Tag Archives: irony

Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Bart’s Comet

[Perfectly Cromulent Analysis is a series in which I comprehensively analyze especially memorable Simpsons episodes. To see the rest, look here.]

Starting with a simple schoolyard prank and building its way up to a powerful climax wherein the citizens of Springfield sing together in solidarity, “Bart’s Comet” is an example of the Simpsons‘ staff at their very best. In just over 20 minutes, they cram in a full disaster movie’s worth of plot paired with endlessly biting political satire, plus a number of character-building moments and subtle but hilarious gags. It’s well-written to a tee, both in its broader structure (every moment adds to the plot) and in its little snippets of dialogue. Tucked into the corners of this episode are fantastic lines and savage gibes, universally well-delivered by the voice actors.

In short, it’s a great episode. But why just utter praise? Let’s delve into what makes “Bart’s Comet” such an unremitting masterwork, one of the most brilliant pieces of animated satire ever created. It all starts as poor, beleaguered Principal Seymour Skinner is attempting to instill his pupils with a love of science by launching a weather balloon. Little does he know that his actions will inadvertently lead an angry mob to burn down the Springfield observatory. It’s just one glimmering irony out of the dozens overflowing from this bountiful episode, and naturally – since it’s a brutal irony in Skinner’s sad provincial life – it comes courtesy of Bart Simpson.

As revenge for Bart’s sabotaging of the balloon (adding a mock-up of Skinner’s face and the words “Hi, I’m Big Butt Skinner”), Skinner forces him to wake up at 4am and assist in Skinner’s amateur astronomy. Amidst scenes full of dead-on observational humor, both about the perils of waking up before sunrise and the tedium of the scientific method, Bart does assist him – only to sabotage him yet again by accidentally discovering a comet. This results in one of my favorite Skinner movements, as he cries “NO!” three times in succession – his inarticulate equivalent of “Curses, foiled again!”

Thus, with the discovery of the comet and the transition to Act 2, the episode’s plot begins in earnest. No more Skinner/Bart hijinks, as amusing as those are; now, events shift to a broader city-wide platform, as Bart and the nerdy Super Friends alert the proper authorities that the comet is headed straight for Springfield. The “doomsday whistle,” as Grandpa calls it, is used to instigate a town meeting, and during that meeting we learn what the episode is really about: it’s an inquiry into whether the people of Springfield have “grace under pressure,” to quote Ernest Hemingway. The answer is an unambiguous “no,” but it’s delivered probably the funniest, most intelligent way possible over the following 10 minutes.

As if to complement Skinner’s schoolboyish enthusiasm, the episode is not just about the town’s instant panic (“Quit stalling! What’s the plan?!”), but also about how science, as the abstract pursuit of knowledge, tries to coexist or interact with more tangible political realities, often (as here) with disastrous results. To that end, we’ve got Professor Frink, go-to brainiac, who offers what looks like a miracle solution, conceived of by himself in tandem with old government/military officials: just send a rocket to blow up “Mr. Comet.” The frazzled populace is instantly relieved, especially Homer, who compares the crisis to “that rainforest scare,” which he assumes has been fully resolved.

Just as in “Marge vs. the Monorail,” Homer is the very model of political apathy and complacency, relinquishing all civic decision making to anyone who isn’t him. (Or per “Trash of the Titans”: “Can’t somebody else do it?”) He has complete faith that the people in charge will make the right choices to keep him and his family safe – even after he’s seen Quimby mispronounce the city’s name. He comes up with a half-assed escape plan that he can barely describe because he’s so easily distracted, and even when all hope seems last, he carries on with naïve optimism, assuming that the comet will probably burn up. I like how the episode revolves gently around Homer, who accidentally saves the day with his self-imposed blindness and layered hypocrisies.

When the rocket fails and the only bridge out of town is destroyed, “Bart’s Comet” takes on a decidedly apocalyptic tone. But even within this atmosphere of suspense and desperation, the episode still finds time for one little joke after another. It’s black comedy at its finest, for example, when helicopter-riding newsman Arnie Pie watches one car after another try and fail to jump over Springfield Gorge, and describes it as “a silent testament to the never-give-up and never-think-things-out spirit of our citizens.” Or when Congress’s bureaucratic loopholes make an emergency evacuation bill fail, prompting Kent Brockman to remark that “democracy simply doesn’t work.”

