36. Stark Raving Dad

"Was it raining?"

“I couldn’t leave the house” “Was the door locked?”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 19 September 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 10 March 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Jeff Lynch, Steven Dean Moore, Raymie Muzquiz
  • Animation director: Rich Moore

The Simpsons returned to American TV screens with an episode that, from the moment of its conception, was only ever going to be a season premiere. It was custom-built to be a curtain-raiser and stuffed with headline-grabbing gimmicks: someone has a birthday, someone gets certified insane, there’s an angry mob, a baby almost dies, and a celebrity moves in with the Simpsons who turns out to be the most famous person on the planet. The whole thing was hyped to the hills, despite Michael Jackson – for the celebrity was he – insisting his name be kept off the credits and that a voice artist be used for the sequences in which his character is heard singing.

It’s worth remembering that back in 1991 Jackson was still a star who happened to be a bit eccentric; this episode aired two months before the release of his album Dangerous. By the time it was first shown in the UK in 1997, Jackson was a very different creature. We’d had child abuse allegations, police raids, court testimony concerning the shape of Jackson’s penis, marriage and divorce to Lisa Marie Presley, marriage and a child with Deborah Rowe, the HIStory album, the giant statue floating up the Thames, the hoo-ha at the Brits and much more. He was now an eccentric who happened to be a star and watching him depicted here – a badly-dressed white man with odd hair who lives in an institution for people with mental health issues – just felt like a colossally glib wind-up. Subsequent events have wreaked a further twist in perception. This episode now seems like a pop culture curio from an age in history a lot further back than just 25 years, and quite the last thing you’d want to show someone who, arriving from another planet, wanted to see an example of the very best of either Jackson or The Simpsons.

Plot
After being thrown into a psychiatric hospital for wearing a pink shirt, Homer befriends a man who thinks he is Michael Jackson who then moves in with the Simpsons and helps Bart co-write a song for Lisa’s birthday. I’ll say that again. After being thrown into a psychiatric hospital for wearing a pink shirt, Homer befriends a man who thinks he is Michael Jackson who then moves in with the Simpsons and helps Bart co-write a song for Lisa’s birthday. And you think today’s Simpsons plots are far-fetched. It’s easiest to treat this whole farrago as a kind of stand-alone episode, like the Halloween specials: a story that unfolds on its own terms and not those of the series as a whole. It’s so offbeat – off the wall if you will – it almost defies you to find anything intuitively enjoyable. The entire plot is cosmetic, an accessory to the star turn. But then what can you expect from something that was virtually a direct commission from someone who called wine “Jesus juice”. 3

"I'm Michael Jackson from the Jacksons"

“I’m Michael Jackson from the Jacksons”

Characters
It’s like the Piecrust Players doing Shakespeare: “It may be Hamlet, but it’s got to be fun, fun, fun!” Everyone gives it a go and even Lisa puts on her best moaning minnie voice, but they’re all pale imitations of themselves compared with Jacko, depicted here – with the kind of irony so markedly absent from the man’s own career – as a pale imitation of Michael Jackson. And literally so; in the words of the Springfield mob: “He’s 300 pounds!” “He’s white!” “He’s dressed without flair!” Jacko’s character is based on variations of this one joke. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue were the joke able to continue being funny beyond the first 10 seconds. Instead the notion of “Michael Jackson” being an overweight caucasian soundalike psychiatric patient is offered up as humour for a full 10 minutes, roughly half of the entire episode. And that’s much too long a period of time for Homer and co to be reduced to a role akin to that of the rest of the Jackson Five post 1975. One of Jacko’s conditions of being in the episode was that “he” got to stay up all night with Bart writing a song. This necessitates a screaming gear change in the plot about two-thirds of the way through, when we’re told “Michael Jackson” isn’t really a psychiatric patient after all but someone who is just hanging around the hospital helping out. He’s invited to move in with the family on a whim – but by this stage there’s not really any point in complaining as the entire episode is turning on whims and fancies, most of them Jacko’s. 3

Locations and design
This episode claws back a few pity points only when it comes to those things with which Jackson had no involvement. And here’s the first of them: the design of the psychiatric hospital, which is one of the grimmest places yet to surface in Springfield. The rooms are like prison cells, the corridors filled with threatening faces, the walls flecked with coldly amusing signs.

