The Timing of a Door Slam on The Simpsons

April 20, 2015 § 1 Comment

I just noticed a great bit of sound direction on The Simpsons. In the famous early episode “Lisa’s Substitute”, Lisa loses her temper at Homer, and screams at him, “You, sir, are a baboon!”:

simpons-baboon

…and runs upstairs to her room. A few seconds later Bart breaks the tension with a typically great bit of Bart cheek: “Whoa. Somebody was bound to say it one day, I just can’t believe it was her.”:

simpsons-bart-someone

Now here’s the interesting part: we hear Lisa’s room door slam upstairs in the middle of Bart’s line.

Why would they time the door slam in the middle of Bart’s line? They could have just let her run upstairs and slam her door, then have Bart’s quip cut through the ensuing silence.

Instead, they mingled their moods together. Lisa’s anger sounds out right against Bart’s cheekiness. That is so classic Simpsons. So much of the humor is in the mere coexistence of its characters.

P.S. Here’s a probably short-lived YouTube link to the scene.

James Joyce’s Dirt-Covered Locket Story

May 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

I finally found an anecdote I remember reading about James Joyce, where he tells a story about a story of a dirt-covered locket. It took so much googling that I started to doubt it had ever existed in the first place, but at last, via a Google book search, I found it in the “New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes” (which is a shockingly reasonable place to find it).

It’s about specificity in writing, and it goes like this:

A German lady called to see me today. She is a writer and wanted me to give an opinion on her work, but she told me she had already shown it to the porter of the hotel where she stays.

So I said to her: ‘What did your hotel porter think of your work?’

She said: ‘He objected to a scene in my novel where my hero goes out into the forest, finds a locket of the girl he loves, picks it up and kisses it passionately.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘that seems to me to be a very pleasing and touching incident. What did your hotel porter find wrong with it?’

And then she tells me he said: ‘It’s all right for the hero to find the locket and to pick it up and kiss it, but before he kissed it you should have made him wipe the dirt off it with his coat sleeve.’

I told her, (and I meant it too) to go back to that hotel porter and always to take his advice. ‘That man,’ I said, ‘is a critical genius. There is nothing I can tell you that he can’t tell you.’

The reason I remember this anecdote, and the reason I wanted to try to rescue it from obscurity with this blog post, is that it’s such a neat lesson about the prime virtue of good writing: specificity, i.e. filling in the details that bring a story to life.

The interesting angle in this anecdote is that it argues how much creative mileage you can get out of the mundane question “What would really happen?” You can expand your understanding of a work, and you can expand your own work, by several dimensions simply by considering its implications for itself.

In Bleak House, a man spontaneously combusts. Okay. So what would really happen? Well, there’d be soot scattered everywhere, in spots here and there and then closer and closer together, drawing a passerby by degrees to the scene of the incident. And that’s what happens, in a terrifically narrated scene.

Or there’s a scene in The Simpsons where the camera turns from a marching protest group to Homer banging his fists on a counter at a food truck chanting “Where’s my burrito?” He keeps banging his fists until the awning comes loose, collapses, and whacks him in the head. The scene is so unforgettable simply because the writers or animators asked “What would really happen?”

Or to put it my own way, the difference between an ordinary scene and a creative one is stopping to ask “What if?”

My Favorite Simpsons: “Marge Be Not Proud”

March 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

Despite growing up with The Simpsons, I was amazed watching the old episodes again on DVD. With some years’ distance, and a few fresh viewings, you realize how the roots of the show’s absurdity lie in strong story-telling. When Homer says, “I want to tell you about the most wonderful place in the world: Doggie heaven,” that line sticks in the memory because it’s situated in a terrific back-and-forth between Homer and Bart (who asks about doggie hell) and Lisa (who angrily points out that Nixon’s dog is named Checkers). That’s why there’s such a thing as a Simpsons quote: the dialogue and its cadence are situated in a solid bit of story.

A seventh-season episode called “Marge Be Not Proud,” where Bart gets caught shoplifting around Christmas time, is my favorite because the rich strangeness of the writing is integrated with the structure of the story more artistically than in any other episode. If any Simpsons episode can be compared to a great short story, it’s this one. It’s a Christmas episode where Christmas is just an excuse to immerse the vicissitudes and complexities of Bart’s growing pains in the season’s wintry cheer.

