248. Behind the Laughter

(originally aired May 21, 2000)
Somewhere out there, there must be a parallel universe in which this exists as the show’s series finale. What a world that would be, huh? The show acknowledging the well had gone dry and decided to go out with an insanely meta episode that put that realization at the forefront. Not only does it send up itself, but it also deftly parodies all the tropes and cliches of the “rise-and-fall” story of so many bands featured in “Behind the Music.” They even have Jim Forbes do the narration to authenticate it. The idea itself is so strange, in revealing that this is a “real” show and the Simpsons are actors, but actually still a real family. Kind of like when Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd would talk about their contracts with Warner Brothers and address the audience. I remember absolutely loving this episode when it first aired, and while I don’t think it’s quite as funny or clever as I used to, it definitely stands out; the concept alone makes it a landmark episode.

There’s not really a plot to describe, so to speak. We find the Simpsons show got its start when Homer filmed his own crude demo tape of his family after getting frustrated of never seeing families like his on TV, similar to the inception of the show in real life (“TV families were always hugging and tackling issues.”) Turned down by all the real networks, Homer must settle for FOX, who orders thirteen episodes, and the rest basically can write itself. The episode recreates the history of the Simpsons’ fame, but as if they were real characters. Bart Simpson T-shirts, cash-in records, and money by the truckload, the Simpsons were a national phenomenon. There’s so many great nods to Simpsons lore, like Bart’s insistence of never having said “cowabunga,” which reminded me of Matt Groening’s assurance that he never did, and for the first time actually addressing Homer’s strangling for what it really is (“And that horrible act of child abuse became one of our most beloved running gags.”)

As so many rock bands before them, the Simpsons are fast and loose with their cash, dwindling their savings to almost nothing before the IRS busts them on tax evasion. Things only go downhill from there until they have a huge falling out, a fence that can only be mended by one man: Willie Nelson. This episode’s patron saint is Jim Forbes, delivering all of his lines with such professionalism and seriousness (“That night, fate wore a cummerbund… of suspense.”) The new intro sequence, the phony “coming-up-next”s, it all authenticates the experience that you’re watching something different. In its decline segment, the series actually takes some harsh shots at itself for pandering guest stars and nonsensical plots, but in my opinion, not harsh enough. But the episode is ballsy, I’ll give it that. I feel there’s more to dissect in this one in sections than in an overall summary, so I think I’ll wrap it up. Once again I’ll reiterate how perfect this would have been as a series finale. After a season filled with over-the-top crazy cartoonish nonsense, the show just throws up its hands and forgoes its established universe entirely, going out with a show that not only exposes the entire series as being a fraud, but “reveals” where Springfield is in the last minute. Could’ve been a wonderful outro. Yep. Would’ve been sweet…

