Saturday, October 29, 2011

Top Ten Simpsons Treehouse of Horror Segments

"What the Hell are you smiling at?"
My lords and masters over at Box Office Prophets asked each of the writers to come up with a list of their favourite segments from The Simpsons' annual Treehouse of Horror episodes. Since there are few things in this life more than The Simpsons, I gladly acquiesced, and the full version of that article will appear on BOP on Monday. However, I thought I'd post my individual picks here, along with quotes and explanations for my picks as well, if only because it gives me an excuse to link to a bunch of hilarious Simpsons clips.

10. The Raven (Treehouse of Horror)

Bart: You know what would have been scarier than “nothing”?
Lisa: What?

I’m including this one not because it is funny – in fact, apart from the above quote, there aren’t really any jokes in it at all – but because it’s the best segment from the inaugural Treehouse of Horror and because it’s one of the strangest things The Simpsons ever did; an almost completely straight-faced rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem of love, loss and terror. On the DVD commentary for the episode (yes, I’m one of *those* people) the writers talk about how they added the bits of Bart mocking the tale because they were worried that if they just had the narrator (James Earl Jones) and Homer read The Raven for five minutes it would have been the most pretentious thing they had ever done. Whilst there’s some truth to that, to the 5-year old me there was nothing weirder and creepier than watching characters I loved acting out this menacing and unsettling story.

9. The Thing and I (Treehouse of Horror VII)

Doctor Hibbert: Too crazy for Boystown, too much of a boy for Crazytown, the boy was an outcast.

This segment, in which Bart discovers that he has a crazy, evil twin who Homer and Marge have secretly been keeping in the attic, feeding him nothing but fish heads for the entirety of his life (sure, it’s monstrous, but it saved their marriage) gets its place almost solely for two visual gags, which are probably the amongst the best that the show has ever done. The first occurs after Hugo has taken Bart prisoner and is preparing to sew Bart and himself back together. When Bart protests, Hugo says that he used the technique to create a Pigeon-Rat, a creature which can neither fly nor fit through holes in the wall. The second - and it may be the finest moment of comic timing in the history of the show - comes moments later, when Doctor Hibbert calms Hugo down by inquiring if he has ever seen his own face in a mirror. As Hugo comes to look in the “mirror”, it is revealed to be an empty frame through which Hibbert punches Hugo, knocking him unconscious. Yet again, The Simpsons proves that violence against the young is as hilarious as it is prevalent.

I couldn't find any clips from the episode online that weren't in German, so here's a compilation of Dr. Hibbert laughing.

8. Nightmare on Evergreen Terrace (Treehouse of Horror VI)

Marge: [Voiceover] We were there to discuss the misprinted calendars the school had purchased.
Homer: Lousy Smarch weather! Do not touch Willie. Good advice.

A large part of why I love this segment is that I hadn’t seen any of the Nightmare on Elm Street films when I watched it for the first time, so because I didn’t know what it was parodying I found it terrifying, rather than ridiculous. The concept of someone being able to kill people in their sleep, even if the killer is Groundskeeper Willie and the person he kills is Martin Prince, was something I hadn’t encountered previously so I found the episode more disturbing than was perhaps intended. Obviously it’s still a hilarious segment in and of itself, but the weird disconnect between the intention and the effect it had upon me is a large part of why it has stuck with me all these years. Also, it features the image of a shiny smooth Nelson saying that Willie ran his floor buffer over him, which is just delightful.

7. Homer’s Nightmare (Treehouse of Horror II)

Mr. Burns: Smithers, hand me that ice-cream scoop.
Smithers: Ice-cream scoop!?
Mr. Burns: Dammit Smithers, this isn’t Rocket Science, it’s Brain Surgery!

