The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Twenty-Four, “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase”

I get why there are people who don’t like this episode, because their views are very straightforward: this is almost too good an impression of shitty, lowbrow TV shows. But that’s exactly what I like about it, because I have an eternal fascination with shitty, lowbrow television, and “Spin-Off Showcase” doesn’t just brilliant skewer the conventions of bad television, it brings the reason bad television is made to the surface, starting with the conceit that the Simpsons producers were asked to create spin-offs as filler for the timeslot. I’ve talked before about Krusty having an interesting personal conundrum where he has both a very romantic view of performing and a very cynical attitude towards the business of the entertainment industry, and it occurs to me now that I’m drawn to him because I have the same attitude as an audience member and as a critic. I’m not just fascinated by both the magical, philosophical, and spiritual things art can achieve as well as the craven commercial motivations that drive it, and I’m not just fascinated by the way something can deliberately court both artistic and commercial values, I’m fascinated by the way something that was churned out to get a quick buck can stumble into some divine realm like a birthday clown tripping into God’s domain. Bad, lowbrow, exploitation art can reveal as much about human nature as any prestigious work; the thing about being commercial is that you have to give the people what you think they want (and in some cases, what you want them to want – think of things like Christian rock). I don’t know what it means that audiences worldwide embraced Game Of Thrones, but I have a pretty good idea what it means that hacks worldwide copied the medieval trappings, scheming, large cast, blood, and sex but not the rigid worldbuilding or complex plotting. Oscar Wilde said the man is most himself when he’s wearing a mask, and seeing someone trying to copy another idea can tell you both why the idea originally worked, and about why it doesn’t fit the person trying to do the copying.

With this particular episode, I also have more room to explore each individual segment in a way I don’t really for “Treehouse Of Horror” episodes, because we’re not seeing three horror stories; each of them draws not just on philosophically different approaches, but on entirely different emotional experiences. Chief Wiggum, PI is a sexy, exciting crime procedural; by virtue of the premise, it has to carry some of the weight of a pilot in its opening minutes with its cheesy exposition (“For massive corruption.” / “For massive corr – exactly.”), but it does use the basic plot structure of a normal thriller, with each scene raising a question that leads to an answer that leads to another question. Skinner’s role as expository legman reminds me a lot of the scenes in the various NCIS programs where characters flatly dump information about the case o’ the week. Some of the comedy comes from making jokes out of cliche scenes, like the shot of Big Daddy sitting in his chair before the dramatic turn, but most of it comes from showing how poorly the characters fill their various roles, which is much funnier to me. Crime protagonists are supposed to be resourceful, incorruptible, and crack shots, and Wiggum is clearly none of those things; I love the tiny detail of Wiggum literally kicking a guy off an airboat shouting “Police business!”, apparently forgetting he’s not a cop anymore and not noticing the guy he kicked off the boat was a cop. Skinner, as He Who Is Out Of Touch (No, It’s The Children Who Are Wrong) is hilarious as the streetwise right-hand-man; I absolutely love that they spin jokes out of him inexplicably knowing obscure plot-useful information and out of him lacking even basic common knowledge, and he’s pitch-perfect as the sidekick who is clearly more competent than the ostensible hero.

