Archive for the ‘TV’ Category
Back in the early days of The Simpsons there was pretty much no way of predicting which incidental characters would develop into major supporting roles (your Apus, Skinners, Flanderses, Moes, and so on), and which would vanish, never (or rarely) to be seen again.
Here are some of those Springfieldianites who could have broken out, but never did. (Note that, generally, I didn’t include characters voiced by celebrity guest stars. Characters who only had lines in one episode are noted as such – a couple of them pop up in the background of later episodes.)
Dr Wolfe, the Simpsons’ dentist (‘Last Exit to Springfield’. “Dental plan!”). I’m surprised this character (who was intended to be voiced by Anthony Perkins, who died before he could record the part) never came back – Hank Azaria’s delivery of “Why must you turn my office into a house of lies?” at least deserved Jasper-level recurrence.
The Simpsons’ veterinarian (‘Dog of Death), who flunked out of dental school. (Apparently he’s based on Ben Casey, a character from the ’60s medical drama of the same name – the eyebrows are certainly the same).
The Seven Duffs: Tipsy, Queasy, Surly, Sleazy, Edgy, Dizzy and Remorseful (a Simpsons fan who can list all seven off the top of his head truly has something to be proud of). Oh sure – you might say there was no possible way to expand on a pretty shallow beer mascot joke. To which I reply: Duffman.
Dewey Largo, Springfield Elementary’s (apparently pretty mediocre) music teacher. He’s had a couple of memorable scenes: “This is not a dream!”, the forbidden music, and “Ew, a bug!” The writers did attempt to flesh out Largo’s character bit: Bill Oakley revealed that the original script for ‘Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Badasssss Song’ included a line implying the teacher is married and closeted.
Amber Dempsey (‘Lisa the Beauty Queen’). “Not. In. Paraguay.”
The Happy Little Elves. These critters, it turns out, have names: they include Moldy, Bubbles, and Yendor (?). The Elves featured heavily in very early episodes of The Simpsons, but eventually appeared less and less as Itchy and Scratchy became the show’s go-to cartoon satire.
Arthur Bouvier (‘The Boy Who Knew Too Much’). Marge’s brother – yes, Marge has a brother, though he’s never been seen and was only mentioned once. Marge tells Bart “[his] uncle Arthur used to have a saying: ‘Shoot ’em all and let God sort ’em out’. Unfortunately, one day put his theory into practice. It took 75 federal marshalls to bring him down. Now let’s never speak of him again.” They never did.
Sam and Larry, two barflies who frequent Moe’s Tavern. (Sam is the one with the green trucker hat. I first learned his name via an old issue of Simpsons Illustrated1, and it stuck for obvious reasons.) As far as I can recall, neither of them have ever had any of their own lines in the show.
Gerald, the baby with the one eyebrow. Who is Gerald? Why do he and Maggie hate each other so much? Why does he get into so much mischief? I guess we’ll never know.
Raphael, the sarcastic guy. I actually had no idea this guy even had a name – apparently he earned it in a season 12 episode – till I started this post. (It’s also spelled Rafael, depending on the source.) He’s recurred many, many times during the series, having worked pretty much everywhere in Springfield, though he’s never been more than a minor character (and a terrifically droll foil).
Joey Joe-Joe Junior Shabbadoo (‘The Last Temptation of Homer’). “Come back, Joey Joe-Joe!” But he never did…
The Very Tall Man(’22 Short Films About Springfield’. His appearance while driving his automobile was indeed comical, though the “doing things while tall” joke would’ve worn thin had he recurred. Probably.
Worker and Parasite (‘Krusty Gets Kancelled’), the Eastern-bloc cat-and-mouse duo who all-too-briefly replace Itchy and Scratchy. A Salon.com article describes Worker and Parasite (Worker is the mouse, according to in-depth Googling) as an animators’ “inside” joke, though I don’t think it is. Even knowing nothing about Cold War politics or animation history – as I didn’t when I first watched this episode sometime in the early ’90s – these characters are delightfully strange.
