(originally aired February 9, 1997)
This is a ridiculously meta, self-aware episode, and I love it for some of the same reasons that I don’t. It’s conflicting, but I appreciate most of what’s being done. It lambasts market research, bonehead executives who blindly follow said research, critical dog-piling, and a disturbing late-90s trend that John K. scornfully referred to as “tude.” But let’s just into it: ratings show that “Itchy & Scratchy” isn’t pulling in the viewers anymore, so the head honchos formulate a new idea, to introduce a new character to shape things up, and promote the hell out of him. Said character is Poochie the dog, a hip, rapping surfer who takes no guff from no one. After chewing out the director, Homer finds himself hired to do the voice of Poochie, something he takes with an unusual sense of pride. The tide turns after the new episode airs and is met with unanimous hatred from hardcore fans and critics alike. Not even an impassioned speech from Homer can stop the I & S folks from abruptly killing off the Pooch and give the people what they want: what they’ve had for the last eight years.
In this show, we see “Itchy & Scratchy” is a long-running, much beloved and merchandised cartoon experiencing a slight slump in the ratings and in popularity mostly due to its longevity. Sound familiar? The writers seem to have made this episode as a coping mechanism for their current predicament; it ain’t easy keeping a hit show fresh and afloat for so many years. There’s a lot of fantastic stuff in this show; Lindsay Naegle, in her first appearance, is absolutely brilliant as the TV executive, attempting to spark the creative process as soullessly as possible (“I feel we should Rasta-fy him by… ten percent or so.”) As a concept, Poochie is hilarious, representative of what stuffed suits in their 50s imagine what’s “hip” and “cool” for today’s youth. I’ve suffered through many characters and entire shows with stuff like this in it (see: “Rocket Power,”) so Poochie rings very true to me (even more hysterical on the commentary, some writers said that their kids loved Poochie un-ironically, so I guess it worked more than they thought). He’s the perfect example of a character created by focus groups, not by a creative spark from an actual person.
For all the good stuff this episode has, there’s a vein throughout the whole thing that seems kind of petty, when we get to the third act especially. The scene with Comic Book Guy and Bart, which is basically the fans versus the writers, is pretty egregious. We get “Worst episode ever” out of CBG though, so that’s good, as he expresses his displeasure out of the Poochie show. Bart then goes on a tirade about how those poor writers have been providing hundreds of hours of entertainment for free and you owe them. Not only does it not feel right that Bart is saying this, but it’s a little too on-the-nose, don’t you think? And what does that mean, for free? We’re not paying anything, but the people involved with the show are getting good money to produce quality entertainment, so that’s what we expect when we turn on our TV sets. It’s also especially ironic that this episode is basically at the peak before the show starts its inevitable descent into horribleness. So it’s our fault, right? As Lisa says, “We should thank our lucky stars that they’re still putting on a program of this caliber after so many years.” In other words, shut up and keep watching. But in spite of all the egregious inserted messages, the episode is still sharp in its criticism of the ridiculous television process, and select jokes targeted against nerdy superfans like you and me. Ribbing is fine, “if you don’t like this, you’re ungrateful” is not.
Tidbits and Quotes
– We get some great Itchy & Scratchys here; first Scratchy ends up bungee jumping over a volcano with his intestines thanks to Itchy, who then pours gasoline down his system so he’ll burst into flames. Then later they pull a William Tell but thankfully Itchy’s arrow misses… but pokes a hole in the giant tank of acid Scratchy’s been standing behind.
– Great sign on Krusty’s door (“Cleaning Crew: The liquor is not for you.”) Now it slightly confused me that Krusty is the one chewing Myers out; it’s not like he’s his boss. I guess it makes sense since the cartoons are killing stock on his program, but it’s just a little out of sorts since later we see the executives calling all the shots.
– Marge lets Bart and Lisa go off on their own at the mall, but tells them to be careful. So when a man who looks very much like a pedophile asks them to come with him, the two kids agree whole-heartily. They’re put in a focus group for Itchy & Scratchy, which is a great scene: the totally not suspicious sneezing mirror, Ralph eating the knob (“Please refrain from tasting the knob,”) Nelson messing with Milhouse’s trigger (“They like Itchy, they like Scratchy, one kid seems to love the Speedo man,”) and Myers’ outburst toward the kids, leading to Ralph crying and turning the knob respectively. One bit that stuck out was when the tester asked if the kids wanted to see Itchy & Scratchy deal with real-life problems like the kids face. I was always irritated that every other cartoon on was about kids or animals or anything going to high school, I could never understand it. Why would I want to watch a show about experiences I’ve had? A cartoon can do anything, why would I want them to deal with my stupid everyday problems when they could fight astro dinosaurs in deep space or something?
