79. Whacking Day

“So… you would hear Rs as Bs?” “Yes.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 29 April 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Thursday 30 July 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • 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: Jeff Lynch

Eight episodes had passed since the residents of Springfield last got themselves in a collective and irrational tizz; more than enough time, clearly, for another rampaging mob.

This story is called Whacking Day but there’s no mention of what this is, or even of its existence, for the whole of the first part of the episode. Not that this particularly matters, as the first part of the episode is by far the most entertaining of the lot, featuring as it does the debut of the sublimely agitated Superintendent Chalmers and of his equally sublime relationship with Principal Skinner. Chalmers’ inspection of the school, and its disruption by Bart on a runaway tractor, contains more focused storytelling and humour than the remainder of the story, which unspools in a ragged and faltering way, involves a lot of people rushing about, then stops when everyone decides to go home. 5

The residents of Springfield spend Whacking Day hounding hundreds of snakes through the streets before battering them to death: a prospect that sends Homer and Marge into an erotic frenzy, something that is never pleasant to see whatever the circumstances. A storyline based on characters behaving out of character can only go so far before it stops being imaginatively contrary and becomes simply contrary. That point is reached very quickly here, though at least Lisa remains consistent, berating all and sundry for supporting such a barbaric pastime (Lovejoy [brandishing Bible]: “Even God himself endorses Whacking Day” Lisa: “Let me see that!” Lovejoy: “No”). The behaviour of Skinner and Chalmers is far more satisfying to watch, because humour arises out of their characters rather than being bolted on for expediency. It’s particularly pleasurable to see Chalmers arrive in the show with his crumpled fatigue and pointed tolerance of Skinner already in full bloom. “What do you think of the banners?” “Nothing but transparent toadying… It’s always the children’s fault, isn’t it Seymour.” “Yes, yes it is.” 7

“Superintendent Chalmers!” “Hello Seymour.”

“A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha, a brick and you’re not made of stone…”

Locations and design
The plot ranges all over town yet we don’t see much of it – at least, not much that is interesting. The snakes aren’t “whacked” through any notable locations, nor do they wriggle their way through familiar landmarks. In fact they seem to go straight from the town square to the Simpsons’ house. A pity they didn’t find time to stop off at Burns’ mansion or slide through Patty and Selma’s apartment. Marge and Bart pay a visit to Olde Springfield Towne which, like every tourist attraction in the county, has spy cameras hidden inside everyday objects. But even here the potential for some intriguing design work or quirky background animation is wasted. This is very much an episode where the locations feel as if they were among the last things to be added to the script. 3

Pardon My Zinger
The best jokes have nothing to do with Whacking Day: Homer’s response to Bart insisting he no longer needs to attend school (“No son of mine is going to be a 19th-century Cockney bootblack!”); Chalmers’ encounter with Lunchlady Doris (“Why is a cafeteria worker posing as a nurse?” “I get two pay cheques this way”); Bart’s brief enrolment at a school for Christian fundamentalism (“Avert your eyes, children! He may take on other forms!”); and – another one for The Simpsons greatest hits collection – the maracas-shaking, grave-dancing Evil Homer. 8

“I am Evil Homer, I am Evil Homer”

Special guests
Barry White is one of those guests square in the “Look!” category (as in “Look who we’ve got on the show this week!”). He does a pleasant enough turn (“You people make me sick!”) and gets to sing a chorus from one of his hits, but it feels too much like the programme is doing him a favour rather than the other way round. His presence adds much to the prestige of Barry White but little to that of The Simpsons. 5

White isn’t helped by Alf Clausen’s arrangement of Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe. It sounds thin and synthetic and – ironically, given the script’s reference to snakes being attracted by bass reverberations – very top-heavy. But far more unappealing is the sound of the children’s choir performing their ode to Whacking Day. We’ve had child characters singing in The Simpsons before and it never works, even when (especially when) the lyrics are meant to be filled with gags. Humour is always diluted by the sound of kids singing, never enhanced. Musical jokes need the solidity and range of an adult timbre, even when – as here – the kids are being voiced by grown-ups. At least in this case the choir are in tune and not, as in Kamp Krusty, “amusingly” off-key. 2

The spiky bonhomie and perpendicular cordiality of Chalmers and Skinner is nailed to perfection by Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer. The relationship of these characters will quickly become second only to that of Burns and Smithers in terms of The Simpsons’ finest vocal double-acts. Chalmers: Did that boy say ‘What’s a battle?’
Skinner: No, he said ‘What’s that rattle?’ – er, about the heating duct.
Chalmers: Hmm. It sounded like battle.
Skinner: I’ve had a cold so…
Chalmers: Oh, so you…
Skinner: …yes…
Chalmers: …you would hear Rs as Bs?
Skinner: Yes.
Chalmers: I understand. 10

Animation direction
Crowds of snakes might be less of a pain to animate than crowds of people, but they’re more of a bore to look at. Springfield’s snakes change their skin from scene to screen, switching between a rainbow of gaudy colours to a smear of muddy browns. Neither are pleasing to the eye and it’s a relief when finally, in the words of James Bond in Octopussy, they hiss off.

All the animation highlights are in the first part of the episode, from the burning red hue that descends over the screen when Bart is taunted by the tractor, to the shot of the tractor heading straight for Superintendent Chalmers’ wobbly arse (followed by Hank Azaria’s splendidly functional delivery of Chalmers’ response: “Ow, ow, ow.”) 7

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The colour scheme changes again when we take a trip into Springfield’s increasingly celeb-rich history and see President Nixon blithely whacking residents instead of snakes:

“Thank you. Thanks for coming out.”

The show’s obsession with Nixon reached a peak around this time and has an appealing ‘out of time’ quality, even after all these years. It’s a bit like the Meldrews’ telephone number in One Foot In The Grave (“4291?”). Both references belong in a different era but both “work” in their respective contexts because of the nonchalant manner in which stray into the present day. On a similar note, we also get another of Grampa’s fantasies involving cross-dressing at moments of great historical significance. This week he’s a cabaret singer in Nazi Germany, offending Hitler with a false breast. The image of his costume leaves an imprint on your brain almost as deep as Chalmers’ wriggling buttocks. “I did wear a dress for a period in the 40s,” Grampa concedes wistfully. “Oh, they had designers then.” 9

Emotion and tone
There’s an anti-animal cruelty message in this episode but it ends up buried underneath the silliness and the fidgety plot. The first part has a tone all of its own, and one that is far more coherent and persuasive than what follows afterwards. Whenever The Simpsons does an episode based on the whole of the town reacting to something or someone, it works well only if the something or someone is set apart from everyone else – like Mr Burns, or Lyle Lanley. Here it’s just a bunch of snakes who can’t answer back. You end up caring about neither the snakes nor their whackers. “I’m sick of you people,” Mayor Quimby moans. “You’re nothing but a pack of fickle mush-heads.” For once, he’s dead right. 3

Verdict: 59%
Ow, ow, ow.

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