Remembering Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie Simpson

As the world continues to mourn the loss of the glamorous Elizabeth Taylor, let’s not forget the famed actress’s greatest screen achievement: no, not the budget-busting Cleopatra, or her Oscar-winning turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Rather, her ultimate triumph came on December 3, 1992, when she provided the voice as baby Maggie Simpson finally said her first word. 

This was actually pretty big.  Not only was this a fairly early entry in the trend of major Hollywood stars doing TV cameos (though Taylor had done these before), it was the first time I can think of when a major star did a purposely minimalist bit–one word, at the very end of the show.  What a good sport.  The next best disparity between fame and lowliest guest starring role would be George Clooney as the bark of a gay dog on South Park

Below is the best copy I can find of the clip. 

Serendipitous Relevance and American Lit

I like to show how the books we study in school have left a lasting legacy to contemporary society.  If nothing else, when students complain how boring and outdated the books are, I can either try to elicit some open mindedness by showing them that P. Diddy consciously imitates The Great Gatsby, or I can at least argue that their recalcitrance is in opposition to the popular culture with which they’re enthralled. 

This year has been an especially good one for that.  I started the year off with The Scarlet Letter, just as a teen comedy loosely based on it, Easy A, hit theaters.  When we read Moby Dick, I was able to show them the recent Blackberry ad about the novel (many students told me that the ad made much more sense afterwards!).  We finished Huckleberry Finn last month and now, as we review the semester, there’s a national controversy brewing about a new, censored version of the text. 

Near the end of this year, when I try to wrestle some Faulkner into my students, I’ll be able to tell them that Hollywood hunk James Franco is directing a new film of Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying

Now if only I could find a more recent reference for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea than a second season episode of The Simpsons

Relative Savings

Ever thrifty, but especially so during these recent recession years, my wife and I have paid attention to a variety of TV shows, classes, and web sites offering advice for reducing utility and grocery bills.  You’ve seen them–they promise to give you secret tips to cut yours bills in half, or some such thing.

However, we quickly became fairly jaded on any such concept after finding, time and again, that the amazing savings, the rock bottom level of spending that these clever tips and skills could offer, this budget boon due to paring away frivolity to a bare bones lifestyle and/or one devoted to cutting corners…still resulted in expenses that exceeded what we were already spending. 

Honestly, some of the items we ran across made claims such as, “With our revolutionary approach to budgeting and bills, we can cut your grocery costs all the way down to a mere, skeletal $1000 a month!”  I don’t think I’m revealing anything terribly personal by confessing that the Huston family spends significantly less than that on our monthly groceries as it is.  The big, scary question here, of course, is, if there’s a market for telling people how to get their grocery bills down to $1000 a month, how much are they spending now

But what this implies about our society’s idea of thrift, and what constitutes cutting back in our eyes, is far scarier still.  I’m reminded of the old Simpsons episode where Homer abuses his company’s medical insurance so he can get some hair restoring tonic.  When his boss, Mr. Burns, finds out about how Homer had bilked him, Burns cries out in frustration, “Blast his hide to Hades!  And I was going to buy that ivory back scratcher!” 

Alas, the recession: fewer ivory back scratchers for America.

I’ll Make This Simple: Homer = Democrats

I was amused when I saw a letter in Thursday’s Las Vegas Review-Journal comparing the Republican victories in the election to the episode of The Simpsons where Homer becomes sanitation manager.  My response was printed in today’s paper, reproduced below.  As I put it on Facebook, you think you can use The Simpsons to back up your liberal agenda?  Not on my watch, bub.

Letter writer Randall Buie argued against his own opinion on Thursday. He referenced the episode of “The Simpsons” where Homer becomes sanitation engineer and ruins the city.

Mr. Buie failed to mention how Homer won, or how he ruined the city. He won by capitalizing on people’s laziness, promising to provide every creature comfort he could think of. His campaign slogan was, “Can’t someone else do it?”

After the election, he wasted his department’s annual budget in weeks.

So Homer pandered to demands for entitlements and then bankrupted his administration. Mr. Buie, exactly which party did you think Homer represented again?

D’oh, indeed.

(Don’t) Be Yourself

In an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa tries to warn Homer about becoming obsessed with revenge on an animal, citing Moby Dick as an illustration of such a foolish course of action.  “Oh, Lisa,” Homer breezily corrects her.  “The point of Moby Dick was ‘be yourself.'” 