Conceptually, this Treehouse of Horror segment is not as strong as some of the others on this list since the idea of doing a version of the Frankenstein story was pretty played out in 1991 and looks even more so now, but it more than makes up for that by having some absolutely brilliant jokes. Apart from the above quote, which is so wonderfully constructed and delivered it’s almost sickening, you have Mr. Burns beating an unconscious Homer with a shovel and shouting “Stop. Scaring. Smithers!” between blows and the sublime moment when Mr. Burns removes Homer’s brain, puts it on his head and proclaims, “Look at me, I’m Davy Crockett!” On top of that, the episode has one of the best endings of any Treehouse of Horror segment ever, in which Homer wakes up from his nightmare to discover that Mr. Burns’ head has been grafted on to his body, which goes from horrifying to banal in a matter of seconds as we see the way in which having two heads alters the cosy domesticity of The Simpsons’ household by forcing Homer to attend plant functions as Mr. Burns’ body.

Apparently no one has uploaded any clips from that segment on YouTube - not even the Davy Crockett line! - so here's a compilation of some of Mr. Burns' finest moments.

Treehouse of Horror IV)

Homer: Oh, Lisa! You and your stories! "Dad, Bart is a vampire." "Beer kills brain cells." Now, let's get back to that... building thingy... where our beds and T.V... is.

One of the odd side-effects of The Simpsons running as long as it has is that some episodes have eclipsed the things that they are parodying in the public consciousness. (The best example of this comes from “Selma’s Choice”, which ends with Selma cradling her Iguana Jub-Jub and singing “You Are So Beautiful”, a reference to the TV series Murphy Brown which, at the time, was a huge cultural phenomenon and is now barely remembered outside of that Seinfeld episode where Kramer gets a role on the show as her secretary.) In the case of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, the show did such a good job of lampooning the excesses of that stuffy adaptation that it’s hard to imagine there was ever a serious version of Dracula in which his hair was styled to look like a butt. Apart from the pitch-perfect satire, the episode also has the Super Fun Happy Slide, Homer realising the American Dream by killing his boss (though not before driving a stake through Mr. Burns’ crotch), and an ending that rips off Peanuts because why not?

5. Clown Without Pity (Treehouse of Horror III)

I think this exchange speaks for itself.

4. Dial Z For Zombies (Treehouse of Horror III)

“Dad! You killed Zombie Flanders!”
“He was a zombie?”

Finally, the episode that answered the question everyone was asking themselves in 1993; is Homer Simpson more concerned about his car or his kids raising the dead? It turns out that he’s okay with the latter as long as the former is fine and dandy. On top of that there’s the incredibly easy – and hilarious – joke about the zombies leaving Homer alone because he doesn’t have brains worth bothering with, the scene of Homer walking through the corridors of Springfield Elementary with a shotgun and cutting zombies down with lead and blunt, action movie-level wordplay (Take that, Washington! Eat lead, Einstein! Show’s over, Shakespeare!) and Barney chewing on an arm, not because he is a zombie, but because everyone else is doing it. When it Rome…

1-3. The Shinning/Time and Punishment/Nightmare Cafeteria (Treehouse of Horror V)

Groundskeeper Willie: Ach, I’m bad at this. [Dies]

Owing to the anthology nature of the Treehouse of Horror format, most editions have one or two great segments mixed in with weaker ones. It’s both the key strength and weakness of them, since it forces the writers to cram as many jokes in to as little time as possible, yet the lack of a clear through line means that each segment has to stand on its own merits. I’ve grouped these three together not just because they are all hilarious, but because Treehouse of Horror V is the only instalment which doesn’t have a single weak segment; they’re all terrific. From the pitch perfect satire of The Shinning (which not only does justice to my favourite horror film but also has Dan Castellanata’s great delivery of the line “Don’t mind if I do!”), the wacky alternate timelines of Time and Punishment (and James Earl Jones, as Maggie, saying “This is indeed a disturbing universe,” which is as true today as it was then) and the entire plot of Nightmare Cafeteria, which is a tour de force for Harry Shearer as Principal Skinner. (“Oh, relax kids. I've got a gut feeling Uter's around here somewhere. (starts to laugh) After all, isn't there a little Uter in all of us? (laughs harder) In fact, you might say we just ate Uter and he's in our stomachs right now! (laughs) Wait. Scratch that one.”) Each segment is so pristine and great, and together they add up to the finest Treehouse of Horror ever. Considering the competition, that is really saying something.