“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (originally aired 2/9/1997)

“Once in a great while, we are privileged to experience a television event so extraordinary, it becomes part of our shared heritage.”—Krusty The Clown, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”

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On the ninth day of February in the year 1997, The Simpsons reached a milestone: Airing its 167th episode, the show became TV’s longest-running primetime cartoon. The Simpsons had racked up awards and accolades that were more meaningful than this achievement, but eclipsing a record The Flintstones held for 31 years was quantified proof of the The Simpsons’ staying power. That staying power has only strengthened as time goes by: Eighteen years after the debut of “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” old episodes of The Simpsons are broadcast daily in multiple countries, with 20-plus new episodes debuting each year. The show wouldn’t just shatter The Flintstones’ record—it attached that record’s intestines to a guard rail, pushed the record into an active volcano, and immolated the record by pumping gasoline through its guts.

But the importance of “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” reaches beyond the pages of the TV history books. For on the ninth day of February in the year 1997, at approximately 8:20 p.m. Eastern, Comic Book Guy uttered three words that would reverberate throughout the entirety of modern pop culture:

Think of how many times you’ve read or heard that curt dismissal, or variations of it. Think of how many times you yourself have expressed similar sentiments. Recall that, only a few months prior to this writing, an entire cable network was pulled out of obscurity when it borrowed this phrasing. It sounds hyperbolic, but hyperbole is “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”’s native tongue: The Simpsons has never captured a cultural moment so precisely and so succinctly as it does here.

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The beauty of “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” is that it satirizes a specific time, place, and behavior, and yet its satirical points and targets are still relevant and recognizable today. It’s similar to The Itchy And Scratchy Show’s evolution within The Simpsons world: Beginning as a sendup of Tom And Jerry, Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, and other ultraviolent cartoon duos, Itchy and Scratchy became a way for Simpsons staffers to goof on their show and themselves.

And then, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” provided a chance to goof on Simpsons fans.

Even in its mid-’90s infancy, the Internet served as a digital water cooler, uniting TV fans in disparate locations and allowing them to talk back to their favorite shows. In the corners of the web devoted to The Simpsons, this meant thoughtful breakdowns of new episodes and annotations of the show’s dense web of references. But with a show this fiercely beloved and debated, it also meant a lot of viewers expressing the ways The Simpsons had let them down. For the sake of the writers’, producers’, actors’, and animators’ sanity, it would’ve been best if they’d never heard of alt.tv.simpsons. But then maybe we wouldn’t have gotten “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” if they hadn’t.

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It’s tempting to dwell on these scenes in the Android’s Dungeon, because they’re bait for the hardcore fan: The people behind your favorite TV show acknowledge that you exist, and they’re willing to mock you as if you were a cultural figure as towering as Richard Nixon or the Denver Broncos. But “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” isn’t just about fan reaction to The Simpsons—it’s about every aspect of making The Simpsons, or any TV show, in our modern age. Poochie’s introduction to The Itchy & Scratchy Show doesn’t begin at the drawing board: The episode begins with an irate Krusty, makes a pitstop at a hysterically muddled focus group, and then depicts the writing, recording, drafting, and broadcast of Poochie’s first episode. And then: The aftermath. If the intent is to draw some sympathy from viewers who felt the show had lost its way, “Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie” certainly works hard to show the hard work that goes into even the crummiest of animated programming.

In episodes like this, the Simpson family is almost incidental to the action. Their role in “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” or “The Day The Violence Died” is to maintain the show’s human element. Poochie is a character specifically designed to be hated, but Homer gives the pup a soul. Of everyone responsible for “The Beagle Has Landed,” he’s the only one with completely pure intentions: The producers want to make money and the writers want to make art, but Homer just wants to voice a cartoon dog. Throughout the episode, Bart and Lisa speak of similarly honest aims on behalf of The Simpsons staff, but it’s Homer who acts them out. He wants to do nothing more than entertain; unfortunately, he’s been given a character who literally prevents Itchy and Scratchy from being entertaining.

The argument bubbling beneath the surface of “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” is one that will dog The Simpsons until it leaves the air: One faction arguing “It’s only a cartoon” while the other says “It’s more than a cartoon.” For Roger Meyers Jr., Itchy And Scratchy is his lifeblood; for Krusty, it’s a guaranteed break in his taping schedule. For the nerds assembled at the Android’s Dungeon and the siblings sitting in the Simpson living room, it’s a social adhesive. The episode is wrapped up in some complex thoughts about fandom, thoughts the Simpsons writers would recognize from their own enthusiasms and obsessions. Bart’s argument with Comic Book Guy includes references to loyalty and debts, and any criticisms lobbed at Itchy And Scratchy come from places of disappointment. Pointing out the xylophone “blunder” displays the intensity of “Genius At Work” Doug’s passion for Itchy & Scratchy. He can only hope that the feeling is mutual among the people who make the show

