Compare & Contrast: Shortcuts & How Not to Ruin Jokes

“Alright, we’re here.  Let us never speak of the shortcut again.” – Homer Simpson

Of all the digressions and clock killing asides that make up “500 Keys”, the one that’s most out of place has to be the not quite Wages of Fear/Sorcerer drive back from the cake store (which made a lot more sense and was vastly funnier in “Mr. Plow”).  This episode had four simultaneous plots going on, three of which managed to roughly collide near the end, and yet this wasn’t involved in any of them.  It didn’t even have anything to do with the cake that was itself only barely related to the rest of this episode.

Why Couldn't You Just Stop Here

Zombie Simpsons and decent jokes: a history of not leaving well enough alone.

Like so much of Zombie Simpsons, the entire scene is an exercise is making less out of more instead of the other way around.  Having sent Homer, the kids, and his cake down a road marked “Suicidal Moron Pass” could’ve been enough.  You could’ve cut right from them heading up some mountain trail to them pulling into the driveway with cake splattered all over the interior of the car.  Or you could go the other way, have the cake in pristine condition and a joke about how that was easier than expected.  Either way it wouldn’t have altered the rest of the episode, as the survival of the cake, which was made to be important during the scene, is completely irrelevant to everything that follows.  The last we ever see of the cake is a few bits of it on Maggie when she walks into the kitchen.

Instead we’re treated to cliffs, vertical driving and lots of suspense.  The least random thing that happens is when some goats fling rocks at them for no reason.  It was pure filler from start to finish, and the goats weren’t even given subtitles to lighten things up.  As it happens, in “Itchy & Scratchy Land” way back in Season 6, The Simpsons found itself with a similar situation.  So, despite Homer’s admonishment, let us speak of . . . the shortcut.

Itchy and Scratchy Land6

North, south, nuts to that!

The shortcut is the last of several traveling gags in “Itchy & Scratchy Land”.  The nice thing about these little vignettes (Five Corners, the fruits & vegetables) is that they make sense within the story without ever distracting from it.  Together they serve to illustrate how long the trip is while giving the show an opportunity to poke fun at the little absurdities of American road trips.  And while it’s true that not every one is strictly necessary, they’re quick enough that they never feel excessive or cheap.  That’s especially true of the shortcut, which Homer enthusiastically bumbles into with a couple of joke rich lines.   Itchy and Scratchy Land5

This is the very next shot after they drive off down that long, dusty road.

Homer’s shortcut is such a disaster that it doesn’t even last for a full musical cue.  The jaunty, enthusiastic horn music can’t get in more than a few notes before saddening to accompany the image above.  That one shot contains more wacky adventures than Zombie Simpsons could’ve crammed into something four times as long as “Suicidal Moron Pass”.  The evidence is right there on the car, which is not only trailing a homecoming banner and has a pedestrian crossing sign wrapped around the bumper, but also appears to have been struck by a missile.  And that’s only the half of it.  They were in a dire enough situation that they had to use a wagon wheel as a replacement part, Lisa’s door is missing, and Jebus only knows what happened to the roof or the windshield.

Crucially, the audience is trusted to infer all of this information in just a few seconds of screen time.  There isn’t even the need for an over the top punchline.  The whole scene is shockingly funny enough that Homer’s downplaying of the “let us never speak” line as a chicken flees Marge’s hair is the only thing that can make it better.

What The Simpsons knew, and Zombie Simpsons has all but forgotten, is that in the right circumstances outrageous things are funnier when they are alluded to rather than jammed in your face.  It’s much more abrupt to have the missile sticking out of the hood, Homer clearly not having bothered to remove it, rather than some elaborate sound effects laden set piece where it crashed into the car.  In the same way, it could’ve been funny to take a wedding cake over a mountain pass, but not the way they did it.  Not even close.

17 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Shortcuts & How Not to Ruin Jokes”

  1. 1 Matthew
    17 May 2011 at 4:46 pm

    Great analysis. And thank you for reminding me just how funny Itchy & Scratchy Land really was. I saw a re-run of it recently and laughed a lot but now I’ll have to go back and watch it one more time. In fact, I’m gonna make that picture of the car my facebook profile pic.

    On first glance, I really didn’t think 500 keys was as bad as some of the more recent episodes of Zombie Simpsons, but when you apply the same high standards that used to apply to the classic Simpsons you really start to see just how awful it really was.

    • 2 Matthew
      17 May 2011 at 4:49 pm

      Oh, and let’s also compare and contrast the animation in the pics. I miss all the imperfections of the old animation style. Now everything is so glossy and perfect. You can literally SEE that they’ve put more effort into the animation than the writing.

      • 3 Stan
        17 May 2011 at 7:36 pm

        They actually didn’t. Funniest part is – with today’s technology, it’s only a matter of clicks, and yet they still screw it up. Those lazy shits have no right to even have an excuse as to why their jokes suck. And obviously, they don’t realize that.

        • 4 Bea Simmons' rotting corpse
          18 May 2011 at 5:41 am

          Only a matter of clicks? Yeah, right

          • 5 Stan
            18 May 2011 at 10:39 am


            “Object shapes and associated parameters are stored and updated in the database.”

            …unless you sweat when creating Excel tables, then I’m just sorry for you.

