“Eyes On The Prize” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 03/02/1994)
Like the simpatico spirits behind SCTV, the prodigiously gifted people behind The Critic embraced pop culture in all its richness and all its forms, from the highest highbrow fare to the lowliest baggy-pants shenanigans. The Critic represented a smartass young generation that would go on to do big things (the show’s writers and advisers included folks like Brad Bird and Judd Apatow) making sweet love to the pop culture of its parents’ generation. Where else would the name Stubby Kaye ever come up, let alone become a running gag conveying Jay’s agent’s complete disinterest in his career?
The Critic kept alive all the old jokes. As long as The Critic was on the air there would always be a place for jokes about Orson Welles, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando’s morbid obesity. The Critic seldom resisted low-hanging fruit but it was also capable of transcending the humble fat joke through nuance, sophistication, and inflection.
Take this parody of a quasi-famous outtake from the 1970s where Orson Welles infamously bitched out the crew of a frozen-food commercial he was filming for their incompetence. It’s an extraordinarily obscure reference for a primetime animated television show ostensibly for the whole family but the joke goes far beyond mere reference-as-punchline.
First, there’s the richness of Maurice LaMarche’s Orson Welles impersonation, the way it captures the sensual pleasure Welles found in language as well as his innate aristocratic haughtiness. The Critic wrote a whole lot of jokes about Orson Welles in part because it had a voiceover artist who was as close to the real thing as humanly possible.
Beyond the obscurity of the reference and the depth of the performance there is the richness of the language as LaMarche’s Welles praises Rosebud Peas’ “country goodness” and as well as their “green pea-ness” before becoming enraged at the idiocy of what he’s being forced to say and storming off in a huff, but not before helping himself to a little nosh for the road. The joke would have been hilarious if it had ended there but the capper is Welles storming offstage and exclaiming, “Oh, what luck! There’s a French fry stuck in my beard.”
It’s a great line but what really sells it is LaMarche’s supremely pleased and utterly unabashed delivery. Ah, but we are getting ahead of ourselves, as we habitually do. “Eye On The Prize” opens with Jay hosting a 1,000th-episode extravaganza that becomes a whole lot less extravagant when Meryl Streep drops out and Jay is reduced to talking to Adam West about The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington.
Jay’s career and ratings are in the dumps. Things go from bad to worse when he’s fired and the only employment he can procure is on something called English For Cab Drivers (as I wrote earlier, The Critic could seldom resist the siren song of low-hanging fruit). To get the gig, Jay reconnects with his agent for the first time in what appears to be decades.
This clip is pure vaudeville: it could take place in 1926 or 1976 or 1996. It’s a timeless setup: an agent, a client, and the bone-deep desperation that is show-business. As with the Orson Welles joke, much of the humor lies in the performance, in the sing-songy way guest Phil Hartman (poor Phil Hartman) enthuses that Jay is his favorite “guy or gal?” before conceding, “Sorry. I thought you were the Pat character from Saturday Night Live. Is it a man? Is it a woman? Who cares? The kids seem to like it—to a point. And what’s with airline peanuts these days? It’s like you need a wrench to open the bag!” In this world, even agents do shtick.
In a bid to reconnect with his early, abandoned idealism Jay finally shows his student film to his shocked and horrified friends and family. “Eyes On The Prize” nails the dour pretentiousness of student film. It nails the incoherent juxtaposition of high and low art, the amateurish but fevered interplay between random silliness and wonderfully misplaced grand artistic statements. The Kool-Aid Man, Hiroshima, Singin’ In The Rain: they’re all just grist for the mill in Jay’s muddled, young mind. It cares enough to get the details right, like the racetrack in Jay’s college dorm (a callback from an earlier scene) and the flat, vaguely contemptuous manner Jay’s sour-tongued ex-wife mispronounces the name of his character at the very end.
I find myself thinking of Jay Sherman’s student film fairly often. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call it the definitive parody of pretentious student films.
It takes more than a trip back in the wayback machine, however, to restore Jay’s fading lust for life. Jay decides that the only thing that can rehabilitate his reputation and get him his old job back is to win a Pulitzer Prize. So, in an extended homage to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Jay goes on “English For Cab Drivers” (where he earlier taught relevant phrases like “My life is a living hell. The only thing that gets me through the day is lithium“) and, like James Stewart filibustering for his life at the end of Frank Capra’s patriotic classic, issues a furious manifesto. He’s willing to make a grand stand for what he believes in.
Jay’s answers for fixing the enduring problem that is American commercial film are as wise as they are commonsensical. Addressing a vast, unknowable TV and movie audience, Jay pleads, “If you stop going to bad movies, they’ll stop making bad movies. If the movie used to be a TV show just don’t go. After roman numeral two, give it a rest. If it’s a remake of a classic, rent the classic!” If only we had listened!
As Jay’s pretentious film professor lustily informs him, some were meant to create, others to tear down what others have created. It is Jay’s fate, as his professor memorably puts it, to nitpick what others have poured their hearts and souls into. For Jay, being a film critic isn’t just a job, it’s an existential destiny; no wonder the universe takes such malicious glee in perpetually knocking him down to size.
- “Who can survive Rhinestone? He’s not human, I tell ya!”
- How creepy was that unfortunately phallic, melting Jay Sherman ice sculpture in the party scene?
- “Mr. Sherman, I’m from a disreputable newspaper tabloid and I won’t need a bit more of your time.”
- “You look like a busker who has lost his didgeridoo.”
- “Tomorrow this essay will be in every major newspaper but I will reach more people by appearing on this low-rated cable TV show.”
- “Please keep talking! The spray makes me feel like I’m at Coney Island!”