Hey, Iíve seen this before!By Joe Pursel
Almost thirteen years ago, on April 17, 1987, a new family was introduced to the American public. They seemed like they were the average family with the parents in their thirties. There were 3 children, an oldest boy, about 10, a middle child about 8, and a young toddler, probably not even a year old. We meet the family at the childrenís bedtime, the parents come around to tuck them in. Homer, the father, has a conversation of philosophical proportions on mind versus matter with the son, Bart. Marge, the mother, tucks in the oldest daughter, Lisa, telling her the nighttime passage "Donít let the bed bugs bite," and then goes on to sing "rock-a-bye-baby" to little Maggie. Sounds like the typical American family to me. One last thing, did I mention that they were cartoons?
In case you havenít guessed, the family that I am referring to is none other than the Simpsons. If you didnít guess that, you probably donít have a TV. The Simpsons, one of the most popular shows on TV, winning everything from Emmyís to Peabodyís to Peopleís Choice Awards. More recently, on January 14 of this year, the Simpson family earned an immortal star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Archives). They also have many products and memorabilia on the market today, from video collections to recently released PEZ dispensers. All this fame and fortune coming from a thirty second bit on The Tracey Ullman Show (Richmond, 14).
I myself have been a fan of The Simpsons for as long as I can remember. I first started watching The Simpsons halfway through the first season, when they were one Thursday nights. I continued to watch, making it a habit every week. I really liked the show, but I wasnít religious about it. Boy would that ever change. It all started about the beginning of my sophomore year in high school. I would watch The Simpsons every night, just as my friends Justin and Adam. One night I was on the phone with Justin, watching The Simpsons, of course, the episode "Brother from the Same Planet." In this episode, Homer signs up to by a big brother for less fortunate children. The interview went like this:
Secretary Ė "And what are your reasons for wanting a little brother?" Homerís Brain Ė "Donít say revenge. Donít say revenge." Homer Ė "Uh . . . revenge." Homerís Brain Ė "Thatís it, Iím getting out of here (foot steps walking away and then a door slamming.)"
We laughed our asses off. From that point, things started to get a little out of hand. We would watch the show every night religiously. If we were talking on the phone at the time when the show was coming on, we would hang up on one another, without explanation or reason. The first thing weíd say when we met was "You watch Simpsons last night?" We, and especially myself, went from fans to fanatics to freaks.
In the spring of 1989, it was rumored that The Simpsons might get their own full-length show (Journal). The first full length Simpsons episode aired December 17, 1989, and was an instant success. David Hillbrand called it "wilder than anything. . .seriously skewed and seriously funny (People)." He gave it a B+. To date, there have been over two hundred and fifty episodes, with more coming this year, and a season twelve already in the works. Yet, with all these episodes and all the years on TV, The Simpsons have still remained popular. One of the reasons behind is the humor the writers use. While having the usual cartoonish and dysfunctional family humor, the writers also use a deep, underlying humor that one has to look for, much like a far side comic. As creator Matt Groening, who People magazine once said was Foxís wittiest, said in an article in Time Magazine, "There are jokes you won't get, unless you've actually attended a few classes in college (77)." For this reason, The Simpsons has remained popular to both young and old. But the writers have a large bag of tricks to rely on to create humor. One of these tricks is the classic parody. The use of the parody has been a main reason in the showís popularity.
The writers parody everything, from music to literature to political events to the bible to other TV shows to movies. Nothing seems to be taboo to creators Matt Groening, Sam Simon and James Brooks. Perhaps this sounds familiar-a man, alone on the water, fighting to catch a giant fish. He is disillusioned, tired, and ready to give up, when the fish jumps into the air, revealing its true size and stature, inspiring the man not to give up. Soon after, the man catches the fish and says to it "I love you, but I must kill you." No, it wasnít Santiago in Hemmingwayís timeless classic The Old Man and the Sea, it was Homer in the episode, "The War of the Simpsons." In a televised speech, President George Bush made a remark that the country needed families more like the Waltons, and less like the Simpsons. Weeks later, Bart said, "Hey, weíre just like the Waltons. Weíre praying for an end to the depression, too (Richmond, 62)." In "Díohíin in the Wind," Grandpa Simpson and Jasper sit on a park bench laughing like MTVís Beavis and Butt-Head (Gimple, 53) after drinking marijuana laced juice. Frank Sinatra has a popular "It Was a Very Good Year" where he sings a verse about being seventeen and seeing "small town girls (Best of Frank Sinatra)." Homer Simpson has a song about buying some "very good beer with a fake I.D." at the ripe age of seventeen (Key of Springfield). But more than ever, The Simpsons writers have parodied movies. Some references to movies are quite apparent, the full episode being a parody, such as "A Streetcar Named Marge," which is based around A Streetcar Named Desire (Richmond, 93), and "Das Bus," based on Lord of the Flies (Gimple, 28). Other episodes just have parts of movies parodied within the story, such as the fore mentioned "The War of the Simpsons." Other references are so subtle or hidden that it either takes a keen eye or an episode guide with all of the secrets and references exposed. Probably the most blatant use of movies on The Simpsons comes every year in the annual "Treehouse of Horrors" Halloween episode. Most movies that are used are classics, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and King Kong. As James Brooks once told the writing staff of The Simpsons, "If you steal from a black-and-white film, it's an homage (Time, 77)." These parodies are funny, but just how well do they follow their original story, and why does the humor involved help catapult The Simpsons higher and higher in ratings?
