FEATURE: It’s Time to Get Animated! As The Simpsons Nears Thirty: The Music Inside the Humour

FEATURE:

 

It’s Time to Get Animated!

IN THIS PHOTO: U.S. Pop artist Katy Perry (with Mr. Burns) appeared on an episode of The Simpsons, The Fight Before Christmas, in 2010/PHOTO CREDIT: Nicole Wilder/FOX

As The Simpsons Nears Thirty: The Music Inside the Humour

__________

ONE can hardly believe that any T.V. show...

y.jpg

 IN THIS PHOTO: Lady Gaga (she appeared in the episode, Lisa Goes Gaga, in the show’s twenty-third season)/PHOTO CREDIT: Collier Schorr

could run for nearly seven-hundred episodes. The Simpsons first aired on 17th December, 1989 and its debut episode, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, is full of charm and a rare mixture that would define the show’s glory days. That opening episode saw The Simpsons find their loveable pooch, Santa’s Little Helper – a treasured Christmas gift that came about when Bart and Homer (Simpson) went to the local dog track and, having bet on a loser (Santa’s Little Helper), instantly fall for him. Look at the show now – its thirtieth season, I believe! – and the animation is so much more advanced; the ambitious larger and the feel a lot different. It is almost thirty years since the record-breaking show (the show became the longest-running prime-time scripted series (beating out Gunsmoke) when it passed six-hundred-and-thirty-six episodes back in April (2018)…and there are debates whether the quality is high enough. The reason I wanted to talk about the show before its thirtieth anniversary is because of the way it blends musical guests and original numbers. In many ways, The Simpsons is as synonymous with its great tunes and musical feel as it is the laughs and memorable characters. Many feel that the show was at its peak between the third and tenth seasons (1991-1999): that 1990s’ gold-run that brought the sharpest scripts, best musical numbers and classic moments. Maybe things have changed because Homer has: sharpest and crueller as opposed his more bumbling and loveable days.

It is hard to say but, throughout its long run, The Simpsons has delivered some wonderful musical moments. Even though they are removing one guest (Michael Jackson) from syndicated episodes, look back from the start and there have been guests from all corners of the musical numbers. The top image features Katy Perry: The Simpsons gave her a role during their Christmas special: a rare excursion into live-action that parodied A Christmas Carol. It was quite a raunchy episode in places – for an animated comedy, at least! – but it was great to see a larger-than-life figure transposed and transported into this legendary comedy. One of my favourite music-related episode of The Simpsons is when Home ran for Sanitation Commissioner of Springfield (Trash of the Titans was the show’s two-hundredth episode) after seeing trash build up on the street. Steve Martin appeared as his rival – the current job-holder who was a nice guy but replaced after Homer promised crazy thing that won over the idiotic town – and, before long, Homer descended into crime and illicit ways when it came to hiding the mountain rubbish. U2 appeared in places: we saw them at a concert and, when Homer tries to come on stage to deliver a message, he is pummelled down: another moment sees them at Moe’s Bar, singing a song with their arses hanging out.

8.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: Sonic Youth appeared on The Simpsons in the 1990s in the musician-heavy fest, Homerpalooza)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

The show has not only been confined to mainstream stars when it comes to guests. I love the fact that they have included The White Stripes and The Rolling Stones; The Who and Britney Spears in some pretty memorable episodes. There are lists that celebrate the best musical moments and, to me, the artist-filled episodes such as Homerpalooza stand out. There, the acting was not up to much but we got to see big acts of the 1990s such as Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth feature and interact in a rare way – in the episode, Homer gets a gig on the music circuit after discovering he can take a cannonball to the gut! Whether it is Linda Ronstadt going into business to rival Homer’s snow-plow endeavour (Mr. Plow) or Homer going to a Rock Camp and meeting the likes of Tom Petty, Mick Jagger; Keith Richards, Lenny Kravitz and Elvis Costello (How I Spent My Strummer Vacation); we have seen these wonderful episodes that combine the worlds of music and comedy. I love the latter episode because we see these iconic musicians brought together and little rivalries form – Lenny Kravitz reveals Kenny Loggins puts a sock down his pants; Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are crunching the numbers rather than rocking-out. Some of the appearances have been crow-barred and a bit fake but some of them, including Lady Gaga appearing in Lisa Goes Gaga (season twenty-three), used a big star to portray a powerful message: Gaga comes to Lisa, who is very depressed, and teaches her the meaning of happiness in the Tim Long-penned episode.

