57. The Otto Show

“There was a little Spanish Flea…”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 23 April 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 24 October 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jeff Martin
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

In an ideal world, season three of The Simpsons would have ended with Black Widower: an episode of the highest order, full of just the right amount of fireworks and razzle-dazzle for a finale. Instead the season dragged on for another three episodes, one of which didn’t see the light of day until late summer. This one, The Otto Show, comes nowhere close to matching the quality of Black Widower, but almost all of that is due to Otto himself. Everything else – the ‘Show’ of the show – is superb.

The episode starts with a first for a TV sitcom – characters going to a rock concert to see a pretend heavy metal band – and ends with one of the hoariest chestnuts in television: a surprise guest coming to stay and causing mayhem. Of the two, it’s the chestnut that works best, precisely because it is so hoary. Otto “moving in” with the Simpsons is so hackneyed and so shameless that, thanks chiefly to the family’s disbelief, it is totally convincing and fun. By contrast the whole of the opening act, where Homer takes Bart and Milhouse to see Spinal Tap, is another of those stunt storylines that would have been best kept for a stand-alone mini-episode. Like the music it depicts and the performers who play it, this chunk of the episode lumbers and thrashes about for a while before collapsing, exhausted, leaving nobody any the wiser. Only once the stage has been cleared and the story cleansed of all traces of bombast and giant inflatable devils, do things really get going. 7

There’s a moment in this episode where we see Homer the happiest he has possibly ever been. It comes when he is sitting alone in his car, eating snacks and singing along to a tape of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass performing Spanish Flea.

The delight on his face, the glee in his voice, the relish with which he belts out every word… It’s a picture of someone in complete heaven, utterly oblivious to anyone and everything around him, but wholly content to be in his own little world, furnished with just enough edible and aural treats to see him good. In fact, Homer is sublime throughout this episode: not too stupid, not too stubborn, with just the right mix of playfulness and scorn. You sympathise with him totally over Otto’s behaviour. There’s a scene where Homer is sitting at the kitchen table in a pose that captures to perfection the attitude of someone who Can’t Be Doing With This Nonsense Any Longer.

Patty and Selma are on fine form too; this is the first episode where they are well and truly established as the Simpson family’s petulant Greek chorus, often present solely to toss in a barb or two and remind you of their delicious contempt for Homer (“I was just thinking about the time Homer got his nose caught in the toaster” “We’ll watch the tape tonight!”) Bart and Otto are another matter, however. Once again the script does nothing to convince you why Bart would want to hang around with someone who – unlike himself – is so witless, unimaginative and lethargic. And Otto is someone who only becomes interesting when someone else is besting him, like Homer or Patty. He’s like Santa’s Little Helper: a character who functions best in The Simpsons when they are pushed right to the corner of the screen, barely acknowledged and preferably confined to the occasional grunt. 7

Locations and design
The venue for Spinal Tap’s gig is nicely in keeping with Springfield’s stock of municipal venues: tatty, prone to malfunction, and a willing crucible for an enormous riot by an angry mob. It’s laughably enormous for somewhere that calls itself a town, but then size should never matter when it comes to animating a good set-piece. 7

Pardon My Zinger
The writing team were evidently still on a roll from Black Widower. First they make Homer blissfully naive. “Some of the best times I’ve ever had were in the back seat of a car,” he informs Bart and Milhouse wistfully, before the camera flashes back to show him writhing in rapture while stuffing his mouth with… junk food.

Then the writers make Homer deliciously bitchy, such as when – tired with Marge’s religious platitudes about showing kindness to Otto – he snaps: “Doesn’t the Bible also say: ‘Thou shalt not take moochers into thy… hut’?” Elsewhere it’s a stroke of inspiration appointing Principal Skinner as temporary school bus driver (“I drove an old terrain vehicle in Danang – I think I can handle it”). Skinner is only too happy to replace Otto:

“Otto? That’s one palindrome you won’t be hearing for a while”

…but slumps into utter despair when unable to pull out into heavy traffic, getting stuck at a junction for what looks like several hours.

