#22: Itchy and Scratchy and Marge

Season 2: Episode 9. Original airdate: December 20, 1990.

Itchy and Scratchy serve many functions within the Simpsons universe. On one level, they’re a pitch-perfect satirization of the gratuitously violent Tom and Jerry cartoons. On another, they’re a means to fill in the world of Springfield, as a cartoon-within-a-cartoon, perhaps to show how little The Simpsons itself functions and acts like a typical cartoon. Maybe most importantly, The Itchy and Scratchy Show serves as a voice of the writers’ room, a way to air grievances about the TV inudstry in general. In most cases, the show fills one of those roles. In the best Itchy and Scratchy episodes, like this one, all three combine to create something indescribably great.

The episode opens on the family watching Itchy and Scratchy, which the children (and Homer) find hilarious even though Marge can’t figure out its appeal. Itchy and Scratchy is a one-note joke that reaps incredible longevity out of twisting that same joke into infinite forms, the joke being Itchy (the mouse) murdering Scratchy (the cat) in horrifyingly gruesome ways. For example, in this episode, Itchy shoots Scratchy’s head off with a bazooka, blows up his grave, and the pair draw increasingly bigger guns at each other until Scratchy is shot into the Sun. There’s zero subtlety here, but that’s the point.

I watched a few old Tom and Jerry episodes in preparation for this, and I was blown away by how violent they actually are. Obviously I remember them being over-the-top when I was a kid, but it’s almost unfathomable that parents were fine with their kids watching those shorts for 50+ years. In comparison, instead of an outright parody, Itchy and Scratchy kind of feels like the natural progression of what Tom and Jerry would have become had the series continued for a few more decades. That may be a stretch, but the truly brilliant thing about Itchy and Scratchy is how accurate it feels, especially as a cartoon within a cartoonish world.

After the show is over, Homer goes to the basement to put together a spice rack, a task apparently beyond his abilities. While downstairs, Maggie attacks him from behind with an enormous wooden mallet. A simple description like that doesn’t do this scene justice, because it’s actually a shot-for-shot parody of the shower scene from Psycho, complete with pinkish paint as a stand-in for blood. Marge is mortified that her baby could harm her father in such a way, and immediately draws the conclusion that violent television caused the attack.

Marge, much like Lisa, is often pigeonholed as a buzzkill, especially in episodes in which she embarks on a crusade to fix some societal wrongdoing. It’s a testament to the Simpsons writers, particularly John Swartzwelder (whose name I’ll be mentioning a lot in the future) that Marge never comes off as preachy or a manifestation of the writer’s agenda. Her efforts to defang (ha) Itchy and Scratchy begins fruitlessly when she writes directly to Roger Meyers, Jr., the executive behind both Krusty and I&S. He writes her off as just “one screwball,” and informs her that no one person can possibly make a difference. As a consolation, he offers her an autographed photo of the cartoon cat and mouse. Somehow, though, Marge remains unsatisfied, and is perhaps even more emboldened after seeing a squirrel version of herself written into the show.

Once her campaign, called S.N.U.H (pronounced phonetically, an acronym for Springfieldians for Nonviolence, Understanding, and Helping) gains a sizable following, Marge takes her case to Smartline, Kent Brockman’s evening debate show. She is featured against Meyers, Krusty, and our old pal Dr. Marvin Monroe. It initially appears that she is steamrolled by Meyers’ apathy and Krusty’s inability to answer a question, but in her final seconds makes a desperate plea for parents to write letters vocalizing their concerns. The I&S studio is consequently overwhelmed by angry letters, and seeing no other options, the writing staff calls Marge for her advice on how to make the program less offensive.

The Simpson children are shocked when their mother finally allows them to watch I&S again, not to mention their relief at no longer having to sneak to friends’ houses to watch. Marge is proud of her work in fixing the program, but her efforts yield unexpected results. The new, safe cartoon that airs, called “Porch Pals,” may very well be one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever witnessed. Just watch:

I hate it so much. Scratchy looks even more deranged than normal, the voices are disgusting takes on the dark period when Tom and Jerry had voices, and the theme song…oh, the theme song. It’s a sanitized, bastardized garbage, and the children of Springfield know it. Upon seeing such a bland imitation of the show they once loved, the children take to the streets in one of the most gorgeous scenes the show’s done, before and probably since. Springfield becomes a pastoral playground, with children frolicking in parks and painting fences in full Mark Twain mode. Even Bart takes up new hobbies like fishing for catfish, feverishly recounting his tales at the dinner table. Marge couldn’t be prouder, and the scene certainly makes a case for TV being the death of childhood exploration and imagination. It’s as if the writers saw this scene as a representation of everything America could be if the television were shut off.

Even though Springfield takes a turn for the Mayberry, Marge’s contemporaries at S.N.U.H. have found a new crusade—preventing Michaelangelo’s David from being shown off at a local museum. They force Marge onto Smartline once again to defend Springfield against such nude smut, but she refuses to deny her children the chance to see important art. Dr. Monroe immediately leaps to calling her a hypocrite, focusing on her suppression of free speech in the case of violent television but championing equality when it comes to art. Marge admits that one person has no right to determine the rights of all, especially in regards to media. S.N.U.H is disbanded, and Marge must watch in disappointment as I&S return to the airwaves in their original violent form.

This episode makes a serious effort to not take a particular stance, as all great Simpsons satires do. Even though Itchy and Scratchy remain on the air, the children of Springfield will receive some culture from seeing the David, and as Homer proudly points out, they’ll be forced to by their school. Even though the ultimate message of this episode is entirely subjective to your particular stance, I find myself conflicted with it. I do believe television and media consumption are an important part of childhood, but I can’t deny the pure exhilaration I got during my childhood from the very sort of activities that Springfield’s youth got to enjoy after becoming bored with TV. I can’t, however, condone the consumption of such violent stuff as Itchy and Scratchy, as I now see my childhood cartoons in an entirely different light. It was a delicate balance in 1990, and it remains even more so today. As always, The Simpsons was on the precipice of discussing this sort of issue, and we still haven’t come to a conclusion 20 years later. I do hope, though, that “Itchy and Scratchy and Marge” remains a timeless influence in the debate, because we’ll probably be having it until the end of time.

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