When Michael Jackson died, he was absolved of his sins and elevated to Sainthood. It’s this St. Michael, a creature of pure light and tireless protector of childhood innocence, that takes center stage in “Stark Raving Dad.” The episode was filmed at the end of The Simpsons’ second season but ran as the premiere of its third season.
By that point, The Simpsons had become such a pop culture tsunami that Jackson, arguably the most famous and beloved person in the world at the time, called the show himself and asked to be a guest voice, the only caveats being that he record it under an assumed name and not do his own singing. That last request might seem a little odd, but this is Michael Jackson we’re talking about. He was a bit of an odd duck.
At that stage in his career, Michael Jackson could probably have demanded that the show be recorded in Cantonese and end with the deaths of all the major characters, and The Simpsons probably still would have happily acquiesced. You don’t say no to the biggest pop star of his day and one of the preeminent pop culture icons of all time.
Jackson’s presence was a game-changer. Jackson was no ordinary guest star; he wasn’t Albert Brooks disappearing into some nutty character; Jackson loomed so large that a Simpsons episode featuring Michael Jackson almost by default had to be an episode about Michael Jackson.
According to the episode’s audio commentary, Jackson told Matt Groening that he loved Bart Simpson and was going to write a number one song for him. The show was flattered, but there are limits to even Michael Jackson’s power, and Bart Simpson is a fictional cartoon boy, not a recording artist. But in the dizzy Simpsons universe of the early 1990s all things were possible, so hot damn if Jackson didn’t write a fictional cartoon boy a number one hit with “Do The Bartman.”
But that was a ways away. First, the show had to create an episode around Jackson, so they chose themes they suspected Michael Jackson might find resonant: mental illness, non-conformity, racial and gender confusion, celebrity, the poignant loneliness of childhood, and being ostracized and mocked by society for being different.
“Stark Raving Dad” consequently boasts a distinctly Michael Jackson-style sentimentality. It straddles a fine line between sweet and sappy, ingratiatingly emotional and maudlin. The episode begins with Lisa once again bracing herself for life’s next great disappointment. In this case, it’s her very supportable belief that Bart will forget her upcoming birthday. Lisa is foolish enough to sometimes exist in a state of hope. That leads to existing in a state of perpetual disappointment.
Bart, meanwhile, ruins the wash by tossing his lucky red hat into the wash with the whites. Springfield has little use for free thinkers or even people who look like they’re capable of independent, autonomous thinking. That’s especially true of the Springfield Power Plant, so when Mr. Burns spies a pink-shirt-wearing Homer amongst the dispirited masses trudging zombie-like into the plant like the cursed wage-slaves of Joe Versus The Volcano, he singles him out for censure as a potential trouble-maker/rabble rouser.
Homer is tossed into a mental hospital where he encounters a sentient case of cognitive dissonance as his roommate: a hulking, bald, three-hundred pound white man who sings and talks and moves like Michael Jackson and is seemingly convinced he’s the real deal. It’s a strange contrivance for a strange man that riffs, consciously or unconsciously, on Jackson’s extreme racial and mutability; Jackson was famously a black man who over the course of his life came to look more and more like a white woman, so it’s both subversive and mildly damning to place Jackson in such a racially complicated context.
For reasons lost on the show’s writers and producers, Jackson insisted on having a white soundalike record the singing for the episode, though the show’s crew suspects he might have swapped in his own singing at the last minute. This further complicates and problematizes the show’s racial element; a white man was hired by a famous black man to sing in the famous black man’s unmistakable voice while he, Michael Jackson, did the speaking voice for an anonymous white man who wants the world to think he’s a famous black man. Got that?
In order for “Stark Raving Dad” to make any sense, we need to buy that Homer doesn’t know who Michael Jackson is; he may be oblivious, but that’s pushing it. Homer is the only person in the neighborhood in the dark about the fame of his mental-hospital roommate, so once news slips out that the Michael Jackson is going to be staying with the Simpsons, a wave of excitement and anticipation develops that dissipates instantly once the town sees what this Michael Jackson looks like.
The emotional dynamic for “Stark Raving Dad,” echoes that of “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire,” the episode that started it all. “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire” finds Homer making up for ruining another beloved Simpsons holiday with an impressive and heartwarming climactic gift. It only took an adorable dog to make everything all better on “Simspons Roasting On An Open Fire,” but by the time “Stark Raving Dad” came around, it took a whole lot more to get a Simpsons male out of the proverbial doghouse.
So “Stark Raving Dad” climaxes with a scene Jackson suggested: the gentle giant/King of Pop surrogate taking to a piano to help Bart write a song for Lisa’s birthday, not unlike Jackson himself writing a song for Bart’s introductory single. Jackson delivers an unexpectedly but wonderfully subdued and subtle voice performance; he sounds like the very voice of reason, even if his words are in violent conflict with the realities of his life. In “Stark Raving Dad”, Michael Jackson is less a man or an artist than an idea and a beautiful one at times. Jackson had come to represent something much bigger than himself; he was an identity that could be adopted to make people happy.
It’s hard to watch “Stark Raving Dad” today without a whole lot of historical irony; I cringed a little when the faux-Michael Jackson tells the Simpsons that he doesn’t drink alcohol. The episode is selling a romanticized version of Jackson’s persona; it’s a heartbreaking, heartwarming relic of a time when Jackson still possessed a halo of perfect childhood innocence and an exchange like the following made an entire generation of 15-year-old boys brains’ explode with pure joy.
“I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?”
“I’m Michael Jackson.”
Not a bad way to kick off a season, all things considered.
- I love that the “message” on Krusty’s 1-900 line is just gales of Krusty’s mocking laugher
- “I’m not popular enough to be different.”
- “Spare me the tiresome antics of the Simpsons family!”
- “What should we do about this freewheeling fop here?
- “Tell them this is a place where rich women lose weight.”
- “In the split second before he died, I think Scratchy appreciated his birthday present. Do you see how that relates to us? “
- “Judging by his outlandish attire he’s some sort of free-thinking anarchist!”
- “You’re a credit to dementia.”