The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Seventeen, “Bart Gets An Elephant”

This show has become a pure absurdism machine, moving faster than I can keep up with and further than I keep expecting. It’s like watching a virtuoso guitar player, in that I can grasp how their fingers move and the basic music theory they’re working in, but I’m awed by how fast they do it. Here, I can grasp the concept of a setup and a punchline, but they twist once, then twist again, then twist a third time for good measure! I have a plethora of gags to illustrate my point, but I’ll go with the one of Homer trying to clean the garage. He disregards the warning about ventilation, and hallucinates the cleaning product logos coming alive. Most shows (and early Simpsons) would stop there, but this twists it further and has the products suddenly attack him like a bad acid trip. Even the better shows would stop there, but it again twists it just a little further and has Marge tell Homer to cut out the screaming, and he politely complies. On top of this is the incredible animation; the scene is framed like a horror movie (reminiscent of the work put into “Treehouse” episodes), which makes both the initial joke and the twist to softness (including cute little animation of the logos reacting to Marge with embarrassment) even funnier.

This extends out into the episode as a whole. We’ve now had three episodes in a row with ridiculously, almost hilariously simple concepts that are spun into pure gold. It’s not just that we know how a joke works and how animation works now; it’s that we know these people and this town. Bart would absolutely try to win a radio contest, and he’d absolutely ask for the gag prize of an elephant, and in perhaps my favourite character beat of the episode, he’d absolutely find it hilarious to taunt the radio DJs with their jobs on the line. More importantly, it knows how to feed this all into the gag machine; I also love the gag of Lisa raising an objection to keeping an elephant that’s met with a blank response and “Lisa, go to your room.”

When it comes to the premise itself, it’s a major example of the show gloriously subverting traditions in children’s entertainment with brutal realism via the underlying rule of making animals act like animals; Stampy is a wild elephant interested in eating, fighting, and eating (fucking presumably being too far even for this show). I personally always get a real kick out of the show refusing to romanticise animals because I find anthropomorphising animals irritating and actually less interesting than taking animals for what they are, and so watching Bart latch onto Stampy as an extension of himself, only to end up causing untold amounts of damage, is hilarious. It’s no different from watching someone’s badly trained dog cause chaos because the owner treated it less like an animal and more like a little person.

(I’m also a hypocrite, because the running gag of the dog and cat acting out for attention is also hilarious to me)

Next to this we have Homer going full Jerkass Homer again, and in this case it really works for me because he’s actually reflecting a lot of real world behaviour; if Bart causes chaos with an animal because he sees it too much as a human, Homer causes chaos because he sees it too little as a living thing, alternating between cruelly experimenting with ‘what happens if I do this’, exploiting the animal for money, and trying to resolve its problems with solutions from cartoons (like taking advantage of Moe’s free peanuts policy – “I think you’re taking advantage of my generosity!”). There’s a childlike quality to Homer that just barely keeps him sympathetic here; like a child pulling a cat’s tail because it doesn’t quite understand that cats can feel pain, and that even extends into his cynicism (“I only have two questions: how much and give it to me.”).

I find myself really reaching when it comes to a conclusion to all of this, because the episode isn’t really the type of story to have a conclusion on. This is pure comedy, a machine designed to generate laughs, not a philosophical or emotional treatise. Another way of putting it is that if something like “Last Exit To Springfield” or “Lisa’s Substitute” are the show at its most ambitious, this is a day-in-the-life, the every-day working mode of the show.

Chalkboard Gag: Organ Transplants are best left to the professionals
Couch Gag: The family appear to walk in with the lights out, only to reveal it was only their eyes, and they run in afterwards and smack their eyes into their sockets. Which sounds a lot more gruesome than it actually is.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Jim Reardon. Matt Groening described this as the quintessential Swartzwelder episode, and to my eye the most Swartwelderian gag is the peanut factory supervisor who apparently prepared for a rogue elephant attack. David Mirkin worked hard to keep the elephant being ‘a bastard’, considering it important for the episode.

As always, the opening act of the episode is a great roundabout way of getting to the premise. It’s one of those things where getting older makes it funnier and funnier, having gone from Bart to Marge but still being at least a little Bart. Love the shot of Marge say9ing “I think you’ll find escape is quite impossible,” which turns her just enough into a supervillain without going too far. Speaking of Marge, the episode gets a great character joke out of her with her interest in double-ply windows.

There’s a classic and yet rarely referenced gag where Skinner has apparently agreed to the DJs’ attempt to compromise with Bart, and when they fail, they try to pitch Bart on surgically altering his principal, leading to a hilariously understated reaction (“Now wait just a minute, I didn’t agree to that!”).

Stampy’s first appearance, an eye in the window, is a reference to Jurassic Park. The tar pits are a reference to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. The Mr Cleanser logo parodies Mr Clean. Bart accidentally ruins American Gothic. “Sixteen Tons” plays on the radio when Bart cleans. When Homer crashes his car into a deer statue, the family inadvertently reference “Do-Re-Mi” from The Sound Of Music, which is my favourite reference in the show. Homer reminisces about Gomer Pyle. Patty and Selma are caught up by a tornado in a reference to The Wizard Of Oz.

First Appearances: Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel
Iconic Moments: “Son, when you participate in sporting events, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how drunk you get.” | “Hey, Clinton, get back to work!” / “Make me!” | “Reminds me of elephants.” | “Looks like those clowns in Congress did it again. What a bunch of clowns.” / “How does it keep up with the news like that?” | The frame of the Democratic party’s depressing slogans tends to come up when discussing the failures of the Democratic party. | “Marge, I agree with you in theory. In theory, Communism works. In theory.”
Biggest Laugh: 4AiXzf82.jpg