The magic xylophone
Earlier this morning, I was browsing online when I noticed that Mark Kirkland, a longtime director for The Simpsons, was answering questions on Reddit. I was immediately excited, both because Kirkland directed such legendary installments as “Last Exit to Springfield”—often considered the best episode that the series ever did—and “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” and because he’s a reliably funny and smart presence on the show’s commentary tracks. When I clicked on the page, however, I found that the top-ranked question was something that I probably should have expected:
In episode 2F09 when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is some sort of a magic xylophone or something? Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.
For those who are lucky enough not to get the joke, this is a reference to the episode “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” in which Homer takes similar questions from a roomful of nerds. Homer responds: “I’ll field that one. Let me ask you a question. Why would a grown man whose shirt says ‘Genius at Work’ spend all his time watching a children’s cartoon show?” To which the nerd replies: “I withdraw my question.”
Even within the vast universe of repurposed Simpsons quotes, which I’ve elsewhere compared to a complete metaphorical language, this is about as canonical as it gets: it’s a reference that must get rehashed online somewhere every few minutes, usually in discussions about some absurdly nitpicky aspect of a movie or television show. If Kirkland had simply responded with the expected quote from Homer, the commenters would have expressed their approval and moved on. But Kirkland didn’t seem to recognize the reference, and he replied with a straight face, leading to a minor explosion of indignation in the comments that followed. Redditors simply couldn’t believe that Kirkland didn’t know the joke, and many held it against him personally. As one wrote: “I honestly don’t think he got the reference. If I’m right, I think it explains a lot about the quality of The Simpsons these days.” Another replied: “Sadly true.” To their credit, a few other commenters responded with the obvious rejoinders. Kirkland has spent the last three decades working on new episodes of the series; it isn’t fair to expect him to immediately recognize a line that aired almost twenty years ago from a script that he didn’t even direct; and fans who have watched every episode from the show’s golden years a dozen times and quoted them repeatedly to one another are operating in a different frame of reference than the creative staff. (Anecdotal evidence certainly bears this out: the fans have consistently trounced the writers in trivia contests. As onetime show runner David Mirkin once said in their defense: “We’re too busy creating the new stuff.”)
And yet the whole exchange still rankled me, to the point where I feel obliged to write about it here. There’s one big point that ought to be italicized for emphasis: the commenters who quoted an episode word for word, and then became upset when one of the show’s most valuable contributors failed to give them the automatic reply they wanted, are unconsciously embodying the very thing that the original joke was mocking. “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” remains one of the show’s most fascinating episodes, and its relevance has only increased as the years have gone by. Its writer, David X. Cohen, conceived it as a commentary on a show that he honestly believed was nearing the end of its run, and even if he was off by a few decades, its jokes about fans and their relationship to a favorite series are still funny and accurate. What he couldn’t have anticipated was how the compounding effect of time would make the satire almost too mild. This is the episode, after all, that includes both the lines quoted above and this equally famous—and prescient—exchange:
Comic Book Guy: Last night’s Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured that I was on the Internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.
Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?
Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.
Bart: What? They’ve given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? I mean, if anything, you owe them.
Comic Book Guy (after a pause): Worst episode ever.
Cohen may have intended this as a humorous exaggeration, but it was really a glimpse of the show’s future, and Reddit’s exchange with Kirkland is just a particularly stark example. This isn’t the place to go yet again into the reasons for the show’s decline in quality over the last fifteen years, except to state that the problem almost certainly isn’t that the writers and directors have failed to memorize the old episodes and constantly quote them to one another. If anything, the show has suffered from being too much of an echo chamber, leading to a reliance on throwaway lines and easy gags over coherent stories—which argues that the series should be turned less inward on itself, not more. But it reminds us of one of the show’s underlying problems: as vocal as its fans are, they don’t seem to know what they want from it. (As the leader of an audience focus group says in the very same episode: “So you want a realistic down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots?”) At this late date, it seems safe to say that The Simpsons is what it is, and that any given fan’s relationship with the show is something that he’ll have to work out for himself. But a decent first step to any kind of understanding would be to watch “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” once more, and, instead of mindlessly parroting its lines, to take a good look at it and ask which character reminds us the most of ourselves. Because the magic xylophone tolls for thee.