“A Day At The Races And A Night At The Opera” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 07/06/1994)
It still seems a little surreal that ABC once paired the short-lived but beloved likes of The Critic and The Dana Carvey Showwith the ratings juggernaut that was Home Improvement. The Dana Carvey Show famously alienated much of its potential audience by opening with a Louis C.K-written sketch in which a triumphant Bill Clinton, convinced that nothing, but nothing, could stop his inevitable march to electoral victory in 1996, publicly breast-feeds puppies (and then kittens) from his manly teat.
But it’s just as tempting to imagine what a family-intensive audience waiting for Tim Allen to make pretend like he’s a monkey would make of a Critic line like, “Wow, George S. Kaufman, eat your Moss Hart out!,” which Jay quips triumphantly after being named “The Wittiest Man Alive” by a Time-like magazine. They’d probably react a little like Doris does: by breaking out in explosive laughter, albeit less at Sherman’s self-consciously literary quip than at the fact his fly is open.
That joke encapsulates the savvy interplay of smart and crass humor found in “A Day At The Races And A Night At The Opera.” The episode revolves around Jay’s relationship with his adoring son Marty, who was at once the show’s primary sop to a Home Improvement-style family audience and one of the show’s weakest characters; he’s sweet and endearing but fairly indistinct, lacking the sharp edges that give standouts like Duke Phillips and Franklin their bite.
Marty didn’t seem to engage the writers and producers much either, so in a masterstroke, they enrolled him in the United Nations school (slogan this episode: “Teaching Tolerance and Brotherhood to Those Who Can Afford It”) as a pretext for delivering some fairly scathing political jokes, whether the perpetually cackling principal is joking of the school’s field day, “Like the real UN, there was a lot of heated gibberish but nothing was accomplished and we send the bill to Uncle Sam!” or when an Iraqi student uses the school talent show to ask an indulgent crowd, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Tony Curtis spoke honestly about American foreign policy in the Middle East?” before doing a dead-on impersonation of first Tony Curtis and then Johnny Carson delivering critiques of the United States’ handling of Middle-Eastern affairs.
The Critic happily and skillfully played both sides of the high/low culture divide but after an opening gag that finds the show once again returning to the bottomless well presented by Scent Of A Woman (last week featured a devastatingly succinct parody, a future episode would twist it into the Wolf-flavored Scent Of A Jackass) by having Al Pacino call Jay to announce that he can’t stop saying “Hoo Hah” and consequently should review his forthcoming film The Godfather Part Hoo Hah! with that in mind, the show goes after the low-hanging fruit of fat jokes about Jay and Marty’s girth and Jay’s pronounced failure as a husband.
“A Day At The Races And A Night At The Opera” finds Jay cheering his possibly even less athletic son on at the United Nations school field day where Marty shames his country with his woeful performance and picks up a “Booby Prize” (delivered, “with a massive dose of pity” by the principal) for his efforts.
This leads Marty to venture on a quest for redemption as he looks for a way to reinvent himself and win over his classmates. Jay tells him that everyone has a gift: he just has to find his own. Jay, for example, insults films that bring happiness to idiots. In one of my all-time favorite guest turns on The Critic, Television Legend™ Steve Allen pops up out of nowhere (though technically he’s the piano player at the restaurant Jay and Marty are eating) to exclaim, “And in my case it’s writing books, songs, playing the piano, hosting TV shows, designing office furniture, mediating border disputes, playing bass with Metallica and communicating with porpoises.”
As the comedian and podcaster Jimmy Pardo might say, that is a gorgeous joke. It begins as an inspired riff on the geriatric renaissance man (who did everything from play piano behind Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show to invent the Stupid Human Trick and plenty of other bits David Letterman lovingly ripped off), then segues seamlessly into surreal silliness as Allen’s actual accomplishments grow increasingly silly until he’s both an unlikely heavy-metal superstar and a real-life Doctor Doolittle.
Remarkably, Allen’s wonderfully deadpan, oddball turn doesn’t even constitute the episode’s weirdest or most inspired left-field superstar voice cameo. No, that honor belongs to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (the real Abdul-Jabbar, not one of the show’s stable of expert celebrity impersonators), who pops up to use Jay as a human ventriloquist dummy in a pathetic attempt to improve Coming Attraction’s ratings.