The Happiest Man in Springfield (‘Hurricane Neddy’). What’s with this guy? Why is he so happy? Does it even matter? I guess we’ll never know.
Mrs Glick. One day I’ll host a Simpsons trivia night, and one of the questions will be “In which Springfield resident did Dr Hibbert once confesses to leaving his car keys?” I adore her mistreatment of Bart in ‘Three Men and a Comic Book’, her first appearance. Anyway, apparently she’ll never be back, because she died in a season 23 episode (deep in Zombie Simpsons territory, so you can hardly blame me for not knowing that).
Scott Christian. Kent Brockman is Springfield’s go-to newsreader, so no surprise that his bizarrely haired co-anchor Scott Christian never really registered.
Ms Sinclair, of the Ayn Rand School for Tots (‘A Streetcar Named Marge’). The Simpsons could have probably benefitted from more recurring female characters, and I’d’ve preferred to have seen more of Ms Sinclair than some of Jon Lovitz’s other characters (ie, Artie Ziff – blergh). An extra point in her favour: her daycare centre apparently influenced the creation of Rugrats, so.
Aristotle Amadopolis (‘Homer Defined’). Another Lovitz character, Aristotle would’ve been an ideal foil for Mr Burns; I’m surprised their rivalry never popped up again.
Rex (‘I Love Lisa’). “Everyone knows I’m the best actor in this school!”
Skincare consultant Rowena (‘Mr Lisa Goes to Washington’). There is something deeply hilarious about this. No, I don’t know quite what.
Miss Lois Pennycandy (‘Like Father Like Clown’). Miss Pennycandy is one of The Simpsons‘ ultimate dropped characters – there was potential around the unrequited-love-for-Krusty thing, except the writers apparently forgot about her. (Also in the “forgotten Krusty associates” category: Corporal Punishment and Tina Ballerina. What were their stories?)
Springfield Elementary’s other teachers. Google-fu turns up no names for any of these guys. I particularly like the middle one, another cynical Doris Grau character who’s sceptical of Skinner’s plan to hold unruly students in place with magnets in ‘Dog of Death’. The hippie-looking one on the right, by the way, is the teacher responsible for the famous “Purple monkey dishwasher” line.
Della, Lionel Hutz’s assistant (‘Bart Gets Hit by a Car’). Yet another cynical Doris Grau character, and reader of Popular Secretary magazine.
Ms Albright, the Sunday school teacher at the First Church of Springfield.
“Just Stamp the Ticket” Man, aka, the biggest asshole in Springfield. This guy has no apparent name, and only one apparent character trait: jerk. His nickname came about after his first appearance in the series, after he rudely dismissed Flanders’ cheerfulness by demanding to have his parking validated.
Leopold. What is Leopold’s job, anyway?
Gulliver Dark (‘Homer’s Night Out’), the lounge singer at the Sapphire Lounge where Princess Cashmere works. What’s kind of interesting about Gulliver – aside from his name – is that he was voiced by Sam McMurray, who played the live-action version of the character in The Tracey Ullman Show. Simpsons trivia! Gulliver returns as the singer in Tito Puente’s band in ‘Who Shot Mr Burns – Part 2’, though he wasn’t voiced by McMurray second time around.
Mr and Mrs Winfield. They were the Simpsons’ neighbours on the non-Flanders side. The reason they never reappeared: they departed Springfield in the episode ‘New Kid on the Block’, apparently because they disliked the Simpsons so much.
And here’s a pretty definitive list of Simpsons characters to round things out.
- Remember Simpsons Illustrated?!?! [↩]
Confession: I never heard of George R.R. Martin nor his epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire till HBO adapted the first instalment, A Game of Thrones, into the article-less TV series Game of Thrones. Which is amazing! I was hooked the moment [spoiler] pushed [spoiler] out the [spoiler], and officially loved it after [spoiler] had his [spoiler] [spoiler], then upgraded to love-it-like-a-crack-addict-whore-loves-crack when the season ended with [spoiler] [spoiler] [spoiler]!
