Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Why do we laugh at the known?
A few years ago, I was watching the Venture Bros. episode “The Trial Of The Monarch” and chuckling at a sequence in which the Ventures’ archvillain fumed at the “lies and pictures of also-lies” in an unauthorized tell-all book about his life. The Monarch pointed out some of the pictures of his wild youth on the New York punk scene: “Here’s one of me at Danceteria making out with Stiv Bators and Lydia Lunch!” He also snapped at Dr. Girlfriend for wearing an outfit that looked like it was “designed by Frank Frazetta,” and wailed, “I can see your dirtypillows!” Clever? Definitely. But when the episode ended, I wondered: What made all that name-dropping funny?
To some extent, it’s the comedy of defying expectation. Here’s The Monarch, a supervillain dressed in a ridiculous costume, making references to obscure punk rockers, fantasy-magazine illustrators, and Stephen King novels. Hilariously incongruous, yes? If I’m being honest, though, I have to admit: I laughed because I “got it.” I recognized the names. The Venture Bros. pandered to me, and I liked it.
Popular culture has been referring to itself for so long that tracing back the trend would be a Herculean task. (Hey, that’s a reference!) For as long as there’s been art pitched to the masses—as opposed to “high art”—we’ve been dealt the occasional parody, satire, homage, rip-off, and wink. That inclination became something like a habit in the ’90s, when pop-culture references became less about commenting on the thing referenced, and more about references as ends in themselves. Comedian Dennis Miller laced his jokes with names of long-forgotten actors and consumer goods, while in the movie business, pop-heavy chatter became some writers’ way of conveying realism, hinging on the notion that real people (at least the ones show-folk know) mostly pass their time conversing about their favorite bands and TV shows. Meanwhile, the distinctions between high and low culture continued the process of dissolution that began with the “pop art” movement of the ’60s, such that by the ’90s, ambitious academics were expected to have opinions on Bullwinkle as well as Bruegel.
Enter The Simpsons, Matt Groening’s beloved cartoon family, which began life as a series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, then became a regular weekly half-hour series in January of 1990 (following a Christmas special that ran in December of ’89). It took less than a year for The Simpsons to become a phenomenon, and a divisive one. The first President Bush took a shot at the show, while some watchdog parent groups lodged complaints, and the court system of Orange County, CA heard arguments over whether a Bart Simpson-festooned “Underachiever And Proud Of It” T-shirt should be banned from the school system.
From the start, though, The Simpsons was as popular with intellectuals as it was with kids. Groening had cultural credibility, thanks to his alt-weekly comic strip Life In Hell, and The Simpsons’ anti-authoritarian nose-thumbing—which grew more brazen as the show became entrenched—drew on a tradition that threaded back through Saturday Night Live, Mad magazine, the Marx brothers, and beyond. Plus, The Simpsons sported an impressive density of cultural references. In the early years, The Simpsons could be enjoyed just as a funny, irreverent cartoon, but for a full appreciation, viewers needed to be familiar with everything from Tennessee Williams to Winsor McCay.
“22 Short Films About Springfield” aired toward the end of The Simpsons’ seventh season (on April 14th, 1996), and even by the standards of a show willing to experiment, it’s an oddity. In the early seasons, The Simpsons developed a distinctive narrative structure; the best episodes tended to start off in one direction before revealing their actual story just before the first act-break. (The classic example of this is season three’s “Dog Of Death,” which pretends to be about the lottery for eight minutes before it becomes about the health woes of the family dog.) Later, the show’s structure fell more in line with classic sitcoms: an A-story, a B-story, and maybe a C-story, all taking place simultaneously and occasionally intersecting.