Bart shoplifts a videogame against his better judgment — there’s an air of striving in the decision, when Jimbo and Kearney indirectly goad him into it — and the rest of the episode is about his subsequent estrangement from Marge when he gets caught. Really, Bart and Marge aren’t estranged by each other, but by themselves: Marge isn’t ready for Bart’s un-innocence, and Bart is amazed into remoteness by her reaction and by his own shame. They drift apart, Bart feels bad, he makes amends, and they are reconciled. That’s the plot. What sells it are the ways their individual discomforts are brought to life.

The balance between innocence and adult understanding in Bart and Marge — this is the theme of the episode. The initial trivial disagreement between them — that she won’t buy him Bonestorm — draws a line between Marge’s domestic cheer and Bart’s pre-adolescent striving. When she tucks him in at night, the ironic contrast of their characters is that she has a childlike enthusiasm and he’s cramped by it:

Marge creeps up to Bart for tuck-in time

Who's the child here?

So he shoplifts Bonestorm, and there are a few great images that capture Bart’s uneasy boyishness in the endeavor. His conscience is a slew of videogame characters:

Bart's conscience: Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, Sonic, and Lee Carvallo

Bart's conscience

…and in that same vein of cartoonish imagery, when he finds out he and his family are headed back to Try-N-Save the next day, his shock registers as puffs of steam from the teapot behind him:

Bart's shocked, and steam shoots out his ears from the teapot behind him

Bart's conscience (again)

The spine of these images is how their cartoonish frivolity is essential to Bart’s state of mind.

Bart gets caught when he goes back, Marge is aloof, and he spends the third act walking and talking and feeling alienated. What follows is a beautiful meandering sequence of images: all the world conspires in Bart’s confusion. The winter is snowless and austere, and there is that air of reticence about everything — Marge’s reserved manner toward Bart, Bart’s conversation with Lisa as they brush their teeth (I think the conversation between the two kids is a mirror of an earnest back-and-forth in bed between Marge and Homer), his tender stepping across the bathroom rug, the stingy snowfall that affords Bart only enough sludge for a crappy likeness (the way his muddy self-portrait stands out from the rest of the family’s is a marvelous touch).

Christmastime in Springfield: green grass, bare tree, wreath on door

A reluctant Christmas

Bart assembles a snowman alongside the rest of the family's; his is made of sludge from under the car

Bart does what he can

When Bart makes it up to Marge by revealing a paid-for portrait of himself — the act is so simple and obvious that it highlights the enormous gulf between the complexity of what Bart feels and the simple mischief of what he’s done — it is another delicate demonstration of Marge’s essential cheer and Bart’s essential ambivalence. She is effusive, relieved, gushing at the reparation, and he is still queasy — and, clearly, relieved — at it.

Note the delicate balance of deceit in this reconciliation: when Marge bridges the gap between them with a copy of Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge, there’s another deception on Bart’s part — his reluctant, humoring smile — that marks his tenderness toward Marge. Bart’s innocence, at least, is not magically restored. His affection for Marge has a touch of self-consciousness and vulnerability now. And Marge, in her adulthood, can’t help a pure outpouring of motherly love.

Bart feigns delight at his Christmas gift

It's Christmas: Bart tells a white lie

(If only sitcoms and especially cartoons didn’t force their characters into an endlessly resetting cycle, this ending would mark a new maturity in Bart and Marge’s relationship.)

The ending isn’t a pat closure — it’s a natural extension and resolution of the uncertainty that’s preceded it. The fake snow partially glazing the tree behind them, Lisa’s lingering resentment at Bart’s early present, the bizarre passive-aggressive gameplay in the Lee Carvallo epilogue — these are essential details of the not-quite-Christmas spirit that pervades this episode and gives it life.

In animation, nothing is passing or offhand. Animators have to commit to every gesture and mannerism. I would wager that rigor exaggerates either a staff’s conventionality or its creativity. In the best episodes of The Simpsons, there’s no such thing as a tossed-off gag, only a carefully placed one.

P.S. Three beautiful details of Bart’s unease between boyhood and adolescence:

  • He doesn’t know the word “Capisce”, so he remembers the mall security head asking him, “Catfish?”
  • Before the second go-around of the “tuck-in express”, he pushes the blanket back a bit in expectation of Marge’s visit.
  • Marge tasks him with putting his marshmallow in his hot chocolate by himself. He screws it up somehow and it expands inexplicably like a sponge, so he’s forced to eat his hot chocolate with a fork and knife. If there’s a more delicate and hilarious metaphor for growing up, I’ve never encountered it in any medium.
Bart looks on woefully at the screwed-up marshmallow in his hot chocolate

Too much, too soon

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