic, and he’s done a lot of Futurama. The man can write, and I enjoy a lot of his work.

It’s also worth pointing out that this commentary, unlike so many of a more recent vintage, doesn’t shy away from talking about the episode itself. Keeler is joined by Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley, and while the latter two are far less defensive, all three are willing to acknowledge that things don’t always turn out quite right.  (Steven Dean Moore is there too, but he mostly stays out of it.)  Many Zombie Simpsons commentaries are just a bunch of people hanging out with the television on in the background, this is actually substantive. From a fan point of view, having pertinent commentary, even if I don’t agree with it, is far more informative and entertaining. So, have we all been unjustly maligning “The Principal and the Pauper” all these years? Does either or both of Keeler’s defenses hold up?

The Principal and the Pauper4

Ken Keeler surveys fans of “The Simpsons” in an undated photograph.

Point the First: The Audience Missed the Point – On the commentary track, Keeler himself acknowledges that his attempt to satirize the audience itself was harder to understand than it should’ve been because two speeches that explained what was happening ended up being cut for time. He dismisses this, and says that even without those we still should’ve been able to see what he was doing. I don’t know what was in those two cut speeches, but sending up the audience isn’t something I see in this episode. Even watching it after I heard the commentary and knew what to look for, it just isn’t something the episode does.

There’s nary a moment of self satire or recognition in “The Principal and the Pauper”. There isn’t even something akin to Lisa’s Dickens/“Melrose Place” meta-joke from “Mother Simpson”. Quite the opposite, not only does the episode not wink at itself, it treats its interminable retconning with relentless seriousness. To take only the biggest example, the nearly four minutes of flashbacks it uses to get from Skinner/Tamzarian’s infamous line “My real name is Armin Tamzarian” back to the present are light on the jokes and heavy on improbable plot twists. Even having seen it several times, it’s awfully hard to detect a whiff of self awareness among all that backstory offal, much less a meta-point about television audiences.

Further undermining Keeler’s defense is “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”, which they mention as having a similar concept in the commentary. (Though broadcast the season before, the two are actually part of the same production run.) At numerous times throughout the episode, from the focus group, to Roy, to the very end when Bart and Lisa change the channel, it’s crystal clear that the episode is at least somewhat aimed at the audience. There’s never any doubt that the show understands the terribleness of Poochie and is using it deliberately, not so for Tamzarian. Keeler is certainly right that his point was missed, but even knowing what he was going for I still don’t see it in the episode itself.

The Principal and the Pauper3

“That’s not a funny story.” – Marge Simpson

Point the Second: Fans Take Fictional Characters Too Seriously – This one is a bit more complicated, because on some level it’s true. People get invested in characters, even animated ones, the same way they get invested in real people. Hell, that’s almost the point of well crafted fictional characters, to trigger that sense of human recognition deep within the brain even as the audience knows on a surface level that everyone is just pretending. When something, radical plot twists included, disturbs that rather pleasant illusion, it can make people cranky.

Keeler mentions numerous times that he didn’t realize how very attached to the characters the fans had become. He was surprised at how much emotion people had invested in Principal Skinner. Ultimately, he finds that level of attachment silly, and thinks part of the negative reaction was just people being unable to take a joke.

Now, I have no way of knowing what specific porly splled and/or ALL CAPS rants Keeler read on-line. (It’s also worth pointing out, yet again, that the internet is a much different place now than it was back in 1997. They mention this explicitly on the commentary.) But people’s feelings about Skinner have never been the big problem with this episode. Don’t get me wrong, the idea that Skinner has been an imposter all this time is certainly off putting and attracts a lot of derision, but the general inertia and resistance to change of the audience isn’t the main reason Skinner’s secret history fell flat.

