“A Fish Called Selma” (season seven, episode 19; originally aired 3/24/1996)
Part of the longevity of The Simpsons can be traced to the show’s massive cast of characters, which enables various pairings and combinations for a variety of storylines and plots: Not just among the first-tier cast of the titular family, or the second tier of regularly appearing friends and neighbors, but even third-tier, less-frequent characters. So an episode like “A Fish Called Selma,” crafted around two minor players in the Simpsons universe, can wind up being, in the staff’s own commentary on the DVD, among the show’s top five episodes of all time.
A lot of the success of “Fish Called Selma” is due to Phil Hartman. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein explain in the commentary that they created the episode in an attempt to use Hartman as much as possible for his appearances as has-been actor Troy McClure and shady attorney Lionel Hutz. He was the show’s most frequent guest star, with 53 appearances before his death in 1998. There are inestimable instances of Phil Hartman’s brilliance, but “A Fish Called Selma” may be my favorite.
Troy McClure, his once-promising movie career sidelined by a weird fish fetish, finds he can get work again if he pretends to have a relationship with a human woman, namely Marge’s sister Selma Bouvier. While “Fish Called Selma” has a multitude of high points, Hartman’s delivery pushes it into all-time classic territory. It’s the first time we see McClure interacting within the Simpsons universe (previously he’s only been viewed on movies or TV), so Hartman has more opportunity to ingest various different facets into the character: How incensed he gets when asked to wear glasses (“It’s a crime against nature!”), how easily he can turn off the McClure show-biz persona after a lackluster first date (Selma: “I had a pretty good time.” Troy: “Yeah, me too, you need a ride somewhere?”), and how he can then turn the artificial aspect up a notch for their even more fake second date (“That’s too funny! I can’t remember when I’ve heard a funnier anecdote! Now you tell one.”). It’s a startling, revolutionary voice performance before we even get to the musical numbers. Julie Kavner has some stellar moments as well, having to voice the three Bouvier sisters, who all sound pretty similar, while trying to make them distinct.
Of course, the pinnacle of the episode is Stop The Planet Of The Apes, I Want To Get Off!, a musical version of Planet Of The Apes, a ’60s sci-fi film so full of over-the-top dramatic lines (“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”), it’s perfect for this type of parody. The Simpsons made a lot of drama into musicals (also noteworthy: a musical version of A Streetcar Named Desire) but again, the creators maintain that “Dr. Zaius” was the show’s finest musical moment, riffing on one-hit-wonder Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus.” The hilarious song is peppered with vaudeville comedy routines Bob Hope would call ancient, highlighted by an inexplicably break-dancing ape. It’s theatre so captivating even Homer and Bart can get on board with it. But that’s not the only show-stopping number in Stop The Planet Of The Apes, as it closes with “You Finally Made A Monkey Out Of Me.” The show scores the movie’s classic Statue of Liberty reveal with a song that sounds like it would fit into any stage musical, complete with a cheesily dramatic horn section, fireworks over the fallen statue, and lines like, “I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-a to chimpanzee.”
The Simpsons could have done an entire episode of Apes: still brilliant. But what skyrockets “Fish Called Selma” into top-five status is its flawless effort to imbue Selma and Troy with humanity, two characters who don’t often emerge from the background. Selma keeps marrying the wrong people (like Sideshow Bob), and Troy is desperate to get any kind of career back. She’s stuck in a dead-end job at the DMV, and he’s ostracized from Hollywood (how did he wind up in Springfield?); their loveless partnership still offers these lonely characters a type of positive companionship. And watch how Troy, even though he’s faking it for his own purposes, keeps highlighting Selma: Asking her to stand up at the Apes opening (causing Homer to yell out, “Down in front!”) or predicting that her star will eventually be placed next to his. The sham marriage offers kind of a sweet pairing we’re sorry to see end.
But when Troy’s soul-patched agent, the awesomely named Macarthur Parker (voiced by Jeff Goldblum, who also makes an appearance on the DVD commentary) suggests that he could get more work by becoming a family man, the partnership get upturned by the pair having to take things to the next level. The ending scene is filled with actual dramatic pathos: Just the desperate way Troy says “yes” when Selma asks him if he wants some wine points again to what a genius Hartman was.
Selma and Troy’s attempted sex scene is beyond awkward, with painful performances from Hartman and Kavner when the two realize their sham relationship must end. It’s actually moving when Selma states that while a loveless marriage may work on some level for her and Troy, adding a child to the mix would be unfair to the child. So she packs up her iguana and goes off to search for love again, while Troy sadly watches her leave from his weird aquarium-themed, isolated palace.
“A Fish Called Selma” gets everything right, from a tightly scripted plot to amazing characterizations to so many small details, like Troy’s bumper sticker on his DeLorean that reads “Follow me to Springfield Aquarium!” Or how Selma gets more glamorous the longer she’s with Troy, but when Marge tells her the truth about her sham marriage, she rushes out, leaving her sunglasses and cigarette holder behind.
But overall the secret to the success of “A Fish Called Selma” is pointed out by the staff in the commentary: “We have a lot of acerbic and wacky and crazy humor, so when you have these touching moments, the contrast makes them much stronger…It works because of the contrast.” The Simpsons is strongest when the characters’ relatable humanity is highlighted by the show’s series of absurdities and laugh-out-loud funny moments. This episode is a perfect example of the relationship between these two sides of The Simpsons: How can you go from “Dr. Zaius” to choking up at two once-again solitary characters at the end of the same half-hour? That’s what makes “A Fish Called Selma” such a legendary episode, truly one for the ages.
- I know the comments will be filled with the hundreds of amazing lines from this episode, but here are my favorites: “Selma Bouvier? This is Troy McClure. You may remember me from such dates as last night’s dinner!”; “My good looks paid for that pool, and my talent filled it with water.”; “Gay? I wish! If I were gay there’d be no problem!”; “The movie or the planet?”; and “Goodbye, Troy. I’ll always remember you, but not from your films.”
- The sign on Troy and Selma’s wedding car reads “Just Marred.”
- Homer swallowing the bride and groom from the wedding cake is actually painful to watch.
- Troy McClure films mentioned in this episode: The Greatest Story Ever Hula-ed, They Came To Burgle Carnegie Hall, Meet Joe Blow, Give My Remains To Broadway, The Verdict Was Mail Fraud, Leper In The Backfield, The Makeout King Of Montana, Electric Gigolo, and The Contrabulous Fabtraption Of Professor Horatio Hufnagel. Plus a film-strip: Locker Room Towel Fight: The Blinding Of Larry Driscoll.
- McClure’s possible celebrity fragrance: Smellin’ Of Troy.
- Interesting to see the smoking-ban movement making some headway in this episode; although at that point it wasn’t technically illegal for Selma to light up in that restaurant (from today’s viewpoint, it’s jarring to see her do so), she still gets loads of backlash: “Excuse me, I ordered a Zima, not emphysema?” and “Please don’t smoke in our restaurant. We don’t serve contemporary Californian cuisine in your lungs.”
- The portraits in the Pimento Grove restaurant include every Simpsons guest star up to that time.
- After Hartman’s death, The Simpsons retired the Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure characters out of respect for him, and they were never seen on the show again.
- Next week: Erik Adams goes on a road trip with Bart, Milhouse, Martin, and Nelson in “Bart On The Road.”