Tidbits and Quotes
– I don’t know why the opening title sequence is still on the episode. It should just start immediately, since this is technically a different show. Then the fake-out with going through the clouds to the still shot of the family on the couch would have worked.
– Part of me kind of wishes they had pushed the personalities of the characters in weirder directions, since these are technically just actors. Marge gets it a little when she tells Homer to shit or get off the pot, but it would have been fun to push it a bit more.
– Again, much love for Jim Forbes. Great bit of calling Homer a “penniless Peckinpah.”)
– Great take on doing a Beatles parody in having girls go mad over footage of Bart, then it’s revealed to be taking place in a hysteria ward.
– Nice swipe at the Bart Simpson T-shirts with the lifted slogans (“Life Begins at Conception, Man!”) Reminds me of the DVD commentary story of the Bart billboard on the FOX lot going from clever quips the writers would come up with to just announcing executive’s birthdays, and eventually “Increase Productivity, Man!”
– Love all the labels placed beneath each interviewee, calling Grampa a “coot,” Krusty as “disgruntled,” and Gloria Allred, of course, a “shrill feminist attorney.”
– Always loved this read from Moe (“Homer was spending money like a teenage Arab. He bought me a Rolex and, uh, Cashmere jeans. I felt kinda guilty ’cause I was always trying to score with his wife. So, when do we start filming? …oh.”)
– The explanation of why Homer had to do the gorge stunt is pretty amusing, as is the aftermath. But here’s where I take issue: “Somehow, Homer became addicted to painkillers. It was the only way he could perform the bone-cracking physical comedy that made him a star.” Homer becoming popular and a beloved character had nothing to do with him getting hurt in ridiculous ways. If you’ll notice, the quad-screen of clips shown during that bit are all from seasons 9-11, and are all horrible, especially listening to them all at once. Then later we see other clips while Homer is talking, all shorter, one from “Sideshow Bob Roberts” and the other from “A Milhouse Divided.” Moments of Homer getting hurt and screaming are few and far between in the first eight years, and that’s what made them so funny. One of the greatest moments of the series ever is Bart hitting Homer with the chair in “Divided,” it’s a perfect storm of funny, that it had a set-up, but also was totally random that he would do it in the tub. Castellaneta’s screams and wails are hysterical because it’s not just out of pain, but also shock and confusion of what the hell just happened and why. I love Homer for so many reasons, but his ability to take great amounts of pain is not one of them. But I guess the writers don’t agree.
– Somewhat disturbing image of seeing Marge’s scolding visage on a diaphragm. That’s easily a mood killer.
– I love how poorly Apu is obscured in the shadows as the anonymous tipster. You can see the Kwik-E-Mart behind him, he has no voice distortion, and you can see his hand when he gestures to the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny tray.
– I’ve always loved this exchange (“Dad, I want to go to bed. Aren’t there child labor laws?” “Who told you about those laws? Was it Marge?”)
– So the show takes a shot at itself using gimmicky premises and nonsensical plots, highlighting “The Principal and the Pauper.” Good, but better if they also mentioned fucking nonsense like “Saddlesore Galactica” and “Viva Ned Flanders.” Also they mention “trendy” guest stars like Butch Patrick, Tom Kite and Stephen Hawking. I guess the joke is that they’re not exactly what you’d call ratings-grabbing guest stars, but I still would rather see more brutal honesty and show such disposable and worthless celebrities like Mel Gibson or Britney Spears.
– My favorite bit of the show is when Forbes talk about the later Simpsons episodes resulting in yawns in the ratings. Clip of a guy yawning. “…angry yawns.” Clip of a guy yawning angrily. It happens so quick, and I had no idea how one yawned angrily before that point, but whatever that noise was, it completely nailed it.
– Love the family’s solo careers: Homer in “Rent II: Condo Fever” (“I literally chewed the scenery,”) Bart filling in for Lorenzo Lamas in “Renegade,” Marge’s dinner show (“So the next time you see a sheriff, shoot him… a smile!”) and Lisa’s tell-all book (“To prolong the run of the series, I was secretly given anti-growth hormones.” “That’s ridiculous. How could I even get all five necessary drops into her cereal?”)
– Kinda like that Hibbert was fraternity brothers with Willie Nelson (“I’d do anything for Kegmeister Julius.”)
– Revealing the Simpsons as living in northern Kentucky is amazing, since it’s not really a reveal since this is the location of the “real” Springfield. But it also explains why the town isn’t really anywhere, since it’s shown here as a fake show. Re-runs would switch back and forth between Kentucky and southern Missouri, but on the DVD, it’s just Kentucky. I love that they just threw it in at the end to blow minds.
– Bittersweet moment where Homer leans over to the editor and comments, “This’ll be the last season.” If only. Not only that, but the clip they’re editing was used in the next season’s finale “Simpsons Tall Tales,” so you think maybe they were right. But nope. Not even close.
– “Next week on ‘Behind the Laughter’: Huckleberry Hound.” “I was so gay. But I couldn’t tell anyone!”

Season 11 Final Thoughts
Hoo boy, well I’ll say this, even though there seemed to be a lot more shit in this season, the bar set at season 10 was pretty much kept still. Pretty much all the awfulness that occurred last season was confirmed to be here to stay in this one. The proficiency of storytelling has pretty much evaporated, replaced with whatever the hell the writers can come up with for unrelated set ups and ridiculous, out of left field climaxes. Characterization waxes and wanes depending on what cheap joke or plot turn they need to pull off. Humor is coming more from over-the-top physical comedy and dumb jokey jokes than actual satire or multi-layered gags. Homer is now completely brain dead, barely resembling a functioning human being anymore, and the rest of the cast has begun their process of caricaturization, turning in one-note shades of their former fleshed-out selves. Though there are a few glimmers of quality and brilliance, this season and the show’s future is pretty dark. The series has reached a low point, and there’s no telling how much lower it can possibly go. And I still have nine more seasons left. Holy macaroni…

With classic seasons, it was always so difficult to pick out the best episodes because there were so many, and the worst because there were basically none. From this season on… it’s pretty much going to be the reverse of that.

The Best
“Treehouse of Horror X,” “E-I-E-I-D’oh!,” “Grift of the Magi,” “Pygmoelian,” “Behind the Laughter”

The Worst
“Beyond Blunderdome,” “Saddlesore Galactica,” “Alone Again, Natura-Diddly,” “Bart to the Future,” “Kill the Alligator and Run”

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22 responses to “248. Behind the Laughter

  1. The line that always stood out for me was: “I want to set the record straight: I thought the cop was a prostitute.”. It was the satisfied nod at the end which made it.

  2. i also love “homer finds a new passion…. dusting and cleaning mixing boards.”

  3. “Nine seasons”? So you won’t stick for Season 21 and beyond?

    • I’m stopping at the moment I gave up on the series and stopped watching, which occurred at the beginning of season 21.

      • OIC. Can’t blame you there, really.
        I’m lookin’ forward to your thoughts on Season 12 too. While A.BRA C.ADAVER’s storing his faith on HOMR, well my horse in this race is “Hungry Hungry Homer”.

    • I can 2nd you on Hungry Hungry Homer

  4. I can’t wait to get into season 12. A couple episodes I don’t mind, but a whole bunch of terrible episodes, including one in particular that I think is the most pathetic in the history of the show.