It is wonderful when this influential artist comes into a big T.V. show like The Simpsons and is not nearly there to boost ratings! Perhaps packed episodes like Homerpalooza were not full of great acting moments but when stars get a bigger role, like Lady Gaga, it shows them in a new light. I think some of the best appearances and scenes from The Simpsons have involved musicians. Most of these are during that golden run during the 1990s but Katy Perry’s yuletide raciness is definitely a highlight! Look at when Johnny Cash voiced a coyote – a hallucination Homer had after eating a super-psychedelic chili pepper at a cook-off – and how he added to the show. The late icon brought his authoritative and deep voice to this role and, whilst Cash did not sing, it was a classic moment seeing Cash voice this character. Look back even further when the classic episode, Flaming Moe’s featured, among others, Aerosmith. There, Homer discovered this drink by accidentally mixing cigarette ash, cough syrup (its secret ingredient!) and other assorted liquids when the family ran out of booze after Marge’s sisters, Patty and Selma, were showing holiday slides - much to the ire of the bored family. He confided in Moe and, when the bartender realised this drink would put him on the map, his tavern brought in big musical artists like Aerosmith – everything was ruined when an incensed Homer revealed the secret ingredient just as a businessman was about to lure Moe with a multi-million-dollar contract!

hy.jpg

 IN THIS PHOTO: Green Day appeared in The Simpsons Movie in 2007/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It is hard to say which moment tops them all but, if I had to select two standout episodes, it would be Krusty Gets Kancelled (the season-four episode united big musicians like Bette Midler and Red Hot Chili Peppers during a special show to get Krusty the Clown back on the air after his kids’ show is cancelled). Another one that leaps to mind is when Spinal Tap played a special gig in Springfield – which was fraught with disasters and delays – during The Otto Show in the third season. The show keeps bringing in stars – Green Day appeared in The Simpsons Movie (2007) - and there is a whole list you think should be included. I wonder who else is left to come because, through its near-thirty-year run, The Simpsons has featured everyone from Beyoncé (not a voiceover appearance but her music has featured) and David Byrne to George Harrison. There are many more years left in this iconic show but I look back at all the music appearances and, although it is a brief turn, when Paul McCartney appeared in Lisa the Vegetarian, the show hit its peak. The seventh season episode revolved around Lisa becoming a vegetarian and questioning why she eats meat. She is ostracised and ignored by her family and, when running away from home, she goes to Apu’s Kwik-E-Mart and there, on the roof, is Paul and Linda McCartney. They do not sing – although they tease that a new song is about to arrive – but it is a great use of a famous musician to give the show an extra twist and moment of heart.

large.jpg

IN THIS PHOTO: Linda Eastman (1941-1998) talks to Paul McCartney at the press launch of The Beatles’ album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, on 19th May 1967. Linda and Paul appeared in The Simpsons episode, Lisa the Vegetarian, in 1995/PHOTO CREDIT: John Pratt/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Whether you love the moment the Ramones are threatened with death by Mr. Burns after performing a raw version of Happy Birthday; you idolise the time Cypress Hill appeared stoned and accidentally hired the London Symphony Orchestra (Homerpalooza) – there are so many wonderful occasions when artists have appeared on The Simpsons. Not only is the animated comedy great when it comes to assimilating musicians into their world but, rare for a comedy, they are nifty when it comes to penning originals. I think about some of the best Simpson-esque songs and I look at when Marge appeared in a local version (with serious flaws) of A Streetcar Named Desire and there was a song called New Orleans - a number dedicated to all the trash and corruption in the city. How about when Homer joined the secretive sect, The Stonecutters (like The Freemasons but less shady!), and there was this hugely catchy song, We Do (The Stonecutters Song) - where members admit that, among other things, they rob cave fish of their sight and keep the metric system down! The wonderful composing and razor-sharp words make these musical numbers almost as standout as the funniest scenes. Of course, The Simpsonstheme-song (composed by Danny Elfman) is legendary and, love it or not, we can all whistle it! Even if it is a little ditty (Homer singing about the time he was seventeen, got a fake I.D. and sat up listening to Queen whilst drinking beer; an episode, Duffless, where he gave up drink) or it is a more ornate number like we saw in Homer’s Barbershop Quartet.

