Treehouse of Horror IX: Horrifyingly Mediocre

Treehouse of Horror episodes have always been some of my favorites. They’re always structured as three short films that exist completely outside whatever fragile continuity the larger show contains. This allows the creators an extraordinary amount of freedom, their only limits being the whims of the censors and the capacities of their own imaginations. This has lead to some hilarious and surprising segments: The Monkey’s Paw, King Homer, and Time and Punishment being some of my personal favorites. These are not only remarkable examples of the Treehouse of Horror format at its best, they’re some of my favorite Simpsons content of all time.

I can still remember what a huge impact some of these episodes made on pop culture. In elementary school my friends and I would quote the Frogurt bit from Clown with Pity to each other endlessly. We’d do terrible impressions of Willie saying “Ssh, do you want to get sued?” from their parody of The Shining. I wasn’t a part of the zeitgeist when these specific episodes originally aired. Clown Without Pity came out when I was two years old, The Shinning when I was four. However, the show was still immensely popular at the time, and all of our parents had the VHS tapes. Many of them loved the show too after all. We would watch those tapes religiously, effortlessly memorizing every detail. They became a part of how we related to each other, how we forged bonds. They warped our minds, molded our senses of humor, made us strive to be more funny and creative and free. Oh, what a time to be alive.

That being said, I can’t imagine any of us quoting any of the lines from Treehouse of Horror IX on the playground. It’s not that these shorts are bad, far from it. They’re just nothing special. They’re good enough to get by, but they’re not inspiring. They don’t move me to feel anything but mild amusement. That being said, let’s take them one by one, see how we feel:

Hell Toupee is up first, and it’s my least favorite of the three. This might be a personal problem. I’m not a huge fan of Snake after all. I find him to be a character who’s most effective in small doses, as there’s not a lot of depth to him and there are a limited range of jokes that he’s conducive to. Also, I may just be a liberal snowflake, but capital punishment is one of those things I cannot laugh about. And I could go off on a tangent here about how the “three strikes” rule which results in Snake being put to death is very real and, in many cases, very horrible. However, this isn’t that type of blog, so I’ll restrain myself. I’ll just say that I didn’t laugh very much during this one, and if you want to see a good episode of The Simpsons where Homer’s life is changed by new hair you can check out the criminally underrated Simpson and Delilah.

The next short, The Terror of Tiny Town, is more to my liking. This one’s about Bart and Lisa getting trapped inside an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, which is a premise that lends itself to a lot of great animation and fun situations. I wouldn’t say the potential of this idea is fully reached by the short, but they did what they could with the limited format and it’s generally a good time. What’s interesting is that this episode came out in the same year as Pleasantville, and I thought the scenario might have been slightly inspired by it. But they actually came out in the same month, with Pleasantville entering cinemas literally two days before the episode aired. So I guess it’s just a coincidence, rendering two-thirds of this paragraph completely pointless. I could delete it. I could do a lot of things.

The most striking moment in the short, and in the entire episode, comes shortly after the children enter the TV. They’re laughing as Itchy violently attacks Scratchy, but then the two cartoon mascots stop, clearly disturbed the reaction. “Why are you laughing?” says Scratchy’s disembodied head. “Hey, they’re laughing at your pain!” Itchy says. They then mutually decide that the Simpson children are mean and that they should team up against them. This raises some fascinating questions about Itchy and Scratchy’s relationship. From the outside, it appears to be adversarial. However, this interaction shows that they take what they do seriously. They don’t delight in each other’s pain, so there are obviously other motivations behind their actions.

We can view this from at least two different perspectives. If we view Itchy and Scratchy as cartoon constructs, fictional characters within a pre-constructed universe (much like the characters inside the TV show in Pleasantville), then Itchy and Scratchy's violence may be consensual. It could perhaps be some extreme kind of (presumably) sexless sadomasochism. We must consider that they live in a different universe, one in which violence does not seem to have lasting repercussions. Perhaps violence is just a hobby in this universe, something they do when they’re bored. However, this would make us question why they would then use violence aggressively against the Simpson children.

