177. The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase

(originally aired May 11, 1997)
“Spin-off! Is there any word more thrilling to the human soul?” Spin-offs are kind of like sequels in that they’re easy-to-green-light productions; it’s an established brand that the audience recognizes, so it requires studio heads to do less work in testing their products. They’re kind of less frequent nowadays (unlike sequels), but they’re quite plentiful in the golden age of television. So here, we have three hypothetical “Simpsons” spin-offs, all aping a different genre of show and featuring some of our favorite supporting players in different ridiculous scenarios. Troy McClure hosts the fourth-wall breaking show as he did the 138th; we haven’t heard much from Phil Hartman lately (unfortunately he’s only got a few more appearances left), and it’s such a joy to see him back again. The first show is “Chief Wiggum, P.I.,” a mish-mash parody of buddy cop shows featuring Wiggum and his new partner Skinner (or “Skinny Boy”) working their new beat down in New Orleans. Each one of these segments really do feel like they’re pilots to spin-offs, the first scene is so knowingly expository, with Wiggum talking about why he left Springfield and Skinner why he came with, finding out he’d been a Louisiana-bred street punk all along (not as shocking a revelation as what would come three episodes from now, of course). This one doesn’t really get that great until the end, with the absolutely silly chase scene with criminal king pin Big Daddy, in his hideout of the stolen governor’s mansion in the middle of the bayou. The cheesy music stings, the commercial break fake-out, the freeze frame ending with credits; the attention to detail on these tropes is fantastic.

Next up is “The Love-Matic Grampa,” where Moe finds his love tester inhabited by the spirit of Abe Simpson, who apparently must spend his afterlife assisting him with his romantic life. The set-up is kind of “My Mother the Car,” but it’s more a parody of cheesy bad sitcoms, complete with live studio audience laughter, cheering and “oooo”ing. We start with a really neat simply animated opening, sort of like “I Dream of Jeannie” or “The Nanny,” positing the stupid backstory that Grampa died at the supermarket and his soul was detoured on the way up to heaven. Now he must help the incredibly lecherous Moe get a date; the premise is so absolutely ridiculous, but contrastly it couldn’t be more perfect as the conceit for a dumb sitcom. Comic situations are a-go as Moe must bring the love tester with him at his date at a fancy restaurant, carting him off to the men’s room, dressed in a tuxedo for some reason or another. As star of the original show, Homer makes a cameo appearance, to massive audience applause, which gives us a wonderfully brutal joke when he cuts the power on the love tester (“That’s the second time he’s pulled the plug on me…”) The skewering of conventions is so great; I love Moe’s smiling shrug to the camera leading to a scene change as Grampa rambles on, a non-verbal, “He so crazy!” Of everything, the theme is probably the best part; I love that jingle (“He’ll fill our hearts with looooooooovve.”)

The last segment is my favorite, just because it’s the most incredibly bizarre. “The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour” is an entertainment extravaganza starring the Simpson family, and borrows heavily from odd 70s musical variety shows. Followed particularly is “The Brady Bunch Variety Hour,” where the family plays “themselves,” and one member has been auspiciously replaced. “Lisa” here is a dim, vivacious teenager (“Sophomore prom queen five years running!”) but nobody seems to mind. This element just makes me envision Lisa’s falling out with the real family over this stupid show, a sorted past swept under the rug for the sake of their careers. The show is a collection of purposely horrible comedy sketches and music numbers, intercut with quick bits from other characters, dubbed the “Springfield Baggy Pants Players.” The cheese factor is ramped up pretty high: the stitled acting, and sorry lead-ins into sketches (“Have you wondered what we would be like if we were beavers?” “Yes!”) and the 50s diner locale of the “I Want Candy” number, which then blends with Jasper attempting “Lollipop,” and a Smithers in chaps doing “Whip It,” a segment where any sliver of doubt of his homosexuality is swiftly eliminated. My favorite bit is at the end of the big number seeing the family members breathing heavily, exhausted but still keeping their big smiles for the audience. Everything about this episode is so crazily absurd, but all three segments are so well crafted they feel like genuine examples of the genres they’re parodying. It’s a real unique episode; the show has only gone completely meta a few times, but it’s always interesting and entertaining when it does.

