The Simpsons, Season Six, Episode Eighteen, “A Star Is Burns”

This episode is the biggest example people use to say that Matt Groening isn’t necessarily right about everything Simpsons, because he famously hates this episode to the point of taking his name off it and refusing to do the commentary for it the way he has for every single episode of every other show he created. I can see where he’s coming from in terms of how this was conceived – classic cartoon crossovers were less about any artistic expression and more about corporate synergy and advertising one show on another, and Groening is your classic “never sell out!” Gen X-er that finds this kind of thing a gross violation of his values. But I think the final product is a repudiation of that idea in how not only is it one of the funniest episodes of the series, it’s a thoughtful combination of two shows. Obviously, it helps that The Critic was created by Al Jean and Mike Reiss, but Jay fits so snugly into Springfield that I could believe he was created just for this episode. I think it helps that he has his own worldview and sense of humour – his own references and experiences – and our characters respond to that in a way that feels logical for them. The bad guest stars of post-Golden Age Simpsons tend to just pop in, make some reference, and our characters say “Wow, it’s [Celebrity X]!”, but Jay has a reason to walk into Springfield and shakes up the status quo in an interesting way. He even expresses a fundamental Simpsons truth in its clearest terms so far: “There may be better things in life than seeing a man get hit in the groin by a football.”

(Interestingly, in my experience even hardcore leftist anti-capitalist Millenials tend to be more ruthless about this kind of thing, starting with artistic expression and shamelessly taking whatever way will make money off it, and are generally encouraged in this by older and wiser Gen-X artists. Perhaps this speaks to the state of the economy in the early 90’s vs now, or perhaps it just speaks to the circles I’ve travelled in)

I especially love how the central concept of the episode is something that works well with the town of Seinfeld Springfield. Aside from the plausibility of this all being set off by the town being voted the least popular in America (the only place the World’s Worst Family belong), a film festival is a chance for all the characters to put their deepest desires up for us all to laugh at. It’s not just funny because it parodies pop culture, or because the characters are bad filmmakers, but because, for example, trying to make a film out of his security footage is such a thing Apu would do. The two townies that take up the vast chunk of the episode are Mr Burns and Barney, and it’s interesting to me how the story takes parallel paths with them – Burns is motivated by profit and ego, and Barney was just making a movie, to the point of being surprised by his own success (and also at one point that he made a movie). Obviously, that’s part of the story – more on that in a second – but it goes as far as informing the kind of movie parodies the show indulges in with them. Burns’ movie is one specific parody of one specific, iconic movie scene after another, because he’s trying to fashion himself into an icon but isn’t bothering to do any actual work into it. Barney’s movie, while it probably contains references to movies I still haven’t seen, has a clear style and clear underlying goal and viewpoint, trying to get you to feel Barney’s feelings with creative imagery, and the jokes come from undercutting the seriousness.

As well as simply being pleasurable for its own sake, the joy of playing with as many different kinds of ideas as possible, it all ties together with the main emotional arc. Homer is insecure about his intelligence, so Marge puts him on the judging panel for the festival, and he ends up trying to vote for a ten second film that consists entirely of a man getting hit in the groin by a football, and the story is of him proving that he can be thoughtful and smart by choosing the more sophisticated movie. Theoretically, there could be snobbishness in this plot – choosing True Art over Entertainment – but I think the show manages to avoid that. Homer’s stories have always been about him exploring his feelings on an issue, trying to get past superficial pleasures and into more fulfilling emotional and spiritual highs, and this time that philosophy is applied to pop culture. This is not a show that’s against laughing at a guy getting his in the groin by a football (and it’s definitely not against lowbrow pop culture, judging by the reference pool), but it doesn’t believe in just staying with footballs in the groin. A football to the groin ought to be spice in a life spent reaching for the strongest joys. A football to the groin is something you get to see on the way to a profound Truth.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family walk in all different sizes.

This episode was written by Ken Keeler (who would go on to write both many of the best Futurama episodes as wella s the infamous “The Principal And The Pauper”) and directed by Susie Dietter. Jay Sherman is Simpsonised for his appearance here. Obviously Jon Lovits voices Jay, but Maurice LaMarche, future Futurama heavyweight, guests as both Eudora Welty’s belch and George C Scott. David Mirkin did not executive produce this episode – Al Jean and Mike Reiss took over.

I’m not generally a fan of Itchy & Scratchy, but this one is my favourite for its sheer cleverness. I love that Marge standing up instantly causes the whole town to groan, and I love when that’s followed up by “Don’t push your luck! Don’t push your luck!”

The Imperial March from Star Wars is used to introduce Burns. The Rappin’ Rabbis parody “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer. Bart’s film opens with a reference to the opening of Plan 9 From Outer Space. Bart watches The Flintstones Meets The Jetsons. As I expected, Barney’s film contains references to Koyaanisqati. Burns’ film rips off ET: The Extraterrestrial, Ben-Hur, and a third film I neither recognise nor find the name of. One of the films Jay Sherman reviews is Death Wish 9 (“I wish was dead. Oy.”). There’s a reference to Woody Allen that has aged horrifyingly well.

Iconic Moments: 9! “I get forty rods to the hogshead and that’s the way I likes it!” | “That’s the joke.” (although interestingly, it’s always used to respond to people who took a joke seriously as opposed to the original context of Wolfcastle telling a bad joke and then explaining it was a joke) | “Get me his non-union Mexican equivalent!” | The frame of Homer turning back over after realising Marge was patronising him is often used in memes about sleeping or dreaming. | “Man Getting Hit By Football”, both in general and as a common tool in shitposts. | “I was saying Boo-urns.” | “Let’s just say it moved me. TO A BIGGER HOUSE! Oops, I said the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud.” | “Barney’s movie had heart, but Football In The Groin had a football in the groin. | “Just hook it to my veins!”
Biggest Laugh: Growing up, my hardest laugh was always “We did twenty takes, and that was the best one.” This watch, it was Todd’s voice cutting out here.

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