Archive for the '23rd Anniversary Yellow Jubilee' Category

25
Mar
13

Quote of the Day

Homer's Night Out4

“Uh-oh, it’s the fe-mailman.” – Bart Simpson
“Fe-mail carrier, Bart.” – Lisa Simpson

07
Mar
13

The Telltale Head Spews Truth

telltalehead

Today’s post is another installment in our long-running “series” of DVD commentary posts; the lucky victim this time is Season 1’s classic “The Telltale Head.” Featured speakers on the commentary are the episode’s director Rich Moore and writers Al Jean and Mike Reiss. I’ll keep it short and simple (read: descriptive and lacking in any meaningful/substantive analysis), but here are the highlights from their conversation for me:

(Times are approximate)

  • 00:17 – Supposedly there were a lot of Elvis sightings when this episode was written, hence the chalkboard gag
  • 00:31 – Early intro didn’t have Burns or Smithers in the Homer/SNPP shot
  • 01:21 – Directors, well at least Rich Moore in this case, don’t get residual checks when this episode airs. Wah wah.
  • 02:08 – During table readings, the episode got big laughs up front and petered out, which explains the reverse structure of the episode as it we know
  • 02:34 – This is one of the few episodes that actually has the title after the credits
  • 02:52 – This is also Rich Moore’s Simpsons directorial debut
  • 03:14 – Episode is full of first appearances – Rev. Lovejoy, Jimbo, Dolph, Kearney, Quimby, Apu
  • 03:40 – Homer standing on the couch is where the episode originally started before the structural changes
  • 03:51 – This is the first time the family goes to church
  • 04:15 – The Simpsons staff is full of football fans, so references work their way into many episodes
  • 05:45 – Apparently the Sunday school teacher doesn’t have a name
  • 07:15 – “Twister mouths” were phased out in Season 1, but made an accidental appearance in Season 3 thanks to Wes Archer
  • 07:37 – Repeat backgrounds are a godsend
  • 08:11 – “Space Mutants” was a regular thing that just sort of dropped out of later episodes
  • 09:25 – Jimbo is named after Jim Brooks
  • 10:50 – Apu wasn’t originally intended to be an ethnic character, but Hank Azaria added the accent during the table read and the rest is history
  • 11:17 – It’s still a five-fingered discount even though the characters only have four fingers
  • 14:07 – Rich’s father called after this show aired to ask if Homer was based on him
  • 14:27 – Bart’s first ninja costume
  • 15:30 – Intent of the episode was always to be played as “live action” with interesting composition and shots rather than the flatness associated with many early episodes
  • 16:50 – At the table read, the fact that the Jebidiah’s head was cut off didn’t resonate with the group as much as the denizens of Springfield
  • 17:50 – This is where shit gets weird: the head starts talking. This didn’t get many laughs initially
  • 18:22 – You rarely see Moe and Burns share a scene together
  • 18:31 – First episode where Smither’s affection for Burns is notable
  • 18:40 – Around the middle of the first season, Sam Simon declared that Smithers should be gay, but not to make a big deal about it. The audience caught on quickly though
  • 18:57 – First Sideshow Bob, who is both silent and looks nothing like his later incarnation
  • 20:40 – First mob made up of supporting characters and not generic people
  • 22:04 – The early internet was a cruel mistress in pointing out animation inconsistencies and other flaws (sound familiar?)
  • That’s a wrap!
26
Feb
13

Permanent Record: Jimbo Jones

The Telltale Head14

“That one looks like a school bus going over a cliff in flames with kids inside screaming.” – Jimbo Jones

Like any other organization or group of people, a school has a natural hierarchy.  The adults are separate from the kids, obviously, but even within groups there are levels and layers.  For the adults there are staff and faculty, for the students there are grades, gender, circles of friends and lots of other ways the students sort themselves out.  One of the things that made Springfield Elementary so compelling and recognizable as a place, even though it’s fictional and inhabited by people with bulging eyes and no chins, is that the show captured the social ecosystem of a grade school with such trenchant clarity.

