Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Amusing Tombstones V: The Final Gasp (Treehouse of Horror V edition)

Finally, we're at "Treehouse of Horror V", which aired 30th October 1994, and was in many respects the transitional episode for the Halloween specials. It was the last to feature an opening skit in which a family member (usually Marge) warned the viewer about the disturbing content of the episode, and the first NOT to feature a wraparound narrative. It was also our last go with the amusing tombstones, and we only got one at that:

Amusing Tombstones: Self-explanatory. This running gag had run its course, and this was the writers' polite way of asking if they could be allowed to put it to rest. It was fun while it lasted.

The opening sequence of "Treehouse of Horror IV" featured a gag lampooning the contemporary backlash against televised violence, one of the hot political buttons of the day, in which a tombstone with the engraving "TV Violence" is mercilessly gunned down and left to bleed by offscreen detractors. This gag was carried over into "Treehouse of Horror V" - the episode starts with Marge receiving notice that, due to the episode's violent content, Congress have barred them from showing it, thus laying the tone perfectly for "Treehouse of Horror V", which plays unmistakably like an act of rebellion against congressional efforts to moderate media content. Marge's warning was no bluff, for "V" was unquestionably the most violent and gory Treehouse of Horror to date - characters are brutally axed in the back (or rather, one character is, on multiple occasions), helpless children are consumed by cannibalistic adults, and the upbeat finale involves the family being turned inside out so that their vital organs are exposed, whereupon Santa's Little Helper makes Alpo out of Bart's intestines. It was a classic example of The Simpsons sticking it to The Man, middle finger first. This defiance was felt all throughout the opening sequence, which still took place in the Springfield Cemetery, only in lieu of the amusing tombstones, we were treated to the sight of several characters being executed in alarmingly graphic ways.

Keep in mind that it wasn't just Congress who were wringing their hands over this kind of willfully unsavoury viewing. In the UK, Sky 1 had their own fairly strict set of censorship rules, meaning that Simpsons episodes were frequently vetted to remove some of the racier gags. It was always a revelation for the seasoned Sky 1 viewer to catch the very same episodes on BBC2 slightly later on in the decade and be treated to a barrage of extra Simpsons moments that were not there before. A while back, I took a look at Sky 1's handling of one of my favourite episodes, "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming", in which several cuts were made to remove multiple uses of the word "ass" and a couple of scenes in which Bob threatens Bart with a flick-knife, to an extent that sadly made mincemeat of the episode's overall narrative coherency. "Treehouse of Horror V" was another of the more heavily-edited episodes, and that opening sequence in particular took one heck of a savage slicing. Unfortunately, my old VHS recording of the Sky 1 edit of "Treehouse of Horror V" looks to have been permanently misplaced, so I cannot provide the kind of in-depth run-down that I did for "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming", but here's what I recall from memory:

  • The scene with Moe hanging from a tree (during which you can clearly hear his neck breaking) and then opening his eyes in an undead state was removed in its entirety.
  •  The scene with Reverend Lovejoy burning Patty and Selma at the stake was edited to remove the part where he actually sets them ablaze. In the Sky 1 edit, we cut directly to Patty and Selma tied to the burning pyre and using the blaze to light their cigarettes. You could still pick out Lovejoy standing there with his lit torch, if you were particularly eagle-eyed.
  • The scene with Bart, Skinner and the guillotine was edited to remove the part in which Skinner is decapitated. We saw Bart jump upon the severed heads of Willie, Krabappel and Wiggum, and promptly cut away once Skinner had given him the thumbs up sign.

The episode itself likewise endured a number of (often inexplicable) brushes with the censorship scissors. In "The Shinning", the scene with Moe ordering Homer to kill his family in exchange for a beer (an allusion to the "white man's burden" scene from Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining) was removed in its entirety, making it super-confusing when Moe later shows up to complain that the project isn't moving forward as planned. Also, I'm not entirely sure, but I don't recall the moment with Lisa asking Marge if Homer is going to kill them being in there either. The greatest casualty, however, was the running gag connecting all three segments, in which Groundskeeper Willie makes a heroic bid to save one or more of the Simpson family, only to be gruesomely offed with an axe in the back (a parody of the fate of Scatman Crothers' character in the aforementioned The Shining - I guess somebody in the Simpsons writing staff thought it hilarious that he came an awfully long way to help little Danny Torrence, only to meet a bloody end at the hands of an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson). Here's how the gag was presented in the Sky 1 edit:

  • In "The Shinning", we still saw Homer axe Willie in the back, but the scene cut away as quickly as possible, so that we didn't see the part in which Willie turns around to taunt Homer, bloodied axe protruding from the spine, and then keels over. You still got the message that Willie was dead, however, so this was definitely the least harmful of the edits.
  • "Time and Punishment", by contrast, had the most egregious cut, to an extent that really betrayed the overall lack of thought and care that went into making these edits appear seamless. Included in the Sky 1 edit was the part with Willie warning Homer that he still wasn't in his own timeline and offering to help him get home, but the moment where Maggie axes him in the back (and talks to Homer with James Earl Jones' voice) was cut completely. Instead, we cut straight from Willie assuring Homer he could get him home to Homer returning to prehistoric times and killing everything around him in a violent frenzy. Even without having seen the unedited episode, it was always extremely obvious that something was missing here.
  • In "Nightmare Cafeteria", we saw the bit with Skinner axing Willie in the back but, as with "The Shinning", they cut away immediately. Gone was the part with Willie acknowledging, with his very last breath, that he was really bad at this rescuing business, thus giving closure to the whole gag.

Ah well, thank fudge my days as a Sky 1 viewer are over.

Lastly, rest in peace Amusing Tombstones. And also Casper (Friendly Boy mode), Elvis, Bambi's Mom, Drexell's Class, R. Buckminster Fuller and Subtle Political Satire. You may all be gone, but your memory is always lying in wait with each revisit to the Treehouse of Horror.