Under pressure, it appears, all of Springfield – including political, media, and religious authorities – abandon their logic or values, and turn to pure hysteria. The final showdown, when the townsfolk must prove who they really are, comes when Homer leads his family into Flanders’ bomb “shelterini.” After a brief non-confrontation, Ned lets everyone else in, from Moe to Otto to Krusty to over a dozen of the show’s other peripheral characters. Then, shoved together in the tiny space so that they form a ridiculous human collage, they must kick out one person so the door can remain fully close. And, of course, Homer is selfish to the last and insists that it be Flanders, even as he murmurs, “I’m terribly sorry!” to Flanders’ wife and children.

This climax really exemplifies what’s so great about this episode: it’s visually absurd but gets at some very deep truths. It’s a set of jokes that flows organically from the plot and characters while satirizing the self-serving tendencies people employ in moments of crisis. Flanders may be an effeminate, boring fundamentalist and a frequent (deserving) target of the show’s humor, but he’s still willing to sacrifice himself when the others cling to life. The townsfolk engage in a hilarious “barnyard noise guessing game” to distract themselves from their questionably ethical decision, but Homer suddenly becomes their conscience and reprimands them all before joining Flanders.

This leads to the episode’s incredible resolution, which is a feat of versatile, economical writing yoked together with gorgeous animation and skilled voice acting. Everyone follows Homer out of the shelter, and they join Flanders in a rousing chorus of “Que Sera, Sera,” as they sing, “What will be, will be.” It’s a serene, heartwarming moment; it says that while they may be panicky, ignorant, and self-interested, the people of Springfield are still good at heart. Or, at the very least, that they’re willing to face death as a single unit, with all boundaries erased – which has to count for something. It’s the usual Simpsons trick of hiding the sweet in the sour, and vice versa.

Then, with dizzying speed, the ending arrives: the comet tears into the atmosphere and burns up into a rock “no bigger than a chihuahua’s head,” just as Homer said. Between the comet burning up and the end of the episode – that’s less than a minute of screen time – we get countless layers of dense irony thrown at us (let’s count!): 1) the comet destroys the weather balloon that started all this in the first place; 2) it destroys the bomb shelter, meaning that anyone still inside would’ve been killed; 3) Patty and Selma remark on “the preciousness of life” as they take a drag on their cigarettes; 4) Moe leads a mob to go burn down the observatory “so this will never happen again”; 5) Lisa realizes that the air pollution she’s opposed saved the city; and 6) the kids realize that Homer, somehow, was right.

What a denouement! It not only wraps up every single plot point, but also uses its conclusions to mock the shallowness and short-sightedness of its characters; it then tilts the balance at the very last moment by positioning Homer’s correct prediction as a source of renewed anxiety. The comet has burned up, the threat is gone, and we’re back to the status quo… but that status quo is built on forgetting any of the valuable lessons from the recent crisis, or else brutally misapplying them. Scientists move carefully and learn from their mistakes. The people (in the sense of “we the people”) do not. “Bart’s Comet” gets across this and other satirical points with uncompromising swiftness and an extraordinary range of emotion. And to put the cherry on top, it ends on a note of quavering fear. Genius.

Just for fun, here are a few of my absolute favorite moments from “Bart’s Comet”:

  • Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney pelting Skinner’s car with rocks.
  • “You get all the fun of sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention… science has it all.”
  • “Warren, we’ve talked about you hogging the eyepiece.”
  • Moe: “Oh, dear God, no!”
  • Todd weeping as he loads the rifle.
  • “It was a baby ox!”

What are your feelings on “Bart’s Comet”? Please share in the comment box below!

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With the help of his robot friends

So, inexplicably, my last post – a random little overanalysis of a government flyer – has received almost 100 views in the past two days, more than this whole blog has gotten in the past several weeks. I can’t account for this except, maybe, to say that having “teen” and “sex” as tags encourages viewing – but after all, those were just honest descriptions of the post’s content. So, for what it’s worth, people like reading about teen sexuality. Or just sex. Sex. SEX!!!! I’ll keep that in mind.

And now, as promised earlier, I plan to explore the fertile territory that is MST3K.

