78. The Front

“NOOOOOOOOOO!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 15 April 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Thursday 23 July 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Adam I Lapidus
  • Writing staff: George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Dan McGrath
  • Animation director: Rich Moore

By a nice stroke of timing, directly after an episode produced solely thanks to the wiles of the US TV industry came this: an episode produced solely to lampoon the wiles of the US TV industry.

Plot
There’s a smashing idea at the heart of this episode, but it’s a slender one. Bart and Lisa using Grampa Simpson’s name as a front for submitting Itchy & Scratchy scripts is as good a starting point for a story as any in this season. But after it starts it doesn’t go anywhere fast, and stops after advancing almost nowhere of consequence. There are some nice digs at the animation industry (and by extension The Simpsons itself), and another of those Big Public Events so beloved of the show in this period of its history, where famous people get to look foolish in front of a fickle, tomato-throwing audience. You can’t help feeling the promise of the plot is never quite realised, however. The writers use every device at their disposal to pad things out to a full 22 minutes, including extending the opening titles, some extra-long fantasy sequences, a subplot that could easily have made a brilliant episode in its own right (Homer’s school reunion), and a pasted-on ending (The Adventures of Ned Flanders). They just about pull it off, thanks to a mixture of whirling comic invention and shameless bluster. Only afterwards are you left wondering if the story was really all it initially cracked up to be. 6

Characters
Whenever Bart and Lisa team up to do something, preferably something that has nothing to do with their family, their characters are irresistibly watchable. This is especially true if Bart is in his “cheeky but smart” guise, rather than being simply a spiteful, destructive brat. The pair come up with some superb Itchy & Scratchy ideas and – being who they are – do it almost on a whim (“The rest writes itself!”). Even their (few) moments of bickering are playful rather than menacing, such as when they try to decide whose name should be listed first on the script (Bart proposing “a race around the world”, Lisa opting for rock/paper/scissors). For his part Grampa is on good form, taking no crap from the mouthy scriptwriters at the Itchy & Scratchy office, merrily typing letters of complaint to the US president, and more than happy to take Roger Meyers’ money (“I WANT MY CHEQUE!”). We’ve reached that point in The Simpsons where Grampa is starting to be elevated from an old buffoon to an almanac of intriguing buffoonery; here we learn he once took a shot at Teddy Roosevelt and worked for 40 years as a nightwatchman at a cranberry silo. Meanwhile Homer and Marge are off to their high school reunion, utterly oblivious to and removed from the rest of the plot, and all the better for it. 10

Homer: It’ll be great to see the whole gang again: Potsie, Ralph Malph, the Fonz…
Marge: That was Happy Days.
Homer: No! They weren’t all happy days. Like the time Pinky Tuscadero crashed her motorcycle, or the night I lost all my money to those card sharks and my dad Tom Bosley had to get it back…

Locations and design
Like the nuclear power plant and Mr Burns’ mansion, the Itchy & Scratchy headquarters offers up more treats for the eye the longer we get to gaze inside. Roger Meyers’ office seems to be stuffed with all manner of suitably gaudy trinkets:

while the writers’ room is an absolute pigsty:

and the animation wing appears to have survived intact from the 1930s:

Plus it’s always nice to revisit the brutalist carnival that is the Springfield Civic Centre, tonight hosting the annual cartoon awards, tomorrow closed for roach spraying. 9

Pardon My Zinger
The draughty plot is plugged with an above-average number of gags. Maybe it’s the subject of the episode, or maybe it’s end-of-season delirium starting to creep in, but something has prompted the writers to up their game. “I was on my way home from work and thought I’d drop by,” Grampa informs his son. “They pay me 800 dollars a week to tell a cat and mouse what to do!” “I see,” coos Homer, like a doctor to a patient.

“Didn’t you wonder why you were getting cheques for doing absolutely nothing?” Bart asks his grandfather later. “I figured cos the Democrats were in power again,” comes the reply. Artie Ziff makes a cameo at the school reunion, boasting about becoming a millionaire.

Homer (taunting): I’ll bet you’d trade it all for one night with my wife.
Artie (doleful) I would.
Homer (immediately interested) Hmmm…
Marge: Homer!