The main problem is that the episode has so many convoluted and improbable plot twists that is has to spend an enormous amount of screen time explaining and justifying things. Remember, Skinner goes through two enormous changes here, not just one, and taking the audience through those step by step means that there’s very little room left for comedy. Just because “Fraudulent Skinner” has a higher degree of difficulty than “Krusty Retires” or “Flanders Snaps” doesn’t mean the concept is fatally flawed. But if you can’t do it without subsuming the episode in awkward tension and out of character flights of fancy, then maybe you shouldn’t have done it at all. The two cut speeches Keeler mentions got cut for a reason: there was hardly any time left once they got done lurching through all the exposition.

Ultimately, the answer to the question of whether or not the fans have been unduly harsh toward “The Principal and the Pauper” is, “Sort of, but not really”. Yes, a great deal of the vitriol hurled on-line was probably over the top and dumb. And yes, people get overly attached to what are ultimately figments of other people’s imaginations. However, if great swaths of your script are tedious exchanges of the “I’m your real son/touching Vietnam flashback/come back all is forgiven” variety, you may have bitten off more than anyone could chew in twenty-two minutes of television.

The Principal and the Pauper2

Now let us never speak of this again.

12 Responses to “Armin Tamzarian, Ken Keeler, and The Simpsons Horde”

  1. 1 Derp
    2 February 2011 at 5:00 pm

    If your point is so obscured by the failures elsewhere, it does not exist.
    Unfortunately, perhaps the episode would have been better without the cut speeches. However I dislike when the program has to explicitly state how clever it’s being.

    The comparison between this episode and the Poochy one is apt. One is clear satire (which can be ignored and yet the episode is still excellent). This is just warping a character with little intelligence behind it.

  2. 2 February 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Keeler’s explanation kind of rankles me, because there were a ton of “Character X’s secret past is revealed!” plotlines during the Oakley/Weinstein years (Mona Simpson, Jebediah Springfield, Itchy & Scratchy, Grampa Simpson, Apu, Ned Flanders, Larry Burns, Reverend Lovejoy), but apparently *this one* is supposed to be super-double-meta-clever

  3. 2 February 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Harry Shearer said he wasn’t very happy with how Skinner’s past was revealed to be a fake and he said this episode was like a big “Fuck you for caring.”

  4. 4 UT
    2 February 2011 at 8:06 pm

    While I don’t have anything against the episode itself and never have (unlike most fans), I too listened to the commentary, and Keeler’s point seems perverted. If you know fans don’t like being robbed, then why do you rob them–as a self-referential plot device, no less–and then say, “The fans don’t get it; they’re doing exactly what I’m ridiculing them for doing.”

    And that’s what we’re talking about here: being robbed. The fans don’t care if you use artistic license – look at how many Homer flashbacks they’ve done, and nobody was upset. It’s taking this character that you’ve grown to love for so many years and throwing it out the window.

    Was anyone upset when Homer was revealed to have a long-lost brother? No. But say that Homer is not really Abe’s son, and what excuse does Keeler have then?

  5. 5 Mr. Incognito (aka Landry H.)
    3 February 2011 at 2:51 pm

    “But say that Homer is not really Abe’s son, and what excuse [do Zombie Simpsons writers] have then?”

    [/Putting it into today’s terms]

    Just wait for Season 25…

    What The Simpsons did with Homer in the past, however, was that they added aspects to his past without drastically altering his character or his important relationships, i.e., he was still Abe’s son, Marge’s husband, the father of three, etc. Same goes with the characters Jamie mentioned…most of those were working with a clean slate in one form or another.

    Here, they pretty much destroyed who Skinner was–he was no longer the 40-something mama’s boy/elementary school principal that Simpsons fans had known for so long–he was just an impostor that managed to keep his past a secret for so long.