    • Yeah, very excited for the HOMR review. It’s actually one of my personal favorites. Most of season 12 SUCKS though. Simpsons Safari review should be a hoot. Bad review are always better.

      I think BEHIND THE LAUGHTER is pretty brilliant and would have served as a great endpoint for the show. “Fame was like a drug. But what was even more like a drug were the drugs.” is one of my all time favorite quotes.

      • As for Homer getting hurt, I know what you’re saying, that he usually didn’t do many outlandish stunts, but he HAS done so much damage to himself over the years (becoming morbidly obese, all his drinking, etc) and I could easily see him developing pill addictions (especially pain pill addiction). I get the point you’re making — that he didn’t do all the physical “Stunts” till later — but a part of his humor has ALWAYS been him hurting himself, though usually internally — or even in his mind — rather than the silly cartoon nonsense…

  5. Homer getting hurt was much funnier before. Funnier and shorter.

    I’m going to go like this…..and if you get eaten it’s your own fault. NOM NOM NOM NOM AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGH!

  6. I agree that this would have been the perfect series finale as a way to acknowledge how great the show was as well as how bad it had gotten (which is only a fraction of how bad it would later become.) My only hope is that the writers do a similar premise for the actual series finale, but they’ll probably fuck that up too.

    Well Mike, you’ve entered the point of no return. It only goes downhill from here on out. I am curious about what episodes you’ll consider the best of the later seasons.

  7. Many thanks for the kind words, it was great fun. Point of interest: After the original episode aired I returned to locate Springfield in at least a 1/2 dozen different locales for regional syndication purposes. Many had suspected the “real” location was Springfield, MA which is Mike Skully’s hometown. Driving through KY this Spring, I passed signs for Springfield and had a good laugh.

    • Rembrandt Q. Einstein

      How come nobody paid any attention to this comment from a Simpsons guest star?

      • Rembrandt Q. Einstein

        The narrator of Behind the Music. A popular show. Commenting on an obscure blog post. Nobody reacts. Mind boggles.

  8. Wow, you found 5 good episodes? “Hadder Fadder, Hello Gutter” is the only episode in the entire season I thought was hilarious. The rest got maybe 0-2 laughs out of me the entire time. “Saddlesore Galactica” and the Tomacco episode are by far the worst of the season.

  9. Imperciph of No Homers made a good point about this episode: It’s hilarious the first time, but it gets progressively less and less funny every time you watch it. Still, this one’s OK. My personal favorite narrator analogy: “Or would his olive branch be torn apart by woodpeckers of mistrust?”

  10. I’d like to see more “behind the laughter”-ish episodes for other cartoons. Like, take a serious approach to it. Can you imagine how dramatic the Ren and Stimpy or Angry Beavers ones would be?

    • I could swear a “Ren and Stimpy” behind the scenes expose has been done before (or was planned until John K. left in disgrace).

      Anyway, this season was when the show really started to lose it. As I mentioned in season 10, the “best” episodes were the ones that didn’t bore me or leave a bad taste in my mouth:

      Best: Brother’s Little Helper, Grift of the Magi, Pygmoelian, Last Tap Dance in Springfield, Saddlesore Galactica, Bart to the Future (I know, those last two are considered the worst episodes ever, but I did get some good laughs from Saddlesore Galactica’s weirdness and Bart to the Future had some good gags in it and I always liked that episode more than Lisa’s Wedding).

      Worst: Behind the Laughter, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad Marge, Eight Misbehavin’, Guess Who’s Coming to Criticize Dinner, Kill the Alligator and Run (though I did laugh at “Florida? But that’s America’s wang”/”The prefer ‘The Sunshine State'”, Homer going nuts when he discovers that he only has three years left to live, Homer mistaking Joe C. for a lost child, Homer drinking the oversized malt liquor at the Kid Rock concert, Homer defending himself in court by starting his argument with “Drunken hicks of the jury…”, and the family trying to pick a new state to vacation in and being banned from almost all of them).

      • You prefer Bart To The Future to Lisa’s wedding, you managed to laugh with Saddlesore Galactica, and you laughed at those sad jokes from Kill the Alligator and Run.. I have a question: What are you doing on a blog about The Simpsons? I recommend that you watch some post-2000s sitcoms, you will find those funny I guess. And, by the way, Family Guy blogs must be somewhere out there on internet.

  11. I’ve always had this theory that Season 11 was meant to be the final season due this episode.

  12. I think when I pick up simpsons on dvd this is where I will stop. it’s a natural end point, and by all rights should’ve been, and very little after it serves much point if I cut it.

    As to the episode itself, while I don’t know exactly who willy nelson or jim forbs are, I love the premise and the execution, particularly all the nutty analogies.

  13. I always thought this episode was overrated, but I agree that, after the shitshow of the past couple seasons, this would have been a satisfactory series finale. I’d have rather the series ended with Trash of Titans and avoided all of seasons 10 & 11, but since that didn’t happen, this would be my next choice for an ending point.

    But no. There’s more to come, and it gets worse.

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