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Amusing Tombstones IV: The Political Special! (Treehouse of Horror IV edition)

Onto "Treehouse of Horror IV", which aired on 28th October 1993, and our penultimate romp through the Springfield Cemetery. Change was in the air for the Treehouse of Horror, as it began to shift away from its relatively grounded origins - in that the segments were originally contextualised as stories being told (or else dreamed) by the Simpsons characters - and into something altogether more divorced from the core reality of the series. A subtle deviation in "Treehouse of Horror III" had already indicated the waning importance of the wraparound narrative - unlike previous years, the episode did not return to the wraparound for a final punchline (possibly because the one used in "Treehouse of Horror II" was a tough act to follow) and instead allowed the segment to have the last word. "Treehouse of Horror IV" was the last to contain any kind of wraparound narrative; in this case, less a narrative than a spoof of Night Gallery, with Bart in the role of Rod Serling.

The amusing tombstones continued as usual, but their days too were numbered. At this point the writers had pretty much exhausted their options when it came to uncanny urban legends and macabre pop cultural digs, and so, following on from that American Workmanship tomb seen in "Treehouse of Horror III", most of the tombstones here have a conspicuously political slant.

Elvis - Accept It: The writers' weariness at having to bash out new tombstones year after year was by now becoming evident. This is basically a retread of a gag from the original "Treehouse of Horror", except that here the joke is made much more explicit, so that you can't possibly miss the point being made. I guess by now the world was growing weary of the "Elvis lives" conspiracy theory too.
A Balanced Budget: An allusion to another horrifying US tradition that happens to coincide with October time - that is, the start of the federal fiscal year.

Subtle Political Satire: Obviously this thing is as dead as the dinosaur. Although it does serve as a sardonic echo to the preceding tombstone.

TV Violence: Media violence in general was a subject of much hand-wringing and much congressional discussion in the early 1990s, as many attributed an apparent rise in violent crime to the availability of gory images in increasingly media-saturated times. The Television Violence Act of 1990, authored by Senator Paul Simon, gave the broadcast industry three years in which to enforce stricter standards regarding televised violence, although Simon claimed that the act was to be taken as an encouragement, not a requirement. By August 1993, the major networks had responded with no response, and Simon was threatening a much stricter crackdown. Meanwhile, V-Chip technology was being discussed as a means of filtering out violent imagery within the family home, and elsewhere in the entertainment industry, video games triggered a moral panic that ultimately led to the infamous congressional hearing on 9th December 1993 (at which Night Trap, one of the daftest, most ridiculously innocuous items ever devised by man, was held up as a textbook example of our increasingly degenerate society).
The joke at the start of "Treehouse of Horror IV" is very clever - here, we see TV Violence come under fire of a more literal nature, as the tombstone is desecrated by a barrage of bullets and blood starts to gush out of the holes. A statement, I suppose, that the moral outcry against TV violence was part of the same vicious cycle of mindless aggression that it posited itself as fighting against. Oh, and did we just say that subtle political satire was dead?

Monday, 28 October 2019

Amusing Tombstones III: Love Thy Neighbour (Treehouse of Horror III edition)

And now onto "Treehouse of Horror III", which aired on 29th October 1992. By now, The Simpsons was into its fourth season, and had been around for long enough to have demonstrated that its popularity was no passing fad - as such, the show was feeling confident enough about its own longevity to be taking swipes at less fortunate programs that had already come and gone within its own lifetime. Speaking of which...

Drexell's Class: A short-lived Fox sitcom that aired on Thursdays after The Simpsons throughout the 1991-1992 season. It starred Dabney Coleman as Otis Drexell, a convicted tax dodger who was forced to take a job as an elementary school teacher in order to pay off his taxes, all while grappling with the challenges of being a single father. The show lasted for eighteen episodes and was not renewed for a second season, so here The Simpsons was paying loving tribute to its deceased neighbour...while exuding an obvious air of schadenfreude.

Drexell's Class may have been dead, but Coleman's career playing gruff educational authority figures was not - he went on to voice Principal Prickly in the Disney animated series Recess.

Drexell's Class wasn't the only failed contemporary series to be skewered in "Treehouse of Horror III" - elsewhere in the episode, they also danced on the graves of Fish Police, Capitol Critters and Family Dog, three gruesomely unsuccessful attempts at answering The Simpsons' own unprecedented success on the prime-time animation front. I covered this gag a long time ago in this post. Family Dog, as you know, I have an inexplicable affection for, but I'm generally indifferent toward Fish Police and I flat-out don't like Capitol Critters.
At the time of typing there are two and three-quarters episodes of Drexell's Class at large on YouTube, so you can check it out and judge for yourself if it was put into the grave prematurely, or put out of its misery in good time.
I'm With Stupid: A popular slogan found on novelty t-shirts, the general inanity of which was lampooned in greater detail in the Season 8 episode "Hurricane Neddy".
R. Buckminster Fuller: Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895 - 1983), an American architect, best known for popularising the geodesic dome (the actual invention of which is to be credited to German engineer Walther Bauersfield). A miniature replica of the dome can be seen at the top of Fuller's tombstone. Unfortunately for Fuller, his grave is standing adjacent to the I'm With Stupid one, rendering him the subject of perpetual mockery.
Slapstick: We don't get a particularly good look at this one, but the grave is wide open...indicating that slapstick has risen from the dead? Alternatively, the gravedigger fell in. Woob woob woob!

American Workmanship: The tombstone promptly disintegrates. A commentary on America's current economic position (America was still feeling the effects of the early 1990s recession, which ended in March 1991, although unemployment rates remained high throughout 1992) and the declining US manufacturing industry.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

Amusing Tombstones II: Driver, Where You Taking Us? (Treehouse of Horror II edition)

Continuing our tribute to the once-traditional stroll through the Springfield Cemetery that launched each Simpsons Halloween special in the show's early years, let's take a look at the macabre delights on offer in the opening sequence to "Treehouse of Horror II". This episode first aired on 31st October 1991, as the world remained haunted by everything from the bizarre legacies of its rock and animation juggernauts to the eating habits of the preceding decade.