Craving more, as junkie addict whores often do, I turned to Martin’s books. By the way, you probably don’t need to read A Game of Thrones if you’ve watched Game of Thrones and feel like you have a pretty good understanding of it. (HBO’s official site is a big help here.) The TV show is super-faithful to the novel, so (assuming you’re not one of these sissy-nutso-pansies who refuses to read the books for fear of spoiling the TV show) you ought to be able to leap into book two, A Clash of Kings, without much difficulty.
But reading A Game of Thrones is recommended if you plan to become a hardcore Westeros nut. (more…)
At work I idly suggested to a colleague, “What if the cast of Friends were all cats? It would be called Cat Friends.” (Yes, this is the kind of ridiculous train of thought that I experience all the time.) (No, I am not on drugs.) I posted my astounding suggestion to Facebook, where it
got a couple of comments became a phenomenon. Naturally, I had to apply some Photoshop magic to the results. I had to.
Thus I present to you the cast of next season’s hot new sitcom: Cat Friends.
Jennipurr Aniston as Rachel Cream.
Fleasa Kudrow as Fleebe Buffay.
David Sphynxer as Puss Gellar.
Catthew Perry as Cat-handler Bing.
Catteney Cox as Monicat Gellar.
Catt le Blanc as Joey Kibbleani.
Thanks to Cam, Bink, Rachael and Jono for several of the purrific cat puns!
Glee superfans – those pale, shivering types who rabidly defend the series as “whimsical” and who are plotting to assassinate Steve Levitan because Modern Family stole the Emmy last year – will no doubt answer the question posed in this post’s title with a sugar-coated “All of them!” Oh, Glee superfans! Your optimism is painfully naive! The sad truth is, many members of Glee‘s young cast will disappear into permanent obscurity when the series ceases to be profitable even faster than the pop-culture machine got sick of Lady Gaga.
Here is a (completely subjective) ranking of which Glee cast members will remain in the limelight, from most likely to least likely.
Jane Lynch. Have you seen Jane’s pre-Glee resume? The lady had parts – ranging from “bit” to “recurring” – in damn near everything. She will continue to land parts in damn near everything long after Glee, I hope! No matter how annoying and one-note Sue Sylvester becomes, Jane will forever remain awesome.
Lea Michele. Lea has at least a couple of guaranteed film roles coming up in the next couple of years – if she doesn’t play Elphaba in the inevitable movie adaptation of Wicked, I will eat my pointy black hat. (Admittedly, the endurance of Lea’s fame is directly related to whether or not she can shake off that “Rachel Berry” persona. If every character is all fluttering eyes, pouty staginess and a vague sense of is-this-girl-going-to-shut-up-or-what, her best-before date will advance several decades.)
Naya Rivera. Yes, Naya Rivera! In early episodes of Glee, her character Santana is hardly featured at all. But! Its writers obviously cottoned on to her awesomeness quickly, because by the second half of season one she was getting to sing and everything, and by season two she earned her very own storylines! I think Naya has the potential to play much more than bitchy lesbian cheerleaders. I think she will be starring in a mix of romantic comedies and serious dramas in future years – think a non-white, non-goodie-two-shoes version of Anne Hathaway.
Jayma Mays. This may seem like a surprising choice to put so high up the list! But Jayma’s most notable pre-Glee roles, in Ugly Betty and Heroes, demonstrate she is a pro at playing both innocent ingenues and catty sweethearts. She should keep doing that! (Prediction: in the not-too-distant future she will play the kindly, non-threateningly attractive mother in every TV pilot ever.)
Cory Monteith. Cory will never be a huge star. He’s too everyman for that – handsome, but not memorably so; talented, but not memorably so, et cetera. However. Can’t you totally picture him playing the kindly doofus older brother/cool young uncle/kindly dad in TV sitcoms for years to come?
Dianna Agron. I interviewed Dianna once, and let me tell you, she is one of the most stupendously beautiful women I have ever laid eyes on. Seriously. Quinn Fabray-on-TV is a fug machine compared to the high-wattage dazzle of Dianna Agron-in-real life. Fingers crossed she will parlay her beauty and ability into a film career, snaring the “Blonde Lead” role in a string of predictable Hollywood rom-coms (kind of like what Katherine Heigl attempted to do, only Dianna won’t be as hateful).
