“The Day The Earth Stood Stupid” (season 3, episode 9; originally aired 2/18/2001)
In which uhhhh… der…
Who is Nibbler? What is Nibbler? How is Nibbler? Why is Nibbler? Where is—ah, right, you get it, moving on. When the furry little cutie-pie was introduced back in the show’s first season (“Love’s Labours Lost In Space”), the joke seemed so obvious as to not require any further clarification. Nibbler was small and adorable and made amusing noises, and he (assuming it was a he) was also a ravenous beast capable of devouring animals ten times his size or more. Ha ha. It was the sort of sweet-but-also-unsettling gag that fit the show’s general tone quite nicely. Nibbler didn’t eat anything noticeably sentient, and he gave Leela something to lavish maternal affection on. Nuff said, really.
Except it’s not, and in “The Day The Earth Stood Stupid,” the other shoe drops. Things begin innocuously enough. After a quick glimpse of a cloud of giant floating brains destroying a planet (they are, chillingly, “One Day’s Brain Flight From Earth”), we jump to a pet show on Earth. The show features some good gags about weird pets (like the cat lady and her tiny human), has a short arc about Bender and Zoidberg joining the show to win $500 and a year’s supply of dog food, respectively (they take second place, and Bender is a jerk), and it reinforces the idea that lil Nibbler is a hungry idiot incapable of doing much more than eating and eating and then eating some more.
Actually, that’s not an entirely complete picture. The pet show is also the introduction of the Hypno-Toad. All glory to the Hypno-Toad. All hail him. Hail the Hypno-Toad. All. The Hypno-Toad. Hail. Glory. Glory. Glory.
Nibbler wins “Dumbest Pet In Show,” but Leela doesn’t seem to mind much; she’s disappointed he didn’t win, but there’s no sense that this is a crisis that needs to be resolved. Really, the sequence’s main point (apart from all glory to the Hypno-Toad) is to set up Nibbler as an idiot so that the discovery of his true identity is even funnier. I’ve watched this show, and these episodes, so many times that I honestly don’t know if the reveal came as a surprise. I do think it was well-handled, and the sight of a space-suited Nibbler pulling his tiny ship out from behind a dumpster still makes me laugh. It’s just so damn odd.
But it’s a careful kind of odd. As ridiculous as the Nibblonians are, their concept is a core part of series’ lore, one that was in place even before the first episode aired. Maybe not the exact specifics, but this wasn’t some tacked on twist, as will become more obvious in later episodes. (I actually had a whole introductory paragraph planned about the difference between the good kind of planning ahead and the bad kind of planning ahead in TV writing, but then I realized that the big twists about Nibbler and Fry’s true nature are still ahead. So, that’s something for you to look forward to, I guess.) This kind of long-term narrative design helps to make the show feel more solid, without getting hemmed in by overly elaborate set ups and mysteries. No one was all that worried that Nibbler would get a backstory, but now that he has, it makes a surprising amount of sense, and we can all move on.
So Nibbler is a member of the ancient race which existed 17 years before the Big Bang. (I like to think of this as one of those intentionally impossible concepts that the writers introduce from time to time, just to drive anyone with a basic working knowledge of science insane.) They are a wise and adorable people who live on the Planet Eternium, “the exact center of the universe,” which must save on bus fare. They are enemies with the Brainspawn, those floating brains we saw earlier in the episode; the ‘spawn hate all conscious thought, and are determined to destroy it, which is why they’re now turning everybody on Earth into idiots. Only Fry, with his abnormal brain wave patterns, is able to escape the scourge.
The show has had more complex adventures in the past, but there’s something refreshingly old school about “The Day The Earth Stood Stupid,” from its title on down. The Brainspawn look a bit like the monsters in movies like The Brain From Planet Arous and Fiend Without A Face, and there’s an endearing cheesiness to the whole thing that wouldn’t be out of place in a very well-made children’s cartoon. The villainous Chief Giant Brain is a jerky with a smirking, nasal voice, and the good guys are so good they have hearts all over their planet. Sure, the Nibblonians are still have huge appetites, and devour the fallen brains after Fry wins the day, but for Futurama, that’s subversion so small it’s barely subversive. While things will take a turn in later episodes, this initial story is just a fun romp with a clever action climax.