Bambi's Mom: Since its debut in 1942, Walt Disney's feature animation Bambi has caused no shortage of childhood heartbreak with its stark and upsetting depiction of the death of the titular character's mother (Bambi's coming of age, and the death of his mother, was first depicted in the novel Bambi, a Life in the Woods by Austrian author Felix Salten, but it is the Disney adaptation that gave this shocking narrative moment its indispensable cultural legacy). Bambi's mother (who was voiced by Paula Winslowe) has no name of her own, or at least none is ever given - she is simply a force of maternal benevolence, tender, knowledgeable and nurturing, and the viewer comes to feel as reassured by her presence and guidance as does Bambi, making her death a terrible blow on both counts.
After enduring a harsh winter, Bambi and his mother are relieved to finally stumble across spring grass in the thawing snow, with its promises of regeneration and new life. Fate, however, has played a particularly cruel trick on them, for it is in stopping to eat the supply of grass that they leave themselves vulnerable to attack from offscreen hunters, whose presence Bambi's mother senses too late. Bambi himself escapes, but his mother is not so fortunate. Significantly, the sequence where his mother dies is the last point in the story in which we see Bambi as a fawn, for her death is an indication that his childhood has come to an abrupt halt. Spring is still on the way (the grass didn't lie about that much), but things will never be the same again. The fade-out at the end of this sequence is followed by a startling transition, in which we discover the forest in full spring mode, with a lot of twitterpated birds eagerly singing about the joys of romance and procreation - a symbol of life going on that nevertheless seems disturbing in its indifference to what the viewer has just witnessed. That life carries on after The End, oblivious to one's personal suffering, is perhaps the very harshest lesson to be learned. The tombstone seen at the start of "Treehouse of Horror II" is an unsettling reminder of everything this character death symbolises, both for Bambi and for the viewer - the carcass of this benevolent Disney doe lies six feet under at the Springfield Cemetery, and our childhood innocence lies dead and buried along with her.
Jim Morrison: Lead vocalist of psychedelic rock band The Doors, who joined the infamous "27 Club" after suffering heroin-induced heart failure on 3rd July 1971. In actuality, Morrison is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris; his grave was initially unmarked, and only received an official headstone in 1981, on the 10th anniversary of his death. This was courtesy of Croatian sculptor Mladen Mikulin, who also supplied a bust of Morrison. The depiction in "Treehouse of Horror II" shows the famous tombstone adorned with graffiti, and with a couple of hippie types camped out beside it - Morrison's grave swiftly became a popular place of pilgrimage for fans, many of whom wished to leave their own unorthodox tributes in the form of tags, which also spread to adjacent cemetery features (so Bambi's Mom's tombstone probably wouldn't look so spotless). Mikulin's bust was stolen in 1988, and in 1990 the grave underwent renovation, during which Mikulin's then heavily-defaced tombstone was destroyed and replaced - so the appearance at the start of "Treehouse House II" is as much a tribute to the lost tombstone itself as to Morrison and his cultural legacy. This website contains a visual history of Morrison's grave over the years.
Cajun Cooking: America went through something of a "Cajun Craze" in the 1980s, inspired largely by the popularity of Louisianian celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme. His recipe for blackened redfish became a hit and led to Cajun-style restaurants opening up all over the country, many of whom apparently knew little about what constituted authentic Cajun cuisine. The craze had died down by the 1990s, although not without leaving a critical dent in the wild redfish population.
Walt Disney: Not far from the resting place of his most notoriously ill-fated character lies the big D himself. Walt Disney's tombstone has icicles hanging off it, an allusion to the urban legend that Disney, on being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, had himself cryogenically frozen so that he could be revived and treated at such a time when medical science had caught up with his condition. I love this legend as much as the next person (and whatever your feelings on Disney as a person, the notion of him being frozen in an underground ice chamber beneath the Pirates of The Caribbean ride at Disneyland is all kinds of rad) but in reality, Disney died on 15th December 1966 and all evidence points to his body being cremated two days later. The cryogenics rumor goes at least as far back as 1969, where it was mentioned in a publication of the magazine Ici Paris. It was later promoted by Leonard Mosely's 1986 biography Disney's World, and later still by Walt Disney - Hollywood's Dark Prince by Marc Eliot in 1993, both of which suggest that Disney had an interest in cryogenics, although neither is considered a credible source.
Other aspects of Disney iconography adorn the grave - a pair of Mickey Mouse ears can be discerned at the top of the tombstone, and the engraving is done in the famous Disney script (often thought to be a recreation of Disney's own signature, although that too is dubious).
Lose Weight Now Ask Me How: The marketing slogan of Herbalife Nutrition, a company specicalising in dietary products and supplements. The slogan was worn on pin badges by Herbalife distributors as an open invitation to the public to approach them and ask them about subjects related to their product. The gag here is obvious, in that the peddler, in this case, is dead. So good luck getting answers.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Amusing Tombstones: A Spirited Beginning (Treehouse of Horror edition)

It took The Simpsons six years to revisit the holiday season that kicked off their run as a standalone series, but they had no such hesitation about ringing in Halloween year after year, a tradition established with their sixteenth episode, "Treehouse of Horror" (which bore the more conventional onscreen title "The Simpsons Halloween Special"). And little wonder - the Halloween episodes yielded the perfect excuse to snake into darker and weirder territory than a regular episode would allow. Twenty-nine sequels later and the basic formula has remained unaltered - three self-contained stories, each with no bearing on the show's continuity - but the series has undergone its share of evolution over the years, and it's inevitable that we've seen a few of the early conceits and innovations be discarded along the way (for one, only the first "Treehouse of Horror" was set principally inside a treehouse, meaning that the title hasn't made a whole lot of subsequent sense, except as a callback to that original episode).