The Love-matic Grampa achieves something similar with the archetypes of the cheesy supernatural rom-coms so popular in the Sixties. This segment crosses over into genius for me, in how it presents a concept that could have fit in that genre of shows without specifically ripping off any specific one; pretty much all of this genre of show are about an everyman benefiting from someone with supernatural powers while trying to hide them (I Dream Of Jeannie, Bewitched, Mr Ed even if he wasn’t generally useful), but I can’t think of any that specifically deals with a nebbish man getting romantic advice from a supernatural creature even as it feels like there were hundreds of them (maybe My Favourite Martian, though he was more generally useful). It really feels like someone, somewhere, made this pilot already and maybe got to twelve episodes before getting cancelled. Except here, of course, Moe isn’t so much nebbish as disgusting, and in moments of thought, Grampa finds his state of undeath bleak and terrifying; admittedly, this humour has aged poorly in that more sitcoms play this kind of thing in just as hacky a manner as those in the Sixties did cheerful absurdism (I’m thinking of Chuck Lorre sitcoms here, where I can imagine them playing “I’ve suffered so long. Why can’t I die?” for a canned laugh), but I do still get a laugh at seeing the three-camera rhythm thrown off. The final segment is a riff on variety shows, and it’s one of those situations where the great joke is deliberately hidden under bad jokes, which is a dumb idea that absolutely tickles me. I love the implication of the off-screen drama and work that must have gone into this image we’re seeing, with Lisa clearly being disgusted by the whole idea and being recast, as well as the wheeling and dealing the cast must have done with executives and the half-assed writer’s room that knocked it all up (I think the thing that tickles me the most is that Bart is 100% in his element and having the time of his life). Cycling back to my opening point, this segment presents the greatest disparity between the romance the show in question is trying to present and the cynicism that motivated it; every indication we get into the inner life of the characters suggests they’re in this for the money, and they’re literally sweating out the effort to convey the idea that this is a joyful communal experience despite the fact that it’s dumb, broad, hacky, lifeless comedy, and that makes me laugh. It’s just unfortunate the show ends the way it does, as Troy McClure discusses the show itself and suggests many deliberately terrible ways it might perpetuate itself as a joke on how tired the show might get, which, as we all know, it did.

Couch Gag: N/A
Chalkboard Gag: N/A

This episode was written by David S Cohen, Dan Greaney, and Steve Tompkins, and it was directed by Neil Affleck. Ken Keeler came up with the story concept. Affleck went out of his way to make each segment fit stylistically with the genre it parodied, including making “Love-matic Grampa” look like a three-camera sitcom. Gailard Sartain guest stars as Charles “Big” Daddy, and Tim Conway guest stars as himself, and both fit perfectly into their parodic roles.

I’ve talked before about Troy McClure being an influence on my sense of humour, and his use of the phrase “Simpsons fans, if any” is another. Pretending you’re an unliked loser even in the face of all evidence otherwise is funny! Chief Wiggum, PI has quite a few quotes that I don’t think are iconic but I use all the time. “Two, I suppose,” and “Will you stop saying that!” are ones I draw on, and “He’s gradually getting away, Chief!” is the one quote me and my best friend use at each other the most, due to playing so many video games. I’ve also decided to find a video-game-based use for “The next one won’t be corked.”

Troy namedrops Melrose Place and The X-Files as the only other Fox shows worth watching. He walks past posters for The Ropers, Laverne & Shirley, Rhoda, Fish, and The Jeffersons when talking about spin-offs. Chief Wiggum, PI is a parody of Miami Vice, Magnum, PI, and Starsky & Hutch, with Skinner specifically resembling Don Johnson on Miami Vice. The “I guarantee!” chef is a parody of Paul Prudhomme. The Love-matic Grampa is a parody of I Dream Of Jeannie, Bewitched, Mr Ed, and My Mother The Car. Grampa sings “Daisy, Daisy” in reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey and namedrops All Quiet On The Western Front. Betty is voiced by Tress MacNeille and drawn to look like her. The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour is a parody of both The Brady Bunch Hour (with Lisa’s lack of involvement referencing Eve Plumb’s refusal to participate) and Laugh-In. The family resembles the Partridge Family. Homer and Marge’s monologue together references The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour. The end suggest Homer will get a small green alien that only he can see, a reference to The Great Gazoo of The Flintstones. The cast of the variety show perform “I Want Candy” by The Strangeloves, “Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee And The Starlighters, “Lollipop, Lollipop” by Ronald & Ruby, and “Whip It” by Devo.

Iconic Moments: “There’s an old saying down on the bayou that, uh, BLEGH.”
Biggest Laugh: