“You’re killing me, fish. Never have I seen a greater or more noble thing than you, brother. Come on and kill me! I do not care who kills who. To catch a fish, to kill a bull, to make love to a woman, to live!” – Martin Prince
There was a great deal of nostalgia laden fan service in the (presumably) non-ironically titled “Replaceable You”, which means that there are a great deal of things that could be compared and contrasted. The nerds made an utterly pointless appearance, Homer got an assistant, and Mrs. Glick was apparently killed off while Dr. Nick came back to life and spoke. (Was that the first time he’s spoken since the movie?) There was also a rivalry between Bart and Lisa for the science fair, which was stupid, shallow and a blatant act of repetition. But something simpler gets at the deeper problems with Zombie Simpsons, and that something is good old Martin Prince.
Like many of the less flashy supporting characters in Zombie Simpsons, it’s hard to pin down exactly when the light went out of Martin’s eyes. The family and more major characters like Flanders and Burns get enough screen time that you can follow their devolution more or less as it happened. Others, like Patty, Selma, and Miss Hoover, have basically fallen off the show, so when they do make their infrequent appearances it’s a lot more jarring. Such is the case with Martin.
Like so many others, Martin has become more of a prop than a character. Instead of acting like anything resembling a ten-year-old, even a very smart one, Martin spends most of his time sitting in the background or delivering the occasional semi-clever one liner that would be more at home on something like The Big Bang Theory. That’s where you get setup-beat-punchline sitcom garbage like this:
Martin: Good shot.
Bart: Not really. I was trying to bounce it off your left testy.
Martin: Testis, my friend.
That’s not how people talk, that’s how sitcom writers make people talk. It’s basically a late night monologue that happens to be between two people.
(And that’s ignoring the way Martin makes his entrance by conveniently hanging from a tree outside of the Simpsons’ kitchen window. It’s the standard Zombie Simpsons need to have characters appear precisely when needed with no regard to whether or not they’d actually be there. By comparison, in “Bart Gets an F”, they strike up their conversation after Martin overhears the twins messing with Bart on the school bus.)
Since Martin is now very less than human, that kind of cheap, formulaic cornball is the only way they can think to make him even resemble funny. Zombie Simpsons can’t generate any genuine humor from him without that crutch, so once they run out of things for him and Bart to parrot at one another, he basically goes silent. That is not an exaggeration.
Martin is in the episode all the way to the dance party ending. But he only really speaks between his tree branch arrival at the three minute mark and the time he and Bart finish constructing their alternatively cute and vicious plot device a little before the seven minute mark. After that he has only two lines for the entire rest of the episode. The first comes on the playground:
“So, partner, what’s next on the agenda?”
Bart gets a little flustered at that, like he no longer wants to work with Martin, but that never goes anywhere because Milhouse shows up to get passive aggressive, and then Grampa and the Old Jewish Guy also mysteriously appear. Martin is silent throughout.
We don’t even get to see his second line. It’s dubbed over as crosstalk during the inexplicable “marching robots” sequence:
His only other line is “Wish I’d thought of that”, but you’ll note that his lips never move.
Those two lines are all he says for the final fourteen minutes plus of the episode. For that entire time he just stands there, like the prop that he is, letting Bart take all the action and do all the talking.
He doesn’t say a single word during any of these scenes. Not one.
This stands in marked contrast to the vibrant, recognizable and hilarious little boy in “Bart Gets an F”. Even by the first episode of Season 2 we already know that Martin is the smart teacher’s pet of Mrs. Krabappel’s class. He snitches on Bart in “The Crepes of Wrath” and it’s his intelligence test that Bart sabotages in “Bart the Genius”. As Martin himself says, Bart is his “natural enemy”.
But Martin isn’t some rubberized punching bag or a one note wonder (like Comic Book Guy has become). Rather, he’s a bright, precocious and lonely kid who doesn’t fit in. It’s that relatable humanity that turns otherwise simple sentences into great jokes. When Martin’s sitting under a tree reading Moby Dick while the other kids are playing baseball, he talks like the sophisticated adult he wants to be instead of the child that he is:
“I’m sorry, Bart, I am unfamiliar with the rules of your sport. I didn’t want to interfere with a ball in play.”
After the other kids laugh at his pathetic throw to return the ball, he drops the immortal:
“Well, back to the forecastle of the Pequod.”
Those are hilarious precisely because they are so perfectly him: massively nerdy and resigned to being lonely, but not entirely unhappy. He’s a well developed character, and that’s what makes him funny. He doesn’t need sitcom-y tag lines like “Testis, my friend” or “Heavens to Asimov!”, because what he’d really say is much funnier and far more human.
Nor are his attributes limited to his embarrassments. After Bart and Martin make their deal, Bart to get study help, Martin to get social help, we see the full range of Martin’s absurd dorkiness (“No study area is complete without adequate plant life”, his hilarious mischief equation). As their partnership continues, Martin comes into his own as a free spirit and mild trouble maker. Martin may have been unpopular, but that’s because there’s no book he could read on how to be popular, and no one had ever told him not to sit in the front of the bus or ride a bike with a basket on the front. Since he’s smart and a quick study, he absorbs Bart’s lessons and blossoms into the boy who can say:
“Who would’ve thought that pushing a boy into the girls’ lavatory could be such a thrill. The screams! The humiliation! The fact that it wasn’t me!”
Just like resigning himself to an imaginary life aboard the Pequod, this line is completely him. He still uses adult words (lavatory, humiliation), but now that he knows the rules he can do the things he didn’t understand before. It’s also hilarious, not only for the pitch perfect excitement in Russi Taylor’s delivery, but for the analytical bent of Martin’s newfound love of doing what the other boys used to do to him. Even then, he doesn’t become a Bart clone, doing things in his particular Martin-like way (acing a test and saying “Later, Mrs. K”, calling his friends “fellows” as he leads them to the arcade). That this all comes in an episode that began with him quoting Earnest Hemingway about living life to its fullest is just icing on the cake.
There’s no comparison between the erudite and animated kid in “Bart Gets an F” and the dead eyed shell that created a killer robot before going silent for the last two thirds of his time on screen in “Replaceable You”. One of them is a real character who is funny up and down the line, the other is a sitcom bit player who’s content to lean back on his heels and let the laughtrack do its work.