21
Jul
14

The Day the Laughter Died

By Mike Zanna

There was a time when The Simpsons was the best show on TV. The show that currently calls itself “The Simpsons” has little resemblance. It’s not nearly as good. It’s not even good compared to the rest of the stuff on television. It’s like The Simpsons, but without everything that made The Simpsons so amazing. The show has become a hollow shell, a shadow of itself, a ghost of its former greatness. I’m sure there’s another supernatural metaphor I could use.

So what the hell happened? At some point, The Simpsons went off the air and was replaced by its evil twin, Zombie Simpsons. I’m not sure when this happened, but it was at least a decade ago, maybe even a decade and a half. I started wondering if I could pinpoint the exact moment that the change occurred. If I could find one episode that killed the show, what would it be? When exactly did The Simpsons jump the shark? I came up with an answer. Personally, I think The Simpsons died on February 13, 2000, with the death of Maude Flanders.

Alone1

Maude wasn’t the only one who died that day.

“Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” isn’t the worst episode ever, but it had the longest lasting negative effect on the series. Most bad episodes can be safely skipped or ignored. Even “The Principal and the Pauper” restores the status quo at the end of the episode. Whether you like the revelation about Principal Skinner or not, it doesn’t affect the episodes that aired afterwards. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” was what TV Tropes would call a Wham Episode. Afterwards, the show would never be the same.

Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and after eleven years, I can see why the producers would want to shake things up. It’s just that this particular change was a bad idea that was poorly handled. The show had made some changes before, and many of them are lampshaded in this episode. For example, the Van Houtens had split up. Zombie Simpsons would later have them get remarried. Killing Maude Flanders was the first change the producers had made that was irreversible.

The Simpsons had never killed a recurring character before. Bleeding Gums Murphy had died back in Season 6, but he hadn’t been seen on the show in years, outside of the opening title sequence. He wasn’t played by one of the show’s regular voice actors, so the producers couldn’t use him without bringing in Ron Taylor or recasting the part. Maude Flanders was played by one of the regulars, Maggie Roswell, who had played many parts before leaving the show. She would later return, but Maude would not.

I suppose the producers could have resurrected Maude if they’d wanted to. They are the gods of the show’s universe, after all. They can do whatever they want. But there’s no way they could bring her back without destroying the show’s reality. Then again, this episode ran the week after “Saddlesore Galactica,” which might be the least realistic show ever. The producers could have pressed the reset button, but they didn’t. They made their choice and stuck with it.

Maude Flanders wasn’t the most interesting person in the world, but one of the things that made The Simpsons great was its large cast of diverse characters. It had an entire universe full of people who seemed like real people, but funnier. She had played a key role in great episodes like “Bart of Darkness” and “Home Sweet Home-Diddily-Dum-Doodily.” And she lived next door to the title characters. But Maude Flanders wasn’t the only character who died in “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily.” The episode also basically killed the character of her husband, Ned.

Alone2

He’s just not Ned.

Before he became a conservative Christian stereotype, Ned Flanders was just a nice guy with a perpetually cheerful attitude. Even when times were tough, he at least tried to keep a smile on his face. See “When Flanders Failed,” “Homer Loves Flanders,” or “Hurricane Neddy.” His religion was a part of his character, sure, but I think his most prominent character trait was his positive attitude. After this episode, he couldn’t be that guy any more. There would always be some sadness in him. There would have to be.

I guess the producers thought making Ned single again could lead to some interesting stories, but it really didn’t. And I think Ned dating other women so soon after losing Maude was kind of out of character. I don’t think he would be so quick to look for a replacement. There could have been some humor in Ned trying to date again, but there really wasn’t. There were a couple of episodes, two with that Christian singer girl whose name I can’t remember, and one with Marisa Tomei. And then there’s that strange Zombie Simpsons plot line where he dated Mrs. Krabappel and they later got married. Now she’s gone too, and he’s a widower twice over. That’s just depressing.

Then there’s effect that losing their mother would have on the kids, Rod and Todd. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” basically skips over their reaction, and I guess it would have to. It’s kind of hard to make that funny. But I think it shows that the producers of this episode did a really half-assed job. They wanted to kill a character, but they didn’t want to deal with the consequences that it would have. The characters on The Simpsons were characters. They seemed like real people. On Zombie Simpsons they’re just props for delivering bad jokes. It’s kind of hard to feel sympathy for them, because they don’t act like people would.

