Comic-Book Guy: “Last night’s ‘Itchy & Scratchy’ was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured that I was on the Internet within minutes, registering my disgust throughout the world.”Bart: “Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?”Comic-Book Guy: “As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.”Bart: “What?! They’ve given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them!”Comic-Book Guy: “Worst. Episode. Ever.”
The writers of “The Simpsons” have never been afraid to address their detractors head-on, whether in scenes like the above, from the deliciously fan-mocking “Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” episode, or with the insertion of subtle digs at the show itself, attempting to preempt any criticism. But being clever enough to mock yourself before others do so doesn’t mean you’re above criticism, something that holds particularly true if you’re now asking people to drop $10 to watch your entertainment in a movie theater.
So let’s put aside questions of whether “The Simpsons” owes loyal fans anything — the bottom line is that “The Simpsons Movie” has a responsibility to the artistic legacy of the show that spawned it. And the sub-bottom line is that for that reason, the film will disappoint everyone, from hard-core fans of the show (yours truly) to casual viewers.
‘Everything looks bad if you remember it’When “The Simpsons” really started to hit its stride, back around 1993 or 1994, it was because the writers realized that Homer is the most important character on the show, and they’d figured out how to make him that perfect blend of stupid and hapless. He wasn’t quite smart enough to understand a touch-tone phone, but he was good-hearted and loyal. Dan Castellaneta, who voices the character, has said, “The secret of Homer Simpson is imagining that he’s a dog trapped in a man’s body.”
But in the years since the show’s zenith — which I peg at 1995 — Homer has lost depth, becoming less hapless and crueler. Much crueler. Whereas before, he’d create havoc by accident, thinking he could pull off some crazy scheme (“After years of disappointment with get-rich-quick schemes, I know I’m gonna get rich with this scheme … and quick!”), these days, he’s maliciously stupid. Homer has become mean.
And with the nastification of Homer J., the writers have had to resort to increasingly harsh and cartoonish ways of punishing his misdeeds: He’s gotten mauled by reindeer, shot with a nail gun, sexually violated by a panda and abused in uncountable other ways, which isn’t only a betrayal of the character, it’s also a mistake from an artistic standpoint. Who wants to watch a character doing unredeemably stupid and cruel things and receiving a violent comeuppance?
Sadly, the film features more of this unlikeable Homer, at least judging from the trailer, which finds him attacked by sled dogs, hit in the head with a power saw and jamming the claw end of a hammer in his eye, to name just a few violently slapstick moments.
Not funny. Not original.
‘I am so smart! S-M-R-T!’The primary reason “The Simpsons” is better than any other television comedy ever broadcast (yes, even better than “Seinfeld”) is that it was, for a few years, incredibly smartly written. For a stretch between ’93 and late ’95, the show’s writers pumped each episode chock-full of intelligent, self-referential humor of a kind that hadn’t been seen on TV before, especially not in an animated series.
There was “Bart Gets Famous,” in which the titular scamp becomes a star on “The Krusty the Clown Show” thanks to a four-word catch phrase — “I didn’t do it” — allowing riffs on everything from the soullessness of Hollywood to the show’s own catch phrases and the monotony of television:
Bart: “I’m in television now. It’s my job to be repetitive. My job. My job. Repetitiveness is my job. I’m going to go out there tonight and give the best performance of my life.Marge: “The best performance of your life?”Bart: “The best performance of my life!”
Or take “The Front,” in which Bart and Lisa write an episode of the cartoon “Itchy & Scratchy.” During one scene, Roger Meyers leads the two kids on a tour of the animation wing of I&S studios, remarking that animators sometimes reuse the same backgrounds over and over to save money. As they walk down the hall, the same cleaning woman appears in the background several times.
But here’s the problem with that sort of intelligent humor, the reason why those years in the early to mid-’90s at once marked “The Simpsons” greatest glory and ushered in the show’s inevitable downfall: Those jokes really only work once. The first time you see a self-referential gag, it’s brilliant. The second time, it’s chuckle-worthy. The third time, it’s irritating and smacks of laziness.
That’s why, over the last decade, the show has devolved into repetitious, zany adventures punctuated by Homer-abuse; you can sense the writers desperately flailing around for something, anything, funny that their predecessors hadn’t already thought of. And that’s also why, even though it’s sure to have an amusing moment or two (the “Spider-pig” scenes look promising), the big-screen version is doomed to be as flawed as its small-screen inspiration currently is.
In a recent conversation on “TODAY” with Al Roker, Matt Groening tried to sell the movie to viewers by saying, “It’s actually a deep story with romance and love and heartbreak.”
Who wants that from the Simpsons?
Patrick Enright is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in MSNBC.com, Mr. Showbiz, Wall of Sound, Movies.com and Seattle Weekly.