The Simpsons, Season Three, Episode One, “Stark Raving Dad”

Welcome to season three of The Simpsons! Looking forward, I recognise every single one of these episodes (for those coming in now, I was born two days after “Dancin’ Homer” first aired, so there were a lot of season one and two episodes I’d never seen); I’m fully confident the show has found its feet, and this opening episode is proof, because it combines solid storytelling, big laughs, and one stroke of genius: casting Michael Jackson as a big bald white guy who thinks he’s Michael Jackson.

Structurally speaking, the whole thing is fascinating – Bart is kind of the epicentre of the story without actually being the focus of either the A-plot or B-plot. On the one hand, we have Homer being committed to a mental institution, partially because Bart washed his lucky red hat with Homer’s white shirts and turned them pink (convincing Burns that Homer was some kind of radical anarchist), partially because Homer was dumb and lazy enough to let Bart fill out his mental health form, partially because Bart’s relationship with Homer has sincerely made him sound round the bend (remember: World’s Worst Family).

On the other, Lisa’s birthday is coming up, and she wants some sincere expression of love from Bart in the form of a thoughtful present. In both cases, the action is dependent on Bart, but our focus is on the feelings of the characters around him, which makes sense purely on the sense that Bart isn’t suffering the consequences for his actions and is pretty flippant and self-involved in general.

When he’s put in the institution, Homer meets a man who calls himself Michael Jackson and speaks and sings in a gentle, lilting voice. This is a brilliant casting gag that could only be done on a) an animated show, where the voice and face can so poorly match up and b) a show big-budget and high-profile enough to draw in someone as huge as Michael Jackson in 1991; the fact that this even occurred to the writers to do is still incredible. The only other casting gag on this level was on Kath And Kim, where cricketing legend Shane Warne played a Shane Warne impersonator in love with the character Sharon, which was filmed over a decade after this episode.

There’s a small collection of joke themes here; obviously, jokes about Jackson’s career and mental institutions, though my favourite is the fact that Homer is so out-of-touch with pop music (he used to be with it, but now what he’s with isn’t etc) that he has no idea who Michael Jackson is, takes him completely at face value (I cracked up when he called him Mike), and in fact genuinely befriends him. ‘Michael’ helps him through this difficult patch, and in return Homer offers him a place to stay until he gets back on his feet.

Homer calls Bart to tell him he’s coming home and he’s bringing Michael Jackson, and tells him to keep it a secret – you can guess where Bart goes with this, and we get a double-whammy of an act two break when Bart disappoints himself and the whole town with Not Michael Jackson, and when he disappoints Lisa with no birthday present, having forgotten about it in the whole ‘Michael Jackson’ thing.

Only then does the story shift to Bart having to clean up his mess with Lisa. ‘Michael’ wants to help Bart the same way he helped Homer, and together they write Lisa a birthday song to cheer her up. Musical sequences like this risk falling into ridiculous sentimentality, but “Lisa, It’s Your Birthday” works perfectly. Obviously, it helps that it’s written by Michael fvcking Jackson, being sweet, childlike, and simple; the setpiece follows suit by never pushing plausibility and simply having the family come together to listen to the song.

It’s here that the episode loses me. ‘Michael’ suddenly says, in a deep, rough voice, “Well, my work here is done”, and reveals he never actually thought he was Michael Jackson, he simply started talking like him and found people smiled when he did it. That’s a nice sentiment, but I hate the reveal for so many reasons. You could argue having a story about a mentally ill person magically coming in and solving everyone’s problems is a little tasteless, but I think the central gag is so good that it elevates the story into something magical.

What really grinds my gears is having a story about someone faking a mental illness. Firstly, mentally ill people have enough on their plate without the insinuation that it’s okay to fake being mentally ill. Secondly, a story about an otherwise perfectly nice guy who just happens to think he’s Michael Jackson is so much more interesting and funny than a story about a guy wandering around pretending to be crazy. Thirdly, it undermines the story up to the reveal – ‘Michael’ spent every moment in the story until now acting as if he believed fully that he was Michael Jackson; the reveal makes no goddamned sense, and it’s not funny enough to pull it off. It’s a disappointing end to an otherwise great Simpsons story.

Chalkboard Gag: I am not a dentist.
Couch Gag: The Simpsons fall back through the wall.

This episode was written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss and directed by Rich Moore, but in fact it was a pretty collaborative effort, with Matt Groening, James L Brooks, and even Jackson himself contributing to the story – it was Brooks’ idea to have Homer committed based on a pink shirt, and Jackson’s to have Bart tell everyone Michael Jackson to come to town, as well as to have Bart and ‘Michael’ write a song together.

Jackson also asked that he record his lines, but not his singing, so he could play a joke on his brothers.

This episode had an alternate opening to respond to then-President Bush Sr’s remarks that America be “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons”; they hear the speech on TV and Bart remarks “Hey, we’re just like the Waltons – we’re praying for an end to the Depression too.”

Homer watches America’s Funniest Home Videos, yet another thing made redundant by the internet. Homer’s time institutionalised references One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as well as Rain Man. When Marge calls the mental institution, a muzak version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” plays. Many references to Jackson’s career are made.

First Appearances: N/A
Biggest Laugh: “He could be, it’s a big hospital.”

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