“Itchy & Scratchy Land” (season six, episode four, original airdate October 2, 1994)
One of the greatest episodes of The Simpsons was born from conflict with Fox. The way showrunner/executive producer Dave Mirkin tells it on the commentary track, Fox had told him they couldn’t feature Itchy and Scratchy anymore, because the FCC was engaged in one of its periodic anxiety attacks about decency.
It’s possible Fox was pre-emptively worrying about the fallout of Turner Broadcasting v. FCC, decided that June, a case about cable networks being compelled to carry local channels. A part of the Supreme Court ruling said that it the FCC had more power to regulate the content of broadcast networks, and could use its discretion to do so. If the FCC has ever needed anything, it’s stringent guidelines about what it can and cannot do, not the “discretion” of an agency subject to the vicissitudes of American politics. (The “family values” era was still going strong in ’94.)
Presuming Mirkin’s telling the truth, it’s amazing that, six seasons in, Fox still didn’t understand its flagship show. For one, the preposterous violence of Itchy and Scratchy satirized cartoon violence—the message behind was clearly concerned about the content of entertainment geared toward impressionable children. In their own way, the Simpsons writers were Helen Lovejoys: “Won’t someone think of the children?!” Mirkin demanded to see what complaints had been filed about Itchy and Scratchy, but the network never produced any. “There’s no lack of lack of backbone in Hollywood,” Mirkin says on the commentary track.
Two, Fox should’ve known that trying to censor The Simpsons would only backfire. No more Itchy and Scratchy, eh? How about an entire episode devoted to an amusement park called Itchy & Scratchy Land, “The Violentest Place On Earth”? And for giggles, how about numerous allusions to Disney properties, to tempt the ever-litigious mouse?
The show’s staff did make some token concessions, such as reducing the amount of blood in the opening Itchy & Scratchy short, “The Last Traction Hero.” But the message back to the network was clear: Don’t tell The Simpsons what to do. And by sticking it to Fox, the show scored not only “one of the really big, amazing episodes of season six,” as Mirkin notes, but also an all-time classic. In the show’s run of 500-plus episodes and counting, “Itchy & Scratchy Land” belongs in the top three. As someone on IMDB posted in the episode comments, “The Simpsons don’t get much better than this.”
The Simpsons’ fellow Springfieldians are used to the family’s habits, but vacations take them away from their desensitized neighbors and into new places where their behavior is shocking—and horribly embarrassing for long-suffering Marge. This is the year, she vows, that the family takes a vacation that brings them together, gets them some much-needed exercise, and probably most important of all, doesn’t leave her mortified. The kids, who would agree to anything to get what they wanted—we haven’t seen such determination since their trip to Mt. Splashmore—vow to be on their best behavior. Homer, as always, is a wildcard as packs up his lobster hat, fishnet Speedo Jr., wheelie shoes, and invisible dog leash. But he’s cognizant of Marge’s concern: As they hit the road, he suggests they make a pact to have the best vacation ever, or they’ll disband and join other families.
While the Simpsons can’t tame their outrageous behavior—well, Bart and Homer’s—that turns out to be their salvation. A load-bearing theme of The Simpsons is accepting the people you love despite their faults, especially family members. That isn’t quite the message here, but Marge’s anxiety about her family’s behavior is both reasonable but also misguided. When the park’s robots go crazy (nods to Jurassic Park and Westworld), Homer saves the day by throwing his camera at one. (The camera uses 110 film, a blast from the past. Look it up, kids!) The flash scrambles the robot’s circuits and neutralizes them. (Who am I, the narrator?)
The kids love every minute of it, and they help Marge realize they accomplished all the goals she had for their vacation—it just didn’t happen the way she pictured. That speaks to another of the show’s themes: Success and happiness can occur in unexpected ways.
“Itchy & Scratchy Land” is a smorgasbord of funny bits and complex animation. Simpsons legend John Swartzwelder wrote the story, and Wes Archer directed the animation. The whole “Scratchtasia” segment, i.e. the Itchy & Scratchy version of Fantasia, marries some wonderful whimsy with some of the most violent Itchy and Scratchy antics ever. Matt Groening mentions on the commentary track that he’s always wanted to do a full Simpsons episode like Fantasia, but “Itchy & Scratchy Land” kind of already did it.
Mirkin mentions that one of the toughest parts of this episode was creating the whole world of Itchy & Scratchy Land, which they render as a twisted version of Disneyland. The Disney references come quickly, from the enormous parking lots to the park’s branded currency, to the parade and subterranean lair. Roger Meyers Sr. was always a stand-in for Walt Disney, though Disney (probably) didn’t have any Nazi sympathies. (Incidentally, this joke is one of my all-time favorites: “Roger Meyers Sr., the gentle genius behind Itchy and Scratchy, loved and cared about almost all the peoples of the world. And he, in turn, was beloved by the world, except in 1938 when he was criticized for his controversial cartoon, ‘Nazi Supermen Are Our Superiors.’” So, so great.)
Really, this whole review could simply be a list of funny things from the episode, like the whole “Bort” scene, Bart’s “Lil’ Bastard Traveling Kit,” the simple mispronunciation of “possibly.” Swartzwelder is a giant in the Simpsons universe, and this episode shows why. The Simpsons doesn’t get any better than this.
- Apologies for the lack of clips—I’m currently traveling for work and was unable to coordinate them.
- This is the first episode where we see the kids’ faces straight on (when Marge explains she already picked their vacation destination that year). Neat? They look so weird to me.
- The people behind your favorite shows and characters often know less than you do about them. In the commentary track, Yeardley Smith asks who Roger Meyers Sr. is.
- My memory of this episode comes from watching it in syndicated reruns at least a dozen times. DVDs are such a boon because you get back the stuff that was cut for syndication, like the Flickey’s segment, the minefield, and the fruit-smuggling scene, which is my favorite.
- Matt Groening has had a recurring nightmare since childhood that he’s locked after-hours in an amusement park patrolled by robots. Dreams come up in the episode too, as Bart watches the violent robot parade: “Wow, this is so much like my dreams it’s scary.”
- Friends of Itchy and Scratchy: Disgruntled Goat, Uncle Ant, Ku Klux Klam.
- Two jokes out of time here: This episode aired a couple months before Pulp Fiction’s release, so John Travolta’s career was still moribund at the time. The empty Euro Itchy & Scratchy Land was an allusion to EuroDisney, which at the time was floundering.
- Speaking of Euro Itchy & Scratchy, I've run the French cursing by two French speakers, one of them native, and they can't make out what the guy says.
- Rides not working at Itchy & Scratchy Land: Head Basher, Blood Bath, Mangler, Nurse’s Station.
- Some classic Simpsons naming here: T.G.I. McScratchy’s Goodtime Foodrinkery.
- Marge: “See all that stuff in there, Homer? That’s why your robot never worked!”
- Park security: “Attention Marge Simpson: Your son has been arrested. Attention Marge Simpson: We’ve also arrested your older, balder, fatter son.”
- Marge: “I’m so embarrassed. I wish there was a hole I could crawl into and die.”
- Aryan Super Soldier: “Okay, throw her in the hole!”
- Homer: “But Marge, I was a political prisoner! I kicked a giant mouse in the butt! Do I have to draw you a diagram?!”
- Casey Kasem-esque radio host: “Continuing our sign of evil countdown, here’s Vanessa Williams…”
- Up next: Sideshow Bob unseats Diamond Joe in “Sideshow Bob Roberts.”