The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Fourteen, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochy Show”

I’ve been looking forward to this one. This season has been characterised by a sense of thoughtlessness, and this episode is designed from the ground up as a commentary on the legacy of the show, which gives me a lot to work with. Say what you will about flipping the bird to fans, at least it’s an ethos! And as if to match the energy of emotion they’re putting into it, the show feels funnier and fresher than it has all season. Attacking a topic that’s both novel and yet close to home seems to have energised everyone working on the show. What’s interesting is how hard it is to boil this episode down to a single ‘point’ – there are multiple different ideas that emerge from this plot, with the two main ones being executive interference and hardcore fandom – or to put it another way, what comes before and after the creative process in a professional context. The executive interference plot demonstrates a very simple principle: creating a work of art to provoke a specific reaction is a fool’s errand. There’s nothing more irritating than someone who desperately wants you to like them, and the executive’s attempt to create a cool character works about as well as Homer’s attempts to be cool last season. One thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of making art, spending time with artists, and reading about artists is that the things that are important to you and the things that are important to your audience almost never sync up, and this is true for every artist, from me and my college buddies knocking out terrible short films all the way up to Bob Dylan*. The lines you carefully craft, clever inverting references as a commentary on broader philosophy, are going to be ignored in favour of a dumb joke you tossed off without a thought. This is partially because nobody is going to have every single thing required to fully enjoy every aspect of the thing you make, and partially because audiences can smell sweaty desperation of the kind the execs put into Poochie.

(*Dylan has referred to “In The Garden” as his most underrated song. I listened to it and hated it. As a call to celebrate God, it’s much less compelling than “Every Grain Of Sand”)

However much we might wish it, there are no levers we can pull to make people fall in love with us. There are certainly tricks we can use – a fast zoom can convey a panicked realisation, a sudden sharp minor chord can shock and frighten us – but these tricks alone won’t imbue a story with soul. The Simpsons shows us the true path every single week with its own existence; each episode is the product of thought, research, and processing of experiences, including things that have been experienced on the show itself. What makes a work of art entertaining is the same thing that makes a person charismatic and attractive: a strongly developed sense of self, with a clear understanding of the actions one will undertake and the reasoning behind them. The characters don’t love Itchy & Scratchy because there’s anything particularly interesting about mice, cats, the colours black and blue, or vests; they love it because gratuitous, over-the-top violence is funny. Poochie is just a series of images that don’t contribute to that philosophy – as we see, they actively hinder it! – and so audiences reject him.

But it’s the exploration of fandom that makes this episode famous and infamous. I doubt I have to explain this to anyone here, but just in case: The Simpsons fan forums were an early and very active force throughout the show’s development, and were known for being hypercritical – basically any episode after season three was torn apart and heralded as the downfall of the show. I’ve always felt a lot of sympathy for creators when it comes to criticism, especially in this Always Online world; I’ve seen smart, insightful people who were boggled as to why creators would ignore all criticism (or worse, respond to critics other than them), and thought about what it would be like to have ten thousand people shouting ten thousand opinions at you at once, all of which seem to have equal power; who has the time and energy to carefully sort through all the responses you get, hoping to find the thoughtful and interesting ones that actually engage with what you’re trying to do? Especially when most of them are as ridiculous as “xylophone bones”. I think the show gets a bit carried away when it says “If anything, you owe them!” – television viewers aren’t the market, they’re the product, and besides which I think a viewer is entitled to express negative opinions about a subpar television show – but I grasp the overall resentment “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” is expressing with the internet’s best and brightest.

What’s really interesting is how the show also engages with a genuine love of making art on top of all this through Homer. The running theme the past two seasons has been arbitrary third acts that don’t quite sell the return to the status quo, but Homer’s arc serves as a way to give structure and meaning to the whole exercise, which is quite ironic considering it involves someone writing an arbitrary ending to a TV episode that returns everything to the status quo. Homer has a mini-arc, shifting from complete indifference to and confusion with voice acting to becoming attached to his character and performance, and as always, his ability to sincerely get enthusiastic about something is infectious, and I suspect genuinely reflects what happens when an actor comes into a part; it’s funny to think of Homer’s arc being applied to all the different actors who ever played less-than-beloved characters. It’s a subtle undertone to something that really carries all aspects of the episode: the shows we like are made by real people, with all their flaws, virtues, and complexities, and the things we say and do have a real effect on them. I think that makes me inclined to forgive the snarkier aspects of this episode, because it’s all part of the typical Simpsons humanism.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: On the DVD, it’s the town recreating the cover of Sgt Pepper’s, with Homer-as-McCartney turned around in homage to the back cover. In syndication, it’s the one with the Flintstones, in reference to the fact that it’s with this episode that the show surpasses the number of episodes of The Flintstones

This episode was written by David S Cohen and directed by Steven Dean Moore. Before production of this season began, network executives suggested adding a new character to add some new life in, which inspired both the plot and the specific gag of Roy, which is ironic seeing as this has the first appearance of Linsdey Naegel. She’s not named and her appearance hasn’t solidified yet, but her personality and role in the show hit the ground running. The writers appear as caricatures of themselves in the show, with Bill Oakley (“dramaturgical dyiad”) and George Meyer (“I’m fired, aren’t I?”) getting speaking roles.  David Silverman shows up as the artist who draws Poochie.

Weird little visual detail: Lisa reading the back of a cereal box instead of watching Itchy & Scratchy. There’s a common joke about how the executive’s exasperated response to the kid’s discussion (“So, you want a realistic, down-to-earth show… that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?”) perfectly describes Rick & Morty. Lisa’s criticism of the show in that sequence describes part of my problems with The Simpsons at this stage, but not the main ones. I love the show’s take on TV hype, playing this up as big as man landing on the moon; it recalls Gabbo

Roy calling Homer and Marge “Mr and Mrs S” is a reference to Fonzie on Happy Days, and his exit to live with two sexy ladies is a reference to Three’s Company. His and Poochie’s appearances are partially references to Luke Brower from Growing Pains. Homer eavesdropping on the execs from a closet is a reference to the legend that Jay Leno did the same thing to find out whether he or David Letterman would succeed Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. June Bellamy is a reference to voice actress June Foray (in reality, Road Runner was voiced by Paul Julian). 

Iconic Moments: 8! The thing about being a comedic satire of pop culture is that it gives you a lot of language for criticising pop culture. | The guy running the focus group giving the two-way mirror a thumbs up is used in a lot of memes about loneliness. | Ralph crying and turning the knob to ‘no’. | “This is a dog that gets bizz-ay! Consistently and thoroughly.” | “Very few cartoons are made live. It’s a terrible strain on the animator’s wrists” | “Boy, I really hope someone got fired for that blunder!” | “When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?!” | “Worst. Episode. Ever.” | “One: Poochie needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two: When Poochie’s not around, the other characters need to ask “Where’s Poochie?” | “Poochie died on the way back to his home planet.”
Biggest Laugh: Much as I love Krusty’s “I’m a lazy, lazy man,” I have to go with the one I find #relatable.