(originally aired September 19, 1991)
The Simpsons was basically a smash hit right out of the box, and after two seasons it was a total phenomenon. Fans loved it, critics loved it, people couldn’t get enough. Celebrities like Tony Bennett and Albert Brooks lent their cred by having guest roles. But none would be bigger than the focus of this show, Michael Jackson. Now for me, I grew up right during the turning point of his career from international pop superstar/god to ghostface weirdo who sleeps in hyperbaric chambers and dangles infants out windows. In the late 80s/early 90s, as I’m told, Jackson was the biggest star in existence. Ever. His fame could not be topped. As it turned out, he was a big fan of the show and called up the producers, telling them he wanted to give Bart a number-one song. And damn it all if he didn’t mean it: “Do the Bartman” was a #1 hit single (in the UK and other countries, but still). Anything Jackson was involved in turned to gold, so why wouldn’t they say yes when he also asked if he could do a voice on the show?
If there’s one thing this show does the best, it’s having its cake and eating it too, where they treat their guest stars with respect, but present them in biting, subversive ways. But let’s back up a bit: the festivities begin in typical fashion: a questioning of Homer’s sanity. This is a result of him wearing a pink shirt to work, thanks to Bart throwing his red cap in with the whites. He fails a psychological exam (which Bart fills out for him) and he’s hauled off to the nut house. There, he meets Michael Jackson. Sort of. He’s actually a hulking three-hundred-pound mental patient who thinks he’s the pop star. It’s a truly brilliant concept on dealing with how to fit Jackson into the show without making it seem like a 22-minute ass kissing session. You get your laughs with the context of it all, but “Jackson” is also presented as a nice guy, helping Homer through this new and strange situation. Homer is also the only man on the planet who has never heard of the King of Pop, which is a bit of a stretch, but if anyone is going to be that oblivious, I think it’d be Homer.
The emotional runner in the show involves Lisa’s urgings to her brother to not forget her birthday, which of course he does. Instead Bart inadvertently sparks a media circus who expect Michael Jackson to arrive at the Simpson house, who are of course infuriated by what they ultimately get. Lisa is devastated, so Jackson offers to help Bart write a song, in a story beat that eerily mirrors real life. Their happy birthday song, which Jackson himself wrote, is a very sweet song, and performed quite well by Nancy Cartwright and Jackson (or his sound-alike Kipp Lennon. Either or). The Jackson role becomes even more complicated when he reveals himself to be Leon Kompowski, speaking in a gruffer voiced (by Hank Azaria), explaining how he adopted the Jackson voice because he found it made people happy. Perhaps Michael Jackson in this episode is not so much about himself but about the idea of himself; much like the pop star himself, he was larger than life, something that fans could adopt for themselves for their own purposes to make them happy, a sentiment that seems even truer now after his passing. While its Jackson content gives it a little age, this is still a wonderful episode. An epic collision of two pop cultural juggernauts? I can’t think of a better way to start a season.
Tidbits and Quotes
– The Krusty hotline is fantastic. It’s not only another example of the clown’s shameless merchandise hawking and half-assery of said products, but an examination of his “comedy.” Sometimes we see shots of the show in the background of just Krusty laughing at a camera. And here we get him laughing over the phone. But hey, the kids love it! “Thanks for calling, kids! A new message every day!”
– Great line from Homer: “Marge, I can’t wear a pink shirt to work. Everybody wears white shirts. I’m not popular enough to be different.”
– I do like the running theme of non-conformity: wearing a pink shirt gets Homer labeled a wild, free thinking anarchist, while Kompowski decided to adopt his Jackson persona and ended up helping a lot of people.
– The America’s Funniest Home Videos parody is absolutely spot-on, complete with Bob Sagat’s dumb little voice-overs he does over the videos. Also interesting one of the finalists is “Baby with a Nailgun,” a situation that would occur a good nine seasons down the road.
– We get our first “inappropriate hold music” joke, where Marge calls the mental institution and has to listen to “Crazy” by Patsy Cline.
– I love the obligatory “Cuckoo’s Nest” parodies in the hospital, from the Chief “It’s about time someone reached out to me!” to the agoraphobic guy who Homer mocks (“Pfft. Baby.”)
– The “Not Insane” certificate is fantastic. I wish it would have become one of the staple items you’d always see hanging up in the Simpson house, like something Homer would be proud of and display, but I guess not.
– The Michael Jackson media storm is great, it’s something great enough for Apu to close the Kwik-E-Mart (turning his “We never close” sign over to read “Closed for the first time ever.”) We also get Mayor Quimby declaring they’ll be renaming the Dalai Lama Expressway to the Michael Jackson Expressway, implying that the Dalai Lama has visited Springfield. Now that would be a good episode.
– I love Lisa’s angry letter: “Dear Bart, I am using the stationery Mom and Dad gave me for my birthday to inform you that we are now brother and sister in name only. Perhaps if a professional so advises, I will give you a hug at some far-distant family reunion. But rest assured, it will be purely for show.
– Well, Homer does show off his certificate at the end. After Kompowski’s touching speech about how his Jackson voiced helped me, he asks, “To make a tired point, which one of us is truly crazy.” Homer, holding up the certificate, gleefully responds, “Not me! I got this!” Brilliant.