One early tradition that lasted for only the first few Treehouse of Horrors was the opening pan through the Springfield Cemetery (which, in Halloween episodes, was always conveniently located directly before the Simpsons' house), complete with an annual selection of tombstones bearing sardonic engravings. These were abandoned after "Treehouse of Horror V" because the writers figured that they had exhausted all possibilities on that front (and in fairness, they were already starting to repeat themselves by "Treehouse of Horror IV"), but for as long as they lasted, the Springfield Cemetery served as a nice all-purpose resting ground for the macabre heritage that continues to haunt our collective cultural psyches. From contemporary pop cultural digs to bizarre urban legends, it all lay buried six feet under, and only metres from the Simpsons' front yard. To mark the twenty-ninth anniversary of the original "Treehouse of Horror" (which first aired on 25th October 1990), here's a run-down of what lies beneath throughout our first graveyard stroll:

Ishmael Simpson, Ezekiel Simpson and Cornelius V. Simpson: I assumed at first that these alluded to actual historical people with the name Simpson, but my research has come up disappointingly short on the matter. So I think they're just supposed to be members of the Simpson lineage from earlier generations. Cornelius V. Simpson, though, may be an allusion to Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), a prominent 19th century American business magnate who had a major hand in shaping the country's railroad industry. Incidentally, Ishmael and Ezekiel were also the names of the two children who, in the Season 3 episode "Bart's Friend Falls In Love", were permitted to step outside and pray for us all during Ms Krabappel's sex ed class.
Garfield: I presume this refers to the fictional cat created by cartoonist Jim Davis in 1978, and not the US president James A. Garfield. As such, I'm not entirely sure what this is getting at, for in 1990 both the Garfield comic strip and TV series Garfield and Friends were still going strong. But if I were to hazard a guess, I'd say it has to do with the fact that, in 1990, Garfield was twelve years old, which is about the average lifespan for a domestic cat (it is not at all uncommon for cats to make it into their teens, but a cat as morbidly obese as Garfield probably wouldn't fare so well).

The Grateful Dead: Californian rock band founded by Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Ron McKernan, Phil Lesh and Bill Kreutzmann in 1965. I don't think there's any greater subtext here than what's in the name. Dead and thankful for it.

Casper The Friendly Boy: Casper The Friendly Ghost was a character created by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo in 1939 for a children's book, The Friendly Ghost, who later went on to appear in a series of theatrical animated shorts from Famous Studios between 1945 and 1959, and a popular series of spin-off comics published by Harvey Comics. Casper was a young, non-threatening ghost with a greater interest in befriending the living than in haunting them, but people tended to run screaming from him anyway (as most humans don't like staring their own mortality in the face). The tombstone glimpsed at the start of "Treehouse of Horror" touches on the grim implications of the concept, in that Casper was presumably once a living child who died at a tragically young age. In the 1995 feature film Casper it was established that he died of pneumonia after playing out too long in the snow, but I think I prefer Bart and Lisa's joint hypothesis in the Season 2 episode "Three Men and A Comic Book". Bart offers a theory that Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich (a young millionaire, also of the Harvey Comics line-up). Lisa acknowledges that they do look eerily similar and muses, "Perhaps he realised how hollow the pursuit of money is and took his own life." Suddenly everything is clear.

Elvis: Rock n' roll legend Elvis Presley died of a heart attack on 16th August 1977, but the general public doesn't relinquish its cultural icons quite so easily, and since that fateful day various conspiracy theories have abounded that Elvis faked his death in order to escape the tyranny of fame and live out a private life. Hopeful fans have subsequently spotted their hero everywhere, from the Memphis International Airport to the 1990 film Home Alone (where you can reportedly see The King lingering in the background in one of the airport scenes just behind Catherine O'Hara). The Elvis conspiracy is touched on, among other places, in the 1991 film Slacker, in which a character theorises that if Elvis were alive and half-ass cool, he would be working as an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas, living out the daily spiritual hell of having to parody himself at the height of his ridiculous - which is what those of us who are over 28 are having to do every day of our lives anyway.

Your Name Here: Self-Explanatory.

Paul McCartney: More rock n' roll mythology, only this one pushing in the opposite direction of the aforementioned Elvis Presley legend. Because while we as a species might have this thing about letting go of our cultural icons, what we're really suckers for, at the end of the day, is a good cover-up story. Paul McCartney, of course, is alive and well and would later make a guest appearance in the Season 7 episode "Lisa The Vegetarian", but back in 1967 rumors circulated that he had been killed in a traffic accident and replaced with a lookalike, and lo, the "Paul Is Dead" conspiracy theory was forever cemented into popular culture. Proponents of the theory were scanning the Beatles' recent discography for hidden "clues" that the Paul featured therein was an imposter, and came up with a wealth of compelling evidence - among them, that the cover to the band's 1969 album Abbey Road showed the foursome walking in a funeral procession, amid which Paul is conspicuously out of sync with the others, and is the only one walking barefoot (because he represents the "corpse"). Paul, who was left-handed, was also holding a cigarette in his right hand, while the license plate on a car in the backdrop reads "28IF", alluding to what would have been McCartney's age, IF he had lived (in actuality, McCartney was 27 at the time). Elsewhere, some fans thought they heard John Lennon blurting out "I buried Paul" at the coda to the band's 1967 single "Strawberry Fields Forever" (the actual words, according to Lennon, were "Cranberry sauce"). Plus, the Beatles did seem eager to push this mysterious Billy Shears in "Sgt Peppers", so...might that be the true identity of our imposter? The most credible explanation would be that human beings are simply highly adept at seeing whatever they want to see, but even today there are those who remain fascinated by this legend.

Disco: Well, there is this tendency to equate disco music with death. Although as a personal rule, anyone who uses the phrase "deader than disco" is not getting into my good books.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

How Morbid Are You? Take The Food Standards Agency's BBQed Sausage Test

First of all, a disclaimer is in order. This piece concerns an advertisement created by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) for the summer BBQ season of 2006 to warn the public about the dangers of eating improperly-cooked meat. In a way this is highly unusual material for me to be covering, since I am a vegan, I haven't eaten a sausage in almost a quarter-century and, irrespective of all that, I abhor the general atmosphere at BBQs. So it goes without saying that I was never the target audience for this thing. But then, who doesn't love an emotionally-scarring public information film to remind us just how delicately the balance between life and death is constantly hanging? And this one managed to hit me where it really hurt by factoring in a subject about which I am very passionate - that is to say, disco music - and distorting it to fit its own exceedingly warped ends. The resulting PIF may contain quite possibly the most disturbing amalgamation of upbeat music track and incongruously perverse punchline that I've ever come across. Just how perverse? Well, there is a bit of a twist to that particular tale. As it turns out, my own mind is perhaps slightly more macabre than the FSA's.