Meanwhile, Jay finds himself in a dilly of a pickle when Duke, in a counter-productive bid to improve Jay’s popularity—Duke sternly informs him he’s being beaten by a channel that’s nothing more than a static shot of a dryer going round and round and round hypnotically (shades of Hypno-Toad from Futurama, a show the episode’s scribe Ken Keeler went on to write for)—promises to give anyone who doesn’t find Jay funny a hundred dollars.
Jay and Marty are both driven to desperate measures to prove themselves and regain their social standing. Marty enrolls in a karate class, where his first (and only sparring partner) is a comically imposing phantom known only as “Sartoshi, the Eater of Souls.” The Critic was a writing-and-performance-driven show but its character design and animation were generally impressive—bordering on spectacular. Sartoshi, for example, is a brilliantly designed mythological creature with the imposing frame of an undead Samurai warrior and a head that looks like an unusually sinister Jack-O-Lantern.
It’d be a shame to introduce such a fearsome, memorable character for the sake of a throwaway joke (needless to say, Marty is scared away from karate class forever) so the episode impishly brings him back to threaten an ice cream treat (“Cookie Puss! I will eat your soul!” he barks as menacingly as any creature can while holding a silly-looking dessert concoction called Cookie Puss) and shred at a music store where Marty finds the instrument (literally and figuratively) of his ostensible redemption: an electric guitar Marty plans to play at the school talent show despite a staggering lack of musical talent.
An equally screwed Jay finds himself the subject of a massive class action lawsuit when a huge cross-section of the public—including Jay’s own parents—take Duke up on his offer and Duke finds himself on the verge of losing hundreds of millions of dollars. In the end, Jay and Marty are saved not by their effervescent wit or musical ability but rather for their crudeness, intentional and otherwise.
When Jay’s pants rip, revealing a pair of “Rear Window” boxer shorts, a judge rules that Jay really can make people laugh and dismisses the suit. Marty, meanwhile, wows the talent show wows the crowd with his true talent: wiggling and manipulating the folds of his stomach fat into all manner of pleasing and colorful different patterns and scenarios.
The episode ends by skipping ahead 20 years to Marty’s virtuoso performance at Carnegie Hall. Marty is now “the world’s greatest stomach virtuoso” while his proud, rapacious papa is now “the world’s fattest man.” “A Day At The Races And A Night At The Opera” ends by literally transforming a fat joke into an art form fit for Carnegie Hall but The Critic was at its best and most artful when it forewent the requisite fat jokes for a higher, weirder and more pretentious form of humor—though, to be fair, some of its fat jokes were pretty damn funny.
- The gifted and prolific Ken Keeler also wrote two of the most controversial episodes of The Simpsons in the show’s history: “The Principal And The Pauper” and the Critic/Simpsons crossover “A Star Is Burns” (which a ferociously displeased Matt Groening took his name off in protest).
- “I just don’t find his antics amusing. And this Jay Sherman Roach Spray just makes roaches look like Jay Sherman.” Such a weird, awesome joke.
- “So unscrupulous media giant Duke Phillips owes the American people hundreds of millions of dollars. Perhaps this will finally exorcise this cancerous tumor Duke Phillips from the American media scene. Jack Peters, Phillips Network News.”
- “I did chuckle a bit when you tried to eat that bird and fell off that cliff.”
- “Yes, I sold the mustard gas to Gaddafi! I mean, old mustard gives me gas, as does taffy.”
- “I just fear I’m going to fail as a father, just as I did as a husband and a son and a NAVY Seal and an American Gladiator.”
- “Alright. I give the box its own sitcom. It’s called Shove It. Kiss Off! You Smell!”
- I love Duke’s delight in the noise-maker.
- “Ho Ho Kus and Weehawken, the twin jewels in Jersey’s crown”
- “No pressure, Marty. But the Pope and Nelson Mandela are both in the audience and they came to party.”
- For anyone who thinks The Critic’s jokes about Jay’s affinity for wearing/using promotional items for films is a matter of comic exaggeration, I should probably mention that I still use a Patch Adams clipboard The A.V. Club received in 1998 to hold the legal pad with my weekly assignment. Sadly, I am not joking.