The joke is based on Homer’s character–a lazy, entitled idiot who swallows whole everything Hollywood feeds him (remember his movie-addled mindset in “Homer Goes to College?”) and, therefore, thinks the world revolves around him.  Homer thinks the point of everything is “be yourself.”

Many a Simpsons episode has poked fun at our tendency to accept ourselves as we are, conveniently declaring that our natural state is good enough.  For example:

  • “Bart’s Inner Child”–After being suckered by a self-help guru, Springfield puts on a feel-good festival which nobody prepared properly because they felt their automatic impulses should be validated, i.e. nobody wanted to work and nobody should judge them for it.  The festival is a chaotic disaster.
  • “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious”–After suffering a nervous breakdown from stress, Marge hires a Mary Poppins-like servant to help the family.  Despite her magical powers and inspirational attitude, the Simpsons persist in dysfunction, until the nanny gives up and tells them just to do what’s natural, suggesting (for instance), sweeping garbage around the house under the rug, because, “It’s the American way!”
  • “Homer’s Enemy”–After a life of suffering, sacrifice, and hard work, the new guy at the power plant can’t believe how successful Homer is despite his total incompetence, which nobody else seems to care about.  At the episode’s end, he goes insane and dies; at his funeral, Homer is childish and oblivious, and everybody laughs with him.  My favorite episode. 

These jokes work for the simple, obvious reason that our culture is awash in the message that we’re entitled to high self esteem, that the American Dream now encompasses self-realization and total, universal acceptance.  Continue reading

An Idea For A Remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington

The classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was released in 1939.  I’d like to suggest an idea for a 75th anniversary remake, which could be ready in time for a 2014 release. 

The idea of remaking Mr. Smith was lampooned on The Simpsons once, where it was a stand-in for the current rash of updated old movies and TV shows, the majority of which are terrible.  In The Simpsons’ spoof, Mel Gibson stars in the remake and the climactic scene doesn’t have Senator Paine confessing and Smith emerging vindicated, but Smith whipping out a tommy gun and running amok as he slaughters Congressmen left and right.

So the concept of making a new Mr. Smith is touchy, but I think it’s something our country needs, and something that would be important and do well.  My updated story looks like this:

It starts off basically the same, with Smith appointed junior Senator to replace the deceased Senator Foley.  However, in the original, Smith was a leader of the “Boy Rangers,” because the Boy Scouts of America wouldn’t give permission for their name to be used.  I think now, with membership and revenues dropping, they might be more open to cooperating.  They could use the good press.  So in my version, Smith is a Scoutmatser. 

Also in the original, Smith is automatically ridiculed by the elite media for being a simple guy from outside the big city.  They mock his naive optimism and reverence for the nation’s heritage.  In the 21st century, that would pretty much play out the same way.  Think Sarah Palin.

One of the two biggest areas of updating, though, would be the nature of Smith’s bill and subsequent scandal.  Continue reading

Michael Jackson Comments

I don’t really want to write about this, but a few things have come to mind over the weekend, and for what it’s worth, here they are.  Behold, the cathartic power of writing:

  • Michael Jackson was not that great of a musician.  Sure, he had some great songs, but most well known artists have some great songs.  His music was innovative and formative of the 80’s era, but let’s remember we’re lionizing someone who hadn’t written anything memorable in nearly 20 years, only released a few albums over a very long career, and never truly realized his potential.  In terms of both musical quality and actual cultural impact (as opposed to perceived cultural impact), tons of acts–from Lionel Richie to Madonna to U2–are far more important, and that’s just from the 80’s.   The best thing we can really say of Jackson’s talent is to remark that he was an amazing dancer–it was often angry and sometimes disturbing, but his skill there is undeniable.
  • I remember when “Black or White” came out, some people accused him of ripping off INXS’s “New Sensation.”  I bought it at the time, but that was dumb.  The resemblance is superficial–certainly not amounting to the kind of sampling that irritates us all.  MJ may not have been perfect, but he sure didn’t need to steal ideas from Australian pop bands.
  • His guest stint as the voice of a Michael Jackson wannabe on The Simpsons–yes, that was really him–was truly cool.  If I remember him well, it’ll be for that.  That and letting Weird Al parody a couple of his songs (Prince famously told him no).
  • I don’t know if he ever molested any children, but it’s likewise undeniable that he put them in positions that did bother and scare them.  He may have loved them, but his clueless self-obsessive behavior hurt others.  It’s hard not to ignore that.  During the recent NBA finals, I couldn’t appreciate Kobe Bryant’s awe-inspiring performances because I couldn’t stop thinking, “You know, that guy who just made that incredible shot is probably a rapist.”  Same thing here. 
  • How much does it suck to be the ghost of Farrah Fawcett right now?  Her untimely death (genuinely untimely, not one brought on by years of voluntary prescription drug abuse) got about five minutes of headline time before MJ took over and the world went into full time worship mode.  Her inspiring, dignified battle with cancer?  Might as well have never happened.  Remember when Mother Teresa and Princess Diana died within a week of each other in 1997?  Remember which one got a hundred times more coverage?  Did we learn nothing?  Even worse, it’s unlikely that the passing of TV pitchman Billy Mays will unseat Jackson any time soon.
  • If MJ hadn’t died, how would we all feel about him today?  I’m not saying that we need to go out of our way to disrespect the dead, but honoring him now is just dishonest.  The world is full of real heroes who have recently died, and many more who still struggle on.  Let’s spend some time on them, and less on trivial pop culture trends, OK?