– The I & S writers are of course the Simpsons writers, and each of their egghead quips are quickly squashed or ignored by the executives (“We’re talking the original dog from hell.” “You mean Cerberus?”) Naegle outlines what Poochie will be (“He’s edgy, he’s ‘in your face.’ You’ve heard the expression ‘let’s get busy’? Well, this is a dog who gets ‘biz-zay’! Consistently and thoroughly.”) One of the writers (George Meyer) points out the obvious, with a price (“Excuse me, but ‘proactive’ and ‘paradigm’? Aren’t these just buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important? Not that I’m accusing you of anything like that. …I’m fired, aren’t I?” “Oh, yes.”) Later, David Silverman (complete with a tuba in his office) is designing the character with the three-headed executives over his shoulder barking at him. The first draft… not so edgy. Darken the sunglasses. Perfect.
– I like how understated Roy is, like he’s been there the whole time. It works, as I’m sure there’s been executives breathing down the writers’ necks about putting in a new hip young character that the kids will enjoy, and this is their chance to mock them for it.
– Nice back-and-forth between Homer and Bart I like for some reason (“Haven’t you ever listened to yourself on a tape recorder?” “I prefer to listen to Cheap Trick.”) I also like Homer’s smooth DJ voice he does on tape, and his horror at how his voice sounds played back.
– Even the hardcore stoner Otto is shocked by the I&S change (“A talking dog! What were you guys smokin’ when you came up with that?” “We were eating rotisserie chicken.”
– Don’t know how in-character it was for Homer to get so enraged, but I always laugh at “well you can cram it with walnuts, ugly!”
– Nice animation reference in June Bellamy, obviously June Foray, famous cartoon voice actress of Rocky the squirrel, Granny from the Looney Tunes, and hundreds of others. Also great is that she’s voiced by Tress MacNeille, who then does the voices of Itchy & Scratchy, who are Dan Castellaneta and Harry Shearer respectively. I like the weird report she develops with Homer (“Is this cartoon going on the air live?” “No, Homer. Very few cartoons are broadcast live, it’s a terrible strain on the animators’ wrists.”)
– Classic bit at the voice actor Q&A where one of the college nerds complains about a minute error in an episode (“In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib twice in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is some sort of a magic xylophone or something? Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.”) Homer is quick on the defense (“Let me ask you a question. Why would a man whose shirt says ‘Genius at Work’ spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?”) The nerd shamefully withdraws his question, opening a candy bar for himself to drown said sorrow.
– I love the massive build-up for Poochie, that it’s the greatest television event since the moon landing. I feel networks just end up shooting themselves in the foot when they promote shit like this so heavily, to the level that it can’t possibly meet expectations.
– Poochie’s first episode is great, consisting of the show stopping dead in its tracks for him to do his rap and some extreme sports. I love Homer’s “Quiet, you’re missing the jokes!” then cut to Poochie biking up a ramp and dunking a basketball to extreme music. I use that line quite often in several contexts. No one likes the show, not even the family can put on their game faces. Or Homer’s brain for that matter (“Oh, you don’t want to know what I really think. Now look sad and say ‘D’oh’.”)
– Nice backpedal from Naegle, a typical network executive covering her ass when her foolproof idea is a flop (“I’d attribute the product failure to fundamental shifts in our key demographic, coupled with the overall crumminess of Poochie.”) Homer has his own notes for how the show can be improved (“One, Poochie needs to be louder, angrier, and have access to a time machine. Two, whenever Poochie’s not onscreen, all the other characters should be asking ‘Where’s Poochie’?”)
– Homer demands the writers record his own lines to save Poochie. Bellamy reads as Itchy, “Hi, Poochie. You look like you’ve got something to say. Do you?” Then Homer reads as Poochie, “Yes, I certainly do.” Then immediately switches to his regular voice, giving his little speech, a quick bit I always laugh at. And I don’t know why, since it never made much sense why Homer was so passionate about this character, but I always kind of tear up at his last-ditch plea. Maybe it’s the emotional music or something. Kinda silly (“Hello there, Itchy. I know there’s a lot of people who don’t like me and wish I would go away. I think we got off on the wrong foot. I know I can come off a little proactive, and for that I’m sorry. But if everyone could find a place in their hearts for the little dog that nobody wanted, I know we can make them laugh and cry until we grow old together.”)
– Homer vows the next Poochie episode will be “bigger than ten Super Bowls,” but he doesn’t want to oversell it. Another line I use quite often. And of course, the wonderfully crummy way Poochie leaves us (“I have to go now. My planet needs me.”) They couldn’t even be bothered to animate anything, that’s how little they cared, or felt the audience would care, about Poochie. Complete with a sworn and signed affidavit that the character would never, ever return. Homer summarizes his experience (” The thing is, I lost creative control of the project. And I forgot to ask for any money. Well, live and learn.”)