Round 33: Treehouse of Horror XX vs. Dog of Death

Round 33: LABF14 vs. 8F17.

LABF14: “Treehouse of Horror XX” (Season 21 / October 18, 2009)
Written by Daniel Chun
Directed by Mike B. Anderson and Matthew Schofield
Showrunner: Al Jean

Lisa Simpson chasing Bart near Norman Bate's house from Hitchcock's Psycho, in black and white.

“Treehouse of Horror XX” gets a lot of things right. The first segment is a labor of love from the animators, who have clearly studied Hitchcock’s films and got as many references in there as they could. And hearing Bernard Herrmann’s scores is always great, of course.

The other two segments are detailed and (somewhat) loving parodies, as well, of the recent wave of zombie movies that started with Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” (which I love) and of Sweeney Todd, which I haven’t seen, but I still liked the setting as a play and Homer’s song (“The Gay Song” as per the credits) was wonderful.

And yet, this an episode of the 21st season. There are inherent problems. I want to go into two major ones, one of them directly observable, the other less so.

The first, and I’ve mentioned this before, is the voice work. It’s understandable that the actors can’t keep up the same quality for twenty years, but it is what it is, and what it is is not as good as it used to be. And it’s enough to call negative attention to itself, at least for me.

Now to the other thing. Listening to 15 seasons worth of Simpsons DVD commentaries, some of them multiple times, I’ve learned there are two, diametrically opposed approaches to writing jokes for the show. From the first story pitch to the several drafts of the script to recording the actors to the animatic to the final show the writers and showrunners hear the same jokes over and over again. Some people, like David Mirkin, are strong advocates of sticking with a joke that worked 30 times, even if it didn’t land the 31st time. Others, like current showrunner Al Jean, believe that a new, fresh joke should take the place of one that didn’t stand the test of endless repetition.

Obviously a new joke can be as funny, maybe even funnier than the one it replaces. But more often than not, it won’t be. A joke that made it through thirty iterations of the script, on the other hand, will most likely be a pretty good one. Getting tired of hearing the same things over and over, no matter how great they are, is natural. The trick is to remember how well they worked before. And I think this is something the current Simpsons writers just don’t do anymore, or at least not as much.

So when I watch something like “ToH XX” I always think about that. Yeah, there’s a good joke here or there, but what are the ones that didn’t survive the process? Would they have been funnier?


8F17: “Dog of Death” (Season 3 / March 12, 1992)
Written by John Swartzwelder
Directed by Jim Reardon
Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss

Santa's Little Helper undergoing the Ludovico treatment from Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange.

So good. Amid all the great jokes, observations, references, parodies and musical moments there is also what’s so dearly missing from most later episodes: emotional content. There is heart. (And in my case, there were even a tear or two.)

So the winner here is 8F17, “Dog of Death,” but I do like the Halloween show, too.

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