This was the episode where George Harrison appeared at the end – the story of Homer forming a band followed the arc of The Beatles; when Homer’s band started to fall apart, the show parodied The Beatles’ fraught recording of Let It Be – and the original songs were great. The standout was Baby on Board, a Doo-Wop-like 1950s-inspired number inspired by Marge buying a baby on board sticker to stop other motorists intentionally ramming their car off the road! How about Linda Ronstadt giving Homer’s Mr. Plow jingle a special touch?! Who can forget the rapturous slander, Señor Burns, when Latin-Jazz musician Tito Puente is a suspect in the attempted murder of Mr. Burns. When questioned by the police, Puente admits to hating Burns but denies shooting him. Puente says he prefers an act of musical revenge to violence.

If you had to pin me down to the occasions when The Simpsons got all the ingredients right in a musical number than I would choose Dr. Zaius (A Fish Called Selma) and The Monorail Song (Marge vs. The Monorail). Both songs are performed by the late Phil Hartman. The former is during a production of Planet of the Apes; him revitalising his broken career after a scandal comes out – he marries Selma and gets all these big offers when people realise he is a family man (rumours of him having sex with fish dogged his reputation!). The song is a spoor of Rock Me Amadeus (Falco) and a brilliantly goofy and misplaced song in a very strange theatre production.

The latter song is Hartman playing this shady man trying to sell Springfield a monorail after he learns they have come into some money. He persuades them to buy his dodgy plan after starting this great song. All the townspeople join and add lines; a real musical extravaganza with its catchy melody and superb construction. Maybe that is the best musical number but, when it comes to The Simpsons, we are spoiled for choice! This article has a different view when it comes to the number-one musical number: Why Springfield, Why Not? during season twenty-six’s Walking Big & Tall:

The new Springfield anthem was created and performed by the town’s children after residents realize the original song was mass-produced for multiple cities. As luck would have it, when Hans Moleman was mayor, he bought the original song from a traveling salesman, as did half the cities in America.

After the town exiles Moleman, Bart and Lisa set to writing and come up with a song that perfectly describes what Springfield is all about.

Sure, our cops are easily bought,
And our dentists are all self-taught
but, Hooray for Springfield.
Give two cheers,
Smallpox free for seven years.
Why Springfield, why not?

Other comedy shows have used music and original songs – including Flight of the Conchords (who actually appeared on the show) – but The Simpsons has this edge and unique charm. Maybe it the fact it is an animated show and they can bring so many big artists into crazy episodes. Perhaps a guest is there to make the episode stand out or, when done right, they are an integral part of the soul.

The Simpsons turns thirty at the end of the year and it is scary to think that I remember watching the first episode as a six-year-old back in 1989! Nobody thought the show would last past the first season, let alone thirty! There are many reasons why the show has survived and has no end in sight but, to me, one important component is the music. I love every celebrity appearance but get an extra burst of excitement when I see someone big from the world of music inhabit The Simpsons’. I do love the way the show can have these original songs that take episodes in a new direction. I have only mentioned a few but I think about all those earworms from episodes-past that you sing along to and know word-for-word! I watch the classic episodes and I love those times when you hear this big and brash number when characters of Springfield all come together and perform this bold and often-ridiculous song!

From Paul McCartney being instrumental regarding Lisa forgiving Homer for judging her and, similarly, for her being harsh to Homer, right through to Homer having his Rock & Roll dreams fulfilled by heroic musicians, The Simpsons has provided us with countless moments filled with music stars and instantly memorable numbers. Whether you are a bigger fan of the original numbers or prefer the times when well-known artists have made their way into the show, one cannot deny that, at the beating heart of The Simpsons, is this love of music in all forms. I have not even mentioned the late Bleeding Gums Murphy: a fictional late, great Jazz musician who is Lisa’s hero and gives him her saxophone! There are so, so many and I will get all nostalgic and teary-eyed listing them all off! When The Simpsons hits thirty later in the year, there will be multiple celebrations and events around the world. For me, as a music journalist, I am going to mark fondly a show that, through its run, has mixed the worlds of animated comedy and music in...

 IMAGE CREDIT: FOX/Matt Groening

EXTRAORDINARY ways.