Part of The Simpsons‘ utter genius is how the writers were able to squeeze pathos and comedy, week after week, out of extremely improbable storylines. In my “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis” series, for example, I’ve discussed episodes where an angry old man plots to block out the sun; where a town is nearly destroyed by its own public transit; where a little boy sells his soul to his best friend; and where a father buys his daughter a pony and has to suffer for it. Today, I’m going to talk about one where an elementary school principal is fired, and then rehired.
However, despite this tiny, incidental narrative,”Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song” is rendered compelling, hilarious, and emotionally affecting through the miracles of fantastic writing and voice acting. By looking deeper into Principal Skinner, a man defined by his position of authority, the Simpsons staff peels away myths about power and leadership in America. But as usual, they take some side trips to skewer public schools, nerds, the military, religion, and much more. It’s 22 very dense minutes of hyperactive, hyperliterate TV, casually mixing brutal jokes with redemptive sentiment.
At the core of it all is Principal Skinner, scarred Vietnam vet and neurotic mama’s boy, who is having the worst day of his life. We first see him on the phone in mid-conversation, sweating profusely as he mutters, “I—I know Weinstein’s parents were upset, superintendent, but, but, but I was sure it was a phony excuse. I mean, it sounds so made up: Yom Kippur!” It’s a dead-on jab at suburban school administrators, who are totally clueless about anything beyond white-bread Christian traditions, and it introduces Skinner as he’s being crushed by the pressures of his job. Through a series of twists involving an energetic dog and a greased-up Scotsman, his day goes from bad to worse, leaving him haggard and hiccupping. It all culminates in this tragically absurd bit of back-and-forth with Superintendent Chalmers:
Chalmers: You’re fired!
[Musical sting; Bart gasps.]
Skinner: I’m sorry, did—did you just call me a liar?
Chalmers: No, I said you were fired.
Skinner: Oh. That’s much worse.
This could have been Skinner’s chance to take a stand against Chalmers, but since he mishears the crucial phrase, it just turns into a pathetic debacle punctuated at the end by a lone hiccup. Like any authority figure in Springfield, Skinner is often a lazy, smarmy, hypocritical fascist. He’s as willing as anyone to play along with the broken system and throw the children’s futures under the bus. But he’s still insecure, fragile, and achingly sincere—in short, he’s only human, and his authoritarian demeanor is always marred by weakness. As he blurts out that last line, his vulnerability is palpable, and this helps secure viewer sympathy for him during the next two acts. It’s also painfully funny.
Read on for more about Skinner, gay jokes, and elementary school…
Much of the following episode is about how low Skinner sinks without his trademark blue suit and the position of principal. While shopping, he mentions that he’s writing Billy and the Cloneasaurus, an obvious Jurassic Park rip-off, and gets viciously chewed out by Apu. Bullies steal his underwear, and although he initially declares, “I can buy a new pair!”, he backs down yet again: “No, I can’t. I needed those, I really did.” While unemployed, Skinner’s little more than a quaint, emotionally stunted eccentric. As Lisa opines, “Everybody needs a nemesis,” and taking Skinner out of the principal’s office is like taking away Elmer Fudd’s hunting license. Springfield Elementary’s natural order is upset and, as Yeats would say, “The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” Skinner and the kids need each other, however dysfunctional their relationship may be.
Harry Shearer does a terrific job of voicing Skinner in this episode, balancing his comic haplessness with very real panic and pain. I’d like to highlight one more especially delicious line, which arrives late in the episode Skinner asks Bart how he should get out of the Army. Bart suggests making a pass at his commanding officer. “Done and done!” replies Skinner. “And I mean done.” I love this because it’s a joke about violating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but it’s not premised on homosexuality being self-evidently funny. It’s funny because of the Boy Scout-like enthusiasm in Shearer’s voice, and how surprising it is to have Skinner, normally a defender of old-fashioned values, so eager to hit on another man. It’s a joke that about same-sex desire, but it’s not homophobic—now that’s edgy.
But for all this episode’s exploration of Skinner, it’s Martin Prince, nerd extraordinaire of the 4th grade, who emerges as its comedic dark horse. He only has a handful of lines in the episode, but voice actor Russi Taylor invests each one with so much grating peppiness: “Greetings, fellow geodologist!”; “I wager he has some variety of walking clock in that box“; “My water dish is empty!” Martin is already a living incarnation of elementary school absurdity, so it’s appropriate that as the school’s conditions degenerate, he adapts to them. The sight of Martin treating his cage like a turn-of-the-century tenement makes a strange kind of sense.
I’ll conclude with a few more jokes I love. After Bart inadvertently gets Skinner fired, Lisa castigates him and describes the gnawing feeling on the back of his neck as guilt; a close-up reveals that it’s actually a little spider. This reversal is not only comically gross, but it also undercuts Lisa’s self-righteousness in blaming her brother. Similarly off-putting is the cutaway to Lunchlady Doris, as she dumps horse parts into a pot. “More testicles mean more iron,” she reasons. She’s complicit in feeding the kids low-grade shit, but she has enough excuses that she doesn’t care. Working in a public school, as Springfield Elementary’s staff and faculty now, means building up a thick carapace of apathy as an emotional defense.
But poor Skinner’s defenses are riddled with holes. The polar opposite of Ms. Krabappel, he puts too much of himself into his work. This is his hamartia (as Aristotle would say) when it comes to being an authoritative principal, yet it’s also the school’s one ray of hope. The episode ends on a surprisingly sweet note: the dysfunctional status quo is restored, and Skinner and Bart are about to become enemies again. Bart slaps a “KICK ME” sign on Skinner’s back… and in turn, Skinner puts a “TEACH ME” sign on his. It’s a cute saving grace for an episode full of chaos and misery. Amidst the hell of the educational system, but their love/hate relationship keeps them both going.