The Simpsons, Season Seven, Episode Twenty-One, “22 Short Films About Springfield”

It’s fairly common knowledge amongst Simpsons fans that the producers were considering either spinning off a show about the whole town of Springfield, or retooling the main show entirely to widen the focus beyond the family, and that this episode was responsible for that idea. It’s interesting to consider how the show’s organic development of its world has been leading up to this for the entire show; right from the moment Matt Groening realised he might lose the rights to his cartoon bunnies and quickly sketched up a human family, this has been a show that was improvised, with elements thrown in as necessary and then developed through repetition. There were a few dead ends – the Capital City Goofball shows up here specifically as a joke about how rarely he shows up – but there are also a whole lot of really original characters with weirdly developed lives who can serve whatever role you need them to, even when you hit third or fourth tier – how many characters on TV look or act like Herman? Compare it to one of Futurama’s greatest half hours, “Three Hundred Big Boys”, which is similar in how it’s one normal episode composed of many tiny stories, but all the stories are driven forward by the main eight or nine cast members that happen to criss-cross in an amusing fashion, while this episode genuinely bounces around the town looking at twenty-odd mostly disconnected situations and explores a very deep bench. It’s ironic, perhaps, that the Groening show set in a facsimile of the real world also has a far more developed setting.

What I really enjoy is how many of these scenes really do function like tiny episodes of the show; some of them even start out with an unrelated ‘first act’, like the one with Moe getting robbed that’s kicked off by jokes about Barney’s tab. Plot-wise, Lisa’s story over getting gum in her hair feels the most like a subplot from a more ordinary Simpsons episode, and it’s one of the more strongly developed threads (love Marge’s very Mum attempts to fix it with various half-remembered home remedies). On the other hand, there are also quite a few where the whole joke is transplanting a Simpsons resident into an entirely different genre; Skinner and Chalmers famously have their usual repartee shifted to a cheesy sitcom plot, and I have a lot of affection for Dr Nick’s quackery in the context of a medical drama. There’s even a little room for direct parody, as Wiggum, Snake, and Herman all find themselves acting out scenes from Pulp Fiction (“Wait! We have to swap insurance!”). Finally, there’s a few scenes that don’t have any structural tricks, simply showing what the citizens of Springfield must be doing when we’re not looking at them doing something important. My favourite in this regard is showing Bumblebee Man in his home, talking about his crappy day at work (before it descends into the typical madness of his show).

So what’s the big picture of all of this? A lot of these little stories are self-parody; the most obvious bit is when we discover that McDonalds does, in fact, exist in the world of Springfield when Krusty Burger was an obvious stand-in for them, but many of the scenes involve taking the logic of the characters in some new, strange direction – Apu’s scene shows what his day off must be like, and Nelson’s scene shows all his ‘ha ha’ moments coming back on him at once. I think if there’s any idea uniting all these episodes, it’s the Simpsons’ particular brand of observational humour. Even the silliest characters like Dr Nick or Bumblebee Man are engaging in recognisable human behaviour, just taken in an absurd direction. And this behaviour is presented without either condemnation or endorsement; quite a few of the scenes involve someone being a jerk (my favourites: Comic Book Guy getting 75 cents out of Milhouse for the privilege of peeing and then casually denying him it, and Lovejoy getting his dog to poop on Flanders’ lawn), and not only are they not punished, it’s not even explained. Rather, it’s left to the audience to put together why people do what they do, often from the broader context of the show, and you often can judge them for what they do (Comic Book Guy is being a dick because he cares more about the pop culture he sells than his customers, especially children, and Lovejoy’s actions are a little more understandable given how annoying Ned can be), but more often than not, judgement is secondary to watching funny behaviour. The people in The Simpsons are strange, but strangely human.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A.
Couch Gag: The family are sea monkeys that swim to the couch.

This episode was written by (deep breath) Richard Appel, David S Cohen, Jonathan Collier, Jennifer Crittenden, Greg Daniels, Brent Forrester, Rachel Pulido, Steve Tompkins, Bill Oakley, Josh Weintein, and Matt Groening. It’s directed by Jim Reardon. The episode was inspired by the little gag at the end of “The Front”. To decide who would write what, each writer put their three top favourite characters in a hat to be drawn out and assigned to a writer. The various theme songs were used to create links between scenes that were otherwise impossible to link. The very tall man is a caricature of writer Ian Maxtone-Graham. Oakley wrote in the script that the crowd who laughs at Nelson includes ‘Springfield’s biggest idiots’, so the animators put in caricatures of him, Josh Weinstein, and Matt Groening.

Depending on your interpretation of ‘short film’, the title is accurate in that there are twenty-two scenes in the episode, including both framing scenes with Bart and Milhouse and the end with Frink.

The premise and several scenes parody the film Pulp Fiction. Otto references the horror fan magazine Fangoria. The title is a parody of Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.

Iconic Moments: 2. “You took four minutes of my life and I want them back! Oh, I’d only waste them anyway.” | The Steamed Hams section goes beyond iconic at this point, producing an entire industry of remixes and memes.
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