The song in question is "When Will I See You Again", a 1974 hit for The Three Degrees, the lyrics of which convey the perspective of a hopeful romantic questioning if their happy encounter with a charismatic individual signals the beginning of a promising new relationship, or if their two-way magnetism has already reached its natural expiry date. The song is tinged with its share of anxiety and uncertainty, but overall it's a nice, non-threatening listen. That was before the FSA got their hands on it and projected all-round darker implications onto the song's titular lyrics. Most of the 30-second ad was taken up by the mundane sight of a batch of sausages cooking on a BBQ grille, while an off-screen chef intermittently prods them. It's not an especially riveting set-up, but I think there is just enough that's slightly off-kilter about it to put you on vague alert. The placement of that Three Degrees song alongside a bunch of sausages definitely feels odd, even before its meaning becomes apparent, and there is something automatically unsettling about the fact that we can't see the person controlling those cooking implements. Our anxieties are not unfounded - there is something less than savoury going on beneath the surface of this picture. Sure, those sausages appear crisp and well-done on the outside, but what do their innards look like?

Oh the humanity.

I remember being pretty horrified by this ad back in the day - less by the sight of that pink-centred sausage than by the sheer snarkiness of that final tagline, and by the gleeful manner in which it totally subverted the significance of that seemingly wholesome track. My immediate thought was that there were some seriously twisted people working at the FSA. The knock-on effect for me, unfortunately, is that I've never been able to listen to that Three Degrees song in quite the same way again. It's no longer a bittersweet song about the possibility of new love hanging in the balance, but a taunting reminder of my own mortality, and of the grievous dangers lurking in the most banal of places (ie: precisely the opposite of nice and non-threatening).

That could soon change, though. I recently came across an article on the advert on the BBC's website, and I was rather taken back, after all these years, to gain a window into the actual thinking behind the ad:

"James Brandon, head of marketing for the FSA, says when they are looking at campaigns which are designed to change people's behaviour, there are two possible directions. One is shock tactics, and the other is humour. For something like food poisoning, which most people do not take seriously as an issue unless they get sick, research had shown that shock tactics were not well received...

...Would an advert which threatened people with a possible - but remote - chance of death be more effective than one which promises the more realistic - but not so serious - chance of spending the night with one's head in the toilet bowl?"

Whoa whoa whoa, back up the truck there, James. Are you telling me THAT was the intended subtext of the advert all along? That the inferred "you" in the song's personalised usage of "When Will I See You Again" was actually referring to the underdone sausage, implying that whichever unlucky BBQ attendee ingests it will be seeing it again later that day in semi-digested form when their poisoned body opts to violently reject it? That all these years, I've been haunted by a PIF threatening me with something as trivial as vomiting? This really does come as a revelation to me, because that's totally NOT the message I took from it. I assumed that a possible but remote chance of sausage-related fatality was indeed what you were going for. Although a quick glance through the comments in that article would suggest that not many people shared my confusion.

So yes, it turns out that I may have misread that particular punchline, can't just be me, surely? Did nobody else think that there was perhaps a more morbid subtext to be gleaned from the ad's juxtaposition of "When Will I See You Again" with the taunting response, "Sooner than you think"? I mean, think about it. (If you still don't get it, then here's a hint - as per my interpretation, the scene is pervaded by an eerie sense of death having already occurred, with the horrifying reminder that you could be the next to go, if you're not more attentive to what you're putting in your mouth there.)

I will concede that the vomiting subtext would be much more germane to the specific threat of food-poisoning (it also gives fiendish new meaning to the line "Will I have to suffer and cry the whole night through?"), whereas my own personal interpretation would be more generic, and could be applied to any number of PIFs across a broad range of subjects. But there's something particularly hair-raising about the thought of death calling through something as banal as a poorly-BBQed sausage - which, of course, is the mark of a truly effective PIF. The best (worst?) PIFs are always terrifying because they accentuate the mundaneness that contextualises much of life's genuine horrors (the Three Degrees song also contains the line "Or is this the end?", which arguably emphasises the dicey nature of the subject's culinary incompetence). This ad has a bleak power that I don't think the FSA even realised it had. Either way, I suppose what matters is that they got their point across. Even if it is a moot point in my case.

I fear that the Three Degrees song is still ruined forever, however. Associating it with someone throwing a seven in one sense is no more pleasant than associating it with them throwing a seven in another. Ah well, at least you didn't get "The Runner", you creeps.

I also suspect that James Brandon or somebody else in the FSA's marketing department in the 00s had a soul fetish because I also have vague memories of another (slightly less horrifying) ad from earlier in the decade conveying the same message using "Give Me Just A Little More Time" by Chairmen of The Board. Only I now can't find a trace of that ad's existence online. Did I merely dream that one?

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Homer's Night Out (aka An Aperture Monograph)