Among the kids in Bart’s class we have Milhouse, a weak kid who latches onto Bart, Martin, a true nerd who kisses the teacher’s ass, Sherri and Terri, the goody two (four?) shoes twins, and Nelson, the kid who gets to be the bully by dint of being bigger than everyone else.  “The Telltale Head” shows us some of the kids outside of Bart’s class, specifically the three older bullies: Dolph, Kearney and, above all, Jimbo.

Whereas Nelson is in the same grade as Bart and therefore serves as his daily tormentor, Jimbo and his cronies are older.  They wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to harass Bart, but he’s much too small fry for them to care about on a day to day basis.  In the school hierarchy, Jimbo and company are far above Bart.

When Bart and Jimbo first meet, we see this discrepancy in Bart’s awe of Jimbo (“you’re the worst kid in school”) and Jimbo’s total ignorance of Bart (“what’s your name, man?”).  As the story progresses, we see Bart trying as hard as he can to hang out with the older kids his idolizes, so he goes along with things he isn’t comfortable with (stealing from the Kwik-E-Mart, stoning the statue) while struggling to seem cool.

For his part, Jimbo plays the elder bad boy perfectly.  He’s okay with boosting candy and Playdudes and throwing rocks at inanimate objects, and he likes that Bart’s got a smart mouth and willingness to go along with stuff.  But he’s willing to dropkick Bart out of his orbit in an instant once it becomes clear that, for all his enthusiasm, Bart is still too much of a little kid to hang out with them.

Later episodes would use both sides of the relationship.  So Jimbo and Bart will work together when their interests are aligned (like the escape from Utility Basement B in “Whacking Day”), but Jimbo will easily turn on Bart when that suits him (“As soon as the check clears, I’ll let you go”).  When he wasn’t around Bart, Jimbo (and Dolph and Kearney) were the show’s way to make fun of sullen teenagers.  They’ll chase Bart down for doing ballet, but they’ll also rush off to the library to read about the Founding Fathers because of Ralph’s moving portrayal of George Washington.

Like so many of the other recurring minor characters, Jimbo and company made Springfield feel more like a real place.  They didn’t have to be good or bad, and none of them ever really got their own episode, they just had to be there, acting like the mostly harmless juvenile delinquents that they are. 

19
Feb
13

Permanent Record: Maggie Simpson

The Call of the Simpsons8

“The boys certainly are taking a long time.  I hope Maggie isn’t slowing them up too much.” – Marge Simpson

For reasons of television necessity the Simpson family has always been an adventurous lot.  But while Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa can easily go out into the world and get into and out of trouble, little Maggie is limited by the fact that she can’t talk and can barely walk.  But while those limitations usually see her shuffled off to the side, the show also gives strong hints that she is the smartest and toughest of them all. 

“The Call of the Simpsons” is the first serious indication that we in the audience get that Maggie is more than a pacifier sucking background character.  It’s true that in “Bart the Genius”, while the rest of the family is trying to build Bart’s vocabulary with Scrabble, she’s spelling out physics equations with wooden blocks.  But having her wander into the woods, befriend a clan of cave bears, and then save Homer and Bart from them was the first time the show took Maggie out and built a little story around her.

With the exception of the television idiots and the camping jerk and his wife, it’s told entirely without dialogue.  It’s just Maggie being silently fearless and resourceful with a musical accompaniment to set the mood.  It’s not a major part of the episode, but it is in the best tradition of The Simpsons, sweet but absurd and funny. 

The Call of the Simpsons9

 And people say the crazy stuff didn’t start until Season 4.

