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MIA: Great Simpsons Musical Joke

Songs on the TV show show a rare kind of genius. What happened with the movie?

MARK STEYN August 27 2007
THE BACK PAGES

MIA: Great Simpsons Musical Joke

Songs on the TV show show a rare kind of genius. What happened with the movie?

MARK STEYN August 27 2007

MIA: Great Simpsons Musical Joke

steyn

Songs on the TV show show a rare kind of genius. What happened with the movie?

MARK STEYN

Don’t get me wrong, I like The Simpsons Movie. Unlike most other big-screen cash-ins on TV shows that made their debut 20 years earlier— The Brady Bunch, Starsky & Hutch—this one debuted 20 years earlier but is still around and going strong. And I’d kind of expected it would be a celebration of the show’s best qualities. But one was noticeably absent: The Great Simpsons Musical Joke. I’m not one of these devoted admirers who think the final word on every aspect of contemporary life is to be found in The Simpsons, but I do love the way the show uses music, and I was disappointed the film more or less entirely steered clear.

Let me give an example. A few months ago, I gave a speech in Minneapolis and, as is customary in the great republic to our south, the evening began with a young local singer performing the national anthem. Erin did a lovely job—nice, clean, crisp, straightforward—and in my opening remarks I was very appreciative, in part because, back in my hotel room 45 minutes earlier, I’d switched on the TV to accompany the last-minute wrestling with my cufflinks and nose-hair clipper and happened to catch the Simpsons episode where the family goes to the local baseball game. The crowd rise and place their hands on their hearts for the national anthem. But, alas, the local singer entrusted with The Star-Spangled Banner is not like Erin and instead delivers it as a melisma-choked power ballad: “Oa-oa-oa-oa-oa-oa-oh, sa-ay ca-anyou, Tm askin’you, ca-anyo-ou seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Ba-a-a-a-a-y the dawwwwwwwwwww...” Time passes. The afternoon sun sinks in the sky. The crowd remains standing, albeit a little more droopily:

“Aa-aa-and the rocket’s redgla-a-a-a-a-are The bombs bursting—suit it on, pop and wail—up in the ai-ii-ii-ii-ir...”

More time passes. The stadium is now entirely dark. Etc.

Anyone who’s attended any prominent public event in the U.S. in the last couple of decades will have noted the tendency of The Star-Spangled Banner to be over-spangled by whichever star has been chosen to sing it. It is a melancholy fact that far too many vocalists think soulfulness is measured by the number of syllables you can stretch a onesyllable word to. On the day Céline Dion takes U.S. citizenship, I have no doubt she’ll break the world record for melismas per bar of the national anthem. But it’s heartening to realize that in centuries to come archaeologists will be able to exhume one 22-minute TV cartoon and know that at least in Springfield they had the measure of this malign infestation.

Funny music requires a certain amount of seriousness, which is why genuine examples of it are so rare. You can measure the degeneration of the Looney Tunes franchise in the difference between Carl Stalling’s six-minute musical scores of 60 years ago and the hotchpotch of generic incidental music punctuated by a ragbag of pop hits that accompanied the recent Looney Tunes: Back In Action movie.

In the old days, when Bugs Bunny dresses in a skirt and bonnet and Elmer Fudd’s eyes pop and that 60-piece Warner Bros, orchestra plays Oh, You Beautiful Doll, you know Elmer really wants that doll. Stalling treated his characters seriously; the new film treats them like cartoons.

It’s easy to make that mistake. The Simpsons opening titles are a traditional hi-honeyI’m-home sequence, showing the family members getting together, as in The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Flintstones or a zillion others. And it would have been tempting to accompany the visuals with a pastiche of a Bewitchedtype theme song, or the weedy synthesizedon-the-cheap-for-added-insipidness Thank You for Being A Frietid gloop of The Golden Girls. Instead, the show’s creator, Matt Groening, went to Danny Elfman, who composed a neurotically insistent 10-note figure underscored with endless inventiveness by frantic strings and bongos. The first time James L. Brooks, the executive producer and a veteran of Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda, heard it played by the full orchestra on the 20th Century Fox lot, he gasped in wonder: “My God! This is great! This is lemmingsmarching-to-their-death music!” Which is droller than a pastiche song would be for an opening sequence in which everyone’s panting to quit school and leave work so they can race home and grab the best spot on the couch for watching TV.