When Homer is shamed by the revelation he never fully graduated from high school, he signs up for an evening class in remedial science. The tutor is his former high school head, Principal Dunderlinger, who solemnly tells his pupils: “My wife recently passed away. I thought teaching might ease my loneliness.” “Will this be on the test?” shouts Homer. “No!” 10

Special guests
Brooke Shields plays herself and does so with just the right amount of unassuming, bland ordinariness to ensure her cameo is a hit. Rather than get shoehorned into the plot or have to interact implausibly with the Simpson family, instead she turns up in a situation that flatters both her and her persona – on stage at the annual cartoon awards – and in a role that exists purely to allow her co-host Krusty to deliver the following nugget: “Here we are, the star of the Blue Lagoon, and me, the blue-haired goon. What the…? That’s terrible! First of all my hair is green, not blue. I got nothing to work with here, NOTHING!” 10

Music
Alf Clausen gets to open his cabinet marked The Looney Tunes Collection for all of the Itchy & Scratchy sequences, besides coming up with a rather sweet-sounding piano-backed version of the cartoon’s signature tune complete with spruced up (or dialled down) lyrics: “They fought, and bit, and fought and fought and bit, fought fought fought, bit bit bit – it was the Itchy and Scratchy Show!” 8

Voices
In just one word, Dan Castellaneta supplies the best vocal performance in the episode: his traumatised cry of “NOOOOOOO!” as Homer watches Dondelinger burning a doughnut in the science lab. “The bright blue flame indicates this was a particularly SWEET doughnut,” Dondelinger adds by way of comic exposition. “Oh, this is not happening,” Homer screams, “THIS IS NOT HAPPENING!” Roger Meyers was one of the finest characters to be added to The Simpsons in season two: arch, pithy and brimming with potential. It’s a joy to see him back, and Hank Azaria does a great job at imitating Alex Rocco’s smoky exasperation, unapologetic rudeness (“You’re a comedy writer? My God, you’re so old!”) and knack of making absolutely everything sound like an unacceptable imposition (“All right leeches, I want you to see what a good writer looks like!”) 10

Animation direction
One of the few occasions in this episode when we see Homer, Marge, Bart and Lisa in the same scene comes early on when the kids are trying to come up an idea for their script. Bart watches from his window as his parents play out a beautiful moment of silent comedy, timed and framed to perfection by director Rich Moore:

Moore has a great eye for detail in this story, and embellishes even the most rudimentary of scenes with something to catch your eye – for example, the expression on Homer’s face while he’s slumped on the sofa:

or the facial hair on the Homer of 1974:

Special mention too for the joke cued in by Roger Meyers: “Sometimes to save money, our animators will reuse the same backgrounds over and over and over again.” 9

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Aka, more ways to fill up 22 minutes of airtime. But like the gags and the subplot and all the bits of business involving Itchy & Scratchy, the excursions into fantasy don’t feel particularly rushed or contrived – just witty and imaginative, if a little off-the-wall.

“Lie in the snow and count to 60!”

This is especially true of The Adventures of Ned Flanders: the 30-second closing “short” concocted hastily by showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss to bring the episode up to its full running time. It’s entertainingly silly and throwaway (“Hens love roosters, geese love ganders, everyone else loves Ned Flanders!”) but it takes skill to make something feel that way, rather than be simply silly and throwaway and therefore rubbish. In the context of an episode stuffed with diversions and party pieces and comic turns, it fits right in. 9

Emotion and tone
Despite being about children’s cartoons, this is a very grown-up episode, full of mature scepticism and knowing sensibilities and world-weary conclusions. Because the plot is so slight, the script has more room than usual for emotion and attitudes rather than storyline. The tone of the episode is consequently more pervasive, and occasionally invasive, at the expense of pure action. At times we’re almost watching a meditation on showbusiness, with characters holding forth on topics like intellectual property, residual fees and the architecture of comedy. That the episode doesn’t tip over into full-on navel-gazing tedium is all thanks to the robustness of the humour and the appeal of the characters. Everybody on screen is interesting to watch, even if what they’re doing isn’t always interesting to see. And for every diatribe about the hypocrisy of the TV industry (“I think all you people are despicable!”) there’s a shot of Homer with a sink plunger on his head. 8

Verdict: 89%
Somewhere in an alternative cartoon universe, Itchy & Scratchy “by Abraham Simpson” is still on the air and its writers have become deserving multi-millionaires. (“Cartoons have writers?”)

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