The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode Twenty, “Whacking Day”

“Whacking Day” is the most direct and pointed satirical statement in the entire show. More accurately, it’s a pair of statements: ‘doing things out of a sense of tradition can lead to you committing evil’, and ‘mob justice is fickle’. I don’t know if this particular episode influenced my view of the world – it’s another one I’ve tended to underrate – but it is the most overt expression of these underlying truths the show holds dear, and they’re things that have been in the back of my mind my whole life. Questions of mob justice have, if anything, gotten more potent and necessary as the internet has taken over our lives and we discover the cost of thousands of people telling someone to go kill themselves, and whenever I see someone dive into, say, a Twitter frenzy, I find myself thinking of Homer saying “Maybe if I’m part of that mob, I can help steer it in wise directions,” before grabbing his giant cowboy hat and novelty airhorn.

What interests me is that I don’t normally care for propaganda, even propaganda I agree with, but this is a major exception, and I don’t think it’s just because of its influence on me. Chiefly, it’s because it’s quality storytelling where the Message isn’t the only thing going on; the whole problem is solved by Bart, who is entirely indifferent to Whacking Day and on his own journey. Bart’s particular brand of intelligence being underserved by the school is something that we’ve discussed almost since the start of this series, and when Bart is expelled for his latest mischief, Marge stumbles upon the perfect way to get him into learning: letting him explore the gruesome side of history. I see him put together the details of history and realising they don’t all line up, and I see the same kind of logic that goes into his pranks, one that sees how things fit together and when they don’t – this is as opposed to Lisa’s more abstract reasoning.

(Interestingly, this means the episode has Bart do all the heavy lifting and be pushed into action by Lisa rather than the other way around)

The other reason this works as propaganda is because the episode works to criticise the idea of tradition and not any particular individual, and it really is quite a brilliant balancing act now that I pull back and look at it. The central premise, a day when the whole town comes together to beat snakes to death, is one that any random viewer will immediately recognise as Wrong – this isn’t guns or trigger warnings or video games or whatever, because if it was something real, that would distract from the point. And this allows the crew to develop both the rhetorical point and the jokes; Homer, Apu, and Mayor Quimby all provide different reasons someone might go along with a terrible tradition, with Apu being my favourite. If you’ll let me slide over the more problematic aspects of his character, one of the things I always liked about Apu was that being an immigrant only made him love America and its principles more, and his scene here manages to feel like someone embracing their new culture (as well as a great joke about how far the mob will go to win something; shades of Krusty’s grave tactical error in the Olympics). All these different kinds of jokes also have the bonus effect of making it clear that this is a systemic issue rather than wholly the responsibility of any one individual. To put it another way, this is a story about what happens when you choose to be a product of your environment.

Chalkboard Gag: I will return the seeing eye dog.
Couch Gag: The family find the couch replaced by a tiny wooden stool.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Jeff Lynch. The plot was George Meyer’s idea, and the anti-animal cruelty aspect won the show a Genesis Award. To my shock and horror, Whacking Day is actually based on a real event held in Texas, though actually killing the snakes has fallen out of favour for simply catching and releasing them. Barry White guest stars because he really wanted to be on the show. Much of the dialogue between Chalmers and Skinner was improvised by Harry Shearer and Hank Azaria.

Beloved commentor Ruck Cohlchez has noted the Simpson men and their effeminate tendencies; here, Grampa at minimum wore a dress some point in the Forties, and idea pitched by Conan O’Brien.

The other pleasure of a mostly-fictional premise is seeing all the clever permutations of it in Springfield culture, making it feel more like a ‘real’ place that exists even when we’re not looking at it.

Another influence on the culture at large: when Bart asks if the Captain was killed to save everyone, the tour guide responds “And how!”. This kind of cheerful cynicism defines the show and the phrase in particular has become something of a cliche. I also wonder how much Skinner crying out “to freedom, Willie! FREEDOM!” has permeated the culture; certainly, the way he says it permeated conversations between me and my best friend.

The Itchy & Scratchy cartoon is a parody of JFK and ‘guest directed’ by Oliver Stone. Bob Woodward is credited for Bart’s book, The Truth About Whacking Day”.

Season four, episode twenty. Blaze it.

First Appearances: Superintendent Chalmers!
Iconic Moments: “Inside every man is a struggle between good and evil that can never be resolved. I AM EVIL HOMER, I AM EVIL HOMER.”
Biggest Laugh: The entire opening act leaves me laughing so hard I can’t breathe, and my favourite joke out of the lot: