The Simpsons: “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” Is the Perfect Showbiz Satire with Just Enough Heart


In “Homer the Smithers” Mr. Burns apologizes to his mother for pulling the plug on her, adding “Who could have known you’d pull through and…live for another five decades.” There’s a similar vibe in “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” an episode that seems to be contemplating a looming end to The Simpsons way back in Season 8, little realizing that the show would be renewed for twenty-two more seasons and counting. Showrunners Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein believed the series was winding down at the time, and true to that perspective, this episode seems to ask how much longer the show could reasonably continue until the network, the fans, and the creators themselves were simply too exhausted to go on.

As I discussed on The Simpsons Show Podcast, the irony of an episode devoted to that type of reflection airing less than a third of the way through The Simpsons’s run inevitably colors any look back at “I&S&P.” But the episode still works as an epitaph for the show’s classic years (with “Homer’s Enemy” serving as a coda) and presents a prescient view of the inherent difficulties that would make it harder and harder for The Simpsons to flourish as it aged, even before the quality of the show started to wane. And yet, what makes this installment of the show still so salient — despite the ways in which it both guessed wrong and eerily predicted The Simpsons’s future — is that it offers a universal satire of the issues that plague any long-running T.V. show, and of television as a whole.

As is often the case when The Simpsons wants to comment on itself, “I&S&P” uses Itchy & Scratchy as a stand-in. With the ratings for Itchy & Scratchy declining, studio head Roger Meyers Jr. assembles his brain trust and decides to add a new character to revive interest in the series. Naturally, the Simpsons find themselves dragged into this mess, with Homer becoming the voice of Poochie, the new “rockin’ dog” injected into the show to increase its appeal. The public is initially enthusiastic in its anticipation for Poochie, but turns disdainful as soon as the boardroom-concocted stylings of the erstwhile cool canine are revealed. Much to Homer’s dismay, Poochie is unceremoniously killed off as the status quo returns.

It would be too much to claim that the plot doesn’t matter in “I&S&P.” The progression from Itchy & Scratchy’s decline to the introduction of Poochie to his inevitable downfall is key to how and why the episode works. But the story functions more as a skeleton on which the writers can hang their critiques and observations about making a long-running television show than it does as an engrossing narrative in and of itself. Instead of focusing on moving the story along, the plot gives writer (and later Futurama co-creator) David X. Cohen the opportunity to aim the show’s satirical lens at almost every facet of the television universe.

 

Including some that hit a little too close to home.

 

No group receives more of his focus and criticism than the clueless corporate executives supervising everything (a tack Cohen would return to in Futurama). Roger Meyers Jr., Krusty the Clown, and a debuting Lindsey Naegle are depicted as vapid meddlers, tarting up their speech with corporate buzzwords that only serve to mask the fact that they know nothing about making television beyond adding splashy, ill-conceived gimmicks. These fictional execs’ push to introduce the titular Poochie was inspired by the real Simpsons staff being asked to add a new character to the show (something “I&S&P” also satirized via the amusingly unexplained presence of Roy) and the clear sentiment that the suggestion was a misguided attempt to tinker with a fundamentally sound program.

In the same way, “I&S&P” is also a hilariously incisive critique of ill-considered attempts to sell a particular brand of hipness concocted by people who have zero understanding of it. The cynical fashion in which Meyers, Krusty, and Naegle collectively try to come up with something that will appeal to kids is amusingly soulless and inept. From Poochie’s mish-mashed embrace of hip-hop and extreme sports, to his generic cool guy attire, to his rib-tickling instruction to “recycle…TO THE EXTREME,” it all creates the perfect parody of the sort of mercenary hodgepodge that defines the corporate conception of cool. It signifies not only the transparent phoniness of the effort, but the impossibility of boardroom committees filled with middle-aged, cigar-chomping suits to market that sort of empty trend-chasing to young people.

Worse yet, Poochie’s “in your face” attitude, his spackled-together cool dude clichés, and his attempts to get “biz-zay,” completely squeeze out the things people actually liked about Itchy & Scratchy. Gone is the mayhem, the cartoon violence, the wild antics that made the show so popular in the first place, leading to the disinterest or dismay of everyone watching. That in and of itself offers a pretty damning critique of the way that such executive interference not only fails to revitalize a series like The Simpsons, but can even damage the aspects of the show that made it work in the first place.