Then there’s the way “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” changed the character of Homer. He had become more of a jerk during Mike Scully’s tenure as show runner, and this episode shows him at his absolute low point. He actually causes another person’s death. He is responsible for the death of someone that he has known for years. A real person would feel at least a little guilty about that.

Okay, it wasn’t actually his fault. It was an accident. Maude Flanders’ death was like something from an Itchy and Scratchy episode. Slapstick violence isn’t really funny if we’re supposed to care about the people who get hurt. I guess you could blame the girls who shot the t-shirts that knocked Maude off the bleachers. This kind of begs the question of why they were at the funeral. But really, the girls only shot the t-shirts because of Homer. He provoked them, so he has to take some responsibility for the fact that a person died. It’s the first time his antics caused another person’s death.

Alone3

This is a pretty crappy way to send off a longtime character.

I know some people might mention Frank Grimes, but that’s a different situation. Homer doesn’t actively antagonize his co-worker. He tries to be a nice guy to him. He tries to make friends, but it doesn’t work. Frank ends up going crazy out of jealousy and basically kills himself, by doing something too stupid even for Homer. And that episode was basically The Simpsons criticizing itself. It was almost a self-parody.

Homer wasn’t a jerk in “Homer’s Enemy,” but he really was in “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily.” There’s a line where he says he parked in the ambulance zone preventing any possible resuscitation. What the hell? First off, that doesn’t even make sense. I don’t think you can resuscitate someone with a broken neck. But second, it just makes Homer seem more like a callous bastard. It also makes the producers look like jerks too. It’s possible to be tasteless and funny, but I think this episode is just the first one.

I think my least favorite joke is when Bart changes the cake from “Rest in Peace” to “Rest in Pee.” This is too juvenile for even a 10-year-old. The fact that the producers think this is funny is just really telling, and the fact that they think Bart would find it funny shows how little they get his character. Then there’s the scene with Rod and Todd playing “Billy Graham’s Bible Blaster,” which is actually a little funny. But I don’t think the kids would just be playing video games after their mom died. Maybe they’d be happy because they think she’s in heaven. I don’t know.

Death is a hard subject to make funny, but The Simpsons were able to do it. Take “’Round Springfield” for example. This website has already done a Compare and Contrast with that episode, so I don’t want to be redundant. It’s just amazing how much better that episode is than “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily.” “’Round Springfield” managed to be funny while still taking the death seriously. It managed to be sad but also had some great jokes. “Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” doesn’t do either of those things. The death is treated like a joke and the attempts at humor are just sad.

“Alone Again, Natura-Diddily” was a terrible episode, but it was more than that. When Maude Flanders died, a part of the show died. The characters stopped behaving like actual people, so it became really hard to care about them. The show had lost its sense of humor, and with this episode it lost its heart. Yes, it’s kind of arbitrary, but I think that’s the episode where the show crossed the line from The Simpsons to Zombie Simpsons. It was the day the series died.


31 Responses to “The Day the Laughter Died”


  1. 1 Viny
    21 July 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Totally Agree, Natura-Diddily.

  2. 2 Ben
    21 July 2014 at 6:18 pm

    This is an interesting point to use and you’re probably right. It felt too much like a ratings grab than a move out of any actual necessity. Great post.

  3. 3 Jack
    21 July 2014 at 6:34 pm

    That ‘Homer parked in the ambulance zone’ line tells you all you need to know about how the show had changed. Classic Simpsons would only ever include jokes that made sense with regards to the character saying it and the context, while S11 Simpsons will just have Homer say the easiest gag to write, and be damned with the consequences.

    Not only does the line not make any sense (1 – Maude was declared dead at the scene, 2 – Homer had no reason to immediately drive to the hospital, 3 – If he did leave, no way would he get there before the ambulance) but it completely shatters Homer’s likability as a character, and for what? For a single throwaway line? In a dramatic scene where even a lot of *good* jokes would be totally out of place?