The parody that I will examine is a segment in "Treehouse of Horrors III" called "King Homer." This episode was originally aired October 29, 1992, and parodies the R.K.O. picture King Kong (Richmond, 97), originally released in 1933. Though the Simpsons take on this classic horror film is far from the original; it does follow the basic storyline well enough. The movie King Kong starts out in a New Jersey harbor the night before a film ship leaves on a far off secret cruise. The only thing missing is the girl, to play the roll in the film Carl Denham is making. Denham is outraged at this, so he leaves the docks to go find a girl himself, since all of the casting agencies won't help him out. When he finally does find a girl, Ann, Denhamís first mate, Jack Driscoll, objects.
In "King Homer" Marge comes to a dock on foggy evening in response to an ad placed by Mr. Burns (Denhamís ego). She says that she would like the job, and Mr. Burns is glad to have her. After Marge goes on board, Burns looks for the opinion of his first mate, Smithers. Smithers objects to having her on board, saying, "Women and seamen donít mix." That line in it self is a parody of Smithersí lifestyle. Waylan Smithers is the only lead character that is gay. The writers might have been implying that fact with his line here.
The sailors and crewmembers among the ship on King Kong have no idea where they are headed, not even the captain. They only know that they are headed to some exotic location to film a movie. In "King Homer," all the crew and members of the boat, with the exception of Marge, know that they are heading to Ape Island, to capture a giant ape, rather than Candy Apple Island, where there are smaller apes. In the movie, Denham will not reveal where the boat is headed and for what purpose until the ship is far out at sea. The Simpsons left this detail out, as it would have just added more time to the segment, so thatís why the writers revealed everything at once.
Finally the ship arrives at the island, which in both cases has a huge mountain with the likeness of a skull which the movie actually calls Skull Island, in yet another way to tie the two stories directly together. We will see more of this technique later in the story. Once at the island, Denham/Burns accompanies parties into the main land, finding a tribal village, where the chief and many witch doctors are preparing for a ceremony. Again, this is where Simpsons' writers differed from the original movie plot line. In the movie, Denham sets up his camera and films the tribe people during their ceremony, getting caught. The chief wants to sacrifice all of them when he sees Ann. He has never seen someone of such beauty, and tries to trade Denham women for her. Denham refuses and the party goes back to the ship, where Ann is kidnapped by the natives and prepared to be sacrificed to a god, Kong. On the show, Burns, Smithers and Marge are hiding behind some shrubs on the outskirts of the village when the chief spots Margeís bright blue hair. "Mosi Tatupu, Mosi Tatupu," the chief says, translated to "The blue-haired women will make a good sacrifice." This line is actually another parody, if you are smart enough to understand it (or in my case look it up in a book). Mosi Tatupu was a native Samoan who played runningback for the Patriots in the 70ís (Richmond, 97). That doesnít effect the plot, but it is an interesting fact (Iím not trying to fill up space, Iím just really tired and getting delirious.) Once again, to save time, the natives grab Marge then and there and prepare her for sacrifice.
What happens next in the movie is a long series of events, which gave the film great acclaim due to the special effects used. The natives strike a gong, signaling for Kong, a giant monkey. Kong comes through the jungle, bellowing the whole way and picks up Ann, who is screaming bloody murder and scarred beyond belief. Kong takes her into the jungle, which has many primitive creatures, including dinosaurs. Kong does battle with many of these creatures, including a Tyrannosaurus Rex who bites Kong on the forearm. During this battle, Kong shows his attraction to Ann by placing her in a very high tree, where she is safe. Kong takes Ann to his mountaintop cave, where Driscoll saves her and takes her back to the village. Kong returns to the village, looking to reclaim Ann, and it is then when Denham decides to capture him and take him back to New York to be the "eighth wonder of the world." He throws a gas bomb, knocking the giant out, and takes Kong back to the ship for the voyage home to New York. I have left out some of the details from this scene because they are irrelevant for this argument.
The show is completely different, again mainly to cut down on time, while still giving the essential story. When the gong is struck, Homer is doing battle with the T-Rex, who bites him on the forearm. A loud resounding "Díoh!" is heard throughout the jungle as Marge screams. Homer picks up Marge, and starts to bounce her hair back and forth. He then sniffs her hair like a wine connoisseur sniffs the cork of a fine bottle of wine. Marge is impressed immediately by Homer, who sets her down atop a high tree when Burns and his men burst in with guns and cannons. "If we capture him alive," Burns says, "we can put him on Broadway. Dead, and we can sell monkey stew to the army." He tries to throw a gas bomb, but being an old man, it falls to his feet, disorienting him. Smithers steps in and throws a bomb directly to Homers feet, knocking him out.