In subsequent seasons we see her liberate pacifiers from a heavily guarded locker at the Ayn Rand School for Tots, unintentionally stage a massive jail break by crashing a car into the prison, and trek across Springfield in a search for Marge that ends with a peaceful nap under an ice cream sign while the police panic beneath her.  She may be silent, but she is smart, tough and funny, so when the Simpson kids are shipped off to the unfortunate care of Patty and Selma in “Homer Alone”, Bart and Lisa go along meekly while Maggie outfights a grown man and stays safely out of their clutches.  She effortlessly snags the bottle thrown at Homer’s head in “Lisa on Ice”; and while she is only briefly on screen in “Lisa’s Wedding”, we get a clear portrait of a teenage Maggie who has the attitude of Bart and the brains of Lisa.  Oh, and she shot Mr. Burns.

All that stuff was well in the future when this episode was created, but you can see the seeds of it right here.  Even at this early stage they were already having fun with unconventional storytelling and doing things that would’ve been impossible on a non-animated show.  (It’s also a great example of how they put that live orchestra to good use.  Maggie and the bears simply wouldn’t work without that “Peter and the Wolf” style music.)  Maggie is the least prominent Simpson, but the show still had the good sense to treat her like a real character, even way back in Season 1.

12
Feb
13

Permanent Record: Mr. Largo

Moaning Lisa9

“Alright, class, from the top: one and two and three and. . .” – Mr. Largo

American primary schools are filled with godawful bands.  While a few students might genuinely like playing music and even have some skill, most of the members are kids that have no particular aptitude for music, aren’t overly fond of their instruments, and/or are only in the band because their parents made them join.  In this context, “band” is just another class or after school activity, something most of the kids will go through the motions for, if only to keep the adults off their backs.  At the head of this artistically doomed enterprise is the music teacher, someone who has, for whatever reason, ended up teaching on the lowest rung of musical education. 

Mr. Largo perfectly exemplifies every bad stereotype there is about school music teachers.  He’s an authoritarian, he long ago lost whatever passion he had for music or his work, and, as Lisa would reveal in Season 2, his most profound lesson to probably his best student was that “even the noblest concerto can be drained of its beauty and soul”.  We can see all of these traits in Largo’s brief two scenes in “Moaning Lisa”. 

In the first, at band practice, he not only lashes out at Lisa for not playing along dully like the rest of the students, but evinces not a whit of empathy for her or the hardscrabble Americans she invokes as her justification for straying from the sheet music.  All he cares about is making those kids play “My Country Tis of Thee”, and if their rendition is off key, off rhythm and only barely recognizable as the song they’re trying to play, well, he doesn’t care about that. 

In his second appearance, just after Marge has given Lisa her terrible advice about smiling no matter what, he point blank tells Lisa that he doesn’t want any more “creativity” from her.  For Largo, music isn’t about being creative, it’s about muddling through with strict adherence to the original, however inadequate or terrible sounding. 

As a character, and despite his inclusion in the opening credits, Largo never developed into a standby the way many other Season 1 creations did.  He didn’t become Lisa’s foil the way Krabappel and Skinner were Bart’s, and except for background shots he rarely appeared outside of the school.  But as with so many other characters, Largo didn’t need a great deal of backstory or his own star turn in an episode to make him seem like a real person.  He was a music teacher who, by temperament, talent and good, old fashioned apathy, was cut out to be little else.  He didn’t really like his job or his students, and that made him a perfect fit in Springfield and at Springfield Elementary.

28
Jan
13

Permanent Record: Burns Manor

There's No Disgrace Like Home13

“There it is, kids, stately Burns Manor, heaven on earth.” – Homer Simpson

Watching Season 1 episodes with the knowledge of what the show was going to become can often blur out just how well formed many of the show’s ideas were, even before the voices and the animation had developed.  Burns, and the palatial estate on which he lives, illustrate that well.  “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” is the first time we get to see Burns Manor, and while it would be revised and updated in Season 2 and later, the fundamental ideas of it are all right here.

The image at the top of this post is the establishing shot, and right away we know that a) it’s luxurious to the point of absurdity (note the string music in the background when the family walks in), and b) the Simpsons (and by extension, you) are not the least bit welcome.  On only one day per year does Burns allow regular people into his perfect world (the warning sign doesn’t say that “Trespassers” will be shot, it says “Poachers”), and even then it’s only so his employees can bow and scrape before him.  The sack race is mandatory (and Burns must be allowed to win), the father whose kid didn’t want to be there is not only getting promptly ejected from the party, he’s being fired permanently.