    It’s up for debate whether this episode was really a turning point for the show’s overall qualify, but it’s definitely a clear sign of it; the writers thought this joke/credibility trade-off was worth it, and *that* is insane.

    • 4 RaikoLives
      21 July 2014 at 6:49 pm

      I’m pretty sure when it says he “parked in the ambulance zone” it means the one at the stadium, thereby preventing the EMTs from getting to Maude quickly. Hence, no resuscitation, and hence being pronounced at the scene. The joke is terrible, callous, hollow and unneeded… but it does make sense. Not CHARACTER sense, obviously, as you said, but in the barest, logistical sense.

      • 5 ShaLaLaCarla
        21 July 2014 at 11:46 pm

        Even that doesn’t make sense because the episode opens with the family at the Springfield Nature Preserve. Hell, they didn’t even know there was a racetrack to begin with!

        • 6 RaikoLives
          22 July 2014 at 10:55 am

          Ugh. I haven’t seen it in so long. I guess my mistake was trying to defend this stuff, even slightly.

    • 7 Mysterio
      21 July 2014 at 9:09 pm

      Pretty sure that was Season 12, no 11.

  4. 11 jordan
    21 July 2014 at 7:02 pm

    This episode never sat overly-well with me, but I was never sure why. Now that I’m older I can safely say that it’s because it was in pretty poor taste for the most part. Agree with most points made here.

    On a slightly unrelated topic I was watching a new ep the other day (terrible, of course) and noticed that it was actually WRITTEN by Dan Castellaneta. The guy has so much talent, but I would not agree it extends to writing. I know he has dabbled before over the years, but just seemed like a massive red flag of how they’re not just scraping the bottom of the barrel, but have literally torn through it and are demolishing the very ground beneath it.
    Ugh, it was A W F U L.

    • 12 Mysterio
      21 July 2014 at 9:10 pm

      Must’ve been a joke (a bad one). Dan doesn’t write episodes.

      • 22 July 2014 at 1:26 am

        Didn’t Castellaneta also write the episode where Barney got sober? Not a great track record.

        • 14 Jack
          22 July 2014 at 4:25 pm

          He did. Dan and Deb Lacusta wrote ‘Days of Wine and D’ohses’, ‘Gump Roast’, ‘The Ziff Who Came To Dinner’, ‘Kiss, Kiss, Bangalore’ and some more recent, not-even-worth-naming episodes.

    • 22 July 2014 at 9:53 am

      ZS has employed guest writers like Ricky Gervais and Seth Rogen in the past, and their episodes turned out to be more of the same unfunny drivel that the show always puts out, because everything has to pass through Al Jean’s twin writers’ rooms and get rewritten a million times. Same reason why John Swartzwelder’s formerly brilliant scripts turned to shit. I’m sure Dan Castellaneta’s scripts had some genuinely good stuff in them too before guys like Matt Selman got their hands on them.

      • 16 jordan
        23 July 2014 at 12:15 am

        Another funny point I didn’t fail to miss was just how many producers the show has. The intro credits read like a who’s who list of those trying to cash in, and just kept on going. Endless.

  5. 21 July 2014 at 7:40 pm

    Indeed. It was curiously the 11th season a.k.a the beginning of the end. *sighs*

  6. 21 July 2014 at 11:55 pm

    One of the best articles I’ve ever read, thanks for posting this.

  7. 19 Matthew
    22 July 2014 at 12:01 am

    The only reason this happened is because of that Maggie Roswell voice dispute that was resolved two years after this episode by letting her record the voices in Denver. Why couldn’t they have done that to begin with?

  8. 20 Dick Steele
    22 July 2014 at 12:42 am

    Great post man

  9. 22 July 2014 at 1:30 am

    Nice article. I agree that this is probably the first really bad episode for all of the reasons you mentioned. Although this show has had so many “shark-jump” moments that I can’t remember which order they were all in.

    • 22 Dick Steele
      22 July 2014 at 1:43 am

      I’d say that the series is less of a jump the shark type, nor has a specific episode that broke the camel’s back, but rather more of a threads started to unravel over time situation. Mike makes a good case for Alone Again, Natura-Diddly as that proverbial straw, but to me it was a group effort over time with this episode coming as a strong whack to the back of a show that was already on its knees.