Once again, the conclusion in the show is similar to that of the movie, just shorter in length. In the movie, Kong is on a Broadway stage, in front of a huge audience. Denham explains to the audience the story of Kong, and introduces Ann, the "bravest girl I have ever known." The press starts to take pictures of Kong, who sees the flashes and thinks that the reporters are shooting guns at Ann. He becomes enraged, and frees himself in an attempt to protect Ann. He then goes on a rampant killing rage looking for Ann, whom he finds in her hotel room, and reaches in to grab her. He climbs to the top of the Empire State Building, and is gunned down by planes, falling to the streets below.
On the show, the reportersí flashbulbs, well, piss Homer off. He breaks free of his chains and immediately scratches his posterior, in typical Simpsons style. Homer really doesnít run amuck in the city; he just breaks into the stage next door and eats Shirley Temple before heading off for Marge. Once again, The Simpsons integrate a famous shot, that of Kongís arm carrying Ann out of the hotel window, except with Homer and Marge, of course. Homer then tries to climb the Empire State Building, but starts to get discouraged. The planes circling at the top have to refuel. A flustered and sweating Homer places Marge on a window and falls to the ground-from the third floor, showing just how fat and lazy the writers make Homer Simpson out to be. Rather than ending like the movie, the final shot and dead Kong lying in the street, the show ends with a segment from Marge and Homerís wedding, where Homer eats Margeís father by accident.
Throughout "King Homer," we see many elements of the original King Kong. The face shots of Homer on the island when he first sees Marge, and the famous shot where Kong pulls Ann from the window, screaming and arms flailing. Only six minutes in length, "King Homer" is a fair representation of the one hundred-minute King Kong movie. The writers simply left out the irrelevant details, and modified the story slightly, to add a twist, which they usually do.
Have you ever watched Thelma and Louise and wanted them to hit the brakes right before they flew off the cliff? It happened on a parody from The Simpsons (Marge on the Lam). Did you ever wish the just once James Bond wouldnít escape? Heís strapped to a table with a laser going to slowly cut him in half, and he always manages to find a way to escape and be Little Johnny Live-a-Lot. Well, that happens on The Simpsons too, but at least when Bond is trying to run away, Homer tackles him and guards riddle his body with bullets using automatic weapons (Move Twice).
The Simpsons are getting more and more popular as in each passing year. They are drawing crowds of both young and old. This is due to the shows fresh, up beat humor, but also of the parodies of classic movies it uses, such as the one from King Kong. So the next time your watching The Simpsons (which better be tonight for I have prepared a quiz to take in the morning), you might be thinking, "Hey, this looks familiar. Havenít I seen this before in my film studies class?"
"Brother from the Same Planet." Cletus Farm. Updated 01 Apr. 2000. <http://cletus.farm.free.fr/episodes/episodeseng.htm> 05 Apr. 2000.
Castellaneta, Dan. Songs in the Key of Springfield. Rhino, 1997.
Corliss, Richard. "Simpsons Forever! The most satisfying show on television celebrates its 100th episode with its charactersí wit, love and desperation intact." Time 2 May 1994: 77.
Gimple, Scott M, Ed. The Simpsons Forever! A Complete Guide to our Favorite Family. . .Continued. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.
Hillbrand, David. "Picks and Pans." People Weekly 12 Feb. 1990: 9-10
King Kong. Dir. Meriana Cooper and Ernest Schoedesk. Turner Home Entertainment, 1994.
"Many New Shows Have Familiar Ring." Wall Street Journal 14 Apr. 1989: B1.
"Marge on the Lam." Cletus Farm. Updated 01 Apr. 2000. <http://cletus.farm.free.fr/episodes/episodeseng.htm> 05 Apr. 2000.
Richmond, Ray and Antonia Coffman, Eds. The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to our Favorite Family. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.
Simpsons Archive. 03 Apr. 2000. <http://www.snpp.com/> 05 Apr. 2000
Sinatra, Frank. The Very Best of Frank Sinatra. Capitol, 1994.
"Treehouse of Horror III." Cletus Farm. Updated 01 Apr. 2000. <http://cletus.farm.free.fr/episodes/episodeseng.htm> 05 Apr. 2000.
"War of the Simpsons." Cletus Farm. Updated 01 Apr. 2000. <http://cletus.farm.free.fr/episodes/episodeseng.htm> 05 Apr. 2000.
"You Only Move Twice." Cletus Farm. Updated 01 Apr. 2000. <http://cletus.farm.free.fr/episodes/episodeseng.htm> 05 Apr. 2000.
© Joe Pursel, April 2000.
Last updated on May 6, 2000 by Jouni Paakkinen (email@example.com)