Heather Morris. Here’s what I can’t figure out: is Brittany S. Pierce a surprisingly hard role to play (thus making Heather a super-talented actress), or she a pretty simple, effortless role to play (thus making Heather a so-so actress)? Maybe it’s the former? But I’m not entirely sold on that? Either way, Heather is beloved by Glee fans, ensuring her longevity as a Cult Star for decades’ worth of TV and pop-culture conventions to come! (Plus: damn, girl can dance. If someone were to cast her in a show which was basically just her dancing in various situations, she would immediately shoot to the top of this list.)
Matthew Morrison. I realise Matthew is trying to launch a solo career as a musician. Which is good for him (so long as he never tries to rap ever, ever, ever again), though he’s a bit old to play the “Justin Timberlake” market. However! His marketing team has hopefully realised there is a great deal of potential (and disposable income!) in the “approaching middle-age sexpot mother” demographic. Those ladies could keep Matthew’s albums and tours afloat for years!
Chris Colfer. Maybe it’s only because I don’t like Kurt, but I can’t see Chris playing any other roles which aren’t prissy, annoying gay clones of his Glee alter ego – I hesitate to describe Kurt as “iconic”, but the character is almost too iconic (is there a watered-down version of that word?) for Chris to ever move past. But! Apparently he is a burgeoning television mogul. So there’s that.
Amber Riley. It would be awesome if Amber to remained a superstar – insert praise of her voice here! – but realistically, I can’t see it happening. How would she be marketed? (If the dark god of marketing can’t jam you up into your own tidy, specific box, you are doomed, and pop-culture’s designated spots for Black Divas are already taken by Beyonce and J-Hud. Sad face.) (And, c’mon, the show made her sing a song called ‘Hell to the No’. Damn, that shit is whack.)
Chord Overstreet. I guess Chord could have a solid career as one of those really famous country-music singers who no one else in the world ever heard of. (He sure has the name for it.) Or he could be an underwear model! Other than that, bzzt.
Harry Shum, Jr. Hey, someone’s got to fill the casts of all those Got to Step Up and Street Dance movies, right?
Mark Salling. Though he plays a 17-year-old on television, Mark is approaching 30 (and he looks it, too. Least convincing TV teenager
ever since Luke Perry). Everyone knows that once you turn 30, you stop being famous. Yes, I’m sure there’s one or two examples that contradict my argument, but don’t bother correcting me on this.
Kevin McHale. Fortunately, Artie was a member of a boy band in his pre-Glee days – and I’m told said boy band had a tiny but devoted following! (I know, right?) So maybe all those weirdos will keep following him around, or something.
Jenna Ushkowitz. Has anyone else noticed that Tina has had, like, zero storylines in season two? I get the feeling that if Glee‘s budget were suddenly dramatically reduced and several cast members were cut, Tina would be among the first to be shipped off to boarding school offscreen.
Along with other recurring characters like Mr Burns, Fat Tony, and Jimbo, Kearney and Dolph, Sideshow Bob is one of The Simpsons‘ long-standing villains. If asked to define Robert Underdunk Terwilliger’s primary motivation in a sentence, most Simpsons fans would probably say “to kill Bart Simpson”.
But till I recently re-watched the season one episode ‘Krusty Gets Busted’ I’d forgotten that Bob wasn’t always motivated by mere homodical rage. And nor did Bob only frame Krusty the Klown in that instalment because he was sick of being the butt of Krusty’s jokes (though he admits this was an important factor:
“Yes, I admit it, I hated him,” Bob confesses as Chief Wiggum leads him away in cuffs. “His hackney shennanigans robbed me of my dignity for years. I played the buffoon, while he squandered a fortune on his vulgar appitites. That’s why I framed Krusty.”)
But interestingly, Bob also sought to get rid of Krusty because he was sick of the clown dumbing-down his young audience, who Bob exposed to the likes of high-culture beacons including Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag. Screams Bob:
“Treat kids as equals! They’re people too! They’re smarter than you think! They were smart enough to catch me!”
