When I interviewed Conan O’Brien for A.V Club a few years back I did the geeky fanboy thing and asked him if, during his time as a staff writer on The Simpsons, he was cognizant of the show’s profound cultural significance. I wanted to know he ever experienced out-of-body moments of incredible lucidity where he looked around and thought, “Holy fucking shit. I am part of some of the most amazing comedy in the history of the universe. I am breathing rarified air. The people around me are geniuses. We are creating something beautiful and pure and perfect that will stand the test of time and have a permanent, dramatic impact on the comic sensibility and creative output not just of a generation but of multiple generations. We aren’t just writing a show. We’re creating The Simpsons Generation.”
Of course nobody ever thinks that even if they are cognizant on some level that what they’re doing is important and matters. So O’Brien said that he understood that he was working on a great show with spectacularly talented people but when it’s three in the morning, you’re a little loopy from being up for twenty hours and you can’t even think about going home until you can think of something funny for Marge to say when she has a nuclear rod in her hair it begins to feel less like a sacred honor than a fucking job. A great fucking job, but a job all the same.
It feels a little ridiculous to write this, but the early seasons of The Simpsons are a little bit sacred to me. They’re my religion, the formative gospel that played a huge role in how I see myself and the world around me. So it can be jarring hearing the show’s writers and producers talk about it glibly.
On the audio commentary for “Saturdays of Thunder,” for example, one of the commentators says that whenever anyone tells him that The Simpsons is repeating itself or shouldn’t repeat itself he reminds them that at one point the show did back-to-back episodes about Homer worrying about not being a good enough father. If you remove Treehouse of Horrors from the equation, those episodes followed an episode that revolved around Krusty to reconcile with his father. The show did three episodes in quick succession about fathering.
There was a distinct note of defiant pride in the commentator’s boast. The implication was clear: The Simpsons didn’t start to repeat itself as the years went by and standards fell: The Simpsons repeated itself from the very beginning. Even when The Simpsons was as good as television can be it had a tendency to hit the same few notes hard.
Mike Reiss and Al Jean acknowledge, for example, that one of the hallmarks of their time as show-runners was a tendency to fill every blank space with parodies of television shows and movies and commercials and infomercial and the other white noise of pop culture. This was a tendency that would find full flower during the team’s time running The Critic but they warmed up here with smart little bite-sized spoofs.
On the commentary, the writers single out the Dirty Harry sequel Sudden Impact as the inspiration for their parody of the action movie cliché of a dedicated older cop proudly announcing that his life is officially perfect as a prelude to the character’s violent assassination at the hand of a vicious drug lord. But the cliché is so ubiquitous and the spoof so spot on (my favorite detail was the cop proudly flashing his new boat the “Live 4-Ever”) that it could double as a spoof of a half-dozen buddy cop movies.
As Reiss and Jean acknowledge, the characters in their episodes are forever staring glassy-eyed at a television or movie screen that provides a pretext for the loving parodies they’ve made their métier. So we open with a stand-alone vehicle for the exquisitely smarmy vocal stylings of Phil Hartman’s Troy McClure as he unveils Dr. Nick Rivera’s latest wonder product on an infomercial.
Troy McClure is such show biz gold that everything he says becomes a catchphrase, so he speaks entirely in catchphrases. He radiates such breathless self-confidence that me makes the way he says I’m Troy McClure a trademark. He owns that “I’m.” He fills one of the most common phrases in existence with macho cocky, mustachioed 1970s swagger. The way Hartman swaggers his way through I’m leaves no doubt we’re supposed to be very impressed by whatever follows.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Phil Hartman recently. On the same day I listened to Andy Dick tear up talking about what a father figure Hartman was to him on the set of NewsRadio I watched a Dave Foley vehicle called The Wrong Guy and I thought about how much deeper Hartman’s death affected my generation than deaths of similarly talented people.
