This Dan O'Brien

Too Many Words Devoted to the Simpsons

It’s sort of redundant, for humans in general and for comedy writers specifically, to say that you enjoy The Simpsons. Of course I love and have been influenced by The Simpsons: I’m a thinking, breathing human being who has been alive and conscious for at least a portion of the last twenty years. That’s really the only criteria needed to be a Simpsons fan.

Talking about the impact The Simpsons has had on comedy can take forever, but to sum it up, I’d say it all comes down to attention. The writers on that show paid attention to every frame and never missed an opportunity to add jokes. When they wanted to show the church, or Springfield Elementary School, they’d include a joke in the sign. It’d just be a simple establishing shot, a way to say “We’re at the school now,” but instead of letting it be only that, the writers add a joke. Usually a set-up/punchline thing, like “Today school assembly, Tomorrow: [Something unexpected and wacky].” Every sign had a joke. They never spent too much time showing us the signs and it was never central to the scene, or anything like that. In fact, if you hadn’t been trained to keep your eyes peeled by years of Simpsons-watching, you probably would’ve missed it. But they were always there.

Similarly, they’d sneak jokes in every time they were moving vertically through a house. If the camera was moving from the first to the third floor, we’d see all of these levels in between the floors, all with various odds and ends. Rats, buried treasure, the skeleton of Kodos, perhaps. These little Easter Eggs had absolutely nothing to do with the plot and wouldn’t show up again, but the writers and animators kept it in, because they used absolutely every single inch of space to tell jokes. No one else was really doing that. No one was paying that much attention. You got the idea that the entire staff was gathered around a room analyzing every line, every character name and every single pixel of space and figuring out how to make it funnier, or how they can add another joke.

I know that kind of attention of detail impacted me, personally; it’s why every episode of Agents of Cracked featured a different desktop on my computer, and why both of our desks were littered with meticulously arranged in jokes that almost no one watching would even see. We changed the white board every episode, because that’s what The Simpsons trained us to do. No space can be wasted, we use every part of the animal.

BUT, this post won’t just be about what The Simpsons paid attention to, because I’d actually like to talk about what maybe they didn’t pay attention to. This post sort of requires that you get excited about The Simpsons, The Beatles, AND musical theater, so if you’re not really ready to take the plunge, I’d recommend backing out now. Also, if you don’t have a lot of time, you should also probably bail right about now, because these paragraphs you just read? That’s the intro.

I can say without hesitation that Homer’s Barbershop Quartet is my all time favorite episode. It’s hard for me to accept the fact that it came out in 1993, because I very clearly remember the day it made its debut, and that makes me feel old. It was a season premier, so it was the first new episode in a while, (which was always a big deal, especially in Simpsons’ prime), but it was also loaded with Beatles jokes and references, and, because my parents raised me right, I was already a giant Beatles fan by then. My nine-year-old Beatles-boner was just eating it up.

The episode’s hilarious, yes, and the Beatles references are many and awesome, but I don’t just want to talk about how great the episode was, (though, again, so great you guys). Watch the beginning of the episode, when everyone’s at the Swap Meet.

Specifically, I’m focusing on the helmet that Principal Skinner picks up from when he was a POW in ‘Nam.

His number was 24601. As anyone who is either familiar with the works of Victor Hugo or the musical Les Miserables will tell you, 24601 was the prison number of convict-turned-mayor, Jean Valjean. For those of you who don’t read giant, epic novels about 19th Century France, and for those of you who don’t regularly attend three-hour-long operas, I’ll elaborate. Les Miserables is about… lots of those things, but one of those things is Jean Valjean. He steals some bread, gets caught and goes to prison. When he gets out, he immediately returns to stealing, but is shown the error of his ways by a wise and kindly clergyman, and decides to reform. Essentially, he “kills” Valjean and assumes a new identity, as Monseiur Madeleine and becomes a wealthy and respectable member of society.

Then a bunch of other stuff happens. It’s a great show and a great (long) book, and you should check it out, but the meat of what I want to talk about involves what I’ve already mentioned: Valjean leaves his old life of crime behind, takes on a new identity and becomes a functioning member of society in a respectable position.
Die hard Simpsons fans, if you know where this is going, I love you.

Let’s go back to The Simpsons. And lets fast forward a few seasons, to season 9. The episode titled “The Principal and the Pauper” was another episode I’ve always liked. I didn’t learn this until recently, but I’m pretty alone in that camp. Apparently, it is almost universally understood that this episode marked the shark-jumping moment and the end of the Golden Age of The Simpsons. Granted, I’ve always agreed with the general population that the quality decline happened around season 9, but I never thought a) it was an immediate shift from one episode to the next and b) it was “The Principal and the Pauper.” Critics and fans hated it. Show-creator Matt Groening even called it "a mistake." Even the show runners at the time seem to be trying to distance themselves from the episode, calling it an “experiment," like the disposable, non-canon "Simpsons Spin Off Showcase" episode, (another episode I friggin’ loved). It turns out that the only people who liked this episode, (in fact,the only people who didn’t vehemently hate this episode), are me and the guy who wrote it.

All of this stuff, the critical reaction stuff, may seem like an arbitrary aside, but it’s not. Mostly, I want to make it clear that this wasn’t an episode that Groening and company had in the planning stages for years; they didn’t even like it. That’s what makes the connection unintentional. And awesome.

For those unfamiliar, (though if you’ve made it this far, chances are you’re just as big a nerd as I am, and you ARE familiar), “The Principal and the Pauper” goes into Principal Skinner’s backstory in a big, big way. According to this episode, the man we know as Skinner is actually named Armin Tamzarian. He was a tough, rebel without a cause type of guy who rode a motorcycle and robbed old women. A punk. When he was arrested for stealing, he had the option to go serve in the war, which he took. Once he got there, he met the REAL Seymour Skinner, a wise, kindly gentleman who believed in hard work and dreamed of one day becoming a school principal. In a series of events that mirror those found in Les Miserables, the older fellow mentors the cranky, up-to-no-good Tamzarian, and he decides to change his life and strive to be a better person. When the real Skinner is missing and presumed dead, Tamzarian decides to move to Springfield and assume the identity of his late friend. Tamzarian spends the next eight years living as Seymour Skinner, serving as principal and even living with the real Skinner’s Mom. He’s done well for himself. (Then the real Skinner comes back, there’s some conflict, and yadda yadda machina, everything goes back to normal.)

You already see the connection. Two men have rough lives, and they both steal to make ends meet. They both go through some rough times (jail and war) and they both share the brand of 24601, and they both utilize new identities to leave their old lives behind. They both find redemption and become fairly respectable members of society. They even both have strict, no-nonsense, law-abiding pursuers who meet unfortunate ends, (Inspector Javert commits suicide when his pursuit of Valjean becomes too much to handle and the real Skinner is tied to a chair, stuck in a freight train and sent out of town, never to be heard from again). Victor Hugo told that story in 1779 pages. The Simpsons told it in four seasons.

There is absolutely no point to this story, except I thought it was fascinating. When I first made the 24601/identity theft connection, I assumed it was because the Simpsons writers were always paying attention and always had a plan. I was impressed that they had the foresight to give Skinner a prison number that was associated with identity-theft, knowing that they would eventually make an episode about identity theft and use Skinner as the protagonist. Then I learned that everyone who worked on the show, (including Harry Shearer, the voice of Skinner), hated it and want nothing to do with it. So this WASN’T an example of the writers and their trademark attention to detail, it was just a bizarre and amazing coincidence.

And if I didn’t write a blog post about it, I was going to fucking explode.