This Just In: Washing Hands Is Good!

Yesterday, the Clark County School District sent out a second letter to parents about the swine flu.  The letter reassures Mom and Dad that the school cares about little Junior’s health (this, in response to the controversial revelation that a local student had been infected for a week but the CCSD chose not to release this information to the public). 

The letter then offers four items of advice:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water…
  • Sneeze or cough into a tissue.  Throw the tissue in the trash after use.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth…
  • If you are sick, stay home.

Such inane cover-your-butt nannying reminds me of a great seventh season Simpsons episode, “Home Sweet Home-Diddly-Dum-Doodly,” in which a misunderstanding gets the kids taken away by the government and Marge and Homer have to attend a basic parenting class:

Goodman: There are a lot of little tricks to it, things you should have
         learned a long time ago.  Such as, if you leave milk out, it
         can go sour.  Put it in the refrigerator, or, failing that, a
         cool wet sack.
          [much later]
         And put your garbage in a garbage can, people.  I can’t stress
         that enough.  Don’t just throw it out the window.
  Marge: This is so humiliating.
  Homer: [writing furiously] “Garbage in garbage can”…hmm, makes
         sense.

 

If anyone isn’t washing their hands or covering their mouth when they cough, what in the world makes the health office think that a letter will suddenly wake them up?  “Say, honeybunch, you know how we’re a couple of gross slobs?  Well, this here letter says that we should use a tissue and then throw it away.  Sounds strange but, heck, let’s give it a shot!”

On the plus side for the swine flu letter, though, the reverse side was printed in Spanish, so I got to learn how to say “swine flu” should I ever end up in Mexico: “influenza porcina.”

The Jesus/Burrito Paradox

Over at By Common Consent, they run a regular feature where controversial questions are thrown out there and the community is asked to chime in.  Because nothing establishes sound doctrine like an online free-for-all. 

I figured if we’re going to indulge in some irreverent navel gazing, we might as well do it right.  In a 13th season episode of The Simpsons called “Weekend at Burnsies,” Homer puts the following theological query to Ned Flanders: “Could Jesus microwave a burrito so hot that even he couldn’t eat it?”

This question has been used in polls elsewhere, and most people tend to say no, as they claim that God has no corporeal body (alas, in sharp contradiction of Luke 24:39-43).  So, any LDS readers won’t have that convenient cop out. 

What say you?

 

Bailout Metaphor From The Simpsons

bios_townspeople_wiggumSo the latest in the snowballing bailout boondoggle is Uncle Sam’s new stake in Bank of America, to the tune of $20 billion. 

A great recent essay in the Wall Street Journal suggested that the long overdue movie version of Atlas Shrugged is now moot because it’s actually playing out before our eyes, but I have another comparison.

So the government thinks it can spend its way out of reckless debt?  There was a season five episode of The Simpsons called “Homer the Vigilante,” at the end of which a group of Springfield residents find themselves stuck at the bottom of a deep hole they’ve dug in the ground.  Desperate to get out, Homer comes to the rescue with this brilliant idea: “We’ll dig our way out!”  So they start shovelling with renewed vigor. 

But the real punchline comes a minute later when, irritated by the lack of progress around him, police chief Wiggum tells everybody, “No, you have to dig up, stupid!” 

