This is a very rare Golden Age Simpsons episode that I’m not a big fan of. Bob’s episodes suffer a little bit of diminishing returns after a point; “Cape Fear” is a rollicking comedy adventure and “Sideshow Bob Roberts” is pointed satire. By comparison, I always felt that Bob was right about how this could have spewed from the powerbook of the laziest Hollywood hack, and his anti-TV rants lack any kind of substance or bite to them. TV making fun of how inane TV is has gotten pretty inane in itself, and there’s nothing to Bob here that wasn’t done better with things like “collective bargaining agreements” or Homer’s fascination with chimp movies. So I was delighted to find that coming back to the episode in this context, looking for things to break down, made me much more favourable to it. On their own, Bob’s TV rants aren’t interesting, but there’s a clear pattern of him just being averse to low culture; on top of TV, he decries air shows and, most bizarrely, has nostalgia for the Wright Brothers era of flight. Heroes are obviously an archetype people tend to project their wish fulfillment into, but I have a theory that a good villain does the same thing, letting a writer (and by extension the audience) explore their less likable impulses, and here, Bob appreciates high culture past the point of becoming an elitist asshole. The Simpsons is smart enough to recognise that some cultural artifacts aren’t as smart or sophisticated as others while loving and recycling all culture too much to be offended by that fact the way Bob is. To put it another way, Bob thinks his taste makes him better than other people, while The Simpsons has no illusions about that; Bob tries to destroy the culture he hates while The Simpsons strips it for parts and builds a new, smarter story out of it. Bob makes the world smaller, The Simpsons makes it bigger.
By comparison, I’m deeply amused by Krusty’s little arc this episode; I’ve said before that he’s perpetually caught between complete professional dedication and complete cynicism towards his job, but more often than not it feels like we focus in on his cynicism. Krusty’s actions throughout here are driven by his need to perform, and I love the underlying implication that his need is almost a compulsion that he can’t fight. I mean, you could argue that a fifty-something-year-old clown with no marketable skills and the spending habits of Nicolas Cage might be invested in preserving his career out of a survival instinct (certainly, his great line “Think of the ratings!” implies that), but the vibe I get is that not performing is alien and abhorrent to him in ways he doesn’t really analyse or question, and when it’s suddenly taken away from him, he panics and grabs the first thing he can think of. I absolutely love his scenes at the emergency broadcast station, because watching a professional hack improvise a show the best he can out of a bunch of crap is as weirdly endearing as it is hilarious; it’s almost the reverse of him jumping on random trends like Ravi Shanker (“Shankar.” / “Groovy, man.”). That made him look like a hack, but this makes him look like a performer that uses whatever tools he needs to get a reaction.
(It’s also funny because it reminds me even more of no-budget television than Krusty’s regular show does)
The other reason I found myself more well-disposed to the episode was seeing the amount of craft that went into it. There are so many neat little tricks and visual gags woven through this episode that make it a delight to watch; my favourite visual moment is Bob hiding behind a statue that happens to be the exact same shape as his hair. The mystery aspect of the story isn’t as fun as it was in “Sideshow Bob Roberts”, but it is pretty cool that you can pick up on Bob’s high-pitched voice before the characters do. And, of course, the gags fly as fast and funny as ever. It’s a slickly made half hour of television, it’s just, like, 25% short of the show’s usual ambition. Actually, that does make me think about how wide the show’s range of ambition is; one of the reasons I’m a big fan of Always Sunny is because it focuses all its energy on only doing one thing – pointing and laughing at the worst five people in Philadelphia – and finding thirteen seasons’ different ways of doing that. The Simpsons casts a wider net, enough that I can say that it generally has three different kinds of episodes – satirical, heartfelt, and pure comic – and that doesn’t even account for things like the “Treehouse Of Horror” episodes! I like to describe Always Sunny as a small, yet complex ecosystem that throws a new toy into it – a podcast, a board game, a dance competition – and then watches the Gang fight over it for twenty minutes. That doesn’t feel even close to describing how The Simpsons works. This show feels more like an entire world that operates under its own set of rules – rules that make an internal sense but lead to somewhere absurd, and my beef with this episode is that it isn’t quite as absurd or unexpected as the show normally goes.
Chalkboard Gag: Wedgies are unhealthy for children and other living things.
Couch Gag: The family are sea monkeys that swim into the lounge room.
This episode was written by freelancer Spike Feresten and directed by Dominic Polcino. Almost nothing of Feresten’s draft remained after rewrites. Kelsey Grammer returns as Sideshow Bob, and R Lee Ermey plays Colonel Leslie “Hap” “Hapablap. Grammer’s performance as Bob pretending to be a hillbilly idiot is so funny that I wish he hadn’t been so typecast.
Lisa’s enthusiasm for meeting the female bomber pilot who “bombed seventy mosques and is named Lisa too!” is a dark, dark fucking joke, I love it. Next to that is Wiggum covering for losing Bob with “If anyone asks… I beat him to death.”
I love the runner of Marge not being anywhere near as enthusiastic as everyone else, and I love the gag of revealing that Springfield apparently has a badlands, completely throwing off any sense of geography for this place.
The episode contains numerous references to Dr Strangelove; the underground compound resembles the War Room, Professor Frink is redesigned to resemble the title character, Sideshow Bob whistles “We’ll Meet Again”, and Krusty’s animation when he defends television resembles George C Scott’s performance. The freeze-frames when Bob sets off the bomb are a reference to Fail-Safe, and the specific freeze-frame of Maggie is a reference to a commercial Lyndon B Johnson ran for his 1964 campaign. The esteemed representative of television include Jaleel White as Urkel from Family Matters and Tom Baker as the Doctor from Doctor Who.
Iconic Moments: 1. “Porno Porno Porno!”, leading to “Hey, hey! Now this is my kind of meeting!”
Biggest Laugh: An old-fashioned (for this show) Conan O’Brien “thing that should not explode exploding” gag!