“22 Short Films” is structured more like an adventurous sketch-comedy show, with vignettes and quickie gags weaving between a couple of recurring stories. The episode begins with that proud 10-year-old underachiever Bart Simpson and his buddy Milhouse spitting on cars and speculating about the lives of the people passing by. Then the episode’s title comes up (another relative anomaly on The Simpsons) followed by a series of short skits starring some of the show’s minor characters: Dr. Nick, Superintendent Chalmers, Bumblebee Man, Cletus The Slack-Jawed Yokel, Snake, Reverend Lovejoy, Chief Wiggum, Apu, Comic-Book Guy, and more. The idea for “22 Short Films About Springfield” sprang from a vignette about Ned Flanders that The Simpsons writers whipped up to fill out a too-short season-four episode. The staff began working with that idea, dividing up their favorite characters and writing little scenes, about half of which got cut after the script stage. It’s all in the tradition of comic books and Saturday-morning cartoons that devote a page or a few minutes to “So-and-so in…”
Some of the segments in the final product really pop. The Simpsons’ exaggerated white-trash boob Cletus arrives with a catchy theme song that rhymes “yokel” with “folk’ll:”
Dr. Nick gives a lesson in advanced quackery:
And in the funniest segment of the whole episode, the bumbling Principal Seymour Skinner makes outlandish excuses for his botched lunch for Superintendent Chalmers:
Other segments—like Apu packing an entire party into a five-minute break from the Kwik-E-Mart, or Reverend Lovejoy encouraging his dog to poop on Ned Flanders’ lawn—don’t have as much replay value. But then The Simpsons’ seventh season as a whole is similarly varied, in that it contains some of the most genuinely sweet episodes of the whole series. I’m thinking here of “Bart Sells His Soul,” “Lisa The Vegetarian,” “Mother Simpson,” “Marge Be Not Proud,” “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield,” and “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2,” the latter of which makes me mist up just reading the title. Those come alongside some of the series’ wackiest episodes, like “22 Short Films” and the season-opening resolution of the “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” two-parter. For all the off-the-wall craziness of “22 Short Films,” the episode often seems more comfortable when it’s treading familiar territory, as when withered corporate titan Mr. Burns snaps at his bee-stung lackey Smithers to keep peddling their tandem bicycle (“One more jostle, you wretched shirkaday!”) or when Milhouse asks Comic Book Guy what he can get for 75 cents, and is offered a used copy of Hamburglar Adventure. (“A child has already solved the jumble using crayons. The answer is ‘fries.’”)
In one of the two stories that thread through the entire episode, Lisa Simpson gets gum in her hair (thrown by her brother Bart) and endures a series of treatments to get the goo out. She has her scalp slathered with peanut butter, mayonnaise, olive oil, lemon juice, tartar sauce, chocolate syrup, gravy, bacon fat, hummus, and baba ghanoush, before traipsing off to a barber. (“You keep squirmin’, there’s gonna be a little bald girl with no lollipop,” the barber warns, in a Maine accent for some reason.) In the other, Chief Wiggum finds himself inside a miniature Pulp Fiction parody—although perhaps “parody” is the wrong word, since the episode doesn’t really make fun of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 breakout hit so much as replicate it. First Wiggum and his underlings sit at Krusty Burger and do The Simpsons’ version of Pulp Fiction’s “little differences” scene:
And later, Wiggum gets run over by Snake, and they both end up bound and gagged in Herman’s pawn shop, in a surprisingly graphic recreation of Pulp Fiction’s “bring out the gimp” scene. There’s even a sly visual reference to the original, as Milhouse emerges at the end and literally “gets medieval” on the bad guy:
That pivot off Pulp Fiction is significant, given that Tarantino did as much if not more than The Simpsons to make the ’90s a safe haven for pop-culture fanatics. “22 Short Films,” for example, makes casual references to Fangoria magazine and the Midnight Star hit “Freak-A-Zoid,” along with the then-smash TV series ER (in the Dr. Nick sequence) and possibly Hee Haw (in the graphics that accompany the Cletus sequence… although those could be read as generic cornpone), while Pulp Fiction makes conversations about fast food and old TV shows look so cool that well over a decade later, we’re still besieged by commercials in which a cross-section of demographically desirable yahoos gather at chain restaurants to gab about their favorite sitcoms. (Though nothing in any Applebees spot will ever be as charmingly old-timey as The Simpsons’ Jasper responding to an offer of a free nose job by asking Dr. Nick to “give me a Van Heflin.”)
