Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘David X. Cohen

Beyond Kang and Kodos

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The Simpsons episode "Citizen Kang"

In a recent blog post on FiveThirtyEight about the state of election polling, Nate Silver mused about what would keep him up at night if he were Hillary Clinton. He concluded: “I’d be worried that Americans come to view the race as one between two equally terrible choices, instead of Trump being uniquely unacceptable.” As the Republican National Convention lurches to a start today in Cleveland, there are signs that a lot of voters have arrived at that exact conclusion. And if you’re a certain kind of television fan, it’s hard not to think of The Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” installment “Citizen Kang,” which aired twenty years ago this fall, shortly before the presidential election of 1996. It’s the segment in which alien invaders Kang and Kodos assume the forms of candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, leading to seven of the most quotable minutes in the show’s history. Two lines, in particular, continue to resonate with self-proclaimed political cynics. One comes after Homer has exposed Kang and Kodos in their true forms, leading to this exchange:

Kodos: It’s a two-party system! You have to vote for one of us!
Man: Well, I believe I’ll vote for a third-party candidate.
Kang: Go ahead—throw your vote away!

And the other comes at the very end, after the victorious President Kang has enslaved the nation, prompting Homer to say to Marge: “Don’t blame me. I voted for Kodos.”

For many viewers, the episode encapsulates the suspicion—which we encounter across the political spectrum—that the two major parties, deep down, are basically the same. But they aren’t. Not really. And to understand why “Citizen Kang” isn’t as trenchant or insightful as it seems, we can turn to the writers and producers who worked on the episode itself. On the commentary track for the show’s eighth season, which was recorded in 2006, series creator Matt Groening and producers Josh Weinstein, David X. Cohen, and Dan Greaney have the following discussion:

Weinstein: Now, I would say, even though it’s specific candidates, the message is timeless…
Cohen: Yeah. One thing I think I’ve noticed about comedy shows that take on elections is the point is always the same—the point is it does not matter which of the awful candidates you vote for…
Greaney: Which is a complete falsity. I mean, the idiot criminal that we have in office is…a lot worse.
Cohen: I’m not saying it’s a good point. I’m just saying it always seems to be the point.
Groening: Because it feels like it’s a comment.
Cohen: Right. You’re able to feel like you’re making a commentary without actually taking sides and alienating people.
Greaney: Yeah, but—when you have somebody who is clearly an aggressor, then…evenhandedness is actually favoring the aggressor.
Cohen: That’s true.

The Simpsons episode "Citizen Kang"

And although I know it’s never going to happen, I wish that the insights conveyed in those last few lines were as familiar as “Citizen Kang” itself. The difference between the episode’s implicit message and the feelings expressed in the commentary track can be chalked up to the fact that the former was written during the Clinton administration, while the latter was recorded ten years later, at the height of disillusionment with George W. Bush. (In other commentaries, the writers mock their own ruthless skewering of Clinton at the time, joking, with a touch of wistfulness, that he was obviously the worst president the country would ever have.) If anything, though, it rings even more true today. And I think that Groening and Cohen—who went on to create Futurama—get at the heart of the matter. Saying that the Democratic and Republican nominees are equally compromised isn’t a political insight, but a simulation of one: it’s a comedic or narrative strategy disguised as an opinion. It’s the most insidious kind of empty statement, which allows the speaker to seem superficially insightful, even subversive, while really closing off the kind of thinking that really matters. As Cohen points out, this kind of false equivalence is perfect for writers who want to create the appearance of making a point without really saying anything. It doesn’t even qualify as real cynicism: it sidesteps actual thought as much as blind allegiance to any one party. And like most forms of laziness, it’s a luxury afforded only to those who are lucky enough not to be intensely vulnerable to the real consequences that presidential elections produce.

