“The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” (originally aired 5/11/1997)
In which “Spin-off!” is there any word more thrilling to the human soul?
It’s remarkable that The Simpsons has never produced a proper spin-off. That’s not for lack of trying: Over the years, Matt Groening and company have batted around multiple ideas for new series starring the familiar faces of Springfield—like a proposed live-action comedy about the Hollywood exploits of a relocated Krusty The Clown—but none have stuck. It’s not like a spin-off is beneath such a lauded TV institution as The Simpsons—after all, the series itself spun off from The Tracey Ullman Show.
The tongue-in-cheek segments of “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” make theoretical Simpsons-adjacent programming look pretty flimsy, but the episode mirrors the format of the best of all possible Simpsons spin-offs. Inspired by the creative heights of “22 Short Films About Springfield,” the show’s braintrust briefly considered a sequel series titled Tales From Springfield (referred to as Springfield Stories on the “Spin-Off Showcase” DVD commentary). Due to concerns about writing-staff fatigue, the concept never came to fruition, but episodes like “Spin-Off Showcase” and “22 Short Films” are glimpses of what that show could’ve looked like: A weekly anthology of sketches starring the deepest bench of supporting comic players on TV—and their best friends the Simpsons just might’ve stopped by to wish them luck.
“What if?” and “what is” spring easily to mind while watching “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” in 2015, because the show’s past, its future, and its legacy are all tied up in season eight. In DVD commentary, Groening says he was hesitant about the episode because it posed a threat to the reality of The Simpsons, but “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” and “Homer’s Enemy” had already taken significant chunks out of the series’ fourth wall. In its third segment, The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour, “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” ignores Groening’s misgivings and blows through that fourth wall with a bulldozer powered by half-forgotten memories of The Brady Bunch Hour, Sonny & Cher, and Laugh-In. If sharing a house with a catchphrase-spouting attempt to appeal to Generation X hadn’t made the Simpson family self-aware, sharing a bed with special guest Tim Conway certainly did.
Whatever its crimes against the willing suspension of disbelief, “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” still embodies the humor and the spirit (and the pop-culture preoccupations) of the show’s waning golden era. The writing staff picked the perfect guide to lead viewers through this weird-and-scary endeavor: Troy McClure, who you may remember from such TV spin-offs as Son Of Sanford And Son and After-Mannix. Troy’s good-natured hackiness and Phil Hartman’s friendly baritone offer much reassurance throughout the episode, setting the self-effacing tone for Chief Wiggum, P.I., The Love-Matic Grampa, and The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour. Troy’s presence sets up the intentionally poor quality of the shows-within-the-episode, any of which he could’ve been a regular on (and the fact that he isn’t is probably eating him up inside).
The attempt to portray lesser iterations of a lesser form of television sets a high level of difficulty—the source of Groening’s other major “Spin-Off Showcase” hesitation. For this reason, Chief Wiggum, P.I. and The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour fare much better than The Love-Matic Grampa. The Simpsons staff had spent enough time crafting jokes about MacGyver and other pulpy primetime actioners (“But Marge, it’s Knightboat: The crime-solving boat!”) to know the right notes to play for Chief Wiggum: Getting laughs out of a concept this ridiculous is merely a matter of escalating the ridiculousness while still playing it straight. In order to achieve the same effect, The Love-Matic Grampa required crummy sitcom setups and punchlines, but a bad joke is a bad joke is a bad joke. Not even the heartiest of laugh tracks can disguise it.
But when the jokes fail, The Love-Matic Grampa can always rely on character. The biggest laughs in the segment come from the kinds of things Moe and Abe would say or do in any given Simpsons episode. (“You buried me naked and sold my suit to buy a ping-pong table!”) The premise of Chief Wiggum, P.I. does a lot of the heavy-lifting, but Seymour Skinner’s inescapable Skinner-ness serves as another Chief Wiggum highlight: Give him all the street smarts in the world, he’s still going to describe New Orleans as “not really a party town.” Smile-Time Variety Hour’s accomplishments are largely aesthetic (Working from experience on Donny And Marie and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour, Alf Clausen nails the booming sound of the vintage variety-show orchestra), but that segment still uses its Laugh-In-style blackouts to flex the one-liner muscles of Jasper, Hans Moleman, and The Sea Captain.
