“The Front” (season 4, episode 19; originally aired 04/15/1993)
Matt Groening has cited SCTV as a formative influence on the creation and development of The Simpsons. The Simpsons’ Springfield is truly the spiritual and creative descendant of SCTV’s Melonville in the inter-connectedness of its richly developed cast of characters and meticulously observed universe, but The Simpsons also shares SCTV’s love-hate relationship with the cheesiest recesses of pop-culture past and present: The Simpsons cares enough about the boob tube ephemera it spoofs to get the details exactly right, even when its satire is absolutely scathing.
“The Front” affords The Simpsons an opportunity to flesh out the universe of Itchy & Scratchy while simultaneously spoofing the pandering idiocy of the Hanna-Barbera and sub-Hannah-Barbera world. The episode also puts the show itself in the crosshairs: Even by the standards of The Simpsons, “The Front” is rife with in-jokes; given the pervasive pleasure the writers took in self-referential gags, it’s not surprising that the writers’ room for Itchy & Scratchy is populated by caricatures of actual Simpsons writers of the time. For instance, the effete Harvard alum who is dressed down by gruff cartoon magnate Roger Myers Jr. is modeled on Simpsons scribe Jon Vitti. The episode derives lots of winking laughs out of the incongruity of Ivy League-educated men uniting to write idiot gags for a children’s show so terrible it offends even the aesthetic sensibility of Krusty The Clown. When Myers ejects the Harvard fop from his office, the offended Ivy League grad fussily fires back, “You, sir, have the boorish manners of a Yalie!”
In “The Front,” Bart and Lisa are inspired to reverse what they see as the decline of their favorite cartoon. The catalyst for this crusade: An Itchy & Scratchy installment that consists solely of Itchy slowly and sluggishly hitting Scratchy over the head with a blunt object before directly facing the camera and incongruously piping up, “Kids! Say no to drugs!”—the default message of every cartoon made in the 1980s and 1990s.
In a divine bit of understatement, Lisa opines that the cartoon was a “lifeless outing” and vows that she and Bart could come up with a better script for an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon by default. So Bart and Lisa let their imaginations travel to some very dark, bloody, and morbid places as they imagine various amusing ways in which Itchy can violently abuse Scratchy before sending their handiwork to Roger Myers Jr., the gruff head of Itchy & Scratchy’s empire of gratuitous violence and sub-par animation.
Myers Jr. rejects the teleplay because of its creators’ age, but when the script is re-submitted with Abe’s name on it the animation titan is so impressed that he offers Abe a staff position and heralds him as a man who has truly lived, while the rest of Itchy & Scratchy’s writers gallivanted about in their prissy little Ivy League bubbles.
Abe is of course a passionate and prolific writer but his medium of choice is not the blood-saturated animated short but rather insane letters to the editor and various crank missives to important dignitaries. “The Front” features some of Abe’s most hilariously half-cocked dispatches, like a letter to the Commander in Chief angrily and nonsensically demanding, “Dear Mr. President, there are too many states nowadays. Please eliminate three. I am NOT a crackpot!”
Abe, who is slow on the uptake under the best of circumstances, is initially confused by the animators wanting to buy a script from him he did not write—Bart and Lisa failed to inform their grandfather of their chicanery before sending the script out with his name—but when he discovers there is a large chunk of change to be gleaned from pretending to be an Itchy & Scratchy writer, he instantly changes his tune and cheerfully boasts, “That’s right! I did the Iggy!”
Homer, meanwhile, is forced to wrestle with a shameful secret from his past when a high-school reunion threatens to reveal something he’s been hiding from Marge for years: he never graduated from high school. The high-school reunion lovingly lampoons another creature from deep within the depths of show-business hell: the hack class clown still peddling Ed Sullivan impersonations, Cheech and Chong punchlines, and Richard Nixon jokes long after their shelf lives had expired.
In this case, the class clown is the host of the reunion and a man cursed with presenting Homer with a series of trophies for such non-achievements as gaining the most weight and having to travel the least distance to make it to the reunion. “It hasn’t been easy staying in this rut!” Homer boasts obliviously while accepting an award that is rescinded when Homer’s secret comes out.
A humiliated Homer is intent on redeeming himself and winning back his meaningless awards. “Marge, I have my pride. I’m going to go to night school, earn my high-school diploma and get back my most improved odor trophy!” he vows in an uncharacteristic bout of ambition. While Homer goes to night school the furtive collaboration between Bart, Lisa, and Grandpa Simpson continues as Abe quickly establishes himself as a rising star in the animation world. “The Front” is a great episode for Itchy and Scratchy, too, as the mouse-and-cat duo takes center stage in cartoons like this wonderfully perverse, Bart-and-Lisa-written short where Itchy skins Scratchy alive, after which the feline is beaten to death by animal-rights activists for wearing his own fur as a wrap.
Like Homer, Bart, Lisa, and Abe have a shameful secret that becomes more difficult to keep when an ostensibly Abe-written episode of Itchy & Scratchy is nominated for an Emmy alongside such exemplars of the form as an episode of Action Figure Man entitled “How To Buy Action Figure Man.” Just as Krusty is offended by the quality of the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon that opens the episode, he’s aghast at the quality of the banter he’s called upon to deliver at the ceremony, where he’s paired with Brooke Shields as “the star of The Blue Lagoon and the blue-haired goon.” His anger is partially ego-based. As Krusty angrily proclaims, he’s green-haired goon, not a blue-haired goon. It takes incredible imagination to come up with awards-show banter even worse than the garbage that actually makes it onto the air at real-life awards show but “The Front” accomplishes that impressive feat.
Homer’s house of lies and Abe’s grand deception both fall apart when they’re given awards they do not deserve. When the proudly oblivious Abe actually sees the gruesome violence that characterizes Itchy & Scratchy he rails against it and his short-lived career as a fake cartoon writer comes to a dramatic, premature end.
“The Front” didn’t have enough material to fill out its running time initially so the show tacked on what is essentially the animated version of a one-panel Family Circus comic strip in the form of “Love That Flanders,” complete with a wonderfully cheesy opening theme. “Love That Flanders” is maybe my favorite part of a strong episode; even when The Simpsons was simply trying to fill some airspace it appeared incapable of anything short of brilliance.
- Krusty denying his Jewish heritage at the beginning felt very similar to a gag on SCTV where hack comedian Bobby Bittman is mortified when his brother starts speaking Yiddish to him on air.
- “All right, brain. You don’t like me and I don’t like you. But let’s just do this and then I can get back to killing you with beer” is one of my favorite instances of Homer having an important conversation with his brain.
- “I discovered a meal between breakfast and brunch”—Homer Simpson’s secret to weight gain.
- Next up is “Whacking Day.” If memory serves, that's a good one.