Let's take a look at "Homer' Night Out" (episode 7G10) - that way, I'll have covered all four episodes in the Home-Wrecker tetralogy. On top of which, I think this episode could use some more adoration, because on the whole, it seems to me that "Homer's Night Out" is one of the more underrated episodes of Season 1. It's not an episode that people tend to talk about often, perhaps because, of all the tones and approaches the series dabbled with throughout Season 1, it doesn't really stand out as possessing the most prominent example of any. It has a dramatic element but doesn't go quite as full-on with it as "Life on The Fast Lane", and while it also has an unmistakably light and silly side, it's not quite as wild and wacky as some of the more gag-driven episodes of the season, like "Bart The Genius" or "Call of The Simpsons". It deals, to an extent, with the theme of waning childhood innocence, but with less of the melancholy of "Moaning Lisa" or the bitter disillusionment of "Krusty Gets Busted". It's telling that in Nathan Rabin's review of the episode on the AV Club, he has curiously little to say about the episode itself - the first two paragraphs of his review are taken up by an unrelated anecdote about an Insane Clown Posse gig, after which he proceeds to talk mostly about how archaic the episode is by modern standards, with its central plot point regarding a salacious picture being endlessly xeroxed and distributed around town (this would all be accomplished via social media now, of course, but if you've read your Jan Harold Brunvand, then you'll know that this is how stuff like chain letters got around back in the day), before wrapping up with a couple of brief paragraphs about Homer's desire to be respected by Bart. He also gets Princess Kashmir, our Home-Wrecker of the week, mixed up with Aladdin's girlfriend. I don't know, but I get the impression somehow that Rabin didn't have a whole lot of enthusiasm for reviewing this one to begin with, and I can't say that I understand why. "Homer's Night Out" might not immediately register as one of the stand-outs of the season, but it's still a great early installment with a strong, intelligent script, which handles another tumultuous situation with the subtle wit and thoughtful characterisation that the first season was known for.

"Homer's Night Out", which first aired on 25th March 1990, is the 10th episode of Season 1, and follows on directly from "Life on The Fast Lane". It's interesting to note that we had two episodes back-to-back examining the persistent trouble in Homer and Marge's domestic paradise, a preoccupation which suddenly became a lot more salient in the back-half of the season (although we do have the early animation woes of "Some Enchanted Evening" to thank for that, otherwise they might have been a bit more evenly distributed). Here, we have Marge temporarily booting Homer from the household when a snapshot of him sharing a euphoric moment with exotic belly dancer Princess Kashmir becomes the talk of Springfield - a situation that's made all the more prickly with the revelation that the picture was taken by none other than Bart, with his brand new spy camera, and Marge fears that her son's first voyeuristic glimpse into the private world of adult licentiousness will have tarnished his prepubescent psyche. It's a very different kind of scenario to "Life on The Fast Lane", although in some respects the two episodes do feel like perfect companion pieces, in that they each deal with the adult Simpsons' mixed emotions regarding the world outside of Evergreen Terrace, and who they otherwise could be if they weren't tethered by their familial commitments. Marge is resigned to her role as the long-suffering emotional centre of the Simpson household, but remains innately curious as to what else might be out there for her, and there is a wistful part of her that's clearly enamored with the prospect of breaking away and starting anew. For Homer, the alternative is less optimistic - he has no genuine desire to retreat from the security of his marriage and take his chances in the altogether more feral world outside, but he does occasionally feel pressured to emulate the ferals in order to blend in with them. "Homer's Night Out" goes a step further than its predecessor in enforcing this tension between a sacred interior and external corruption, representing the family home as a place of stability, while the world beyond is depicted as an all-out wilderness, overflowing with filth both literal and figurative in nature. At the heart of the episode, perhaps even more pressing than the respective plot points regarding his relationships with Marge and Bart, is Homer's horror at being confronted with the kind of lifestyle he could potentially be leading if he hadn't settled down with Marge and become a family man - in other words, if he'd ended up like his friend and drinking companion, perpetual bachelor Barney Gumble.

Before I go any further, I'll note that "Homer's Night Out", like "Colonel Homer", is another episode where I've seen Marge take flak for her indignation toward Homer's activities therein. Some people question how she can be so angry at Homer for dancing with another woman when, just last episode, she was only one ironic drive away from fucking Jacques. To that, I'd say that the picture taken by Bart does not exactly show a wholesome scene of two people partying innocently - the dollar bills protruding from Kashmir's g-string are highly incriminating and betray the salacious context of their interaction. Adding to Marge's distress is the extremely public nature of Homer's indiscretion; the whole town knows about it, has the evidence affixed to their walls and is now not-so-silently judging them (Homer may not have intended for there to be this massive knock-on effect, but he still has to account for it). So you would expect Marge to be mortified by the situation. If I still haven't convinced you, then you might also consider that, even though "Life on The Fast Lane" aired first, the production coding identifies "Homer's Night Out" as the 10th episode of the series and "Life on The Fast Lane" as the 11th. So I think that, in terms of the series' internal chronology, the events of "Homer's Night Out" actually come first. Marge isn't factoring in her almost-affair with Jacques as a reason to go easy on Homer, because it hasn't happened yet. (Not that it makes a huge difference to me either way - again, apples to oranges.)

Kashmir (who also identifies as April Flower or Shawna Tifton, depending on the context) is unique among the Home-Wreckers for a number of reasons. Firstly, she's the only Home-Wrecker to be voiced by a series regular, rather than a guest star (in her case Maggie Roswell, who is also the voice of Maude Flanders and Helen Lovejoy). She's also the only Home-Wrecker who never had any real interest in pursuing a relationship with either of the Simpson adults. Her dealings with Homer are strictly professional - she singles out Homer to dance with at the bachelor party of his work colleague Eugene Fisk (who went from being Homer's assistant to his supervisor in the space of six months, much to Homer's chagrin), and can barely conceal her disinterest when Homer later tracks her down at one of her many places of employment. For his part, Homer appears to go along with it not so much out of any actual lust for Kashmir as out of peer pressure. He simply wants to be one of the guys at the party. This mutual lack of attraction means that "Homer's Night Out" forgoes the central conflict at the heart of "Life on The Fast Lane", and also "Colonel Homer" and "The Last Temptation of Homer", in which the Disaffected Simpson is forced to consider exactly what ties them to their current spouse and if this is indeed the life that they really want. "Homer's Night Out" is not a fraught story of divided loyalties, but while the situation seems less critical than in "Life on The Fast Lane", it still manages to incorporate moments of quiet, understated drama, particularly during the middle portion of the story, when the focus in on Homer's banishment into the badlands predominantly populated by the loose and the unattached. There's a particularly effective bit where Homer, having accepted Barney's offer to put him up in his squalid bachelor pad, looks down upon the view of the city from Barney's window and notes regretfully that he can pick out his former grounds, now just a distant speck of light in the horizon - a contemplative moment that is immediately undercut in being placed in context with the banalities of domesticity ("Someone must have left the porch light on"). Soon after, we get an equally understated moment at the family breakfast table, where Lisa (who doesn't have a lot else to do in this episode), wonders aloud when her dad is coming home, and Marge looks on sadly, as if she sees the matter as out of her hands. (I realise that this scene was foreshadowed earlier on in the episode when Bart, upon learning that only four of the family will be dining at The Rusty Barnacle, indelicately asked which of them escaped.)

