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The Simpsons s10e4: Treehouse of Horror IX

Synopsis

Homer gets the late Snake’s hair as a transplant, but inherits Snake’s evil, vengeful soul (Hell Toupee); Bart and Lisa are sucked into an episode of Itchy and Scratchy (The Terror of Tiny Toon); the family appears on the Jerry Springer Show after Marge reveals that Maggie’s father is a space alien (Starship Poopers).

Reviews

As a non-canon episode without the benefit of character development, the jokes have to do all the work, and they mostly don’t. Worse, there’s a current of nastiness running through this episode. The cartoonish nastiness of Terror of Tiny Toon works in the same way actual Itchy and Scratchy cartoons do; the other segments just left me feeling a little unclean.

Hell Toupee

The gimmick is solid enough and would be worth some praise – if it weren’t almost identical to the plot of a 1986 episode of Amazing Stories also titled Hell Toupee. It’s not clear to me whether the Simpsons version was meant as a direct homage/ripoff/spoof or the Simpsons writers came up with the idea independently, though I suspect the former. In any case, the humor isn’t good enough to overcome the feeling of deja vu.

Why does Snake comb his hair with nacho cheese? Why does Moe have syphilis? I try not to focus too much on individual jokes that don’t work for me; I’ve learned to accept that failed gags are just part of writing comedy, and as long as they go away promptly there’s no point in paying them much attention. But these aren’t just bad – they’re inexplicable. I can’t imagine what comedic potential anybody might have seen in them.

There are some other gags that worked better 22 years ago than they do now – not because they’ve aged poorly, but because they’re so closely tied to events of the 90s. Snake being arrested for smoking in the Kwik-E-Mart refers to a California law passed in 1995; Snake getting the chair for his third offense references three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation that was trendy then, including a 1994 California law1; Ed McMahon’s cameo (“Tonight on Fox, from the producers of When Skirts Fall Off and Secrets of National Security Revealed, it’s World’s Deadliest Executions”) is about that network’s reputation for being endlessly trashy as part of its effort to join the Big Three of network TV.

Today we take for granted that you can’t smoke in convenience stores, but then it was likely still controversial; the fake Fox shows seem over-the-top, but the intended audience probably saw them as barely more trashy than Fox’s actual offerings. The entire tenor of the jokes has been changed by time. The best Simpsons episodes have a feel of timelessness to them, and Hell Toupee feels too tightly tied to its era.

Worse, it has an aura of political commentary, but without the teeth to say anything in particular. A bit about second-hand smoke ties into the smoking ban, and seems like it should have an perspective to go with it. Instead, we just get the unpleasantness of people choking on the fumes of Snake’s dead body, a contender for grossest sequence in an episode with implied televised crucifixions, Wiggum drinking a corpse Squishee, and Wiggum not arrested Snake for Apu’s murder because he can’t pronounce Nahasapeemapetilon. So much effort at shock value, so little return.

But enough carping, let’s get to the parts I liked.

  • Before the hair transplant, Nick Rivera promises Homer drugs that will make the procedure “seem like a beautiful dream.” He then knocks Homer out with a punch and gives himself the drugs.
     
  • Marge: “Everyone Snake swore revenge on is being murdered! It’s almost as if he’s killing from beyond the grave.”
    Lisa: “I told you capital punishment isn’t a deterrent.”
     
  • Lisa: “Of course – the transplant! Somehow Snake’s hair must be controlling-“
    Marge: “Oh, please, Lisa. Everyone’s already figured that out.”

The Terror of Tiny Toon

Wikipedia refers to this one as a satire of the 1992 John Ritter/Pam Dawber comedy Stay Tuned, and there is certainly some overlap between the two concepts. In a bit of irony, the plot shares elements with Pleasantville as well, which opened a mere two days before ToH IX first aired.

(Also worth noting: besides Tiny Toon Adventures, the title also alludes to the 1938 film The Terror of Tiny Town. Wikipedia describes it as “the world’s only musical Western with an all-dwarf cast,” and I’m willing to believe that. The comedy came from “cowboys entering the local saloon by walking under the swinging doors, climbing into cupboards to retrieve items, and dwarf cowboys galloping around on Shetland ponies while roping calves.” TV Guide called it “one of the strangest ideas ever put to film,” and I believe that too.)

This is the strongest sketch of the night, if the slightest; what we get is basically your average I&S routine, but with new victims. There’s some fun to be had with Bart and Lisa facing cartoon logic for the first time, though I can’t help but wonder if there were a way to incorporate the Simpsons themselves being cartoons. The low point is the crossover with Regis and Kathie Lee, another “hey its the 90s” moment without any kind of punchline. But the physical comedy works, and despite a warning of “the violentest, disembowelingest vomit-inducingest” I&S episode, it manages to be less off-putting than the worst excesses of Hell Toupee.

There’s not much in the way of dialog to highlight, but I do like Homer’s first reaction to seeing his kids hunted by armed small mammals: “Ooh! How are Bart and Lisa going to get out of this one?”

Starship Poopers

The low-effort bullshit title is a dire omen, isn’t it? Maggie’s from space, and babies make poop! It’s an accurate omen too. The initial promise of a “Maggie is an alien” plot is shot to hell by every decision that follows it.

The announcement of Kang as Maggie’s father introduces the idea of Marge cheating on Homer, which is followed by Marge showing remorse and Homer slut-shaming her. (“Intergalactic hussy” is a funny-enough phrase, but not in this context.) The excuse of “it’s not canon” doesn’t alleviate the ickyness of that exchange. Nor does the revelation that she didn’t cheat on him at all – Kang impregnated her against her will. The more I try to write about that gag, the less confident I feel in my ability to fully tackle it. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of trauma just barely under the surface, and that thinking about that trauma makes it nearly impossible to enjoy the comedy surrounding it.

It certainly doesn’t help that around this point, the writers start bombarding us with cliches instead of humor. I’ll check off some of the alleged hilarity:

  • people have sex in cars
  • men don’t last long during sex
  • men abandon women after sex
  • nobody likes politicians

How do they keep up with the news like that?

And of course, the low point of this sketch and the episode overall is Jerry Springer. It’s hard to imagine that The Simpsons needed to associate itself with the nadir of 90s television; even in season ten it was drawing 7-8 million viewers a week, and was consistently among the top three shows in Fox’s lineup. But if the writers thought there was any actual humor to be drawn from Springer, it didn’t show up in the finished product. It’s not as if there was any way to exaggerate Springer’s trashiness, and instead of making Springer better, it made the Simpsons worse.

Stray Observations

I feel as if I’m being unusually hard on this episode. Which surprises me because until my recent rewatch I had fond memories of it, and because I try to approach the season ten offerings with an Abed-like “I like liking things” mentality. But outside Tiny Toon, this one hit me the wrong way.

Next Week

Hope you like celebrities playing themselves! Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, and Ron Howard all show up in Springfield for “When You Dish Upon A Star.”