Early seasons of The Simpsons focused on the idea that Our Favourite Family is so dysfunctional they corrupt everyone who crosses their path, and Bob’s speedy reduction from “homicidal cultural advocate” to “homocidal sociopath” fits pretty well with this theme. As far as I can remember, Bob’s goal to cultivate the minds of children never resurfaces as a factor in his later schemes, making it a curious, forgotten remnant of his initial characterisation.
It took months for my sons to convince me to subscribe to a pay television service, which I’ve always maintained is a dreadful waste of money, though I must admit that when they finally bought me a subscription I was rather looking forward to all those additional channels on my television set.
A large carton containing the set-top box was delivered to my home. Installation was simple enough. Though the set-top box came with a thick instruction book it was really just a matter of plugging a slender white cable into the back of the set, then switching it all on. I eased back into my cracked-leather sofa, the remote control that had come in the box held aloft in readiness.
The electronic program guide flickered into life on my TV screen. More than 100 channels to choose from – where to start! I decided to partake in the news, but even the selection of news channels was vast. I chose one at random. Sky News.
“… the attack by Ablahelzareth the Thousand Eyed Spawn continues into its third day,” intoned the reporter, who seemed to be standing somewhere around Circular Quay, “with the eldritch abomination continuing its assault on the Sydney Harbour Bridge…”
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Behind the reporter was the bridge, but it was being attacked by something… huge, by some behemoth rising up out of the harbour, tremendous streams of water sluicing off its swathes of horny toad skin. Thick long tentacles twisted up around the bent struts of the bridge, slathers of dripping viscous goo bubbling on to the surface of the road, barbed hooks scoring jagged cuts in the metal struts. Scores of pustulant eyeballs the size of cars protruded on stalks from all of the monster’s asymmetrical body, swivelling and blinking redly in the sun.
Parts of the creature’s massive bulk hung impossibly in the air. Several naval ships were positioned in the water around the beast, though none of them seemed to be doing anything. There appeared to be birds circling the creature, but as I squinted at them – my television set is very high-definition – I realised they were huge bat-like creations, squawking and swooping and spattering filthy dung over the sleek grey boats.
The entire image sucked and dragged at my eye, almost seeming to distort the edges of my TV set. Just looking at colossal monstrosity piqued vulgar flavours in my mouth, sent images of warped geometric shapes spiralling through the dark recesses of my mind.
I had caught the train over the Harbour Bridge not an hour earlier coming home from work. There was certainly not… some enormous monster hanging from it then.
I blinked. Gritted my teeth. The supposed reporter continued to yammer on in clipped tones, as if the horrific beast were no more consequential than a bad traffic jam. What was this horrible program? The abomination had to be some kind of ghastly computer effect, clearly, probably promoting one of those terrible new movies Hollywood makes, but what was it doing on a so-called news channel?
With a shaking finger I switched to CNN. Some kind of panel show, featuring perfectly coiffed Americans ensconced in a bright studio, came to life on the set.
“The Democrats are in crisis,” said one lady with a rock-hard blonde bob and an especially hard-curled accent. “Even if no one wants to admit it President Obama has ca-learly been driven to insanity since he laid eyes upon Yog-Sggauthnth the Great Goat-Headed Ruler of the Frozen Yonic Void -”
“Oh, please,” snorted a weaselly looking man in an ill-fitting suit. “Obama is very experienced with multi-dimensional eldritch abominations -”
“Yes, but -” the woman tried to interrupt, but the man pressed on.
“- and staring into Stygian waters seething with the trillion offspring of cruel dimensional abnormalities is a sight… is a sight he is well equipped to handle!” he said, by the end shouting to the heard over the blonde woman.
Another woman leapt into argue – something about the inability of any human mind to comprehend the sheer spectacle of the old ones from beyond the stars, regardless of its party affiliations – but what she said made not a lick of sense to me. I must confess that while I’m not as up on American politics as I ought to be, I’m not a complete dunce, and I couldn’t follow a word of this.
