- First broadcast: Thursday 20 December 1990, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 14 April 1997, BBC2
- Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
- First draft: John Swartzwelder
- Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
- Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Vic Cook, Steven Dean Moore, Raymie Musquiz, Jim Reardon
- Animation director: Jim Reardon
Fox Television spread new helpings of The Simpsons rather thinly during the winter of 1990. A two-week gap fell between this and the preceding story, and there would be a three-week gap until the next one. This was all in keeping with the tradition of American TV to treat Christmas as a scheduling inconvenience rather than a shop window for the best entertainment of the year. Unhappily for Simpsons fans, it made for a lean couple of months with only some repeats for company. Happily, the show signed off for the holidays with the best story of season two so far.
After watching an episode of Itchy & Scratchy, Maggie hits Homer on the head with a mallet, prompting Marge – who believes the two events are connected – to launch a campaign to ban cartoon violence. What starts as a wickedly-observed account of a mother taking umbrage at a children’s television programme crescendos at breakneck speed into a send-up of the ethics of the entertainment industry and concludes by lampooning establishment hypocrisy towards artistic expression. And it is a hoot from start to finish. This is comedy of the highest order, leaping back and forth between slapstick and satire with effortless confidence and panache. The plot rattles along, taking pot shots at conservative and liberal prejudices alike, as Marge shuttles from toast of the town to pariah. But it never feels out of its depth or lapses into finger-pointing. Not a scene is wasted nor a line thrown away. No targets are spared and no potential for humour left untapped. There’s a coherency and ambition here that still, after all these years, takes your breath away. This kind of storytelling isn’t just a joy to watch, it’s a privilege. 10
We’ve seen Marge gripped with moral indignation before and the results haven’t always been pleasant to watch. But here the dinner-table zealotry is toned down and replaced with hapless stubbornness, as Marge bumbles into the role of anti-permissive champion, leads the charge for a while until self-doubt creeps in, then bows out not with a rant but a sigh: “I guess one person can make a difference, but most of the time they probably shouldn’t.” It helps having Homer continually on hand to puncture any sign of pomposity. He’s at his most likeable here, moaning at the indignity of being hurt by Maggie – “My baby beat me up!” – and giggling at Itchy & Scratchy, much to Marge’s horror (“What kind of warped human being would find that funny?”). Despite not having much to do, Homer has a vital role in this episode. He keeps the mood light, the tempo fast and the jokes flowing: three key ways the story never becomes too bogged down in issues. Plus he just looks ace with his bandaged head:
Marge’s band of cronies are a delightfully rum bunch: the Lovejoys, the Flanderers, Agnes Skinner and Moe. This is another far-sighted move by the show’s writers; these are exactly the sort of people you’d expect to rally to this kind of petty cause, but also the sort of characters who are usefully defined by this kind of behaviour. The Simpsons universe is starting to click neatly into place.
A welcome addition to this universe is Roger Meyers Junior, head of Itchy & Scratchy International. Brilliantly withering, rasping with sarcasm, always with cigar in hand and bon mot on his lips, he’s another example of how this episode is so forward-looking. Such is his arch sensibility and knowing patter, Meyers feels like he’s arrived from the show’s future. With Kent Brockman also on fine form, this is an almost faultless ensemble piece. The only sour note is the unwelcome reappearance of Dr Marvin Monroe. 9
Locations and design
Cynicism oozes out of the splendidly ramshackle Itchy & Scratchy factory. The place is stuffed with lackeys and smartarses, each and every one treated with complete disdain by Roger Meyers (“All your fancy degrees and that’s the best you can do?”) while an enormous set of iron gates shuts the rest of the world safely outside:
In keeping with the plague-on-all-their-houses spirit of the plot, the I&S staff are mocked with just as much energy as the placard-wavers. They chuckle smugly at their own inventiveness (“I’m so funny!”) while some are modelled on The Simpsons’ actual animators:
The vast factory makes for a great contrast with Krusty’s poky TV studio, which is looking more threadbare than ever:
Security procedures at the studio are clearly very lax, given an entire army of parents (with huge signs) are able to pose unquestioned as the audience for a kids’ show. 7
Pardon My Zinger
Jokes run right through the story, leavening the lecturing with knockabout wit that is almost always at other people’s expense: Marge, Homer, Roger Meyers, the cartoonists, the media, even The Simpsons itself. Homer is on cracking form, grouching at having “married Jane Fonda” and acting terrified at the machinations of his youngest daughter: “Keep her away from me, Marge, she’s got that crazy look in her eyes again!” There are a couple of great visual gags: Moe’s attempt at a placard –
– and Marge’s list of complaints about Itchy & Scratchy:
The mob is given a host of ludicrous outbursts, pick of them being Mrs Lovejoy’s denunciation of Michelangelo’s David: “It’s filth! It graphically portrays parts of the human body which, practical as they may be, are evil!” But it’s Roger Meyers who gets the very best lines. He bamboozles Marge during a debate on late-night TV with the declaration: “There was violence in the past, long before cartoons were invented – something called the Crusades, for instance!” Later he asks her for suggestions on how to end one of his cartoons, as tossing Itchy into a bucket of acid “might be interpreted as violence, which is morally wrong now, THANKS TO YOU.” He also gets possibly the finest line of all, surveying the tide of protest Marge has caused and murmuring: “Gentlemen: the screwballs have spoken.” 8
Alex Rocco is outstanding as Roger Meyers. He makes absolutely everything sound like an unacceptable imposition, be it defending cartoons in front of millions on a TV show or phoning up Marge in her kitchen.