“22 Short Films” slips its biggest reference into its title, which nods to Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, the Genie Award-winning 1993 arthouse favorite which—like this episode—tells its story in fragments. Because The Simpsons is an animated series, it generally isn’t that easy to date on-sight, unlike in Friends or Cheers, where the hairstyles alone roughly suggest what year an episode was made. But the title and structure of “22 Short Films About Springfield” definitely dates the piece. Though the Simpsons writers have never been above outright obscurity, the show’s newer fans may not realize that, in 1996, a reference to Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould wouldn’t have been that obscure. The mid-’90s were a time when independent movies got a lot of play in the mainstream media and at the multiplex, and though Glenn Gould was never a smash on the order of, say, Four Weddings And A Funeral (or Pulp Fiction), it was fairly widely known, for its title if nothing else. (In fact, if anything about this Simpsons episode makes me pine for the past, it’s the recollection of an era when people knew the names of the prominent art films, even if they still didn’t go out to see them.)
In fact, later in 1996, the more youth-oriented cartoon series Animaniacs aired a segment titled “10 Short Films About Wakko Warner,” though I doubt the Animaniacs creators expected most of their viewers to get the joke (in spite of Animaniacs’ fairly substantial adult audience). When I think about this Simpsons episode, I can’t help but wonder how many people in the years to come are going to see “22 Short Films About Springfield” without ever having heard of Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, or without having seen ER, or Pulp Fiction. Then I think back to when I was a kid, and read Peanuts comics that referenced Citizen Kane or Beau Geste, or watched Looney Tunes packed with caricatures of celebrities I wouldn’t recognize until decades later. I still remember reading Of Mice And Men for the first time in high school and being horrified at all the “Lennie and George” gags I’d laughed at in Looney Tunes shorts over the years.
Which brings us back to the point of pop-culture references. At their worst, references are a lazy way to fill out the dialogue in a scene without really saying anything at all. At their most insidious, references can be a way of weeding out the un-hip by winking and nodding only to those who “get it.” At their best, they can illuminate the item being referenced, either by revealing its value in another context or by showing it up as shoddy and mockable.
But there’s also an element of fannish sharing that I’ve always found appealing. Perhaps I laughed at that Venture Bros. episode primarily out of sheer delight at hearing names rarely mentioned on TV, and at the delight I’m sure the show’s writers felt when they were chucking them in there. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite music videos, Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot” (now unavailable online, sadly), which cuts together brief clips of many of the band’s favorite pop icons, from Kiss to Patti Smith to Harvey Pekar. It also reminds me of the Pop Will Eat Itself song “Can U Dig It?”, which serves as a menu of what was cool to PWEI in 1989 (including the Sonic Youth spin-off band Ciccone Youth).
One value of a good reference is that it can send fans of one pop-culture artifact on little expeditions, tracking the secret history of the shows, music, and movies they like by digging through their footnotes. We become archaeologists of pop, like the heroes of the Warren Ellis/John Cassaday comic-book series Planetary. (How’s that for a reference?) There’s a longstanding tradition of this kind of digging in the arts, often under the loftier guise of creating and studying canons. But the ’90s were more about rewriting the canon, and making sure that all the junk of the past got preserved alongside the classics. Was all that pack-ratting worth it in the long run? Well, it certainly was fun at the time. And let’s face it, if you want to know what was on the minds of the rising generation in the relatively non-threatening mid-’90s, you won’t be too far off if you watch a trio of cartoon characters discussing the finer points of milkshakes.
Let's close as the episode does, with “The Tomfoolery Of Professor John Frink:”
Professor Frink, of course, is The Simpsons’ version of Jerry Lewis’ Nutty Professor, but in one of those weird perversions that often happens in the influence/homage game, I find that whenever I do a Jerry Lewis impression these days, more often than not, I’m doing Frink. In fact, since 1996, my wife and I have been quoting the above bit of Frink-ery to each other, in part or in full. Because that’s something else that references do: They forge bonds among those who share them.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Heat Vision & Jack, “Pilot”