“Behold the box of mystery!” – Milhouse van Houten
About halfway through the ridiculous (in a bad way) main plot of “The Great Simpsina”, what’s-his-face (The Great Raymondo) takes Lisa under his wing and tells her the secret he’s kept for decades. In yet another example of the way the attention span of Zombie Simpsons is measured in microseconds, the show treats this revelation as poignant and moving, even going so far as to have the old magician finally decide to tell her after he mentions that he has no children and compares Lisa to his beloved and long departed wife. This is a Hallmark Hall of Fame level of schlock.
Unlike formulaic, made-for-teevee melodrama, however, Zombie Simpsons doesn’t know how to have all of its moments converge at once. Raymondo has been carefully guarding this trick for most of his life, and him telling it to Lisa is the pivot point of the entire story. Does she do it as part of his grand return to the stage? Nope. Does she wow the audience at the “World Magic Championships” that conclude the episode? Wrong. Does she perform this historic feat at recess in front of a handful of elementary students? Oh, Zombie Simpsons, you’ve done it again.
If all that had been in service of some interesting satire or humor it might’ve been merely horrible, but the episode was light on comedy in favor of what can only be described as magic tricks. Despite the fact that this is only one episode, the examples are almost too numerous to list. Raymondo’s side of the ledger is mostly small stuff, like instantly changing Lisa into a flapper costume and back again. But most of Lisa’s actions in this episode are parlor tricks, from beating things out of Bart’s esophagus to putting Maggie in a birdcage, and the less said about the super powers of the guest stars and the antics of – ugh – “Cregg Demon” the better. Any one of their deeds would be impressive if they weren’t part of a cartoon, but they are. When Bugs Bunny pulled similar stunts on Daffy or Elmer it was funny not because of what Bugs was doing, but because of the stuttering furor and homicidal rage of his victims. Here the audience just “ohhs”, “ahhs” and applauds.
Animated magic tricks aren’t cool, even when they don’t cruelly and needlessly bring back the dead.
The fundamentally fraudulent nature of the entertainment – expecting laughs for tricks that aren’t actually impressive – is compounded when you remember that there was no need for it. Lisa learning the craft from an aging magician would’ve been enough without the pastel pyrotechnics. It’s a story that could’ve had plenty of space for historically satirical flashbacks, jokes at the expense of magic and entertainment generally, and the almost unlimited comedy of failed magic tricks.
And here is where the comparison to The Simpsons becomes painfully obvious. The Simpsons intuitively understood that when you’re dealing in animation a successful illusion is boring because it doesn’t require anything more than pen meeting paper. Failed illusions, on the other hand, can be hilarious. Consider Krusty’s grotesquely disastrous ventriloquism when he’s trying to compete with Gabbo, or the giant scar on Milhouse’s stomach when Bart tried to saw him in half. Even the “mathemagician” in “Grade School Confidential” operates on the idea of funny failure when he flunks elementary arithmetic dividing twenty-eight by seven and coming up with three.
Would it be funny if Krusty didn’t need the mustache? Or if that remainder had disappeared?
The best counterexample, though, is the one most closely related to Lisa’s recess performance, “Milhouse the Magician” from “$pringfield”. Like Lisa’s performance, the audience is just a handful of people. Unlike Lisa’s performance, that makes sense. Like Lisa, Milhouse is new to magic. Unlike Lisa, he doesn’t have hacks making him instantly good at it. The result is brief, fitting, and very funny.
No one cares about the cat in the box . . . until it attacks the magician. (He still got some applause.)
The relentless reliance on magic isn’t a case of Zombie Simpsons being weighed down by twenty years of accumulated baggage and backstory. They didn’t need to cram in as many “ta-da!” moments as they could. Just like they didn’t need four celebrity magicians to show up and voice themselves (in an episode that already had two famous guest stars). Nor did they need to have the secret to a world famous trick be revealed to someone who’d been doing magic for about two weeks. They did all that by choice, and it’s just further evidence of how much they value razzle dazzle over substance, humor and making the most of their medium.
[Update 14 April: Corrected two minor word repetitions that I missed in the after-work fog of yesterday.]