No jacket required

No jacket required

Notice, bored

Notice, bored

It’s almost too real for a story as fantastical as this. 7

Pardon My Zinger
Burns and Smithers have a fine cameo early in the episode, gossiping about Homer’s pink shirt while watching their CCTV screens. “Judging by his outlandish attire, he’s some sort of free-thinking anarchist,” Burns mutters, before adding: “These colour monitors have already paid for themselves!” The pair later squabble about whether being a fashion non-conformist is an indicator of subversion. “Smithers, I seem to recall you had a penchant for bell-bottomed trousers back in ’79!” “Sir, that was my costume for the plant production of HMS Pinafore.” “Oh yes, of course; your spirited hornpipe stole the show!” In a story that’s otherwise largely laughter-free, you have to take your gags where you can find them. The same applies to the exchange between a non-comprehending Homer and an agoraphobic patient at the hospital: “I couldn’t leave the house.” “Was the door locked?” “No, I just couldn’t face what was out there.” “Was it raining?” Not sparkling humour in itself, but in the context of the rest of the episode it’s manna from comedy heaven. 4

Special guests
When Jackson’s character starts to speak it’s like switching on the Queen’s Christmas message and hearing your mum’s voice coming out of Elizabeth II’s mouth. There’s such a disconnect between what you’re watching and what you’re listening to, it’s near-impossible to appreciate what Jacko is actually saying. He delivers all his lines without stumbling, hits most of the cues and even manages to pull off the occasional joke (“Is Elvis with you?” an incredulous Bart asks Jacko down the phone; “Could be,” he deadpans, “it’s a big hospital.”) But for the most part his performance is so flat and unexceptional you’re thinking only of how he came to be in the episode rather than the business of the episode itself. Yes, it’s Michael Jackson, but does it follow that he adds anything to The Simpsons by appearing in the show? No. 0

Music
The song that Jacko wrote for the episode, Happy Birthday Lisa, has sweet sentiments and a catchy chorus held together by some authentically bluesy chords. However if we’re being brutally honest – and why not, it’s Michael Jackson, the King of Pop – it’s hardly the sort of thing that sounds like the product of two characters slaving all night over a hot piano. In fact it sounds like it’s been thrown together in half an hour with the studio clock ticking.

"Now, we're not fight about this Michael..."

“Michael, we’re not going to fight about this…”

Jacko rhymes “day” with “day”, hasn’t thought of an ending and doesn’t even treat us to the occasional yelp. At least Kipp Lennon does a fine job of mimicking Jackson’s singing voice. Only die-hard fans would be able to spot it’s not actually the real thing. 5

Voices
Lennon also does a few lines of Billie Jean and a verse of Ben. They’re note perfect. He’s possibly the best thing in the whole episode. Jackson simply can’t compete with his oral doppelgänger, his real voice sounding thin and reedy by comparison. His pedestrian delivery sucks the humour out of potentially witty exchanges with Homer (“I’m a vegetarian and I don’t drink.” “Are you sure you’re here voluntarily?”). His attempts at emotion (“Aw, she looks sad”) are more schmaltz than sentiment. It’s a constant and painful reminder that Jacko didn’t become famous through what he said, but through what he sang. To paraphrase James Bond in From Russia With Love, he should have kept his mouth shut. 3

Animation direction
Rich Moore does a decent job at mastering an assignment akin to grappling a mattress of syrup. There was never going to be much point in trying to weld a coherent shape or form on to this episode, so Moore doesn’t bother. Instead he goes for individual flourishes, such as the shot of Bart continually smiling while listening to nothing but the sound of Krusty laughing down the phone:

Dial-a-Krusty

Dial-a-Krusty

The drawing of a lobotomised Homer is suitably ghastly:

"That's - all - right - son."

“That’s – all – right – son.”

– while the shot of power plant workers tramping as one through the factory gate is brilliantly done:

In the pink

*clomp clomp clomp*

Less convincing is the animation of Bart and Lisa’s extendable jaws:

And that's the tooth

And that’s the tooth

A 6 to the animators for keeping all of this episode’s expensive plates spinning.

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Homer watches a pastiche of America’s Funniest Home Videos, including a man breaking his hip and a dog on fire (“Dog on fire! Dog on fire!” he yelps when the public are asked to choose their favourite). Inside the hospital there are people resembling characters from the films Rain Man, Silence of the Lambs and – an inevitable reference point for anything to do with mental illness – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. 4

Emotion and tone
Stark Raving Dad gets reverential treatment from its creators when you listen to their DVD commentary. But the passing of time has exacted fulsome revenge on an episode that, thanks to Jacko’s early 90s antics, was already of dubious standing within months of it first being aired. One of the biggest problems is the dialogue, which is stuffed with references to “nuthouses”, “loonies”, the “mad house” and people being “mental”. Attitudes to psychiatric illness have advanced enough in the past 25 years to render this kind of language not just coarse but tasteless. The plot of the episode, much like its star, never inspires unprompted emotion. If you feel anything while you’re watching this, it’s relief when “Jackson” wanders off into the distance during the final scene. Thankfully, he never returned. 1

Verdict: 36%
Stark Raving Dad took 15 months to produce: the longest amount of time for any episode of The Simpsons. Most of the work was done during the 1990/91 season; it was then held over to be the premiere of season three. All that time, all that effort – yet all for such little return. A cock-up on a mighty scale, the series steered well clear of repeating such a stunt for a good few years. Luckily, this clearing of the throat also represented a clearing of the guard. The next episode would bring not just the first proper story of the new season, but new showrunners.

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