- First broadcast: Tuesday 3 November 1992, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 13 April 1998, BBC2
- Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
- First draft: John Swartzwelder
- Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein
- Storyboard: Steve Markowski, Rich Moore
- Animation director: Rich Moore
Fox Television moved this episode of The Simpsons from a Thursday to a Tuesday in order to coincide with the night of the 1992 US presidential election. They thought viewers would welcome an alternative to the election results that were being shown on all the major networks, and that ratings for The Simpsons would go through the roof. They were wrong. The election results turned out to be gripping, and the episode was a comparative flop. It was a stupid decision by Fox anyway, as one of the fundamental rules of television is that you don’t mess with a hit, and that includes its scheduling. But it also meant the channel had thrown away a brand new episode just to try and prove a point, instead of repeating one of the classics or simply not bothering. Worse, another brand new episode went out as usual on Thursday, just two days later, meaning Fox used up three new episodes in the space of eight days. You can have too much of a good thing, even with The Simpsons.
This is one of those episodes with a title that promises one thing and a plot that delivers something else – something much better. What we see of the Itchy & Scratchy Movie isn’t much and isn’t really that great. It’s certainly not as imaginative in its violence and concentrated in its gore as previous I&S cartoons. Far more entertaining and inspired is everything in this episode that is not to do with the Itchy & Scratchy Movie, which – luckily for us – fills up pretty much three-quarters of the running time. The Movie isn’t even mentioned until almost halfway through. The main business of this story is Bart being made to learn a lesson for his bad behaviour: an idea that sounds very Season Two but, thanks to a brilliant opening sequence at the school parent-teacher evening, embodies all that is great about Season Four. You can almost forgive the scenes of Bart lapsing back into his “America’s craziest kid” persona. Almost, but not quite. 8
As usual, Bart’s antics are entertaining when some thought has gone into making them creative and witty – such as when he uses Grampa’s false teeth to attach himself to a ceiling fan and spin round and round while Lisa plays a recording of the Sabre Dance.
When it’s just mindless destruction – ripping up carpet, smashing sachets of mustard with a hammer – he comes over simply as a boring brat, undeserving of our interest. The brat stuff kicks in midway through the story and makes this chunk of the episode very dull to watch. The jokes seem to dry up as well. Thankfully Homer saves things by snapping out of his usual jaundiced tolerance of Bart and imposing a punishment that holds right to the end. Homer’s on good form all the way through this episode, from his glee at making a fart noise behind the back of Lisa’s teacher, to his detailed knowledge of the history of the United States judiciary. “Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?” he ponders. “What great men [Bart] would join. John Marshall. Charles Evans Hughes. Warren Burger… Mmm, burger.” Marshall served as chief justice from 1801 to 1835, while Hughes held the post from 1930 to 1941. Not bad for someone whose default memory of educating his children is reading to them from a TV guide. 8
Locations and design
While we don’t see much of the actual Itchy & Scratchy Movie, we do see a lot of its promotion, including this splendid billboard:
A nice touch is having the newly-married couple a) cheer when they are splattered with blood and then b) stay put rather than drive off, in order to get another splattering. The Springfield of the 2030s makes an appearance at the end of the episode, stuffed with the sort of gadgets that, at the time of writing, feel about 100 years into the future. People are still paying money to go and sit in over-priced cavernous cinemas in 2032, however, so at least one prediction is on course to come true. 7
Pardon My Zinger
It’s a John Swartzwelder script, so the zinger count is more greater than usual. The highlights include Mrs Krabappel informing Marge that Bart has been guilty of “the following atrocities: synthesising a laxative from peas and carrots; replacing my birth control pills with tic-tacs…” She then invites another pupil to join them (“We have some witnesses”), produces a small doll and asks the child “where did Bart stick the fireworks?” The camera cuts to Marge’s reaction, leaving our imagination to do the rest. There’s also Homer being thrilled to receive a commendation for Lisa’s academic record (“I never thought I’d find a replacement for my Where’s The Beef? bumper sticker!”) and his tip to Bart for avoiding jury duty (“The trick is to say you’re prejudiced against all races”), plus Jasper’s finest ever one-liner, when he catches Grampa trying to borrow his false dentures: “Well, well. If it isn’t the tooth fairy.” But best of all is this run of dialogue, typical of the Swartzwelder technique of piling up jokes until they tip over into giddy absurdism:
Marge: Homer, do you want your son to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or a sleazy male stripper?
Homer: Can’t he be both, like the late Earl Warren?
Marge: Earl Warren wasn’t a stripper.
Homer: Now who’s being naive? 9
There aren’t any, but they’re not missed, so a default 10.
Alf Clausen wheels out the Itchy & Scratchy theme (originally written by Sam Simon) with all the ease and satisfaction of a major-general deploying one of their favourite pieces of dependable weaponry. Here it is, sounding like a Broadway musical! Now it’s a 1920s gramophone recording! And here it is sung by a choir! Whatever the guise, it never fails to entertain. 9
Nancy Cartwright has to voice a grown-up Bart on a couple of occasions; her depiction of ‘Bang-Bang Bart’, the “sleazy male stripper” of Marge’s nightmares, is terrifyingly vivid.
The Bumblebee Man is seen and heard for the first time, though his behaviour – both physically and vocally – is restrained compared with what’s to come.
Special mention too for Julie Kavner who gets to shout and tell a joke at the same time: “Bart – stop being confident!” 8
We might not get much of the Itchy & Scratchy Movie but we do get a lot of Itchy & Scratchy history and all of it is wonderful. The care and attention to detail that goes into animating these ‘archive’ clips takes your breath away.
It’s still a marvel that Disney didn’t sue for Steamboat Itchy. The World War Two clip is just as brilliant:
There have been parodies of animation on The Simpsons ever since Bart the Genius, but the sequences in this episode set a new standard. Look out also for the unlikely collection of characters drawn at the front of the queue for the Itchy & Scratchy Movie. Only by freezing the frame can you spot them all. 10
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
“The ship is draughty and damp. I complain but nobody listens.” Whisper it, but Star Trek XII: So Very Tired actually looks more fun than Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie. 8
Emotion and tone
Despite a very strong central idea – Bart receiving the ‘ultimate’ punishment – the script of this episode never quite decides whether to concentrate on making you feel sorry for Bart or for the rest of his family. The tone of the story rocks back and forth haphazardly between all sorts of kinds of pity, some more comic than others. By the end you’re just glad the punishment held and Bart didn’t get to see the Itchy & Scratchy Movie, anticipation in this case being far more rewarding than reality. One other note: this must one of the few episodes of The Simpsons to take place over a timescale of more than a handful of weeks. Eight months pass during the course of the story, before we jump 40 years into the future in the closing scene. And in a final vindication for Homer, Bart does indeed become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. 7
The trailer is better than the film.