If it sounds like I’m being unduly hard on The Simpsons, I’m not: it wouldn’t be so powerful an example if it weren’t the best television show of all time. Its eighth season was a masterpiece, but there were limits to the messages it could send, simply because it was better off, in the long run, if it pitched its satire squarely down the middle—and also because it was television. This bears repeating, especially now. We’re in the middle of an election in which the lines between politics and entertainment have been blurred as never before, and not just because one of the candidates is a former and future reality star. Trump’s simulated version of tough talk and big ideas has been accepted as true by a sizable percentage of the electorate, because it only needs to hold together for long enough to last until the next commercial break. His strategy isn’t that of the big lie, but of a series of improvisations strung end to end, which he hopes will get him through to November. (It’s why he takes so naturally to Twitter.) But those who dismiss Trump and his supporters should begin by demanding more of themselves. The writers behind “Citizen Kang” only had to come up with a message that could sustain a third of a Halloween episode. At the time, it might have seemed plausible, but it only took one more election to expose it forever. Or it should have. But it’s always easier to recuse oneself from the difficult realization that the choice between candidates has huge practical consequences. Trump and Clinton aren’t the same, not for most of us, and certainly not for Muslims, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and other groups that have evolved what Charles Blow has called “a sort of functional pragmatism” to survive. You can still tell yourself, if you like, that this election is a choice between Kang and Kodos. But it isn’t. Even if The Simpsons did it first.

The magic xylophone

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The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show

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.”)

The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show

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.

Written by nevalalee

May 6, 2016 at 9:00 am

The joy of commentary tracks

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While I still haven’t gotten around to tackling the definitive appreciation of The Simpsons that I’ll inevitably need to write one day, in the meantime, I thought I’d highlight an underappreciated element of that show’s legacy: its DVD commentary tracks. Over the past decade or so, even as I’ve stopped watching the show itself, its commentary tracks—featuring Matt Groening, the showrunners for each season, and an assortment of writers, directors, and producers—have become an inseparable part of my life. Since I already know most of the episodes by heart, I’ll often play an audio commentary in the background while I’m exercising or doing chores around the house, to the point where I’ve probably listened to some of these tracks twenty times or more. And every other year or so, I’ll systematically work through the entire series, as I’m doing now, going backward from season thirteen all the way to the premiere.

It’s hard to explain why, but these commentaries have become weirdly important to me, sometimes even exceeding the importance of the episodes themselves—especially at this point in the series, when the underlying material tends to be mediocre or worse. Even for middling episodes, though, the commentaries are still compelling: two of my favorites are for “The Principal and the Pauper” and “Bart to the Future,” episodes that probably rank near the bottom of the pack. A Simpsons commentary track is simply the best radio show in the world, with a roomful of smart, nerdy guys talking with great enthusiasm about a subject of intense interest to them, and to me. In the process, I’ve enjoyed getting to know people like writers David Mirkin, Matt Selman, and Ron Hauge, and directors Mark Kirkland, Susie Dietter, and Jim Reardon, who otherwise would just be names on a screen. And I’ve painlessly absorbed a lot of valuable information about storytelling—such as the observation, by Josh Weinstein, I think, that five minutes of sentiment is too much, but fifteen seconds is just right.

At this point, though, after twenty listens or more, I’ve begun to suck most of the pulp out of these commentaries, so I’ve been casting about for alternatives. Futurama, not surprisingly, has commentaries that are equally engaging, and it’s always fun to listen to David X. Cohen and Ken Keeler, among others, unpack the show’s many references. (Futurama remains the only series that ever inspired me to look up the Wikipedia article on P versus NP.) And I’ve spoken before about how much I love audio commentaries by Francis Ford Coppola: his voice is warm, grandfatherly, almost conspiratorial, drawing you into a frank discussion of his triumphs and disappointments, generous with both his philosophy of life and the technical side of filmmaking. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to hanging out with Coppola himself, and a reminder that the best commentary tracks are a reflection of the artist’s personality.

What else? My single favorite commentary for a movie is probably Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s track for The Usual Suspects, where they cheerfully point out plot holes and continuity errors while imparting, almost incidentally, a lot of irreverent observations on the creative process. A close second is Nicholas Meyer’s commentary for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which provides a great deal of candid insight into one of my favorite movies, as well as the art of storytelling itself. (“Storyteller,” Meyer tells us, is what he always puts down when asked for his profession on customs forms.) David Mamet is usually captivating, even when he’s being glib or cagey; I recently put on his commentary track for House of Games, featuring Ricky Jay, while preparing my tax returns, which made the process a lot more bearable. And I’m always looking for others. If you’re a commentary track addict like me, and if you have any special favorites, I’d love to hear about them.

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