This can be a tricky thing to imagine from our perspective because to us they’re all cartoons. The kids are cartoons, Krusty is a cartoon, Itchy and Scratchy are cartoons. However, the show has always clearly established that Itchy & Scratchy are cartoon characters in this universe, which contrasts them against the rest of the cast. This ain’t no Who Framed Roger Rabbit type scenario. The Simpsons don’t know that they’re a cartoon family, and the cartoonish things that happen to them seem natural in their specific reality. Therefore, when the Simpson children enter the cartoon world it must look very different to Itchy and Scratchy than it does to us.

Unless the human Simpson children are transformed into cartoons when they enter this world, something which the episode does not establish, then they would obviously stand in stark contrast to their environment. Itchy and Scratchy would know, based on sight alone, that the Simpson children were different from them, and that they might fear violence or suffer longer-lasting consequences as a result of it. But how would Itchy & Scratchy know anything of the human world? They don’t seem especially surprised when the children appear, even though they are alien lifeforms. Are they familiar with humans already and, if so, what are the implications of that familiarity?

We see in the episode that the children are able to communicate with Homer through a window into the human world. So did the children create this window when they entered the Itchy and Scratchy universe or was this window always there? Are Itchy & Scratchy aware of their audience? Are they animals in a zoo? Rats in a maze? And if they do know that they’re being watched then is there anything they can do about it? Are Itchy and Scratchy sentient and, if so, are they slaves? Hold on to that thought.

Remember back like 45 minutes ago when I said we’d be looking at this from “two perspectives?” Well here’s the second one: Itchy and Scratchy might have a job to do. They might take their violence so seriously because it’s their career. In this scenario, Itchy and Scratchy are not fictional characters going about their fictional lives. They are actors playing roles, roles which they seem to have some pride invested in. When Bart and Lisa laugh at their art this makes Itchy and Scratchy angry, and they react harshly.

One of the things that really struck me about Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was the revelation that “fake” wrestling still involves real pain. The wrestlers simply discuss beforehand how much pain they’re willing to endure, and from what implements. They do this not because they’re looking to be hurt, but because it’s what the audience wants. It’s their job to entertain, and they’ll hurt themselves to achieve that result. Pain does appear to exist in this universe. There have been plenty of shorts where we’ve seen fear on Itchy and/or Scratchy’s face. Death may not be real, but pain is still a factor, and Itchy and Scratchy may not appreciate the idea of their pain being mocked.

That being said, I may be giving Itchy and Scratchy too much credit. After all, we know that this cartoon series isn’t some sort of weird quasi-documentary. It’s established that Itchy and Scratchy have writers and animators creating their episodes, and therefore how sentient can they actually be? Let’s go back to Pleasantville. Pleasantville, the TV show, also had writers. It was shot with actors and a crew of filmmakers. And yet when the kids enter the world of Pleasantville we don’t see cameras. We don’t see actors memorizing lines. We see regular people living out their regular lives.

So the Itchy and Scratchy we’ve seen before on The Simpsons may not be sentient slaves in a nightmare zoo. They may not be dedicated actors endlessly devoted to their craft. They may not even be sentient cartoons leading out fictional lives between episodes. Let’s look at this way: it’s easy to watch Pleasantville and imagine the characters simply continue to live between episodes of the TV show from which they were spawned. When the cameras aren’t on they’re still hanging out in Pleasantville, and we only get to see a tiny portion of their lives. However, this is clearly not true. The characters on the show were played by actors with memorized lines but the people the kids encounter when they’re inside the TV are not actors. And just because they’re not actors now, that doesn’t invalidate or change that they were previously.

Therefore, I think that when the kids entered the TV in Pleasantville it created a new reality, one which either did not previously exist or always existed as a separate entity from the TV show. The world the kids are in is identical to the one they saw on the TV, but I cannot be the same one because it does not operate in the same way. When and how this alternate reality was created is unknowable, and the same is true of The Terror of Tiny Town. The Simpson children may have created this universe by entering the TV, or they may have been tapping into an alternate universe where Itchy and Scratchy are sentient. It’s romantic to think that whenever a writer or artist creates a new character that they are then born and carry on a life outside their creator’s consciousness. I know there are likely infinite alternative versions of me living in other alternate dimensions, and perhaps the same is true of fictional characters as well. The more I think about that the more sense it makes.