Tidbits and Quotes
– Troy McClure is brilliant as the host of course; best bits are at the beginning when he’s walking and talking and hits a dead end unexpectedly, and the intros after commercial breaks: caught staring at the chest of one of the Charlie’s Angels statues, and abandoning his talk with the curator of the museum of television.
– “Not long ago, the FOX Network approached the producers of The Simpsons with a simple request: thirty-five new shows to fill a few holes in their programming line-up.” Basically all they got is The X-Files and Melrose Place. Fair enough for the time; King of the Hill had started, but was still in its infancy.
– In a weird way, I’d like to watch these shows; a gritty crime drama with a slightly more serious Wiggum and Skinner? Great. A cheesy sitcom with Moe? That’s excellent telvision.
– Another handwave of unseen backstory that Wiggum is now divorced (“It’s no cakewalk being a single parent, juggling a career and family like so many juggling balls… two I suppose.” As such, Ralph gets his fair share of gems in so little time (“These rubber pants are hot!” “Look, Big Daddy! It’s Regular Daddy!”)
– Nice cameo of sorts by chef Paul Prodhomme (“I gua-ran-tee!” “Would you stop saying that!”)
– Great at first that Skinner mentions he read about Big Daddy in Parade Magazine, then even better when the man himself lists the reference on his calling card.
– The alligator attack is so wonderfully stupid, an exaggerated version of the creative animal assassins (“Lucky for you this is just a warning gator.  Next one won’t be corked.”)
– The Simpson family has a brief cameo in Wiggum’s new show (“Chief Wiggum, I can’t wait to hear about all the exciting, sexy adventures you’re sure to have against this colorful backdrop.”)
– I love the ending and how dumb it is; Big Daddy hurrying to sit in the main office with the chair turned around so he can dramatically turn around, the stupid dialogue (“New Orleans is my town.  Nobody going to mess with me.  I got interests, and I ain’t talking about stamp collecting, though I do find that extremely interesting.”) and his “blagh!” as he throws Ralph at Wiggum and escapes out the window. I guess I should give recognition to Gailard Sartain for voicing Big Daddy, he makes the small role very memorable.
– Love the end of the “Love-Matic Grampa” opening where Moe horns in on the titles, and flicks away an invading cherub.
– The studio audience is in full swing right away (“I’ll have you know I wrote the book on love!” “Yeah, ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’!” [audience ooooooooos!] “Ah, kiss my dish rag.” [audience laughs])
– Love the bit we hear of the start of Grampa’s ramble about how he invented kissing; in WWI, they were looking for a new way to spread germs…
– Moe is not exactly the most romantic guy (“You know what’s great about you, Betty, is you’re letting your looks go gracefully. You’re not all hung up on looking attractive and desirable. It’s just so rare and refreshing.”)
– Brockman’s introduction (“And now, a family that doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘cancelled'”) may have been cute then, but is depressingly more accurate now.
– I really like those “Laugh-In” interstitials, especially at the end where they have a few of them all in a row, like they had to cram them all in. The best being the shot of Captain McAlister with his hat raised (by an obvious wire) and steam shooting from his pipe (by an obvious piping system around the pipe). And of course, a poem by Hans Moleman (“I think that I shall never see, these cataracts are blinding me.”)
– I like the sign-off of the show with the family (and Tim Conway) in bed, and Marge’s seemingly signature line, “We’re like this all the time!”
– Nice nod to the fall ofThe Flintstonesin Ozmodiar, a parody of the Great Gazoo, the weird little great alien that appeared before Fred toward the end of the series.

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11 responses to “177. The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase

  1. Joey Joe Joe Shabadoo

    Excellent writeup – you nailed all of the points perfectly.

    My favorite part is at the end, right after Marge says “We’re like this all the time!’ – Tim Conway hightails it out of the bed and backstage – almost like he’s saying “All right, my commitment to this dumbass show is over – get me the hell out of here.”

    Little things like that make this episode wonderful.

  2. From what I’ve gathered, this episode really riled up a number of fans on its original airdate, since it apparently escaped their notice that each segment was supposed to be stupid. Deriving humor from something that’s intentionally lame is so hard to do, and to maintain that humor for an entire half-hour is damn near impossible. But the Simpsons pulled it off.

    I think of this episode in the same vein as the recent Futurama episode “Reincarnation” (the one where the show is reimagined as a 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon, an 8-bit video game, and a Japanese anime). Both episodes take their characters and plop them into three situations that are deliberately depicted as cheesy and dumb, and yet every single intentionally bad joke still works. It’s brilliant.

    • I have a suspicion that those who find the episode corny are those who aren’t really that well-versed in television and its many tropes. But if you are, hoo boy is this episode a lot of fun and amazingly accurate in their depictions of these three genres (“on location” crime drama, gimmick sitcom, variety show starring former TV stars).

      The third act has one of the weirdest syndication edits, yet strangely the gag still sort of makes sense even with the edits. In the original, Tim Conway says a poem by Hans Moleman stinks. In syndication, Moleman’s poem is skipped entirely, and Conway’s line follows the big musical number. So the context now is that Conway is saying the Simpsons stink due to how much they’re sweating.

      • “I have a suspicion that those who find the episode corny are those who aren’t really that well-versed in television and its many tropes.”
        Exactly, perfeclty put. This episode is a truly amazing piece of writing, one of the best in history of television, in his balance of parody and realism.

  3. It’s funny how this episode talks about how Fox wants a spin-off to one of their animated sitcoms, then many years later we get the “Family Guy” spin-off, “The Cleveland Show.” Prophetic in a way.

    • Sort of prophetic. These spin-offs look like they’d be entertaining.

    • Matt Groening was going to spin off The Simpsons in a show called “Tales of Springfield,” which would have focused on everyone else in Springfield who wasn’t related to The Simpsons. It never came to be anything except for that season seven episode where Bart and Milhouse wonder if anything interesting happens to the townspeople and maybe the comic books, which seem to be more entertaining than the actual episodes.

  4. Very underrated. The first one is a bit dull, but the last two are fantastic.

  5. Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen any variety shows like the Simpsons variety hour, though of course we get lots of dumb police shows in England anyway and the odd American whacky sitcom like Alf, albeit they don’t tend to be either as common or popular here as in the states I imagine (signfeld is barely known in England and I’ve never heard of my mother the car).

    Still, enough filtered over to make the lovematic grandpa make sense, or at least the jokes work on their own with the canned laughter etc.

    I’ve literally never! seen anything like the simpsons variety hour, the idea of the cast of a sitcom as themselves doing a variety show and to an extent variety shows in general), is I think an us specific thing, or if it made it over here I’ve never seen it.
    Still, did that make that segment less funny? Hell no! I lovI love the over exaggeration on “lets close the dam door” and the number of times the steaks joke is repeated in the beaver segment, it’s like the rakes in cape fear, sort of self cosnciously bad and repetitive enough to be funny.

  6. “Tell her her rump’s as big as the Queen’s… and twice as fragrant!”

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