Mystery Science Theater 3000

For the uninitiated, Mystery Science Theater 3000 or MST3K is a television show (1988-1999) and cultural institution, the brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, in collaboration with a number of other brilliant minds from the Twin Cities area in the late ’80s. Other important names associated with the series include Trace Beaulieu, who played mad scientist Clayton Forrester, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, voices of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo respectively, Mary Jo Pehl, who played Clayton’s mother Pearl, and of course the great Michael J. Nelson.

The premise of the show was absurd and simple: the Mads, by virtue of being mad scientists, wanted a guinea pig on whom to experiment, so they took a worker, Joel (and later Mike), “shot him into space,” and forced him to float around on the Satellite of Love watching terrible, terrible movies. It’s as ridiculous as the plot of any Bert I. Gordon B-movie, creating a meta-structure from which to gaze upon several decades of mediocre, low-budget cinema. If you’ve never seen MST3K before, here’s an excellent example of the show at its prime.

This is Mike and the bots riffing on a 1950 informational film called A Date with Your Family; as any bad-movie lover knows, un-self-conscious, unintentionally hilarious, and poorly-made films readily inspire mockery, or “riffing.” This is MST3K’s guiding principle. Maybe I’m being overzealous in laying out the show’s basics, but, well, you’ve gotta walk before you can run. After all, I take this show for granted – growing up while the show was running, watching it on the Sci-Fi Channel on Saturday mornings, episodes like Devil Fish and The Screaming Skull, and supplementing this with locally-broadcast shows like Horror Incorporated and frequent viewings of much-beloved opuses of badness, whether from the Godzilla series, other specimens of daikaiju cinema, or homegrown horrors involving Boris Karloff or Edward D. Wood, Jr. All of which is to say, the ethos of MST3K has very much informed my movie-watching experiences.

Statler and Waldorf

So the reason I felt compelled to start writing this blog was that, watching the show almost every day as Ashley and I do, I started thinking about its unique approach to entertainment: it’s hyper-cannibalistic, drawing its entire value from merciless dissection of another work’s flaws. The other day, we were sitting on a couch pissed off about this and that, and realized we were yelling at someone who wasn’t there (perhaps an embodiment of the State of the World). And I observed how we were like Statler and Waldorf, the two hecklers from The Muppet Show who would sit up in the balcony having exchanges like this:

Waldorf: Just when you think this show is terrible something wonderful happens.
Statler: What?
Waldorf: It ends.

I then added that Statler and Waldorf had always been two of my many, many heroes – eternal malcontents, never willing to give the performer any credit, just as we endlessly must gnaw at the ankle of the status quo, never giving it a break: after all, even if there are 1 or 2 nice reforms, that doesn’t mean the system’s fixed. Women’s suffrage was granted just about 90 years ago, but the fight is far from over; thus are hecklers and malcontents a role model for activists everywhere. Or so it is in my cracked worldview.

So I return to the ideas, absurdity, and influence of MST3K. The title, visual aesthetic, and content are all deeply rooted in a heritage of bad science fiction movies, starting around 1947 (I always trace it back to the Cold War, and Kenneth Arnold‘s sighting of the first UFOs in Washington State) and continuing maybe until somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. The facts are (more or less) these:

1) we have media outside the movie theater to thank for our knowledge and love of these movies, as they were rediscovered in the ’60s-’70s on late-night TV by the generation containing my father and Joel Hodgson, and later on through VHS and DVD  by everybody up to us. Also, since they’re so cheap, low-prestige, and, well, bad, they’re low-cost and easy to distribute – hence the dollar store DVDs or 50-movie sets you can cheaply buy, making a treasure trove of B-movies available to new audiences in search of ironic entertainment.

2) enjoyment of these movies is primarily based on ironic appreciation of their badness, an interesting and already heavily discussed fact that’s given rise to a whole subculture across America – midnight screenings of Plan 9 or Glen or Glenda, and affectionate documentation of the past like Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood, which can be viewed vis-à-vis MST3K as a similar demonstration of this kind of film appreciation; also compare Michael and Harry Medved’s influential 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, which propelled Plan 9 to its current status as the anti-Citizen Kane. Or look at the Golden Raspberry Awards, continuing the trend of what I described as “recognizing suckiness” (The Carl, 2/27/09, p. 20).