“1000-Eyed-Spawn continues Sydney assault,” read one of the headlines crawling along the bottom of the screen.
Annoyed, I brought up the electronic program guide again. A home renovation program would do the trick. Not that I’d be able to do much with their advice – what with my apartment being so small, lacking even a garden or second bedroom to do up – though I counted the genre among my favourites nevertheless.
An episode had only just begun. A strapping young lad holding a hammer was surrounded by the other presenters, explaining this episode’s project. By the look of all the tools and materials stacked behind them – vast sheets of corrugated iron and mounds of severe grey cinderblocks – I guessed it to be a big one.
“… fortifying your home against the plagues of horror that burst forth from the dark side of the moon is something you and your family can do in a weekend,” said the man with a grin.
“We’re gonna tell you how to build the home of your dreams,” added the woman standing next to the man, who had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, “that’s safe from the creatures of your nightmares.”
And she winked at the camera.
Hmmm. This was not at all promising. I lifted the remote again and circled through the channels to land on The Simpsons. Not my favourite television program, I admit, but my sons have watched it for years and I must admit to having enjoyed some of the episodes.
It was an older one, judging from the cruder look of the animation – the family had a strange bug-eyed look. They sat in their brightly coloured home watching television.
“Beer. Need beer,” Homer said.
“The Outer Gods took all the beer,” Marge said glumly.
“D’oh! Stupid Outer Gods,” said Homer. Suddenly a tentacle snapped through the window – sending the dog and cat fleeing – and wrapped itself around his neck! “I mean,” Homer managed, turning purple, eyes bulging comically, “woo hoo…” And the tentacle released him.
And it wasn’t even one of those Halloween episodes! Furious, and sick of tentacles, I switched off the television. Something had clearly gone terribly wrong. This… silliness was certainly not what I had signed up for.
I marched to the phone and dialled the pay television hotline.
“I would like to complain!” I announced, once I was through the maze of automated voices.
“Certainly, sir,” trilled the girl on the other end. “What seems to be the issue?”
I explained, sternly and clearly, that all my pay television channels were infested with tentacles and monsters and certainly not the informative and entertaining programming I expected, and given the price I had paid (I didn’t deem it necessary to mention that my sons had actually paid) I demanded a higher standard.
“I absolutely understand your complaint,” said the girl politely, once I’d finished. “Fortunately your problem is quite common among the newer set-top boxes, and very easy to fix.”
“Common? So the boxes are defective?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Some of the boxes are shipped from the factory in China with incorrect default settings, that’s all. All you need to do to receive programming from our universe is reset the -”
“Pardon me? Our universe?”
“That’s correct,” said the girl, who at least sounded like she was born in this country. “Some of the set-top boxes, such as yours, are inadvertently tuned in to parallel universes when they’re manufactured. Those are realities that sit alongside our own, but are different in subtle and -”
“I know what a parallel universe is,” I snapped. “I wasn’t aware it was possible to receive programming from one.”
“Oh, yes, the technology in our set-top boxes is very advanced!” she said. “For example, would you like me to explain how you can record up to five programs at once to watch at your convenience, using -”
I interrupted her to explain I was perfectly capable of learning how to record programs on my own in due course, and that in the meantime I would very much like to set the box to tune into my universe.
So I followed her instructions: I switched off the box, flipped a switch on its backside, waited five minutes – filling the time by boiling the kettle – then fired it up again. The television set leapt into life. I scrolled through several of the channels: past an old British sitcom, a black-and-white movie, a soccer match. It all looked normal enough, but I kept my finger on the redial button of my phone in case I needed to complain again. Finally, I settled back on one of the news channels.
A reporter stood across the water from Manhattan, the skyscrapers of the city rising up behind him.
Above the skyscrapers hovered an enormous ship, low enough to almost brush the tops of the buildings. It was almost as wide as the island and stretched nearly half its length, rising hundreds of metres into the air and casting a shadow across perhaps the whole of New York City.
An alien spacecraft.
I leaned forward in my chair.