  10. 23 Mysterio
    22 July 2014 at 1:59 am

    Come to think of it, Alone Again fits with its time as bad as Marge Be Not Proud fit with Season 8. By the time they got to Season 12, most of the episodes were like Marge Be Not Proud.

    • 24 Bartist
      22 July 2014 at 12:08 pm

      Err, MBNP fits with Season 7, a very good season, how were Season 12 episodes like it?

      • 25 Mysterio
        22 July 2014 at 3:26 pm

        Charlie once said it was out of tune with the rest of the Season. But the happy-go-lucky attitude portrayed between Bart and Marge in that episode is omnipresent around Season 12. In fact most of them end up with either some awkward dance, or with everybody smiling for no reason.

        • 26 Jack
          22 July 2014 at 4:14 pm

          I never understood the argument that ‘Marge Be Not Proud’ was out-of-place in its season. I must have watched Season 7 in its entirety over a dozen times and not once has MBNP felt at odds with the other episodes. In fact, I’ve visited many Simpsons fan sites and the opinion that ‘Marge Be Not Proud’ is “A Very Special Episode” that somehow marked the turning point for the series is exclusive to this site and this site alone. The whole argument seems to stem from the fact that it contains a moral message, which conveniently ignores all the previous episodes that did this, and avoids actually explaining why having 100% morally subversive endings is apparently so important. ‘Marge Be Not Proud’ is a good story well told, is filled to the brim with Classic jokes, and everyone is in character. … I don’t get it.

          Returning to the original point, why doesn’t ‘Alone Again, Natura-Diddly’ fit Season 11? It’s a bad, poorly characterized episode that needlessly changes the status quo (Days of Wine and D’ohses, Eight Misbehavin’). It seems to fit right in. ;-)

          • 22 July 2014 at 6:10 pm

            I think the reason why it felt off in Season 11 was because Season 11 was much more overtly “comedic” and wacky, what with episodes such as “Saddlesore Galactica”, “Kill the Alligator and Run”, “Beyond Blunderdome”, etc. An episode that tried (and failed miserably) to be heartwarming felt strange.

  11. 28 Babel DeCarla
    23 July 2014 at 12:11 am

    I always thought the show went downhill when Phil Hartman died (which would be around season ten). Yes, seasons eight and nine were when the cracks began to form (especially with episodes like “Homer’s Enemy,” “The City of N.Y. vs. Homer Simpson,” and the episode where Principal Skinner turns out to be a phony), but for every bad episode like that, there were a lot of good ones. Season ten started off with good episodes (most of which were season nine leftovers), then plunged into mediocrity so fast and so far that it might as well have drowned because it’s not coming up for air).

    Oh, and season 10 of “The Simpsons” is when Matt Groening came out with “Futurama,” (which I loved from beginning to end, even if some of the episodes and movies were weak. I’d rather watch a bad episode of “Futurama” than a “good” one of Zombie Simpsons), so “The Simpsons” really should have shut down at that point.

    • 29 jordan
      23 July 2014 at 12:20 am

      Still has its moments too. I had a great chuckle the other night watching it.
      But then again, the futuristic setting leaves so much more room for creativity. This is also something Seth Macfarlane has cleverly never fallen for. Make a show ‘too’ realistic and you write yourself into a corner. Add stuff like an alien, talking dog and a homicidal baby from the get go, and the options are endless. The realistic laws of cartoon ‘everything’ no longer apply to them.

      • 30 Babel DeCarla
        23 July 2014 at 11:13 am

        Fair enough.

        And yeah, “Family Guy” and Seth MacFarlane also contributed to The Simpsons downfall, but only because The Simpsons were trying way too hard to win back the crowd by being like “Family Guy” (and a little bit of early “South Park,” back when people thought it was a stupid cable cartoon with fart jokes, foul-mouthed kids, and poor animation).

        “King of the Hill” was never like what “The Simpsons” became in its later years (yes, some of the characterization got exaggerated — Hank became more of a prude, Peggy became insufferable, and Luanne buckled down and married a redneck instead of moving to Hollywood, away from her redneck roots), but the stories remained reality-based and it knew when to quit (season 13).

  12. 24 July 2014 at 11:30 pm

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