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But that dialogue between consumer and creator is easily garbled and/or exaggerated. Minor criticisms come out as “Worst. Episode. Ever.” Dismay at negative reactions from so-called “fans” is registered in the form of caricatured losers, hanging out in a comic-book store and obsessing over a children’s cartoon. There’s a prickliness to some of “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show”’s punchlines, but the episode manages to get its point across without lecturing. The people behind the scenes respond to criticisms, and the fans are served by seeing themselves reflected onscreen (no matter how unflattering the reflection may be). Its power is in the words, but like all Itchy & Scratchy episodes, “Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie” packs a lot of visual pizzazz, too. Itchy’s acid-washed skeleton is a great sight gag, and director Steven Dean Moore really puts Krusty through his paces, taking advantage of the clown’s elastic physicality in his scenes with Meyers, the writers, and the future Lindsey Naegle.

“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” is a radical statement, one that could’ve lost the series a tremendous amount of goodwill. In some ways, it’s a big raspberry at the people who care about The Simpsons the most, a half-hour schoolyard taunt about bad hygiene, social awkwardness, and misplaced priorities. But there are basic misunderstandings between the people who make the show and the people who watch it, some of which “Poochie” works to clear up: The mixed messages coming from the focus group (“So you want a realistic, down-to-earth show that’s completely off the wall and swarming with magic robots?”), the executive meddling, and a character designed through committee input (“rasta-fy him by 10 percent or so”) give us insight into the creative roadblocks facing any TV show. “Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie” portrays a contentious relationship, and it does so as honestly and entertainingly as The Simpsons might portray any given relationship between the residents of Springfield. It’s a landmark episode in every sense of the term, the type that human Poochie Roy can only hope he lucks into after he moves in with those two sexy ladies. (Note: Roy died on the way to the apartment he shared with two sexy ladies.)

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Stray observations:

  • Apologies for the lack of clips this week; I’m temporarily separated from my season eight DVDs. I’ll try to have clips uploaded at a later date, not that we need them or anything—we all have “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” committed to memory, right?
  • This week in Simpsons signage:
  • The production code for the magical xylophone episode of Itchy And Scratchy, 2F09, is also the production code for “Homer The Great.” I mean, what are we to believe: That some sort of secret society has been pulling the strings in Springfield, and yet we don’t hear about it until season six?
  • And with all that egghead-writer rubbish out of the way, on to the quotes from what’s possible the most-quotable episode of The Simpsons ever made! Here’s a classic Ralphism: ”My knob tastes funny.” “Please refrain from tasting the knob.”
  • Faulty focus-group data, courtesy of Nelson (and Milhouse’s knob) (Phrasing!): “They like Itchy, they like Scratchy—one kid seems to love the Speedo man.”
  • Lindsey Naegle butts heads with cartoon Bill Oakley: “We’re talking the original dog from hell.” “You mean Cerberus?”
  • Cartoon George Meyer gets outrageous in the faces of his bosses: “Excuse me, but ‘proactive’ and ‘paradigm’? Aren’t these just buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important? Not that I’m accusing you of anything like that. I’m fired, aren’t I?”
  • Why hasn’t Homer ever listened to his voice on a tape recorder? “I prefer to listen to Cheap Trick.”
  • Troy McClure’s Poochie audition makes two important additions to the Troy McClure filmography: “‘Ruff, ruff! I’m Poochie, the rocking dog!’ Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You may remember me from such cartoons as Christmas Ape and Christmas Ape Goes To Summer Camp.
  • Animation veteran June Bellamy (an homage to June Foray, by way of The Simpsons’ equivalent to June Foray, Tress MacNeille) lets Homer in on some industry secrets: “Very few cartoons are broadcast live—it’s a terrible strain on the animators’ wrists.”
  • The televised history of the 20th century, according to Krusty The Clown: “1969: Man walks on the moon. 1971: Man walks on the moon… again. Then, for a long time, nothing happened.”
  • Milhouse provides an all-purpose complaint for narrative stalling: “When are they gonna get to the fireworks factory?”
  • Ned Flanders, No. 1 Poochie fan: “Homer, I can honestly say that was the best episode of Impy And Chimpy I’ve ever seen.”
  • Carl strains to find a false compliment: “You should be very proud, Homer… you got a beautiful home here.”
  • Marge tries to keep things civil and catchphrase-laden: “Bart’s right: Let’s none of us have a cow.”
  • Next week: I have to go now—my planet needs me. But Dennis Perkins will be here next week, working hard and playing hard, with “Homer’s Phobia.”

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