“… a seventh Araxerxian starship entered Earth’s orbit today and set a course for Tokyo, though ambassadors for the alien visitors still refuse to explain the purpose of the starships, or whether any more are to be dispatched from the mothership in the Kuiper Belt.”
The reporter stopped, straightened hair whipped by the wind, glanced momentarily back at the huge ship over Manhattan. He looked suspiciously similar to the reporter I’d watched earlier, though I supposed they all had a certain sameness about them.
“President Obama will meet will Araxerxi from the New York ship on Monday, with hopes of continuing talks that stalled after China’s attempted nuclear attack on the Beijing ship…”
I leaned back in my chair and sipped my tea. Yes, that was better.
The image I stole borrowed from *samuel123; you can see the high-res version at deviantART.
Tuned In by Sam Downing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
In ‘Lisa’s Substitute’ Ms Hoover tells the class her lyme disease is psychosomatic. “Does that mean you’re crazy?” wonders Ralph. Another student responds: “No, that means she was faking it.”
“Actually,” Ms Hoover replies wearily, “it was a little of both.” Wiktionary concurs, more or less, telling us “psychosomatic” pertains “to physical diseases, symptoms etc. which have mental causes”.
So is Homer Simpson’s infamous stupidity psychosomatic? That is, is Homer only stupid because he wants, on some deep subconscious level, to be stupid? Could he really just be faking it?
The evidence Homer’s faking stupid lies in the episode ‘HOMR’ – maybe better known as ‘The One Where Homer Learns He’s Had a Crayon Lodged in His Brain the Whole Time’. Helpful scienticians believe the crayon is impairing Homer’s intelligence. When they remove it, Homer becomes smart, which apparently validates their theory.
But what if it’s not the process of removing the crayon which makes Homer smart, but the process of removing the mental block which prevents him from believing he is smart?
To put it another way: we know from what happens later in the episode that Homer does not want to be smart. Homer wants to fit in (well, what Homer actually wants, I think, is to live life as effortlessly as possible, and fitting in requires less effort than standing out). Smart Homer is alienated from all the other cretins in Springfield, The Simpsons’ microcosm of society; only Dumb Homer is able to fit in. Homer’s subconscious desire to be dumb manifests itself literally at the climax of the episode, when he has a qualified surgeon reinsert the crayon into his brain – much to Lisa’s dismay.
But it’s not the crayon that makes Homer stupid. The crayon is just a symbol, an excuse for Homer to believe he’s stupid. The “real” Homer Simpson is a man of average intelligence – he merely chooses to behave like a dunderhead of sub-average intelligence (though generally he’s not consciously aware of making this choice). In other words: he’s faking stupid.
We see more evidence of the Homer’s-faking-stupid theory in ‘$pringfield’. When Homer dons Henry Kissinger’s lost glasses, his subconscious desire to be dumb lifts long enough for him to quote Pythagoras’s theorem (well, he mucks it up by confusing right-angled triangles with isosceles triangles, but I did only say he’s a man of average intelligence).
“Ah ha!” you cry, attempting to poke holes in my outlandish theory. “What about the episode ‘Lisa the Simpson’?” That’s the one where Lisa discovers the existence of the so-called “Simpson gene”, which transforms Simpson men into dolts around the onset of puberty. “Doesn’t that episode prove that Homer’s stupidity is genetic, not psychosomatic?” you ask.
Well, no, because the events of ‘HOMR’ show that the Simpson gene is bunk – if Homer were genetically determined to be stupid, he would not be capable of demonstrating the intelligence he does in ‘HOMR’. (As for Bart and Grandpa: Bart isn’t stupid either – he merely suffers from ADHD, and becomes ruthlessly smart when he takes medication to treat it. And Grandpa… well, Grandpa probably is just plain stupid, for reasons unrelated to the Simpson gene. He did cancel Star Trek, after all.)
The book spawned from an oral history of the show published in Vanity Fair, and is more or less a super-expanded version of said article (which is itself highly recommended): in both, John Ortved unravels the story of the very early years of The Simpsons, in the words of the people who made the show.
