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… Continue reading