The smoky exasperation Rocco injects into all his lines makes his character so much more than just a cliched boardroom bully, to the extent that you end up siding with him against the mob, especially when he reads a letter from a parent threatening to run him over in the street. “Wow, that’s cold,” he concludes, wonderfully. 9
Two of the episode’s classiest moments have music at their heart: Maggie’s attack on Homer, which is a shot-for-shot pastiche of Janet Leigh’s demise in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, including the original score by Bernard Herrmann; and the montage of Springfield’s children enjoying life outdoors, which is set to the opening of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – itself a reference to Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia. We also get to hear a cleaned-up version of the Itchy & Scratchy theme (“They love, they share, they share and love and share…”) which is suitably nauseating. Alf Clausen tops all this off with some great cues, particularly the hint of menace when we see a queue of mail vans outside the I&S factory stretching off into infinity. 8
All the main cast have matured enough to sound pretty much as they will for the rest of the show’s glory years. Homer’s joyous cry of “Take that, you dumb squirrel!” as he watches a caricature of Marge being decapitated isn’t just devilishly funny, its delivery is spot on. Dan Castellenata rolls his lines around his mouth with aplomb, and Julie Kavner has just as much fun spitting out her florid rants (“Dear purveyors of senseless violence…”). The neutered squeaks of Itchy & Scratchy are inspired:
Only the predictably awful grunts of Dr Marvin Monroe detract from an otherwise flawless performance. 9
With a script as dialogue-rich and plot-driven as this, first-time director Jim Reardon doesn’t have much room to make a splash. He does get to handle the most number of Itchy & Scratchy cartoons in a single episode, however – and they are all superb. The highlight is Kitchen Kut-Ups and the sight of Scratchy wiggling on the chopping board:
– before getting knifed in the stomach anyway:
The gunfight is another tour de force:
Reardon’s eye for detail in the Psycho homage is admirable, but he goes one better in the Beethoven montage. This is an absolutely beautiful tableau, joined almost seamlessly into one continuous tracking shot thanks to cunning segues, such as a flying kite and a spinning frisbee.
A hat-tip to Mark Twain is tossed in along the way:
The sequence was assembled together with assistant director Bob Anderson and it ranks as one of the greatest pieces of animation in the show’s history. 9
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The Psycho pastiche is stunning: so audacious yet so assured:
It happens only two minutes in, but if the credits had rolled there and then, the episode would still be a triumph. Kent Brockman’s late-night talk show Smartline is a neat parody of many a local news droneathon, complete with glib soundbites (“Michelangelo’s David: is it a masterpiece or just some guy with his pants down?”) and bluster: “Join us tomorrow when our topic will be: religion – which is the one true faith?” The entire plot is partly inspired by a real incident from 1989, when a parent launched a boycott of Fox Television over an episode of the sitcom Married With Children. The woman’s actions, including appearing on a late-night talk show and establishing a viewer-led pressure group, are mirrored fairly shamelessly in Marge’s own attempts at rabble-rousing. 8
Emotion and tone
This is a smart episode and it knows it. But it wears its intelligence lightly and you never feel – unlike Homer – you’re being battered over the head by anything. The tone manages to be both weighty and frivolous; the central argument is put in the mouth of the least central character, Dr Marvin Monroe: “How can you be for one form of freedom of expression and be against another form?”
Because Marge’s fervour is never fanatical, she’s always at one remove from the rest of the mob, which sets up the episode’s deliberately ambivalent ending. Despite the best efforts of Mrs Lovejoy and co, Michelangelo’s David does come to Springfield – but the museum stands empty of visitors, and the town’s schoolchildren will be visiting it only because, as Homer informs Marge with relish, “they’re forcing ’em!” We’re a world away from Bart the brat or Homer the dunce – and all the better for it. 8
The first classic. After a run of patchy and mostly inconsequential efforts, The Simpsons leaps in one bound to the top of its game, setting a new standard against which all future stories would be judged. It’d take a while before anything came close to matching Itchy & Scratchy & Marge; the show was still too young to master the art of being consistently exceptional. But this episode pointed the way, and when the programme did eventually grow into its imperial stride, it was here that the seeds were sown.