“The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular” (season seven, episode 10; originally aired 12/3/1995)
In which you may remember this format from “So It’s Come To This: A Simpsons Clip Show” and “Another Simpsons Clip Show.”
The ideal way to watch The Simpsons’ third clip show is with the audio commentary available on the seventh-season DVD set. “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular” offers plenty of self-criticism to begin with, but the conversation between Matt Groening, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Jon Vitti (who scripted under the “Penny Wise” pseudonym), and George Meyer makes it plain that no one’s harsher on The Simpsons than the people who make The Simpsons. Rarely has a “The commentary on this DVD does not reflect…” disclaimer been more pertinent: The writers and producers don’t mince words about their distaste for the clip-show format, and though the tenor of the discussion is always humorous, no one expresses anything approaching positivity with regard to the episode’s network-mandated origins. (Though they do damn it with faint praise by calling it the “best” of the clip shows.) These are products of opportunism, not creativity, and Vitti’s script spares no chance to poke holes in the showbiz façade. The episode talks back to the crew assembled for the commentary; Vitti and company illuminate their distaste for patting themselves on the back, and “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular” responds in kind. The crudeness of Groening’s original Simpsons shorts, the public perceptions of the show’s three architects, and the failures of certain supporting players are all fair game.
In other words, it’s the perfect chance to spend time with Troy McClure. In setup and execution, this episode is exactly the kind of thing you might remember Troy McClure from: It’s like they went and brought Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House and Shemp Howard: Today We Mourn A Stooge to life. Season seven was pretty much Troy’s year: Eager to provide Phil Hartman—who would’ve been transitioning between Saturday Night Live and NewsRadio during this production cycle—with a spotlight episode, Oakley and Weinstein commissioned “A Fish Called Selma.” But Hartman was also the only voice actor recruited to record new material for “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular,” and his performance gives a tremendous range to Troy’s phoniness. He’s as mercenary as the clip show itself, smiling through intentionally corny copy and finding just the right places to display Troy’s true feelings by lowering his voice or suddenly breaking into a menacing disdain for a theoretical viewer. The humanity behind this persona would come to the fore later in the seventh season, but here Troy’s primary characteristics are stretched beyond the usual few beats, and the character demonstrates that he can handle jokes that go beyond laundry lists of made-up credits.
It’s an elegant solution to an ugly assignment, and in typical Simpsons fashion, any attempts to lighten the workload just wound up increasing it. In concept, all that was required of David “Pound Foolish” Silverman was a few new McClure interstitials, but the introduction of the Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon stand-ins necessitated new character designs, and the art department needed to come up with the covers of the fake Groening’s pre-Simpsons comics, too. That these clip shows remain at all watchable is due to the pride the writers, animators, and producers took in their work—a pride so deep that Silverman reportedly bristled at parodying the “primitive” look of the Tracey Ullman Show-era Grampa and Krusty.
By and large, however, the episode is a relic of a bygone era. While The Simpsons surged further and further away from the forecasted “time when the show becomes unprofitable,” clip shows were squeezed out of its repertoire. There’s no longer any need to pad out the syndication package in this manner, and accessing the deleted “Mother Simpson” scene presented in “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular” is no harder than turning on the audio commentary. Really, the episode plays like a glorified DVD extra—were it not for the extra work that went into the Troy McClure sequences, it’d be indistinguishable from a retrospective featurette whipped up for the Complete Seventh Season box set. Any sense of importance is wrapped up in the segments that bookend the episode—the Tracey Ullman Show shorts and the “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” fakeouts—the only official release of any of that material to date. On a purely academic level, it’s fascinating to watch the evolution presented in the shorts. Silverman’s protest about the scribbled Krusty makes a lot of sense once the episode arrives at “Bathtime”—the earlier segments may have been produced under a time crunch, but the character design and animation looks ready for primetime during Bart’s search for “the elusive washcloth.”
“The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular” was a chance to take The Simpsons’ achievements seriously while simultaneously skewering the roots of the show and the episode. It’s ephemeral (and absolute murder to write about), but the jokes are potent enough that it deserves a look. It’s like a little Simpsons family photo album, collecting snapshots from the show’s awkward adolescence and compiling moments that history might’ve forgotten. And at the end, there’s a bunch of naked baby photos. The staff deserves kudos for taking such an undesirable assignment so seriously; they get further props for not papering over the really embarrassing stuff.
- Next week: “Marge Be Not Proud” of Zack Handlen, who totally saw Bart swipe that copy of Bonestorm—and yet he said nothing.