The “Treehouse” episodes are incredibly fun to watch, but by their nature, there’s not much emotional content to analyse. They’re like holidays in themselves, very silly knockoffs where the crew throw in some reality-breaking element to destroy the world they’ve built with absolutely no fear of the consequences (it’s where you could have Homer shoot Flanders and only find out he was a zombie afterwards); one of the most revealing things on the Futurama commentaries was David X Cohen pointing out that “Treehouse” episodes simply had to throw in some scifi or fantasy element, while Futurama was already fantastic and had to change some part of the characters for their “Anthology” episodes. You could argue that part of The Simpsons’ downfall was bringing this extra-irreverent attitude into the main show.
At this point, the crew are still concerned with providing a structure over the whole thing; not only is there an introduction parodying Alfred Hitchcock Presents that explains what we’re about to watch is scary, there’s also another framing device – this time, the Simpsons are throwing a Halloween party for the kids, and they’re all telling ghost stories. While this wraparound is fun (I always love seeing characters in Halloween costumes, and Grampa gets some fantastic lines), you can feel how the time restrictions forced the writers to wrap up stories a little too neatly and quickly.
If there is any unifying element between these three stories, it’s showing us three different ways to parody something. The first section, “Clown Without Pity”, has the broadest scope – the premise is that Homer buys Bart an evil Krusty doll that tries to kill him, which is lifted from the Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll”, but the episode touches on a wide variety of pop culture, from Gremlins to Child’s Play, but holding the whole thing together is Homer, his choices, and his personality; the story is kicked off by Homer’s usual thoughtlessness, everyone pretty well reacts in character to how this would actually happen on the show (“I’d say the pressure’s finally gotten to Dad, but what pressure?”), and all the comic setpieces are built around Homer’s personality. This section feels the most fresh and unique out of all three, even over two decades later, because it’s the most rooted in our strange and unique world – this is, after all, the one with the iconic “frogurt” exchange.
(Which is interesting considering the “frogurt” scene is based on some of the most classic comedy techniques – when you think about it, it’s an extremely basic repeated setup-punchline thing crossed with an extremely basic 1-2-3 rhythm, where something is repeated twice but changed the second time. Yes, I feel dirty and clinical putting it like that.)
“King Homer” is a more direct parody, playing out the basic beats to King Kong but swapping in Simpsons characters. On the one hand, this section feels the most disposable; on the other, it has some absolutely killer lines, mainly from Burns (“I’m dreading the reviews, I can tell you that.”), and it has one really great joke about the original: the fact that Mr Burns’ ‘show’ with King Homer is apparently just the ape standing on the platform for three hours. Personally, I also always really love it when cartoons deliberately go black and white.
“Dial ‘Z’ For Zombies” takes a third route: rather than parody any particular story, it simply throws a classic zombie apocalypse scenario at Springfield. Unlike “Clown Without Pity”, no one character holds the whole thing together; the effect is much like when the show goes into ‘kid adventure’ territory, in that this feels like a genuine classic zombie movie with a particularly Simpsons sense of humour. It still feels more disposable than “Clown Without Pity”, but it’s a fun kind of disposable, where we’re watching Homer blast famous dead people with a shotgun.
Chalkboard Gag: N/A, unless you count the gravestone gags.
Couch Gag: N/A
“Clown Without Pity” was written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss. “King Homer” was written by Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky. “Dial ‘Z’ For Zombies” was written by Sam Simon and Jon Vitti. The whole thing was directed by Carlos Baeza. This episode has some awful, awful lip sync, which was partly because the writers almost totally rehauled it at the last second apparently. “King Homer”, despite my indifference, is one of Matt Groening’s favourite “Treehouse” stories. Al Jean was worried people would think the black and white aspect would make people think their TVs were broken. “He was a zombie?” is one of the writers’ all-time favourite lines.
As said, the opening parodies Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In the opening, Bart is dressed (and speaks like) Alex from A Clockwork Orange. As well as “Living Doll”, “Clown Without Pity” parodies Trilogy Of Terror, Gremlins, and Child’s Play, and the name is a parody of the song “Town Without Pity”. The Krusty doll riding under Homer’s car is a parody of Cape Fear. “King Homer” parodies Godzilla. American footballer Mosi Tatupu has his name used for the tribal leader’s language. “Dial ‘Z’ For Zombies” parodies elements of Night Of The Living Dead while the name is a riff on Dial M For Murder. The pet cemetery contains references to Fish Police, Capitol Critters, and Family Dog, all shows that tried and failed to rip off The Simpsons. When Bart is trying to fix the zombie curse, he wears Michael Jackson’s Thriller on his head. When the zombies return to their grave, one remarks “Still pushing that boulder?”, which is a reference to Sisyphus.
First Appearances: An explicit reference to Smithers’ homosexuality (“I think women and seamen don’t mix.”)! And right next to it, an explicit reference to Patty’s homosexuality (“There goes the last lingering thread of my heterosexuality.”)!
(This is one of those situations where an already funny line is combined with ridiculous staging and Dan Castellanetta’s rapid delivery, as if Homer is trying to squeeze out that extra bit of info)