#36: Stark Raving Dad

Season 3: Episode 1. Original airdate: September 19, 1991.

This was the year everything changed— the beginning of what’s known as the “Golden Age of The Simpsons.” Now, I hold Season 2 in very high regard, and it was a massive step up from an already-solid first season, but the show will hit some tremendous heights in its next few years. This was the year George H.W. Bush called the show out in a campaign speech, “Do the Bartman” hit MTV, and the show reached an unbelievable level of recognition. It was becoming, or may have already been, the biggest show in the world.

Of course, with that kind of success comes tension. This was also the year the original creative team behind the show frayed, with Sam Simon feeling marginalized by James L. Brooks and Matt Groening. It’s a story that will affect the show itself, but in mostly subtle ways. Most notably, the show changed hands for the first time, with Al Jean and Mike Reiss taking over as showrunners, but the trio that originally developed the show would find their relationship strained over the course of this season, but if anything, that only strengthened the quality of the episodes being produced.

I’m fascinated by that behind-the-scenes tension and what effects it may have had on the show, so this’ll be a story I come back to often during this season. Ideally, his blog isn’t just about a TV show—it’s about the way that show was influenced by its world, and how it consequently influenced the world. That includes examining the process behind it, so this season I’m taking a less summary, more context/analysis approach to the blog. Hopefully this also shortens the overall length of these things, and cuts out the fluff. I hope you’ll stick with me, because I know it’s only going to get better from here.

Welcome to Season 3.

~

It’s fitting that the show began the season by embracing its status as a newly-minted cultural icon. “Stark Raving Dad” is as zeitgeisty as the show gets, integrating a massive guest star into its world seamlessly. This one is a master class in how the show functioned in its prime. Even though it works so well, the flimsiness of this premise is hilarious, and I want to believe intentionally so. Homer gets sent to a mental institution because he wears a pink shirt to work. Yes, a pink shirt among the sea of white-clad peons suggests that Homer is a full-blown lunatic, and Dr. Marvin Monroe gives him a convenient psychological disorder take-home test that Bart fills in, diagnosing Homer with multiple severe disorders, sending him straight to the nuthouse.

At the mental institution, there are some clever digs at One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but the focal point is the man who believes he is Michael Jackson. In 2012, I have the luxury of knowing that Michael indeed voiced this hulking character, but in 1991, speculation was rampant about whether the King of Pop lent his voice to the role. Much like Dustin Hoffman in “Lisa’s Substitute,” Jackson wanted to remain anonymous, performing under the pseudonym John Jay Smith. The speculation caused so much buzz that the producers mandated that from there onward, all guest stars would have to be comfortable being associated with the show and perform under their true names.

Jackson is an immensely talented voice actor, and his distinctive tone contrasts wonderfully with the behemoth he plays. Some of the episode’s best moments come when the Michael character bursts into Jackson-esque dance moves, singing in a voice that suspiciously doesn’t sound quite like the man himself. That’s because Jackson wanted to play a trick on his brothers by using a voice double for the singing scenes. Apparently rumors spread that the editors used actual audio from the original songs, but there’s a noticeable difference. I’m no audiophile and it didn’t fool me. I can’t imagine a Jackson brother being oblivious, but that’s all irrelevant.

In writing this, I’m realizing just how paper-thin the story here is. It does as little work as possible to move “Michael Jackson” from the institution to the Simpson home. Unsurprisingly, it all works. I totally buy the asylum releasing Homer once they find out Bart is a real person, and I can even get behind “Michael” being there voluntarily. This isn’t an episode driven by its story—like some of the best episodes, it worked on a character level and let the story meander around it.

When he and “Michael” arrive at Evergreen Terrace, Homer is furious to find that Bart let the whole town know that a celebrity was coming. It’s a classic bit of mob mentality that we haven’t seen in a few episodes, and it also accurately represents how popular the real Michael Jackson was at the time. He was the biggest star in the world, appearing on (potentially) the biggest show in the world. The disappointment of Springfield is wonderful, as it borders on tragedy when they discover the truth of “Michael’s” identity. It stays just long enough, building up the expectations for Michael and tearing them down brutally quickly.

There’s a runner of Bart promising Lisa he’ll buy her a birthday present, and the whole story plays off of those childhood birthdays that seem selfish to adults, but ing true for any child. A birthday is about the presents, and Bart’s negligence would be deeply heartbreaking to Lisa. Luckily, “Michael” helps Bart in writing a song for his sister, called “Happy Birthday Lisa.” They perform it together, and all is mended between the siblings. The song was rumored to be a bonus track on Jackson’s Dangerous album, but sadly didn’t make the cut.

The biggest shock of the episode comes when, after the song ends, “Michael” reverts to a Hank Azaria-voiced identity named Leon Kompowsky. Fulfilled in his Michael Jackson delusion, he leaves the Simpson family and disappears into the sunset. It’s a tremendously funny twist, but it’s all too fitting that the show ends on such a great subversion. Despite plans for a Prince-centric sequel, Leon never returned, but perhaps it’s for the best. Like most of the best one-off Simpsons characters, he doesn’t overstay his welcome, and leaves an indelible mark on the show.

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