("Marathon Mensch"season 1, episode 8; originally aired 6/08/1994)
The core of The Critic’s writing and producing staff came straight from the golden age of The Simpsons: heavyweights like James L. Brooks, co-creators and show-runners Mike Reiss and Al Jean, writers Ken Keeler, Jon Vitti and a gentleman with a rosy future ahead of him named Brad Bird.
Bird wasn’t the only Critic staffer destined for glory. “Marathon Mensch”, the eighth episode of the short lived but dearly missed program’s first season was written by a twenty-something failed stand-up comedian and veteran of the well-liked but quickly cancelled sketch comedy program The Ben Stiller Show named Judd Apatow.
It’s a testament to how deep and gifted the show’s writing staff was—next week’s episode was written by Steven Levitan, who’d go on to co-create Modern Family—that Apatow’s episode is, if not the weakest episode to date, then one of them.
The episode’s big problem is its limited scope. Fat jokes have long been a staple of The Critic. Jay conducts frequent conversations with anthropomorphized belly for Chrissakes but they’ve never been the focus of an entire episode the way they are here. Fat jokes are easy. They’re lazy. Worst of all, they’re generally not funny. The Critic certainly has had its share of inspired fat joke but it’s capable of much more.
“Marathon Mensch” at least gets off to an ambitious, audacious start with Jay introducing the work of Silas B. Manchester, a legendary silent-screen amalgamation of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin: he shares Keaton’s genius for large scale derring-do and audacious stunts and Chaplin’s filthy immigrant status.
The Critic’s satire of silent comedy isn’t as inspired as the classic Futurama episode featured Dr. Zoidberg’s uncle Harold Zoid but what is? That was the funniest shit ever: it’s definitely my all-time favorite Futurama episode.
But The Critic’s take on silent film is not without its charms. I particularly enjoyed it when Jay hauls out an ancient silent-screen comedian who wheezes desperately of his agonizing existence, “I live every moment of every day with unimaginable pain… followed by brief moments of less pain.”
The silent-comedy opening isn’t laugh out loud funny but it represents the kind of comedy The Critic specialized in: smart, knowing and with a deep respect, reverence and understanding for show-business history, especially where comedy is concerned.
After one of Manchester’s old film canisters catches fire and the studio begins to burn, Jay is reduced to a state of child-like helplessness and needs his ancient make-up lady Doris to drag him out of the building in the most humiliatingly public fashion possible.
Jay is filled with shame after being interviewed by a reporter who offers the wonderfully convoluted metaphor: “(Doris) is like the proverbial mother who lifted the Volkswagen over her child except that in this case you are the Volkswagen and the child is the child in all of us.”
In a desperate bid to win back his dignity and self-esteem, Jay decides to run in the New York marathon with his father serving as his wildly unqualified trainer (Franklin vaguely recalls being a champion athlete himself when his strongest ties to sports seem to come from his participation in a World Series-fixing scandal long ago).
“Marathon Mensch” has some inspired riffs on Jay’s obesity, like when a confident Jay turns up at Vlada’s restaurant announcing his new diet and a panicked Vlada frets out loud, “Tell Vlada Junior no Harvard” and then, when the full gravity of the situation has sunk in, “Pull the plug on mama.”
But fat jokes are fat jokes and The Critic generally aspires to a higher, weirder standard of comedy. After limping through a whole lot of fat jokes and a string of incredibly dated gags involving Shannen Doherty’s problems with the law, Mario Cuomo’s inability to decide whether or not to run for President, Steve Guttenberg’s unfathomable popularity/penchant for terrible films and the criminal nature of the New York Mets, “Marathon Mensch” distinguishes itself with a wonderful fantasy sequence where Jay, in the midst of a runner’s high, finds New York transformed into a wonderland.
Manhattan becomes a smiling, endlessly benevolent utopia: everyone wins Three Card Molly (especially the lucky tourists!) and cabs don’t just eagerly pick up black people: they let them ride for free since the meter is broken. In keeping with the show’s love of vaudeville and show-biz razzle-dazzle, Jay’s fever dream is set to the toe-tapping, inspirational strains of the wonderful old standard, “Lullaby of Broadway.”
I don’t want to suggest that “Marathon Mensch” is bad by any stretch of the imagination. It’s never less than good but when you’re as capable of greatness as The Critic was in its prime, being good (and as consistently funny as “Marathon Mensch) somehow isn’t quite good enough.
—“You like a Pringle? Looks like a can of tennis balls but it’s actually potato chips!”
—“The hot new comedy based on the popular sign!”
—“I’ll see you in hell, Justine Bateman!”
—“Man, you’ve got it all. Handsome as Beavis, funny as Buttthead” I don’t know why, but that line killed me, maybe because it’s delivered with such misplaced awe.
—The Iron Bruce retreat, hoo boy, another gag that irrevocably carbon-dates The Critic as a product of the mid 1990s. Remember the Men’s Movement of the 1990s? No, you do not and it’s probably for the best.
—“I’m trying to get it to rain Harvey’s Bristol Cream.”
—“We’ll take Phil, the undercover narc.”
—“Whatever he is, he just ate a bucket of chum”
—“I’ve been declared dead by better coroners than you!”
—“I did this to show that instead of putting old people in nursing homes, you can turn us into slaves and pack animals.”
—“I may have screamed the word “potty” but they took it way out of context.”
—Next week Jay goes to Hollywood (though I will be taking a little break for the next two weeks, as I’m headed to Sundance). It’s a great one, and features some of the funniest work Billy Crystal has ever done (to damn it with some very faint praise).