"Homer's Night Out" is another episode which ultimately upholds the supremacy of the family unit, and as such could be seen as quite conservative in its conclusions (as we'll see, the episode takes a somewhat dim view of those living the single life), although like "Life on The Fast Lane" it was also very radical - certainly for a cartoon in 1990 - in illustrating how problems of this nature could even factor into the ostensibly wholesome American household in the first place. And really, the final message is quite a bit more complicated than that, for "Homer's Night Out" has more on its mind than simply extolling the virtues of a more traditional lifestyle - in order to win his way back into the family household, Homer finds himself taking a stand against chauvinism and the kind of "boys will be boys" culture that frequently results in the dehumanisation of women. It's about his relationship with Marge but in the third act the emphasis shifts more to his relationship with Bart and the idea that, as much as Bart may revel in driving his old man up the wall, he remains the key male role model in Bart's life. Above all, though, it's about Homer having to traverse the wilderness (albeit a very different kind of wilderness to the one he already faced in "Call of The Simpsons") and reaffirm his domestication - this much is signposted in the episode's title, which ostensibly refers to Homer's rowdy night at Eugene's party, but is really about his night of ceremonious exile from Evergreen Terrace and the wedge driven between himself and the rest of the Simpson clan. Hammering it home, of course, is the stark contrast between the relatively immaculate Simpson household and the grungy digs where Barney resides. Barney's hospitality, while well-intentioned, is not exactly assuaging ("If you get hungry in the middle of the night, there's an open beer in the fridge").

At this point it seems pertinent to make a few observations about Barney in general. In my coverage of "Life on The Fast Lane", I mentioned that the original intention was for him to own the local bowling alley (hence the name "Barney's Bowlarama"), but that was abandoned when the writers decided that it was somewhat far-fetched for a character this ravaged by alcohol addiction to be a successful businessman (although the connection was maintained to a degree, in that Barney's uncle was revealed to be the owner in "And Maggie Makes Three"). More importantly, it would have detracted from Barney's raison d'être, which basically is to make Homer look better. However you may feel about Homer's lifestyle choices, seeing him next to Barney puts it all into perspective. Homer, for all his faults, can at least hold down a steady job and put food on the table (albeit with less plausibility with each passing season), while Barney is a sorry example of just how painfully alcohol dependency can devastate a person's life. He serves his purpose, then, but he is nevertheless kind of unsettling as a character, in that there does seem to something disingenuous about how the show regards him, and his social problem. He is not an especially funny character - at the least, he seems less funny to me now than when I was a child, and his non-stop belching was always good for laughs. And while he is an extremely pitiful character, his alcoholism is only very infrequently played for pathos. For the most part, he's just there to be gross, unkempt and disgusting, his addiction having robbed him of his every last shred of self-respect and devoured his agency to the point where his characteristic belching has essentially become his sole means of expression. If you listen to the DVD commentaries, then you'll know that Barney has historically been a contentious character behind the scenes, with a number of writers strongly disliking having to write material for him. In fact, when the "Who Shot Mr Burns?" mystery was undergoing its gestation, some writers apparently pushed hard for Barney to be the culprit, since it would have yielded a good excuse to remove him from the show. I don't know if they've ever gone particularly in-depth into the reasons why, but so far as I can tell it has to do with many writers seeing the "funny drunk" as an outdated comedy archetype. This hostility may account for why there was some experimentation with making him sober in Season 11, and why later seasons seemed to shift away from Barney altogether and put more emphasis on Homer's friendship with Lenny and Carl.

What we see of Barney's lifestyle in "Homer's Night Out" barely scratches the surface in terms of how wretchedly his addiction has destroyed him, but we can tell as soon as Homer enters his apartment that he's descended into a particularly unsanitary kind of Hell, with suspicious dark patches strewn across the carpet and a half-consumed can of beer with his name on it. It's through our window into Barney's private life that the episode reveals a suspicion of those existing outside of a family unit - or upscale young singles, as Barney calls them - whom it depicts as comfortably sleeping within their own filth and having little better to do than to while away the early hours listening to disco music at the party down the hallway. This is what life looks like for those who lack a spouse and kids to keep their hedonistic urges in check. The idea that this kind of hedonism is diametrically opposed to the sanctity of the traditional family unit is enforced during the first act at The Rusty Barnacle, when Marge complains that the noise from the function in the adjacent room is intruding on her family's peaceful evening meal (unaware that her husband is one of the rabble-rousers). At the same time, though, the episode appears to be making a point about the social pressures for males to play up to a certain standards of masculine behaviour, which is illustrated in the thoroughly miserable time Eugene is blatantly having at his own party. Homer insists to Marge at the start of the episode that the party will be a very classy "tea and crumpet" affair, which is clearly the kind of function that Eugene and his father would have preferred (although there sure is a lot of smoking going on during the "respectable" portion of the evening - 1990 was a very different world), but as the attendees get ever more drunk and rowdy you can see Eugene wallowing in gloom upon the sidelines, and when Kashmir enters the scene, supposedly so that Eugene can enjoy his final taste of bachelor freedom, the man looks merely embarrassed and mostly bored out of his skull. One senses that having a stranger shove her navel in his face was never an accurate summation of what bachelorhood has embodied for Eugene.

