“The Day The Violence Died” (season seven, episode 18; originally aired 3/17/1996)
In which it’s true: Some cartoons do encourage violence…
“The Day The Violence Died” represents the second tier of a certain type of Simpsons episode, a meta-show that uses Itchy, Scratchy, and Roger Myers Jr. to satirize the business of making cartoons. I’ve written before about how The Simpsons cannily gifted itself with Krusty The Clown as a method of satirizing real-life showbiz bozos—or “showzos,” as I believe they’re called in the biz. The Itchy & Scratchy Show is a device of greater specificity: Thanks to the animated cat and mouse, The Simpsons can poke fun at its form and itself. “The Day The Violence Died” drives harder at that concept than any episode since “Bart Gets Famous,” spoofing cartoon conventions and various styles of animation before arriving at an ending that might be too clever for its own good.
About that ending: It comes off like the writers painting themselves out of a corner, right? The smash zoom to Bart’s doppelgänger skating past 742 Evergreen Terrace is a callback to “Bart Vs. Australia” (with its startling closeup of the stowaway koala) and any appearance by Gerald The Unibrow Baby, but it leaves “The Day The Violence Died” lingering on an unresolved note. It’s intentionally unsettling, but did it have to be frustrating, too? In the ending’s favor, it’s a bold choice, one presumably motivated by “The Day The Violence Died”’s unorthodox structure. The primary story of “The Day The Violence Died”—in which Bart helps Chester Lampwick stake his rightful claim in Itchy And Scratchy Studios—concludes in the second act of the episode; that leaves precious little time to initiate and tell a whole other story, in which Bart and Lisa assist a newly upside down Roger Myers in order to save their favorite cartoon. It’s a less-than-ideal situation, one that pretty much requires a deus ex machina to bring it home.
But Lester and his Lisa-lookalike sister Eliza are only a deus ex machina in terms of The Simpsons that exists for the 24 other episodes of season seven (give or take a “Simpsons 138th Episode Extravaganza”). The characters are of a piece with the parallel universe “The Day The Violence Died” seems to exist in, where storytelling comes secondary to landing smart, funny insights about the cartoon business. The Lester-and-Eliza ending feels so jarring because it exposes the episode’s façade: What we thought was the point of the episode is not the point of the episode. The show had been and would be sharper in its autocritiques, but as a stealth history of plagiarism in animation and a joke on the Simpson kids’ uncanny knack for solving all of Springfield’s biggest problems, “The Day The Violence Died” works just fine. According to Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein’s DVD commentary, John Swartzwelder’s original draft of “The Day The Violence Died” delved even deeper into self-examination: “The Amendment Song” takes the place of a way-way-inside-baseball goof on The Simpsons itself, a parody-within-a-parody that wound up being too difficult to convey.
The story of Chester Lampwick (granted crotchety gravitas by Kirk Douglas) gets an impressive amount of work done in its limited screen time, finding some emotional resonance within the spoofy echo chamber. Being a kid, Bart has a very basic understanding of what’s wrong and what’s right, and even though his actions err most often on the side of the former, it makes sense that he would want Itchy & Scratchy to stand on the side of right. This is the only cultural institution that he respects as much as Krusty; seeing the cartoon’s caretakers willingly screw an old man out of his legacy and his royalties would be a major blow to the kid’s innocence.
But cartoons are never as innocent as we want them to be. “The Day The Violence Died” puts Itchy & Scratchy on hiatus, but the character’s vicious tendencies spill over into the Simpsons’ reality: Lampwick instigates separate brawls with Grampa Simpson and Krusty, fights rendered as kinetic tumbleweeds of limbs by director Wes Archer. (Lisa makes a more straightforward version of this joke when she starts pounding Bart after watching Schoolhouse Rock!’s right-wing spawn.) No cartoon presented in the episode is of pure heart or mind. “Manhattan Madness” is casually bigoted and comically treasonous; “The Amendment Song” turns a cynical eye to the American legislative process; a “frank depiction of sex and narcotics consumption” makes Itchy & Scratchy Meet Fritz The Cat unfit for “infantile intellects” like Bart and Lisa. But that’s to be expected from a medium overseen by artists who saw The Honeymooners and then thought “But what if it they were in the Stone Age instead of Brooklyn?” (Of course, the real joke is on anyone who assumes animation is purely kiddie fare—an assumption that ignores the fact that the likes of The Flintstones and Rocky And Bullwinkle used to air in primetime. It’s also an assumption that led to most of The Simpsons’ early-season controversies, but that’s more of an “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” concern.)
And yet, amid all of that, the episode still reserves a tremendous amount of reverence for these silly little scribblings. It’s evident in the care and consideration given to the different types of animation tackled by “The Day The Violence Died,” each painstakingly recreated with nods toward their inspirations (the telltale hatch marks of Fritz The Cat creator R. Crumb; the bubbly storybook look of Schoolhouse Rock!) and era-appropriate music cues. The royalty talk aside, “The Day The Violence Died” leaves the nitty-gritty of cartoon production to its spiritual sequel, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” focusing more on the artistry and flights of fancy afforded to shows like The Simpsons: Sight gags like Chester’s solid-gold house or the parade of Lionel Hutz’s surprise witness (featuring a Swartzwelder caricature and the world’s heaviest twins) or a quick, slightly sick allusion to the urban myth about a cryonically suspended Walt Disney. As previously introduced in “Itchy & Scratchy Land,” Roger Myers Sr. continues to take on Disney’s less admirable qualities in “The Day The Violence Died,” with Lampwick’s tale of woe a fictionalized take on the way some Disney histories downplay the contributions of Mickey Mouse’s co-creator, Ub Iwerks.
But to me, the most interesting commentary on animation within “The Day The Violence Died” occurs at the end of the Itchy & Scratchy short that Eliza and Lester make possible. Watching Scratchy’s eternal torment from on high, Itchy shares a handshake and a wink with a rodent representation of God. It’s no great leap to connect this deity, who has an intimate connection to Itchy, with the creators of this and other cartoons. It’s a brief acknowledgement of the reign these animators have over their characters and the worlds they inhabit, from the mightiest Homer to the lowliest Ghost Mutt. After 20 minutes of self-deprecation, it’s a chance for The Simpsons to pull back and survey its domain. It’s an impressive creation, but its creators are not infallible. They’re bums just like anybody else, and while they’re devoted to their craft, they might just swipe your corn muffins without painting your chicken coop.
- A character abused by a Walt Disney stand-in, Chester Lampwick not-too-coincidentally shares his surname with Pinocchio’s prankster-turned-donkey Lampwick, a character abused in a Walt Disney production.
- All of the Roger Myers “creations” presented as evidence by the Blue-haired Lawyer are great, but I’m most partial to Rich Uncle Skeleton, who presumably wasted away following the crash of 1929.
- Lionel Hutz isn’t known as a man of his word, but he does follow up on his promise to scream if he hears “objection” and “sustained” one more time.
- I doubt anyone involved with the production felt they could ask Kirk Douglas to record the sound of Chester licking his lip at the thought of liver and onions, but whoever is responsible for that sound effect nonetheless brought Douglas’ Oscar-nominated aplomb to the microphone.
- Homer voices the eternal confusion of a viewership: “Which one’s Itchy? The car?”
- Next week: Gwen Ihnat hates every ape she sees—from chimpan-A to chimpanzee—in a review of “A Fish Called Selma.”