But “I&S&P” also reserves much of its ire for the fans. In certain places in the episode, the show’s young devotees are treated as wishy-washy but guileless. The fact that the kids in the studio focus group simultaneously want a down-to-earth show and also one “swarming with magic robots” speaks to legitimate divisions within the Simpsons fandom at the time over whether the show ought to stick with its earlier, more grounded roots or lean into the “anything goes” spirit that emerged in Seasons 5 and 6. It also reveals certain frustrations behind the scenes at trying to figure out what the audience wants, with Milhouse’s “you should win things by watching” response working as a particularly amusing testament to the incoherence and impracticality of such focus-grouped suggestions. But these scenes mostly treat the kids as indecipherable and unrealistic rather than pernicious in their hopes and wants of their favorite show.

 

In fairness, the show has since done episodes involving both magic powers and robots.

 

The episode is less kind, however, to the diehard fans of the sort who populated newsgroups and other online nerd havens at the time the episode aired. Homer’s retort to a hardcore fan — “Why would a man whose shirt says ‘genius at work’ spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?” — is a cutting but playful jab at the uber-geeks who would superciliously dissect The Simpsons on a weekly basis. (Not that I’ve ever done anything like that, of course.) But Bart’s response to Comic Book Guy’s complaint that the show “owes him” as a loyal viewer feels more pointed. It’s a direct rebuke of the judgmental, entitled fans who make demands of the people who produce the things they love, and it ruffled no shortage of feathers in the Simpsons nerd community for years to come.

Still, the episode’s greatest contribution may reside in how many lines it includes that make for such perfect shorthand when discussing television and pop culture writ large. “Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder,” succinctly encapsulates the pedantry of overly-nitpicky fans. “Poochie died on the way back to his home planet” has become synonymous with any character’s rushed, slapdash exit from a story or franchise. And “When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?” has become the rallying cry for fans bored with a show spinning its wheels before reaching the teased and promised bout of excitement.

Poochie himself is still the poster boy for sterile, corporate attempts to approximate coolness. And the instant dismissal of “Worst. Episode. Ever.” may outlast even The Simpsons itself. It speaks to the density and wit at the core of “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” how well these quick blurbs and ideas capture so much that is applicable to the culture, commerce, and community that surrounds the world of television, and it’s a sign of how “I&S&P” stands as the perfect showbiz satire.

The episode also turns its attention to other facets of the television-industrial complex. The writers, unsurprisingly, get off relatively easy, with the show’s scribes painting themselves as pretentious and a bit defensive, but still generally immune to the idiocy around them. By contrast, professional critics are portrayed as unctuous naysayers, chomping at the bit for the first sign of weakness in any beloved show and relishing the opportunity to tear it down. But more than anything, the episode’s creators seem to be half-bemused and half-baffled at the hallowed place their humble little stories have in people’s lives.

 

It's a subtly great animation choice to have everyone horrified at Poochie's antics except for a politely smiling Homer.

 

The newspaper headline “Funny Dog to Make Life Worthwhile” pokes fun at the widespread attention and significance given to a new character being added to a venerable show. Krusty speaks in hushed tones before unveiling the heralded new episode featuring Poochie’s opening salvo. He places the character’s debut alongside momentous events like man walking on the moon in his prelude to it. In this, The Simpsons takes aim at the pedestals upon which we place our favorite shows, doing so long before the current, endless battles among fans of uber-franchises for loyalty and devotion to their pop culture of choice emerged in earnest. There is a strong undercurrent to  “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” wherein the writers seem to be asking, “Really? All this excitement and angst over a silly cartoon?” even as they’re the ones making that silly cartoon.

And yet, as much as the episode laments the focus and prominence that people place on T.V. shows, it also seems to appreciate the people who care about them in earnest. “I&S&P” is a knives-out satire of anything and everything in the orbit of a popular television show, but it maintains a subtle but strong degree of sympathy for Homer. Beyond the meddling network executives, the overzealous fans, and the highfalutin writers, the episode suggests that there are individuals who simply believe in the work that they’re doing, apart from the politics and expectations and product positioning that manage to wrap their tendrils around everything else.

Homer admits to himself that even he didn’t like Poochie’s first outing, but he still sticks up for the proactive little mutt anyway. That can be read as just another brick in the wall of the show’s cynicism — where Homer makes a stand in the recording studio and, with the help of veteran voice actress June Bellamy, appears to have gotten through to his corporate overlords, only to have the network axe Poochie in a lazy, haphazard fashion anyway. But I’d like to think there’s more to it than that.