Just agree that it makes sense and all of this can stop.

Addendum 1: When Homer enters the real world in Homer Cubed (see Treehouse of Horror VI) we clearly see that he is a cartoon character in a world of humans. So it is very possible that the Simpsons are indeed cartoons within their own universe but simply do not know that they’re cartoons. Everything is relative. Homer is a cartoon relative to our humanity, while Itchy and Scratchy are cartoons relative to his humanity. To us, they’re all cartoons. To Homer, they’re just cartoons.

Addendum 2: Near the end of the episode Itchy and Scratchy break through the TV and enter the world of the Simpsons. Obviously, this is not something that people on the TV can typically do in this universe. This leads to two possible hypotheses. Firstly, Bart and Lisa entering this alternate reality may have given the characters the sentience they required to finally see the confines of their prison and escape it. So kinda like the Truman Show, which also came out in the same year as this episode and Pleasantville. Or, alternatively, perhaps the outside world and the version of Homer within it are not part of the universe the kids were in when they entered the TV. Perhaps the outside world is an extension of the same alternate reality that exists within the TV. So therefore when they exit the TV Bart and Lisa are still not “home”. So where are the Bart and Lisa of THAT universe? Well, maybe when they traveled into the TV they became that Bart and Lisa, or perhaps this universe’s Bart and Lisa are just conveniently out of the room at the time. Perhaps later on they will meet each other and create a paradox that rips the universe to shreds. Either way, the Bart and Lisa from the original timeline will likely be missing from that world forever, or until they realize their mistake and find a way to return. Of course in Pleasantville the kids are in an alternate reality for a long time but it ends up only translating to an hour of time in the real world. So maybe Bart and Lisa will end up returning to their own world eventually and be able to continue their old lives fairly seamlessly. We can only speculate. I wish Homer had met them when he was using his alternate reality toaster from Time and Punishment, but considering that episode came out years before this one that kind of pre-planning seems like a tall order. Let’s not get unreasonable here.

Addendum 3: As mentioned earlier, this episode does exist outside the continuity of the rest of the show. So the entire discussion was more or less pointless. But I still had fun, and that’s what matters.

The final short is called Starship Poopers, which immediately excited me. After all, Starship Troopers is one of the best dumb action movies of all time, and a Simpsons parody of it could be delightful. Unfortunately, the title is very misleading. A starship is involved, but the story otherwise does not resemble Starship Troopers in any way. Also I think the title joke is a bit of a reach, since the episode does not involve pooping. Instead this is a story about how Kang the alien impregnated Marge without her express consent, which sounds really awful but it’s okay cause he did it by zapping her with some kinda laser ray and it took like a millisecond and she didn’t even seem to notice so uh… he’s an evil alien, okay?

I was actually thrilled to see Kang and Kodos in this episode, not that I was surprised by their presence. They show up in every Treehouse of Horror, often just for a little cameo, but occasionally (and gloriously) for an entire short. Hungry are the Damned and Citizen Kang are two of my personal favorites. However, this appearance is a bit lacking. I didn’t find the Jerry Springer show funny or entertaining in the 90s, and watching a parody of it here doesn’t do much for me. It is a nice touch that he ends up being murdered off-camera though. The episode ends with Marge goading the aliens into killing every politician on Earth, with Bart calling after them that they shouldn’t forget about Ken Starr. This is the kind of ending that might prove a bit controversial today, as instigating and then delighting in the deaths of politicians is a bit of a no-no. I’m fine with it though. I don’t remember who Ken Starr was, but he sounds like a jerk.

In conclusion, I’m gonna go watch Pleasantville.

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Max Castleman

Max Castleman

Mainly reviewing movies, but also music, literature and whatever else, not to change minds but to start an engaging discussion. Remember, art is subjective.