And that climax really is a hoot. Leela is the beneficiary of the exposition dump that explains the Nibblonians and the Brainspawn, but due to the brains’ dumbening rays, she forgets everything she learned the minute she arrives back on Earth, leaving Fry in charge to save the day. While Nibbler had already explained that Fry’s “special” brain waves left him immune to the Brainspawn, there was still something reassuring in the fact that Leela was getting all of this information and could presumably help guide Fry in the fight. Having her instantly lose her memory when she comes home removes the safety net that the Nibblonians had provided; having Fry then toss the instructions Nibbler had pinned to Leela’s shirt into the fire (after blowing his nose on them) is just stupid icing on the idiot cake.
In the end, despite the Nibblonians and Leela’s best efforts, Fry has to defeat the Chief Giant Brain by himself; the challenge for the writers, then, is in coming up with a way for Fry to do this that is believable both from a narrative and a character standpoint. He can’t win too easily, but he also can’t come up with a trick that seems too smart based on what we know about. The end result has Fry flailing a bit, and following the Chief Giant Brain through a series of classic novels in a contrivance that’s just plausible enough to work, before finally winning the day by tricking the Brain into falling into one of Fry’s own stories—a world of spelling errors and plot-holes. After three seasons of failing and flailing, Fry manages to save the universe; but no one but him remembers it. For now, anyway.
- Opening caption: “%80 Entertainment By Volume”
- The “everyone forgets” ending should be annoying, but it just feels more appropriate than anything else. I especially like that it means Leela once again has no idea who, and what, Nibbler is. It’s television! Nothing changes!
- “I should be weeping! I’m not weeping!” -Bender, angrily critiquing Zoidberg’s mariachi dance.
- “So every religion is wrong!” -Leela, after a long, incomprehensible (to us) conversation with Nibbler.
- I skipped over it, but a good chunk of the humor of the episode comes from seeing the Planet Express regulars acting like morons. Bender keeps forgetting he’s a robot, Hermes thinks he’s a baby, and everyone wants to invest in Internet stock and join the Reform Party.
- “I’m here to kick your ass!” “Wishful thinking. We have long since evolved beyond the need for asses.”
- All glory to Hypno-Toad.
- “Is there Mrs. Queequeg?” -dumb Leela
“That’s Lobstertainment!” (season 3, episode 10; originally aired 2/25/2001)
In which Zoidberg gets everyone into a fine mess…
I love Dr. Zoidberg. He’s not a rebel like Bender, or an Everyman like Fry; he’s not sensible like Leela, he’s not a klutzy babe like Amy, he’s not prone to mad inventions like Farnsworth, and he can’t limbo like Hermes. But I love him. He’s a putz, a loser, a fool, a buffoon, an incompetent doctor and a clumsy lover, but there’s a fundamental sweetness to the character that holds all of these qualities together and makes them something more. Zoidberg is like Gerry on Parks And Recreation, a seemingly nice fellow routinely insulted by his peers, but where Parks and Rec was a sunshine show full of good times and mild conflicts, Futurama is routinely cynical, often brutal, and frequently lands on the zany side of despair. So where the abuse on Gerry could seem cruel no matter how much the writers tried to stack the deck in his favor, Zoidberg’s suffering is just par for the course. He exists to be disappointed, a Beckett play with lobster claws. We have met the Zoidberg, and he is us.
So while “That’s Lobstertainment!” isn’t the sharpest written episode of the series, it has a place in my heart. It’s been a few years since I owned this show on DVD, so I don’t have immediate access to the commentary tracks, but I remember (and Wikipedia confirms, so we’re talking, like, hearsay squared or something) the producers talking about how “That’s Lobstertainment!” was considered the nadir of the show’s run. Granted, this was during the first four years or so, which means the standard of quality was considerably higher, but even then, I call bullshit. Who are these fans? What’s wrong with them? This doesn’t have the high stakes of “The Day The Earth Stood Stupid,” or the emotional gut-punch of “The Luck Of The Fryish,” but it’s still goofy and fun and there’s a lot of prime Zoidberg for the asking.