Homer believes in Poochie. He’s genuinely hurt by the prospect of this cartoon dog being put to sleep, and chooses to fight for him. As much as “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” tries to tear down the more ridiculous parts of fandom and show business as a whole, it reserves some affection for the people who simply love the T.V. shows and characters they take to heart independently of all that noise.

 

Some of that noise is coming from a rusty chainsaw.

 

Despite that affection, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” posited that The Simpsons was doomed. After the initial excitement of the New Coke-esque reversion to “classic” Itchy & Scratchy wears off, Bart and Lisa eventually wonder what else is on, and the screen cuts to static as they change the channel. That closing shot, constructed by director Steven Dean Moore, is a neat inversion, with the characters on the other side of the screen seeming to turn us off. With that symbolism, Oakley and Weinstein and Cohen appeared to suggest that the show’s days were numbered, that no matter what they did (or more importantly, prevented others from doing) the series would soon have run its natural course and shut down.

In a way, they were right. Fans will argue about it until they’re Blue Dye No. 52 in the face, but wherever you want to place the dividing line, at some point not long after this episode, the show would stumble considerably and cease to be able to keep up the same level of quality or cultural impact, regardless of how long it might continue and try to rekindle that magic. “I&S&P” suggests that this decline was inevitable, a product of impossible expectations and the dulling qualities of repeat exposure, even without stunts like hastily-introduced and quickly-excised new characters.

But it also suggests that amid all the commercial and creative bric-a-brac that starts to weigh down any show rounding out a full decade on the air, there are still laudable, true believers who love their work and the work of others in a sincere and honest fashion. So much of “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” centers on everything wrong with the world of television and the place that silly-if-acclaimed shows hold in people’s lives. But it also devotes just enough time to what’s right with it too.

For as much gnashing of teeth as there’s been about the series’s output in its advanced age (much of it deserved), and as silly as it sounds to hear Homer say it, The Simpsons really has made us laugh and cry. And for both the show’s biggest fans and the scores of talented people who’ve worked on the superlative series, after nearly thirty years’ worth of episodes we’ve even grown old together. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go now — my planet needs me.

Odds and Ends

- For our younger readers, ask your parents what static is and why it would be on a television screen instead of pixels. For bonus points, start the conversation with, “Hey, everybody! An old man’s talking!”

- “Is this episode going on the air live?” “No, Homer. Very few cartoons are broadcast live. It’s a terrible strain on the animators; wrists,” has to be one of the very best snappy answers to stupid questions The Simpsons ever put forward. It’s on the short list for funniest exchanges in the entire show.

- As much as the folks in charge of The Simpsons resisted adding a new main character to the series — both lampooning that idea here and making fun of it again twenty years later — in the past decade the show has nevertheless resorted to a variety of gimmicks in order to goose interest in The Simpsons in its ever-expanding later years. It’s just another way that “I&S&P” was prescient about the challenges facing older shows, including The Simpsons itself, in trying to stay relevant.

- Marge doesn’t get much to do in this episode, but her confession that she hugs Bart while he’s asleep, and his horrified reaction, make for great moments of character-based comedy from her.

- June Bellamy is a great example of a character who’s in just a few scenes, but still proves to be a memorable presence due to her dry wit and Tress MacNeille’s wonderful line-readings.

- In one of those little gags that you only notice on the hundredth watch, in the background of the Simpsons’ watch party, Barney Gumble claims that Poochie is based on him.

- The funniest part of the episode may be the Simpsons’ friends and family offering well-meaning reassurances after witnessing the “overall crumminess” of Poochie. Ned Flanders remarking that it was the best episode of “Impy and Chimpy” he’s ever seen and Carl telling Homer that he should be very proud…of the beautiful home he has are both great laugh-lines.

- I love that Homer’s solution to fixing Poochie is simply to imitate other cartoon dogs, whether it’s Mr. Peabody or Scooby Doo. It’s a characteristically sweet but less-than-imaginative response from him.

- The Simpsons would take aim at corporate meddling once again in Season 12’s “Day of the Jackanapes.” Although Lindsey Naegle returns in that episode to humorously insist Krusty “get jiggy with something” to appeal to male teens, the results were considerably diminished from the high points of this episode. It’s just another indicator that the creators of “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” saw the writing on the wall.


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