It’s this idea that if something aspires to great enough levels of bad, it somehow becomes worth watching. Or reading, if it’s the poetry of James McIntyre, or listening to, if it’s the music of The Shaggs, who have themselves achieved a kind of cult status. I think you could probably connect this interest in the bad with the disillusionment of postmodernity. You could, if you knew how to use those words appropriately. Maybe it’s something like cultural overload. We’re so overburdened with millennia of literature, music, and art – we live in such a fractured, overwhelming world full of such doom and gloom that it’s easier to take comfort in a kind of anti-sublimity. I’m not condemning it at all. Hell, I’ve done it all my life and I love doing it. I’m just going off of the symptoms and speculating as to a possible diagnosis.

So we have Mike Nelson, stranded in outer space with his robot friends. “Now keep in mind Mike can’t control / Where the movies begin or end.” Stuck in a neverending cavalcade of godawful movies, always in a sisyphean struggle to escape but inevitably thrust back into his cinematic womb. And then there is the riff.

This is one of my favorite MST3K shorts, a (dubiously) educational film from 1940 called A Case of Spring Fever. As Ashley and I have noticed, watching it over and over again, the short is hilariously pointless: one clod, as Mike describes him, wishes away all the springs in the world, causing an animated “spring sprite” named Coily to appear and grant his wish; minutes later, after some groveling, Coily returns the springs to their rightful places, and the clod spends the rest of the short lecturing his visibly bored and frustrated friends about the many uses and benefits of springs. Sure, the viewer – while also becoming bored and frustrated – does gain some valuable spring-related knowledge, but the moral of the story seems to be that if you become obsessed with springs, you’ll become a paranoid wreck and alienate all your friends!

Coily, the spring sprite

So, needless to say, it’s dumb. And cheesy. Low-rent. Uninteresting. Really fucking dull. Perfect fodder for MSTing (oh yeah, it’s a verb): the awkward pauses between lines can fit hilarious commentary about the moronic premise, poor acting, inane dialogue, ridiculous set design, and everything else under the sun. Including, of course, allusions to everything from Gilbert Gottfried to Eleanor Roosevelt, It’s a Wonderful Life to Tamagotchis, and Looney Tunes to munchkin Billy Barty – this diverse allusiveness is another sign of MST3K’s cultural omnivorousness, its integration into the whole of late-20th century popular culture. It’s not expected that any one person will understand every single reference, but they do speak a common cultural language – hoping we’ll get the joke about Billy Barty’s height, or Gilbert Gottfried’s strident voice, or the iconic twang at the beginning of the Looney Tunes theme song. It presumes, perhaps, that we’ve watched some movies & TV. That we’ve participated in the flow of recent pop culture, the same touchstones, with a glint of recognition when we hear “Merry Christmas, you wonderful old couch,” presumably fueled by recollections of yuletide television consumption.

The long, open comedy format of MST3K is especially appropriate for this hodgepodge of allusion, grabbing at high and low culture, since as Trace Beaulieu explains:

There was a lot of room in that show. It was 90 minutes long, two hours with commercials. I remember sometimes thinking, “Man, that just doesn’t do it for me at all.” But it didn’t matter… there was space. And I think the thing that was great was that if it did work for somebody and didn’t work for me, there’d be that rare moment where somebody out there would hear a joke and say “I get this, I don’t think more than eight people would get this.” And that was a very personal moment.

Maybe it’s especially fitting that so many people have interacted with MST3K itself in so many ways, when it’s a highly interactive reappropriation of past “junk” culture, deriving endless entertainment from what would otherwise be considered virtually null in terms of entertainment value. One way of viewing the show is as standing in this very disillusioned viewpoint I’ve described, so overdosed on culture, with an assembly line churning out another blockbuster every other Friday – slick, glossy, well-made products with about as much meaning as “art” as Plan 9 (if not less; it’s a question worth asking, since at least Ed Wood had some kind of artistic vision and desire).

And we stand here after so many cultural upheavals, from one movement or rebellion to another, repeatedly recycling and processing and then commodifying the artistic credibility of yesterday, and now we interrogate the junk of the past. A Case of Spring Fever could be the stream of electromagnetic radiation flooding the cosmos, reruns of bad sitcoms stretching into the outer reaches of the galaxy, or another kind of space junk, perhaps a derelict satellite, some forgotten Soviet space probe, bumping up against the S.O.L. in the midst of its orbit. In 1961, Newton Minow referred to television as a “vast wasteland.” And now here we are, practically standing amidst a giant cultural dumping ground, trying to track down genuine artistry anywhere in the huge heaps of refuse; go to Best Buy or turn on cable or browse through the IMDb, and what do you have? One TV show or movie or whatever after another, all begging for your attention – and you can choose what you want to read about or watch, you can make your cultural decisions clear via your spending money, you can align yourself with this cult or that. It’s a disorienting state of affairs.