I think about Hartman all the time and when I do it always fills me with a fresh sense of loss. I think that’s in part because Hartman was a bit of an idealized father figure for my generation. He was our conception of what a proper grown-up looked and acted like—but also because he played so many characters so indelibly on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live that an awful lot triggers memories of Hartman. I think about Sinatra, I think about Hartman. I think about Reagan, I think about Hartman. I think of Frankenstein, I think about Hartman. I think about Troy Donahue, I think about Hartman. I think about Doug McClure, I think about Hartman.
Much of what makes Hartman’s creations unforgettable is the joy he invests in them. We love watching Troy McClure bullshit his way through the very dregs of what can very generously be deemed pop culture because he derives such guileless pleasure from the nonsense coming out of his mouth; he seems genuinely impressed with himself when he crows that Edgar Allen Poe, whose grave is being spiffed up, was one of our best writers. Like all of Hartman’s slick-talking narcissists, Troy is in love with the sound of his own sonorous, endlessly soothing voice and that confidence can be hypnotic even when it’s not backed up by actual talent.
On the commentary, the writers almost seem to be bragging about how little effort went into constructing the “Saturdays of Thunder.” It didn’t just recycle Reiss and Jean’s beloved infomercial and show-business spoofs; it took the previous week’s premise and switched the genders so that Homer now fears that he’s failing Bart instead of Lisa.
In “Saturdays of Thunder”, Homer discovers through a parenting quiz that he knows almost nothing about Bart and his goals and dreams. This fills him with shame, though we never ultimately know whether Homer genuinely wants to be a better father to Bart and Lisa or if he simply wants to be perceived as a good father to Bart and Lisa. What do you think?
Regardless, Homer throws himself into the effort, transforming himself seemingly overnight from a man who fathers through a combination of neglect and mild verbal/physical abuse into a super-dad. He’s not very good of course but he makes a real effort. He wants to redeem himself but Bart is tempted by the spiffy super-racer built by Martin Prince and what I imagine is a team of top NASA rocket scientists.
There’s a heartbreaking moment deep into the episode when Bart tells his dad that he’ll be racing Martin’s car instead of the one they built together and Homer sits sadly in their crudely assembled racer as it slowly but surely falls apart, leaving him an existential nowhere man in a deep pool of loneliness.
The writers construct Bart’s betrayal along romantic lines. In Homer’s mind, Martin is the great seducer who robbed him of his son and broke up their happy home. When Lisa tries to alleviate some of her dad’s loneliness all he sees is more potential heartbreak if he further commits himself to being a good father. As Homer has reminded us, trying is often the first step in failing.
If “Saturdays of Thunder” is formulaic that’s probably because at this point the show was operating at such a high level that it didn’t need a constant influx of new ideas to remain vital. It had cracked the code: it was Reaganing. It was so good that the writers and producers could get a little cocky and formulaic. They could get away with the climactic big hug undercut by the closing sneer because at that point the show didn’t need to be blindingly original to be something close to perfect. It wasn’t problematic that The Simpsons repeated itself somewhat brazenly during its prime. It would become very problematic once the standards started to slip. This is the beginning of a very slippery slope; I’m reminded of the old newsreel gag on The Critic of an amazed announcer declaring that, remarkably, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando eat and eat and eat—and they never gain weight! Fate can be cruel however. Those empty calories eventually caught up with them, as did The Simpsons’ belief it could self-cannibalize with impunity for all of eternity.
—With the Buck Henderson: Union Buster line,half the humor comes from the name; half comes from Hartman’s hilariously faux-hard-boiled delivery and the way it segues seamlessly into his guilelessly exuberant explosion of “Troy and Company’s Summertime Smile Factory.”
—“With one application of Spiffy, you’ll think the body was still warm!"
—My two favorite Simpsons characters are The Fat Kid with the Thing and The Little Weiner who Always has his Hands in his Pockets. Why don't see much of them anymore?
—I love the resigned, reflective way Bart says, “Maybe it’s for the best” when informed that they’re finally hauling his father away, as if he'd been secretly anticipating that moment for years.
—“Save your palliative clichés for the next poor sap, doc.”
—Martin Prince gives the writers an opportunity to use all the fancy Harvard words that they never get around to putting in Mr. Burns’ mouth.
—Happy Mother’s Day everyone! Be good to yourselves and each other.