And isn’t that what the government’s really trying to do here?  Dig up? 

Good luck with that.

More On (Moron?) Staff Development Days

An excerpt from an email I sent to some school district administrators earlier today:

 

Perhaps the best idea I have for tightening the belt around here is to drastically streamline our staff development days. 

 

In a ninth season episode of The Simpsons entitled, “Lost Our Lisa,” the children feel sorry for their teachers, because the kids get to have fun on a day off while the teachers have to be “cooped up at school” on a staff development day.  The scene then cuts to a close-up of the principal mumbling to a bored-looking teacher, “Well, here we go again,” after which the camera pulls back to reveal the staff of the school on a roller coaster at an amusement park.  The joke is on the writers, though: their irony turns out to be quite realistic.

 

From the presentation by a company selling “edutainment” software that we neither need nor could afford, to the breakout sessions with no leader or coherent goal, to the condescending silliness at the start and end of the day, Tuesday’s staff development was a laughingstock failure.  I don’t say this to indict any certain individuals responsible for its planning, but when we face budget shortfalls and a lack of student achievement, it’s almost criminal to continue having these inservice days with the philosophy that they’re for “entertainment” and “team building.” 

 

In the interest of the quality of the education that we provide, I need to suggest that we radically alter staff development days in the district.  Shouldn’t staff development days be devoted to reviewing effective teaching strategies and curricula, and letting departments communicate with each other about immediate concerns specific to their campus and department?  Not to mention, letting teachers have some extra planning time?  What else could a staff development day legitimately be for? 

 

Budget cuts have to be made, and isn’t it reasonable to start with the catered lunches, silly technology-heavy presentations, pointless professional guest speakers, and trophies that cluttered up this most recent staff day? 

 

 

 

The Gently Hew Stone 138th Post Spectacular!

[NOTE: For those not familiar enough with The Simpsons to get the reference in the title of this post, please brush up here.]

Hello, I’m Troy McClure.  You might remember me from such popular Internet blogs as “This Obscure Rant About Issues Way Out Of My League Will DEFINITELY Make A Difference In Washington” and “Those Psychos At The Customer Service Desk At The Grocery Store Think They Can Refuse My Return And Not Suffer The Bad Press That’ll Drive Them Into Bankruptcy By The End Of The Week?  I’ll Show Them!”.

But I’m not here tonight to accept adulation for my overwhelming impact on the lives of the many millions who have been blessed by my own writing.  I’m here to shower such praise on the blog Gently Hew Stone, which is celebrating 138 posts of earth shattering importance.  Nice round numbers like that always beg recognition.  Continue reading

Teaching With The Simpsons Vindicated!

This one could also go under “serendipity.”  A couple of weeks ago I was perusing the website of English Journal, an official magazine of the National Council of Teachers of English.  I was surprised to find this abstract: http://www.ncte.org/pubs/journals/ej/articles/129317.htm.

Sadly, the whole article isn’t available online.  Luckily, yours truly works at UNLV on Saturday afternoons this semester, and the awesome Lied Library subscribes to everything.  I made a copy and read it.

Eikmeier has some good ideas, all geared toward correlating The Simpsons with the literature they’ve parodied.  That’s all fine and good–and I use it for that prupose, too–but I was disappointed that she didn’t take it deeper.

She noted that The Simpsons is an ideal tool for teaching literary techniques such as irony and satire.  She didn’t give examples on that front, but that’s how I’ve predominantly used it over the years. 

The Simpsons is a great example of satire, and has a few core issues that show up episode after episode, season after season:

  • The vapidity of popular culture (“Homerpalooza,” “Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie”)
  • The danger of our increasing acceptance of lower standards of personal responsibility (“Bart’s Inner Child,” “Homer’s Enemy,” “Trash of the Titans”)
  • The power and importance of the nuclear family (“Secrets of a Successful Marriage,” “A Milhouse Divided”)
  • The destructive nature of television (“Sideshow Bob’s Last Gleaming”–and, obviously, a decent illustration of irony!)

The list and these examples could be greatly extended.  I only hope that I can actually communicate these deeper levels of this iconic media masterpiece to my students, and that they don’t just sit there and think, a la Beavis and Butthead, “Uh-huh-huh-huh, we’re watching The Simpsons.”

Just in case, I’ll make some more copies of that article for furture parent conferences… :)