So with MST3K we, the jaded & wiser members of the Most Recent Generation, can begin the cultural excavation – watching and laughing at the follies of the “unemotional” past, to invoke the narrator’s hilarious mantra in A Date with Your Family. So often Ashley and I will manage to get out a sentence or two amidst our laughter: “How could they have made this? What were they thinking?” (I forget why I mentioned that. It ties in somewhere.) And so often I find myself repeating “Noooo springs! No springs, my friend!”

I don’t know if I’m quite doing justice to how & why MST3K works as well as it does, and what it really does, but it’s so interesting to explore: it’s as if it’s in the show’s in the business of cultural (a word I use very, very often) reconstitution, perhaps? We denizens of a splintered yet globalized world, closer but further apart than ever before, trying to get back into some kind of common understanding – like Mike, tethered to the planet but still far away, desperately wishing to get back into the loop of earthly affairs, trying to “keep his sanity” by criticizing the movies, processing them through the machine of highly allusive, acerbic comedy, and rendering them entertaining through the resulting synthesis of old junk and new commentary.

So this is part of what MST3K does: it gives us another way to view – and repurpose, and recontextualize – movies, interacting with them, talking back to them, inserting hilarious dialogue we wish was there in the first place. Telling the movie what it’s really saying. It establishes a kind of tether between this localized past of pro-spring or anti-emotion ephemera, of wholesome families with Brother and Junior, and with the otherwise historically and culturally adrift present, connecting the two via the line of sight between spectator – even if it’s the silhouette of a robot with a bubble gum machine for a head (building the erudite viewer Tom Servo out of yet more ephemeral junk) – and the junk piece of cinema. Even if we are so much more cynical and self-aware, at least we’re able to somehow relate to this past we’re watching.

So this is kind of my attempt to scratch the surface as to what makes MST3K so good, unique, and compelling, and why I love watching it and have for most of my life. It popped up at just the right time in recent memory; Ashley points out that people have always done that with movies, but MST3K made a show out of it – it codified this universal idea of making fun of what you’re watching, as I’m sure the groundlings did in Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, into “riffing” or “MSTing” for the 21st century. Watching MST3K, I’ll be struck for a moment by how odd it is: I’m watching a movie, but also listening for – and laughing at – the superimposed reactions of three other viewers, the new, absurd dialogue they inject into the preexisting scene; the narration and impressions they toss out; the side jokes and jibes they come up with.

For a moment, contrasted with my usual solemnly contemplative movie-watching style, it’ll strike me as odd – but after all, it’s not so different. For me, the viewing experience is all about participation. If you’re passively letting some pictures and sound wash over you, well, what’s the point to that? After all, no one goes to an art gallery and just allows the paintings to wash over them; it’s obvious you’d get about as much from that experience as if you set a book in your lap, flipped it open, and said to it, “Be read.” That, I think, could be why TV and film have, for so long, gotten such a bad artistic rap. Of course, this is a really big kettle of fish (mmm…) to open as I’m quickly approaching the end of the blog, but it’s worth exploring in the future. Why, after all, should film be any different, why should you just lie back and feel the light and noise bouncing off you? And so, I think maybe MST3K encourages that kind of active viewing: it takes intense participation and investment in the movie to analyze intelligently and draw conclusions, but it takes similar effort to come up with riffs that witty.

I could write a lot more – hell, there may be a book somewhere in this – including my (and Ashley’s) love of the show’s handmade, unrefined aesthetic, as well as the defiant self-awareness of the theme song (“Just repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show / I should really just relax'”), but I’ll keep it (relatively) short. It’s a fantastic show; probably one of the best. And so, if you’re still relatively unfamiliar with it, you can take some of these ideas in mind, go forth, and watch! Browse the list of episodes and keep in mind that most are available on YouTube, including classics like Space Mutiny, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The Internet seems a very fitting medium for continued viewing of a show that so effectively embodies its damn-intellectual-property, DIY attitude – especially a show whose copyright wrangles cause no end of DVD release issues. A show that introduced the name Torgo to a whole generation of film-lovers.

Robot roll call!

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