Not all the people. Simpsons bigwigs apparently either refused to speak to Ortved or forbade their lessers from speaking to him. So the likes of Matt Groening, James L. Brooks and Sam Simon are conspiciously, unfortunately absent.
Surprisingly, that doesn’t really hurt the book – Ortved uncovers what happened, or some version of what happened, anyway. Groening, we’re told, shouldn’t get as much credit for The Simpsons as he does; Brooks comes off as somewhat avuncular but mostly megalomaniacal; and Simon is brilliant (he missed out on the kudos that instead goes to Groening) but unpleasant.
Hank Azaria, Conan O’Brien and even Rupert “Billionaire Tyrant” Murdoch talk on the record, so there’s really a lot of insight into the development of The Simpsons both on The Tracey Ullman Show and as it went to series, the back-and-forth between the producers and the Fox network (it’s amusing, and not very surprising, how many interviewees claim the show happened thanks to them), and the glorious, crazy anarchy in the writers’ room. Much of it is just trivia (for example: Springfield might have been called Lincoln, but Groening thought “Springfield” sounded funnier. He also wanted Marge to have rabbit ears under her hair. I know, right?!), but if you’re a super-fan, those details are fascinating.
I don’t have any real memory of television pre-Simpsons – I have vague memories of the initial Bartmania, though I’m pretty sure I wasn’t allowed to watch it when it first premiered – so it’s engrossing to relive the early years of the show. I have a new appreciation of the first couple of seasons (the animation, though crappy in hindsight, is endearingly crappy), as well as a better understanding of why the show has been so overwhelmingly meh for the last couple of years more than a decade. (Ortved, clearly a devoted fan of the show’s consistently amazing first nine seasons, spends much of the final chapters offering his pretty-convincing theories.)
It is, as noted above, the greatest show in the history of television, and this is a pretty great tribute to it.
In his review of the two newest episodes of Futurama, Zack Handlen of The A.V. Club (which: is one of my favourite websites. If you are a geek who adores crazy-in-depth pop-culture analysis, subscribe to it now) goes off on a thoughtful tangent in which he proposes that the episode ‘Homer’s Enemy’ marks “the beginning of the end” of The Simpsons.
If you’re not a Simpsons nerd and can’t identify episodes by their titles, ‘Homer’s Enemy’ is basically The One with Frank Grimes:
A fastidious new employee at the plant [Frank Grimes] doesn’t get along with Homer, who is anxious to make amends. Meanwhile, Bart comes into the possession of an abandoned factory.
Wikipedia rightly identifies ‘Homer’s Enemy’ as “one of the darkest episodes of The Simpsons“: Grimes, who’s “had to struggle for everything he ever got”, becomes increasingly furious with Homer and the ease of his accomplishments. It culminates with Grimes – nicknamed “Grimey”, against his wishes – impersonating Homer’s buffoonery, electrocuting and killing himself in the process. Homer then ruins his funeral by snoring during the service.
It is indeed dark. Handlen, while declaring the episode “hilarious, no question” (it is), argues that “it fundamentally and permanently undermines the series’ core” – The Simpsons, he says, is built on “family”, and the series “can’t support that level of darkness without losing its heart”.
I disagree (though I do agree with Handlen’s other point, that the episode is “a clever piece of meta-commentary on certain basic elements that have been with the show since the beginning”), because The Simpsons has always had dark elements, particularly concerning Homer’s behaviour – consider ‘A Streetcar Named Marge’, in which he flat-out tells Marge he doesn’t care about her interests, or ‘Lisa’s Substitute’, where he says pretty much the same thing to his eight-year-old daughter. Both stories are wrapped up tidily, though in neither does Homer really earn his redemption (I remember being shocked by his selfishness in ‘Streetcar’ even as a small child)1.
Note that both these episodes are from early on in The Simpsons‘ run (seasons four and two, respectively); Homer was a much darker, more selfish character before he morphed into the loveable idiot we’re familar with. ‘Homer’s Enemy’ really just combines those two sides of his character in a single episode.