  6. 6 Mike Martin
    3 February 2011 at 7:55 pm

    I disagree,

    I actually consider this one of my favorite episodes the Simpsons made. I primarily liked it because it established the best explaination of who Seymore Skinner is. So far up to this point in the show it is established that Skinner is a disciplined, love shy toward women, and has a Norman Bates relationship with is mother. The revelation of his past life as Armin Tamzarian explains why he is so disciplined, as it was the Army and Sgt. Seymore Skinner that put him on that path. Which I have witnessed a change in discipline in people when they enter and leave the army, so it is the character path does match.

    As for Skinner’s awkwardness towards women, though the flashbacks do not explain much, we can deduce that Armin did not have a healthy homelife growing up, possible one without a mother. So psychologically he would have trouble trusting people and women. But what finally gives his trust is his eventual relationship with Agness. We he arrived with Armin’s flag he was presented an opportunity to establish a motherly relationship that was likely missing in his earlier life. And such this relationship became his strongest. And the disciplined environment of a elementary school fullfilled his void of discipline when he transition from the army.

    And that is why the episode is so good, because it explain why this 40 year single principle lives with his mother, and explains his limited relationships outside of that. And it continued to explain why he has such trouble trusting in Edna Krabaple.

    Besides that the rest of the episode is pure gold. Martin Sheen’s Skinner fantastic as the outgoing man who wants to be normal. And the jokes about him adjusting to being a principle were great, “Mrs. Krabaple the pledge…” and so on. Great lines like “Up yours children”, and the explaination of why Jasper was going to Capital City.

    What shocked me, in the last season, what Zoombie Simpsons abandonment of this backstory, in the Vancouver Olympics episode which restablished Seymore as the biological son. Because this story does not explain Skinner’s attachment to his mother.

    • 7 Charlie Sweatpants
      3 February 2011 at 10:03 pm

      I’m not a fan of this episode, I think it’s easily the worst in Season 9, but it’s not the impostor part that bothers me. I agree that a story of street punk -> Army -> goody two shoes makes sense and could’ve worked really well. My problem, and I say this as someone who doesn’t care much about continuity between episodes, is that they radically changed the character of Skinner’s time in Vietnam, and with it his character. Every other time we see Skinner talk about Vietnam, whether it’s in “Team Homer”, “Lisa the Beauty Queen”, “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet”, “I Love Lisa”, whatever, he’s carrying around this over the top level of horrible trauma that works as comedy because he’s such a ramrod straight square about it.

      When he tries on the POW helmet at the swap meet or yells at Bart because places in the States can’t get the spices right, it’s funny not because of what happened to him, but because of the way he deals with it. Here they tossed all of that aside, first by showing his time in the war as a fond memory for him (and treating it with unremitting seriousness, which was new for them), and then again by having him throw off all the things we’ve seen about him when he runs away to Capital City. It’s a double whammy.

      The Tamzarian stuff could’ve added to his character without revising it out of existence in the process. That’s what bugs me about the story. Being so dramatic and serious about everything just made it worse.

  7. 5 February 2011 at 12:39 am

    it’s principal, not principle

  8. 10 blah
    29 June 2011 at 2:27 am

    I rank this as probably the worst episode of the Simpsons ever, and I’ve seen all the recent crap. Skinner is my favorite character, and this was just a travesty. Whatever “meta”/”in-joke” thing they were going for was played way too straight to be satirical, and the only thing this episode produced that was even HALFWAY humorous was when Snowball died in that one episode and they keep getting more Snowballs who die so they just make Snowball V (?) into Snowball II and Skinner says something about how Snowball V is an impostor, so Lisa goes, “Okay, TAMAZARIAN.” And Skinner, humbled, goes, “Carry on.” That and the Behind the Laughter thing where they make fun of this episode — so, basically, the only good things about this episode are how they made fun of it later. Which, uh, is kinda sad.

    A lot of insane, improbable, ridiculous shit happens on the Simpsons, but this plot was just so awkward and over-the-top and SERIOUS that it just didn’t seem to serve any function whatsoever. My friends and I like to think this episode was just a dream sequence, never happened, and I don’t ever plan on watching this awful episode again. Ugh.

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