Special mention also to Kent Brockman, who shares his views on how the rock concert ended in a riot: “So, what’s the answer? Ban all music? In this reporter’s opinion, the answer – sadly – is yes.” 9

Special guests
Regular Simpsons cast member Harry Shearer is joined by Christopher Guest and Michael McKean to recreate Spinal Tap. Tiresome mithering and jibber-jabber ensues. “I can’t think of anyone who’s benefited more from the death of Communism than us,” one of them drawls. “This is a rock concert, not the bleeding splish-splash show,” lisps another. There’s no middle ground here: either you buy into the whole Spinal Tap schtick, with its haughty nonsense and delusions of grandeur, or you don’t.

Fortunately for everyone in the latter category, the band aren’t in the episode that much and rather wonderfully get killed off halfway through the story when their bus explodes. 5

This gets an immediate 10 for Spanish Flea, then loses a couple of points for the inclusion of Spinal Tap’s laughless dirge Break Like The Wind. Spoofs should never be flat-footed; they need to be nimble. More points are knocked off for the scenes when Otto is singing (it’s bad enough just hearing him speak). However this deficit is made up in full by the shot of Homer, still in his car, humming along enthusiastically to Summer Samba. 10

Every scene involving Otto upsets the ears. He really is thoroughly unpleasant to listen to, worse than Comic Book Guy, worse even than Marvin Monroe. You have to train yourself to not pay too much attention to what the character says and instead let his nails-on-a-chalkboard voice drift through you as painlessly as is practical. It isn’t easy. At least the title of this episode gives you due warning and you can brace yourself accordingly. By the end it’s almost bearable and you can just about appreciate Otto’s good-natured gossiping with Patty (“Homer had a piece of food on his face for three days!”). It’s not a patch on the scene where Bart does an impersonation of Marge, however:

Bart: Mom, I thought you might forget our little conversation this afternoon, so I took the precaution of recording it.
Marge: What conversation?
[Bart plays tape. Bart is heard saying: “Mom – can Otto live in our garage for as long as he wants?” This is followed by ‘Marge’ – clearly Bart impersonating his mother’s voice – saying: “He sure can!”]
Homer: Marge! What were you thinking?!
Marge: That’s not my voice!
Homer: Oh, everybody says that when they hear themselves on tape.

That alone is worth 7.

Animation direction
Full marks to Wes Archer for dealing pragmatically with the task of animating an entire stadium of rock fans. A lot of the crowd are given hair long enough to cover most of their faces, thereby relieving both layout artists and viewers of row upon row of contorted eyeballs and mouths:

Archer also dispatches with smart economy the sequence where Otto drives his bus at top speed through a number of local landmarks, but lingers just long enough in the scene where Otto’s guitar-playing shakes the entire Simpson house to its foundations. 10

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Disregarding the fact that Spinal Tap is one massive send-up in itself (and ignoring the rule of thumb that says it’s never wise to try and spoof something that is already larger-than-life), there’s merit to be found in Bart’s mini-fantasy of life as a rock star, with our hero sprawled in a hotel room and telling Milhouse to “Slag off!”

Later, when Homer is at his most exasperated with Otto, he declares: “This is not Happy Days and he is NOT The Fonz!” – whereupon Otto enters and announces, with immaculate timing: “Heeeeyyy, Mr S!” 6

Emotion and tone
The whole thing is too knockabout to ever come close to real emotion, let alone a tone of anything approaching compassion. By the end you feel pleased to see Otto reinstated as school bus driver, but only because he’s back where he belongs, on the periphery of the Simpsons’ world and not sprawled on their sofa or clogging up their basins. 7

Verdict: 75%
One of those episodes that succeeds in spite of, not because of, its title.

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