The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode Nineteen, “The Front”

I confess, last week’s clip show was a bit of a struggle to write about to the length I’m usually satisfied, obviously because it was low on new #content. This week, I have the opposite problem – there’s so much to work with that I struggle to summarise it, and there’s no big political or emotional idea like in “Last Exit To Springfield” for me to hang onto. This is entirely down to my critical abilities – “The Front” blasts through story and comedy at an extraordinary pace, often throwing in extra jokes where you wouldn’t expect one – most shows would end the “character confuses his life with TV” gag with “That was Happy Days,” but only Homer would think the conversation was still going (“No, they weren’t all happy days.”). It’s a kind of humour where we follow the character’s personal, not-that-logical logic to somewhere totally absurd, and it’s a humour the show does as a matter of course.

Because of that, I think I can really say we’re definitely at the point where the plot doesn’t actually matter at all to us as viewers. Sometimes you get a notable premise like “Homer goes to space” or “Marge joins a musical”, but I don’t think anyone really goes ‘Oh yeah, that one where Bart and Lisa write Itchy & Scratchy episodes’ or ‘The one where Homer has to go back to high school’, whereas they will say ‘Please eliminate three. I am not a crackpot’. The show knows exactly what every character will do, and it knows how to get a laugh out of them, and it can keep a plot going all well enough that the actual premise itself is, well, not so much an afterthought as it is something where it’s nice if it’sa coo ideal, but if not, that’s okay.

That said, I do really enjoy Bart and Lisa’s plot, where they’re so annoyed by the quality of Itchy & Scratchy that they get the idea to write their own episode and send it in, because it lightly touches on a lot of the show’s themes that I love. Chiefly, it delves into self-deprecating jokes about the animation industry, and on this watch I think my favourite thing about that is how much it captures the industry as it was at that stage in time – so many of my favourite cartoons from the Nineties, like Animaniacs or Tiny Toons or, you know, The Simpsons were written by cynical overqualified nerds who threw in esoteric jokes that kid’s wouldn’t get just for their own amusement, whereas I get the impression that nowadays cartoons are more often written by cartoon-loving geeks who grew up wanting to do exactly what they’re doing – I expect “I wrote my thesis on life experience!” isn’t the kind of joke you could make about a Steven Universe writer, for example. To put it another way, Simpsons writers wrote about Bart and Lisa, while today’s cartoons are written by Bart and Lisa.

Ostensibly, Grampa is a main character, to the point that we finally learn his name, Abraham, though I think aside from that iconic letter, there’s not much we learn about him that we don’t from his “onion on my belt” scene back in “Last Exit”. He gets a climactic speech denouncing the animation industry, but this is one of the things I find hard to take seriously; the show isn’t going to up and cancel itself and we’re not going to stop watching because of anything he says. Thinking on it, I like the idea that it inadvertently ties into the cartoon generation gap I was talking about, the cynical joy of The Simpsons era giving way to the intensely life-lesson-imparting idealism of Adventure Time and Steven Universe, but even I have to admit that’s kind of a reach. This is just what Grampa would do in that situation.

(I have more fun with Krusty’s show, parodying children’s edutainment with a spot on nicotine patches. I remember them being everywhere once! Did they go away or is it just because less people are smoking? I also love his loud complaining about the awful writing at the awards show.)

Meanwhile, Homer and Marge have their high school reunion, where Homer reveals he never actually graduated, and after being humiliated, he decides to put the effort in. I love it as a very little story that puts us right into Homer’s ridiculous but sincere view of the world; it’s as genuinely heartwarming to see him go to earn his certificate as it is funny to see him irritably rub out “dead wife” off his notes. They manage to avoid the easy jokes about high school reunions and end up making a brilliant satire of, of all things, the class clown, revealing him to be just a shallow pool of references that only amuses idiots like Home– wait a minute.

Chalkboard Gag: I will not sell miracle cures.
Couch Gag: The elaborate dance show.

This episode was written by Adam I Lapidus and directed by Rich Moore, and this is the one and only episode written by Lapidus, as it was a spec script inspired by an incident where three teenage girls sent in a script for Tiny Toon Adventures and managed to impress Steven Spielberg enough to get it made. Fans spent a long time arguing over whether or not Lapidus was real or a pseudonym of the writers. The final gag with Ned Flanders is both filler intended to stretch out the episode, and a homage to Archie Comics, which often did something similar – for all their cynicism and wit, the crew of The Simpsons have a heart of vaudeville. The short inspired the later “22 Short Films About Springfield”.

A scene was cut where the animators Bart and Lisa visit experimentally put a stick of dynamite in a cat’s mouth – the censors did not approve of implied animal abuse. Artie Ziff and Roger Meyer’s Jr both appear in this episode, neither of whom are played by their proper voice actors. Dondelinger is a great name for an antagonistic school principal, and Sam Simon stole it from someone he knew. A door at the Animation Wing of the studio resembles a real door at the Disney animation studio.

As you might expect, all the Itchy & Scratchy crew are based on someone from The Simpsons‘ crew, with the guy Meyers fires in particular being a reference to Jon Vitti. Lisa reads a book called How To Get Rich Writing Cartoons by John Swartzwelder. At the awards show, Matt Groening is in the audience, and the show flips the bird at John Kricfalusi – Kricfalusi insulted the show’s writing, and so the show got him back by insulting his production speed. The production logo at the end of the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon references Stephen J Cannell’s production company logo. The title references the 1976 film The Front.

Iconic Moments: 2. “You, sir, have the boorish manners of a Yalie!” / “Dear Mr President. There are too many states these days. Please eliminate three. I am not a crackpot.”
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