Decades ago, Groening heard Mel Brooks

giving an interview in which he observed that, in comedy, music should play the underlying emotion rather than the gag. This is so true and so obvious you marvel at the number of lame-o movies that don’t get it, that persist in underscoring jokes with nudging, winking, larky whoopee-cushion music. The best illustration of the Groening-Brooks approach comes when Homer, after being pulled over for driving under the influence, decides it’s time to give up his beloved Duff beer. He goes into the kitchen, pulls the six-pack from the fridge, and starts pouring it down the sink. “Well, beer,” he sighs, “we’ve had some great times.” And the music underneath goes into the wailing oboe obbligato that opens Sinatra’s great masterpiece from the sixties, one of those bittersweet elegiac autumn-ofmy-years recollections of a life lived to the full. As Frank sang:

When I was seventeen

It Was A Very Good Year

It Was A Very Good Year

For small town girls and soft summer nights

We’d hide from the lights

On the village gree?i

When I was seventeen...

The song, by Ervin Drake, uses the image of wine to evoke the seasons of a man’s life as a cellar of fine vintages. Homer’s version uses the image of beer to evoke, well, beer: When I was seventeen I Drank A Very Good Beer I Drank A Very Good Beer I purchased with a fake ID My name was ‘Brian McGee’

I stayed up listening to Queen When I was seventeen...

The trick with parody lyrics is always to stay as close to the original as possible. The master was Allan (Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh) Sherman, who rendered That’s Amore as That’s A Moron. Obviously, “A very good beer” is a mere single-letter variation on “A very good year,” and, to be honest, Homer’s fake ID and staying up listening to Queen

may approximate more closely to most youthful experience than Frank’s poignant reflections on perfumed hair coming undone. But what makes the moment is that the singer’s glum recitation—life as an accumulation of banalities—is set to more or less exactly the same Gordon Jenkins arrangement as Sinatra’s original. That’s what gives the scene a kind of poetry. Visually, The Simpsons look less “real” than Josie and The Pussycats or even Scoohy-Doo. But in everything that matters they’re more real than 90 per cent of the glossy live-action sitcoms of glib young things cracking smart.

Years ago, Leonard Bernstein told me that he always sweated more over the funny songs than the serious stuff. The reason, I think, is that you have to know a form inside out before you can pastiche it. In Spamalot, Eric Idle’s musical cannibalization oí Monty Python, the author, with his customary laziness, is mocking song forms he hasn’t troubled to get inside of, to figure out what makes them tick. The result is a lot of tumty-tumty light verse set to dull tunes. In The Simpsons, by contrast, the family’s first trip to their state’s capital city, Capital City, is accompanied by Tony Bennett singing a wonderfully expert big-band parody of those odes to cities that never sleep:

There’s a swi?igin’ town I know

Capital City.

People stop and scream Hello’

Capital City.

It’s the kind of place that makes a bum feel like a king

And it makes a king feel like some nutty kookoo super thing...

Of course, Capital City isn’t exactly one of America’s most glittering capitals, and, as the Simpsons drive through the outskirts, you appreciate that on the whole it’s heavier on the bums than on the nutty koo-koo kings. But the parody treads brilliantly the fine line between buoyant optimism and insanity:

It’s against the law to frown

In

Capital City

You’ll caper like a stupid clown

When you chance to see

Fourth Street and D

—which is a dump, naturally. But the point is most parodists wouldn’t know enough to skewer the form that accurately. The guy who did Capital City did: he’s a fellow called Jeff Martin.

Who? Well, gee, I dunno really, other than that he’s a writer on the show. But he has a rare kind of genius. And, if there is (as there surely must be in this over-credentialized world) a Conservatory of Parodie Composition, they should be teaching him there. As I said, I liked the movie. But it lacked the Jeff Martin touch. M