 "Homer's Night Out" likewise suggests that it would be incredibly naive to assume that such licentiousness is something that only happens safely beyond the walls of the family home. After all, the picture only comes to the attention of the adult community when a parent confiscates it from one of Bart's classmates, berates his son for wasting his time with such nonsense, and then proceeds to fax the salacious image to his colleagues at work. This sets up one of the episode's other key concerns, which has to do with the hypocrisies of the adult set, and the standards of behaviour they demand of their offspring while acting very differently when they don't feel the accusatory gaze of their children bearing upon them. Who is really trying to escape the censure of whom? We can tell from the eagerness with which the entire town devours Bart's picture that most of the adults involved have barely progressed beyond the schoolboy mentality, greeting the ridiculous picture with much the same leering immaturity and the same lack of concern for the privacy of those involved. One of the wittiest moments within the episode occurs during the scene in the darkroom, when an assortment of young photography enthusiasts watch the incriminating image develop and attempt to apply a degree of critical appreciation to Bart's photographic eye, likening it to the works of Helmut Newton and Diane Arbus, an assessment that's ultimately lost on the salivating adults who get hold of the picture and distribute it to their own lecherous ends. I think those young photographers manage to nail down why the picture strikes such a chord with the town, more so than the adults themselves comprehend - it's such a thoroughly disturbing combination of sensuality and eye-warping grotesquery that you can't stop looking at it.

By this point in the series we were already getting a strong sense of Springfield as a vibrant and functioning community, so this episode has a lot to draw from in exploring the kinds of ripples Bart's picture makes across the town, although being such an early installment it does occasionally wander into very odd territory - notably, that scene where Mr Burns calls Homer to his office, ostensibly to reprimand him for potentially tarnishing the family-friendly image of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, but actually to ask him for a few pointers on courting the fairer sex. Burns, it seems, is a little stung by the fact that, despite his vast wealth and power, women have never found him particularly irresistible. I suspect this was done in an attempt to humanise the decrepit billionaire, who up and until now had been characterised as an evil boss and nothing more, and while we would occasionally see episodes in which Burns displays a more amorous side (eg: "Marge Gets a Job" and "Lady Bouvier's Lover"), this scene feels curiously out of step with the remote and unsociable Burns who would shortly be cemented. Also, Apu appears, but he doesn't seem to be well-acquainted with Homer at this stage, and Carl talks with Lenny's voice, while Lenny talks with Moe's. Elsewhere, "Homer's Night Out" features another character voiced by Maggie Roswell, the local postal carrier, whom Bart refers to as the Fe-Mailman. She might have had the odd background cameo here and there, but I think that "Blood Feud" of Season 2 is the only other episode in which she has a speaking appearance. Too bad, because she's undervalued, like ALL of Roswell's characters.* I like the Fe-Mailman, as it's in her frantic exasperation with Bart that I'm most reminded of Pearl Pureheart, the character voiced by Roswell in Ralph Bakshi's Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures.

Amid the adult community's eager reactions to Homer's transgression, we have Bart's parallel narrative regarding his awakening to the intricacies of the world around him, and to the messy and sordid details that don't always fit comfortably with the narrative he has, up until now, been expected to swallow. This is something he regards with a mixture of blossoming sexual awareness and relative guilelessness. He understands that there's something distinctively ribald about the image, but doesn't appreciate why the picture's prolificacy could be so damaging to his father's reputation, or have such devastating consequences for his parents' relationship. And Marge makes a good point when she argues that Bart isn't going to heed his father's words if he doesn't have the actions to back it up. There seems to be a running theme throughout the episode about adults being ever-vigilant to conceal their misdemeanors from any higher authority with the power to reproach them - Al is careful to shield the informative memo Mike sent him when the boss enters the room, Homer has to deal with Burns' unwanted attentions in addition to his domestic woes, and Kashmir later boots him from her birdcage for fear that her boss will misconstrue the situation. Adults are as intimidated by higher authority as children, but the judgement they should truly be wary of, the episode suggests, is the silent, powerless judgement of those who will ultimately become their successors, and are going to emulate whatever examples have been shown to them.

In order to make amends, Homer is required to go the counter-intuitive route of roving ever deeper into the wilderness, dragging Bart to every strip club in town in an effort to track down the elusive Princess Kashmir/April Flower/Shawna Tifton, so that Bart can be introduced to her in person and discover that she's more than just an object to be ogled by randy peepers. Admittedly, there is a certain naivety in Marge's proposed remedy - she wants Homer to apologise to Kashmir for how he treated her, yet when Homer and Bart finally locate Kashmir at a venue called The Sapphire Lounge, she doesn't seem all that interested in anything Homer has to say. Kashmir's story remains fairly muted in all of this; we don't get a great deal of insight into how she feels about having her image xeroxed and faxed all over town, although she clearly is uneasy about being approached by Homer backstage. Maybe she does feel silently embarrassed by the entire affair, or perhaps she isn't used to being humanised by strangers in this manner. Being the one Home-Wrecker who isn't looking to get at all close to the action, Kashmir remains at a distance for most of the episode, meaning that we don't learn as much about her as we do the others, although Homer does eventually convince her to spill a few details - her pet peeve is rude people and her turn-ons include silk streets and a warm fireplace. And she is moved by Homer's speech at the very end - when Homer is recognised at The Sapphire Lounge, he nearly makes the mistake of conforming to the kind of lurid spectacle demanded of him the lounge's patrons, but is brought down to earth by the observant gaze of Bart, whereupon he implores his audience to remember that every woman is an individual, and should be valued as such:  "As ridiculous as this sounds, I would rather feel the warm breath of my beautiful wife on the back of my neck as I sleep than stuff dollar bills into someone's g-string." This connection to the familial has the lounge's patrons returning from the wilderness; even the Dean Martin-type singer remembers that his mother sounded down the other day and that he should call her. Homer reconciles with Marge, who has made her own way to The Sapphire Lounge, and the two of them share a tender moment upon the stage, although as usual the sentiment is tempered by an inkling of sardonicism, in which Bart good as breaks the fourth wall and turns the viewer's own voyeurism back on them. Only sick people, he reminds us, would want to stick around to see Homer and Marge kiss. Indeed.

Elsewhere in this episode, I also learned that COD PLATTER is an anagram of COLD PET RAT, and that image unsettles me so.

* Apart from the Sunday school teacher, that is. I don't like her and would like to bury her in a vat of slime.