It’s in those moments when it feels like Tales From Springfield (or a similar series) could’ve worked. The writers and performers have done so much to define these characters that they can be dropped into the most outlandish of scenarios, yet they remain to true to themselves and what makes them funny for those seven minutes. Springfield has many stories to tell, but not all of them have to be told over the course of 22 minutes. “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” barely scratches the surface.
But it also argues for the central role of the Simpson family—the intact Simpson family, not the Smile-Time Variety Hour facsimile with the replacement Lisa. Chief Wiggum moves down to New Orleans, but he can’t avoid running into Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. Moe gets his own show, but it can’t launch without a visit from Homer. Springfield is its own unique ecosystem, populated by fascinating and entertaining people, but the Simpsons are the crux of that ecosystem. When they’re not the stars of “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase,” something feels off—which only serves to play up the shoddiness of those fake shows.
During production of this episode, some walls in The Museum of TV and Television were left blank because the writers ran out of memorable spin-offs to represent. That sort of programming rarely enjoys Simpsons- or Jeffersons-like longevity—the more common tale is that of The Tortellis or Joey. The alchemy that produces one great TV series is difficult to replicate, even with some of the same ingredients on hand. A Simpsons spin-off seems like a no-brainer—especially one in the “22 Short Films”/“Spin-Off Showcase” mold—but past broadcast schedules are filled with reasons not to spin off. With “The Simpson Spin-Off Showase,” The Simpsons could try to recreate the show’s winning formula while mocking shows that failed to recreate their own.
- Of course, some spin-offs come to be because the mothership is losing steam. “Spin-Off Showcase”’s final scene jokingly accuses The Simpsons of slowing down, running through a “sneak preview” of additions to come in season nine: “Magic powers! Wedding after wedding after wedding! And did someone say ‘Long lost triplets?’” (And don’t forget Ozmodiar, the Great Gazoo parody who “only Homer can see”!) This type of gag has grown into a meta-commentary refrain for the series, memorably set to music in the “Gump Roast” finale that features an image of Homer leaping over a shark. There’s a feeling in these jokes that the writers and producers are aware of criticism that their aging show receives, and they’re certainly not immune to fan gripes, either. But for all its self-awareness, The Simpsons isn’t a show to take such chatter seriously. The staff must know that even the most brilliant creative concepts have a finite amount of stories to tell, so they chase the anxiety away with a wink and a “Meh.”
- More Simpsons-spin-off connections: Julie Kavner’s big TV break was on the Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off Rhoda, one of the series honored in The Museum of TV and Television’s spin-off gallery.
- Lisa’s refusal to participate in The Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour is based on Eve Plumb’s non-participation in The Brady Bunch Hour. She’d reprise the role of Jan in various follow-up movies and short-lived sequel series like The Brady Brides and The Bradys, so there’s hope the real Lisa would return after Smile-Time Variety Hour’s inevitably swift cancellation.
- Skinner shows off his knowledge of New Orleans’ mean streets: “Lucky for you, this was just a warning gator. The next one won’t be corked.”
- A quintessential Ralph line, delivered to Chief Wiggum’s new adversary: “Look, Big Daddy! It’s Regular Daddy.”
- Big Daddy’s size is a disadvantage: “He’s gradually getting away, Chief.”
- Sometimes the bad jokes in “Spin-Off Showcase” sync up just right with The Simpsons’ regular sense of humor: “B-b-b-before the show, you said we were having a special ghost tonight!”
- Next week: What’s the matter? Doesn’t Zack Handlen like doing push-ups in the mud while reviewing “The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson”? Is there any answer he could give that won’t result in more push-ups? No.