I would argue that this is the episode that has aged the most dramatically out of all classic Simpsons. Sure, the collective response to some aspects – like Apu – has shifted, but I think you’d have to work very hard to find something where the fundamental concepts driving the episode have been made so completely redundant by various cultural and technological forces. The idea of a special showing behind-the-scenes details seems like a natural, cheap way to knock out an episode in an era where your audience doesn’t have an entire season of television on their wall, where Youtube doesn’t hold every clip you could ever want, and where contact between fans and creators is more complex than a tweet. Something that particularly strikes me as redundant in 2019 is the supercuts, which are not only just about the most common fanedits on Youtube, but are usually done with far more creativity and wit – my favourite is “1 Second of every ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ episode”, which conveys the depraved absurdity of that show in a way much funnier and stranger than the clips of Homer being dumb. Even a few years later, things like the deleted clip of the robotic Richard Simmons would be something anyone would just put on the DVD without any fanfare. In a strange way, though, technology’s path has made it almost innovative. I grew up in the era of DVDs, where part of the joy of being a movie nerd was getting to see how the sausage was made in almost excruciating detail, and I’ve lamented how streaming has meant a loss of all those goodies, especially for the next generation of film nerds. This episode points to one possible solution: throw a BTS in the mix!
Where it’s aged extremely well is in its particular level of cynicism. One of the most potent criticisms of the Nineties culture as a whole is the way ironic detachment got co-opted exactly the same way the hippie movement was cop-opted thirty years before (we’re not far from The Simpsons itself making this observation) and exactly the same way weird internet culture and the social justice movement of the 10’s are being co-opted now; I’ve seen jokes like what we see here where the creators trash themselves, but it’s easy to see how they’re pretending to do what The Simpsons does effortlessly, and like Tarantino said, it’s all in the details. The episode gets the broadest biographical points correct – a cartoonist named Matt Groening sold The Simpsons to Fox – and then goes absolutely hogwild, not just coming up with wildly implausible details – like Groening being a right-wing nutjob instead of a miserable leftist – but totally committing to them. Most of all, it commits to the idea that The Simpsons is a cynical, lazy cash-grab that’s miserable to work on and knocked out as quickly as possible. This is hilarious, because as we all know, it’s heartfelt, intelligent, carefully crafted entertainment, and has been for the thirty years it’s been on the air. *cough* Rowan Atkinson said that all comedy comes down to something that’s too big, too small, or in the wrong place, and in this case, it’s lazy cynicism coming out of the mouth of the most hardworking idealist you know.
Indeed, I’m actually kind of moved by Troy’s summation at the end, all the right emotions about the sentimentality that comes with working on such a massive project that means so much to so many people for so long, but with all the wrong words. It’s that attitude the show has that I deeply admire and have tried to replicate: to take yourself seriously but not too seriously. To let yourself feel the full brunt of an emotion and be unafraid to see how little it matters in the grand scheme of things. To have pride and lack arrogance. Heavy feelings for a bunch of gags at the end of a behind-the-scenes episode of a sitcom, I know, but I honestly try to reflect the values of the show in these essays – that the way I unpack the show here is much like the way they thought over the show before writing it, so I might become more like the show in my everyday life. Warmer, more thoughtful, more critical of institutions and established ways of doing things. I mean, it would be nice if I was even half as fucking funny, but you can’t have everything, I guess.
Chalkboard Gag: I will only do this once a year.
Couch Gag: A whole mess of couch gags are used at once.
This episode was written by Jon Vitti and directed by David Silverman under the pseudonyms Penny Wise and Pound Foolish. Sam Simon drew his own picture of himself because he didn’t like the “no photo available” gag they were going to run.
“Good Night”, the first Ullman short, strikes me as very much of a piece with Life In Hell, Groening’s original comic. Thematically, the idea of a kids asking big questions about reality and getting confusing gibberish in response is something that comes up again and again; stylistically, it relies heavily on repetition of a few images and ideas, which work really well in print and quite poorly in television. You can also see the writing and style slowly fumbling its way to even the crude versions we saw in the pilot – visually, the show seems to lock in on the short where Homer tries to get Bart to take a bath.
The deleted scene from “$pringfield” shows Homer playing blackjack with James Bond and Dr No. The deleted scene from “Burns’ Heir” shows a robotic Richard Simmons that repairs itself like the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Troy mentions being on two specials that are parodies of real Fox shows: Alien Autopsy: Fact Or Fiction and The Chevy Chase Show. The fake Groening is a reference to the poster for Patton. The fake Brooks is a reference to Rich Uncle Pennybags. The fake Simon references Howard Hughes late in his life. Troy remarking that the fake solution to “Who Shot Mr Burns?” requiring you to ignore all the Simpson DNA is a reference to the OJ Simpson trial.
Iconic Moments: 3. “That’s not a question, Professor!” | “You are wrong. They were never popular.” | “And to show you what we all came here to see: hardcore nudity!”
Biggest Laugh: Troy’s completely nonplussed reaction to “Good Night”.