I mean, we start off with Zoidberg bombing at a comedy club. The only more perfectly Zoidberg-esque situation would be to have him ask a lady on a date, and we’ve already been down that road. Zoidberg tells terrible jokes, and because he’s Zoidberg, he doesn’t quite realize why the jokes are terrible. There’s something endlessly tragic about Zoidberg’s stupidity. Fry’s is based on rash behavior and foolishness, but Zoidberg really is trying to do his best. Because Zoidberg is inept, his failures are deserved, which keeps them from being agonizing to watch. But because he’s so good-natured, the sweetest of the Planet Express bunch, you keep rooting for him to succeed in spite of himself.
The plot of “That’s Lobstertainment!” revolves around Zoidberg making contact with his uncle, Harold Zoid, a lobsterfied version of famous silent film comedian Harold Lloyd. Zoidberg thinks his uncle can help him become a good comedian; Harold, who is broke and living in a crummy nursing home, thinks Zoidberg is a rich doctor. Wackiness ensues. Well, it doesn’t really ensue. The biggest problem with the episode is that while it has the elements of a classic farce—impossible desires, lies, various rooms with doors—it never builds up any momentum. Harold’s misapprehension about Zoidberg’s wealth is resolved when Bender hits up Calculon to provide the necessary funding to make Harold’s movie. That technically creates a new conflict, as Calculon’s rage at the finished project drives the final act, but there’s never really any tension, none of the rising manic energy that good farce needs to take off.
Take, for instance, the weakest part of the story: the resolution. After engineering a plan to get Calculon an Oscar for his work in a movie everyone hated, Zoidberg takes pity on his uncle and gives him the Oscar instead. The only problem being, Calculon had threatened to murder Harold and Zoidberg (and maybe Bender?) if he didn’t get what he wanted. There’s a confrontation, Harold offers Calculon the Oscar, and Calculon just pretty much shrugs the whole thing off. It’s not that there needed to be a big fight or anything, but the lack of stakes makes the whole half hour seem indifferent to itself. The shaggy dog story-telling of the rest of the episode, in which one thing leads to another leads to another without any real build to any of it, doesn’t help. I stand by my affection for this one, but I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t understand why some people didn’t like it. It’s silly, which is fine, but it’s silly in a sort of lazy way, which isn’t.
Still, once you accept that this isn’t going to be a top tier entry, it becomes easier to appreciate the smaller details. Like, again, the amount of Zoidberg in this one, and his utterly inept efforts at guile and eagerness to go along with anyone who shows him even a modicum of affection. Harold’s past as a silent hologram star (oh hey, they look just like silent movies, who’d’ve guessed) allows for a fun clip from his past, as well as some good jokes about his terrible, terrible directorial style. The scenes of him screaming at Calculon to put more emotion into his acting reminded me of Mr. Burns yelling at Don Mattingly to shave his sideburns in “Homer At The Bat,” and that’s a good association righ there.
Plus, while the episode ends with a whimper, there is at least one thread that pays off. Zoidberg’s decision to give his uncle the Oscar is a joke, but it’s also a convincingly sincere gesture, one that softens Harold’s character a bit and gives the half hour the illusion of an arc. Neither of them can have the respect or fame they crave, but they at least have each other. It’s not the most original message, but it comes at an unexpected moment, which helps save it from being a cliche. Buried under all the nonsense is a small gleam of real feeling. That’s just part of the magic that Zoidberg makes possible. Zoidberg and the Hypno-Toad.
- Opening caption: “Deciphered From Crop Circles”
- There’s also a subplot about Leela and Fry getting stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits. It’s fine.
- Hank Azaria does Harold Zoid’s voice. I didn’t even realize that. The things you learn, writing these reviews.
- Zoidberg’s stage name is Bobcat Zoidberg.
- Mel Gibson joke! He doesn’t say anything, so it still works.
- “Next time you see me, don’t be surprised if I’ve eaten!” -Zoidberg, with the big dreams
- “Rich nephew! Come over and give your uncle a nice big meal.” -Harold
- Marisa Tomei Oscars joke! (If you didn’t know, there’s an urban legend that Jack Palance accidently said Marisa Tomei’s name when he was presenting Best Supporting Actress, and they had to give her the award. It’s bullshit, but it’s a gag that comes up from time to time.)