But the mansion itself is just as important, particularly vis-a-vis the rest of Springfield.  Besides the Simpson home, there are only three other real settings in this episode.  There’s Moe’s, a dingy bar that doesn’t even have a color television, the pawn shop, and Dr. Monroe’s clinic, which is hardly a top notch medical facility since, as Lisa points out, he advertises it during boxing:

Dumpy Springfield

The bar is dirty and dingy, the pawnshop is a pawnshop (and has cracks in its walls and ceiling), and the rather grandly named “Family Therapy Center” is just some rented office with a dumpster right where you can see it on your way in.  Burns Manor, on the other hand, is the only really nice place in the entire town:

Opulent Burns Manor

It’s got a foyer worthy of Versailles, classical architecture, and enormous grounds decorated with fountains and gazebos.  Unlike Springfield, which is kind of a mess, Burns Manor is polished and perfect.

We’re still years away from Bart having the train that disappears for hours and one time came back with snow on it, or the band shell where a captive Tom Jones performs for Marge and Homer, or the guards who sing that all they own they owe, but Burns Manor is already recognizable as a place that is both very rich and very cruel.  Moreover, it’s already a place that highlights all the things the Simpsons don’t have, and really can never have.  Homer’s place is at Moe’s with the passed out drunk on the bar; Marge has the house that Bart describes as a “dump” when he thinks its someone else’s.  Even the perfect family Homer sees leaving Burns Manor at the beginning is stuck at Dr. Marvin Monroe’s run down clinic.  Burns Manor, on the other hand, stands literally up on a hill, looking down on them all.

24
Jan
13

Animation Alley: Homer’s Odyssey

Make no mistake, there’s a lot of really weird and wonky animation in the first season. I used to find it really off-putting, but now I’ve learned to accept it, and it actually makes these shows all the more charming to me. Just as the show was trying to find its footing with the writing, the same could be said about the animation. There’s a lot of weird shit in this show, a few moments in particular I want to highlight.

animodyssey01
I love the execution of Nuclear Energy: Our Misunderstood Friend; the designs, the limited, jerky animation, the scratched up film, it’s fantastic. Also it’s the first and only time we’ve seen Smilin’ Joe Fission, though he may have showed up on a logo somewhere, we’ve never seen another filmstrip featuring him. Pity.

animodyssey02
Much focus is made on black Smithers, but here’s a pretty glaring animation gaffe. Wes Archer brought this up in the commentary and everyone laughed about it.

animodyssey03
Nice quick door slamming montage of Homer’s failed job interviews. I love the shitty drawing of this guy, with dot eyes like Akbar and Jeff in Life in Hell. I also like the implication that Homer went up to the drive-thru window to ask for a job.

animodyssey04

Another quality background. There were a lot of washed out gradient walls like this early on, they look pretty terrible. The exclamation point on the sign is great, though. Must Be 21!

animodyssey05

I love how when Homer signs Bart’s report card, he’s not even looking at it. Then when the kids walk away, his arms just falls to the ground and the pencil rolls out of it, his expression never changing and his vacant stare never diverting from the ceiling. By moving as little as possible, we see that he’s a truly broken man. Also, more great portraits, this time one for Marge, and another for her hair.

animodyssey06

There’s so many insane background characters in this show, especially toward the end at the power plant rally. I love the guy with the red superhero mask, and the really fat guy with the humungous smile. How come those guys never took off?

animodyssey07

One strange but lovable piece of animation that sticks with me is during Homer’s internal monologue of whether to take Burns’ deal, as he goes back and forth with being able to support the family and stick to his principles… then notices how big Burns’ desk is and his clean shirt. He’s at the verge of a meltdown when Burns urges him to make a decision, to which Homer calmly responds, “What the hey, I’ll take the job.” Fantastic.




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