            • 6 Bea Simmons' rotting corpse
              18 May 2011 at 3:08 pm

              Look up real animation, you sorry piece of sweat =) The Simpsons is drawn, not a series of objects and shapes pieced together with a couple of clicks. When they say “We use computers now” they don’t mean “we just set up a drinking bird to push a button”.

              I’m ok with Excel, but I have more experience with the charts in Toonboom Harmony.

              • 7 Stan
                18 May 2011 at 4:21 pm

                Okay, well, when they do some scenes in Family Guy (and I saw it!), they practically “click” on Peter’s hand, for example, and “drag” it in one direction, for the hand to move in that direction. And then they record it. Frankly, it’s even easier than mocapping.

                I thought that was the case with ZS, figuring out with their “computer animation” and “HDTV” they also migrated on that platform. Maybe not.

                But I’ll be well damned if today it takes MORE time than back in the 1990s to produce a 22 minute long episode, animation wise. I’m not saying it’s not possible. I’m just finding it hard to believe.

  2. 9 Stan
    17 May 2011 at 9:44 pm

    What struck me the most is that in ZS they have Bart and Lisa sit at the front. First of all, how can two practically pre-teens share one passenger’s seat? Second, aren’t they a bit too young for that? And finally, it would’ve made much sense for them to seat at the back so they could check on the cake, instead of constantly doing as much effort as Homer to turn their heads.

    Now in the original Simpsons, everything like it should be: kids in the back, nagging wife in the front and the suicidal moron drives the car. Once again, someone today doesn’t give a something about the show anymore. And it’s somehow sad.

  3. 10 Patrick
    17 May 2011 at 10:24 pm

    I’m watching I&S land online and I’ve noticed how well written all of it is and what the family did during their stay there wouldn’t have made any sense if they swapped just one of the scenes around like how it was with that field trip comparison. Bravo Simpsons of the 90’s :D

  4. 11 Chris
    18 May 2011 at 2:24 am

    I was going to mention the same thing that Matthew did; the old animation blows the doors off the new animation. The new animation is too perfect, in that it’s completely boring to look at. Those perfectly straight lines do nothing for my eye. But the two old screenshots, now that’s something to look at. I love that the background isn’t perfectly drawn, because it’s more interesting that way.

    I honestly haven’t watched a new Simpsons episode in over a year, but when I was watching season 21, I felt like I could write a book on how poorly the comedy was executed. Even when they have a semi-clever idea, which isn’t often, it’s ruined by poor timing or delivery. The urge to explain the jokes is the worst. The 2nd screenshot from I&S Land says it all. Homer doesn’t explain that they were hit by a missile, or changed a tire to a wagon wheel, they just let the animation speak for itself and let the audience figure it out. This is, of course, a much more comical experience.

    Honestly, when I watch a newer Simpsons episode, I have a hard time believing these writers are paid for their comedic skills. I remember watching Thursday’s with Abie and thinking and that was one of the worst excuses for a piece of comedy I’d ever seen. There is just no way these guys were hired through a meritocracy. They either know someone, or are completely mailing it in.

    • 12 Stan
      18 May 2011 at 8:42 am

      Nah, FOX hires whomever they think they can. I used to think the “fresh blood” of the show was influenced by today’s social decay and denigration of humor. Now I know the truth – FOX turned the show into a relentless merchandizing machine, so all those who weren’t old enough, but couldn’t stand it, quit to work on other projects (notably Futurama). Whomever they hired in their stead are either former late show hosts nobody ever heard of before, or humor college graduates.

      This goes to show you how can one greedy conglomerate destroy the lifetime of a show by turning it into some commercial device instead of killing it off when its span rightfully ended.

    • 13 Matthew
      18 May 2011 at 9:26 am

      The new animation has sucked the sould out of the simpsons. It looks like I’m watching the Cleveland show or something. Even when a Zombie Simpsons is written well, which is EXTREMELY rare, I still can’t enjoy it because I’m so distracted by the animation.

      The old style had such a charm to it. It was a crudely draw version of our own world. And since everyone and everything in it was crudely drawn, the Simpsons family and their insane hairstyles didn’t look at all out of place. But now that every cloud in the sky, cars on the highway, and every single background character looks so incredibly perfectly detailed, the Simpsons family themselves look incredibly out of place in their own world.

      This blog touched on this very subject a few weeks back. They had a good example of Selma standing with some one off characters and noting how she, an original main supporting character, was the one who looked out of place.

      • 14 D.N.
        21 May 2011 at 12:29 am

        I feel like a curmudgeon about this, but my feelings about new computer-animated hi-def Zombie Simpsons vs old hand-drawn Classic Simpsons are similar to how I feel about special effects in movies. I don’t think it’s just nostalgia: I think SFX were better before CGI took over everything. I’d much rather see costumes, make-up, puppets, animatronics, optics, models, stop-motion, and matte paintings, than rampant computer imagery that looks weightless and fluid and cartoony. CGI is fine if it’s used correctly, but I hate this idea that it is inherently more convincing than older ways of doing SFX.

  5. 15 Matthew
    18 May 2011 at 3:01 pm

    While we’re on the subject, Itchy and Scratchy Land contains one of my all time favorite Simpsons quotes:

    Announcer: Attention, Marge Simpson, your son has been arrested…
    Marge: Mmmmmm
    (moments later)
    Announcer: Attention, Marge Simpson, we’ve also arrested your older, balder, fatter son

    I’m still LMAO at that one nearly 17 years later. Those were the days.

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