Wednesday, June 01, 2011

The Penguin Billboard Story

Just this afternoon past, on the final sunny day of May, 2011, I was chatting (i.e.— complaining, making fun of things, and so forth) with the lady of the house as we inched down one of Los Angeles' finer freeways. As it turns out, traffic was slowed because some poor sap's car had stalled in the middle of the 101 or whatever the hell road, I don't know, and everyone had to go around him slow so they could point and laugh. If you are driving, you don't want me to navigate because I never, ever pay attention or have any idea where we are. So anyway, we see this fucking billboard for Mr. Popper's Penguins, opening nationwide on June 17 after its triumph at Cannes, where it took the Prix du Jury, just like The Seventh Goddamn Seal and that Clouzot movie of Picasso painting on glass. If you never did drugs and watched that movie, you should do that sometime.

Now, this billboard doesn't look exactly like the poster displayed here. But it is the same idea, basically: a horrible computer collage with the same photo of Jim Carrey but, since billboards are long on the horizontal and short on the vertical (if you have seen a billboard, you can skip this condescending explanation), all the penguins are arranged in a row. To accommodate the visual gags, the designers swapped the positions of the bird ripping off Jimbo's ear and the one rubbing its eye into his supple, Botoxed cheek. For various aesthetic reasons that run so deep they verge on moral issues, this kind of lazy, fake-looking photo collage is deeply offensive to me. I'm not crying or barfing about it, but in this case it's particularly sad, because the kiddie novel from which this picture was adapted had memorable pen and ink illustrations by Robert Lawson. Not that a wacky animal comedy of 2011 should be advertised to look like a children's book from the 1930s, but perhaps it could look like something, and it's a clear example of the disintegration of everyone's standards of what is acceptable to look at with our eyes, and so on. I mean please, Robert Lawson also illustrated The Story of Ferdinand. He won a Caldecott and a Newberry. Elliott Smith got a tattoo of his drawings and everything. Come on Fox advertising department, quit ruining civilization.

Sort of related: I know a lot of people complain about how this kind of poster is "Photoshop". That is acceptable conversational shorthand for what is going on here, but it also gives Photoshop a bad rap. Photoshop and various softwares comprising the Adobe Creative Suite are all useful and powerful tools for good in art and design. Even a hand-painted or drawn poster is going to pass through Illustrator or Quark or something at some point to adjust colors, lay in typography and create files to send to the printer. The problem is not that there is something inherently evil about Photoshop, but that this kind of poster is, if I may lapse into fancy art school terminology, some ugly bullshit.

The other feature of the billboard is that it lists the names of the penguins over their pictures. In Futura Extra-Duper Bold, designated comedy poster font of our times, it goes something like NIMROD, STINKY, LOUDY, CAPTAIN, BITEY, LOVEY, CARREY (ha ha ha). Nimrod is standing there looking stupid (I guess?), Stinky is looking down because he probably just farted and is looking at the fart (I guess?), Loudy is yelling, Captain is looking captainial, Bitey is gnawing open his master's earlobe, and Lovey is the one that wants to have sex with Big Jim. It tells about their rich, faceted personalities, you see.

When we see this billboard, my girlfriend, Linda, says "Bitey? They stole that joke from The Simpsons?" or maybe "They stole that joke from The Simpsons." So we bitch about that for awhile, because, as I point out, that memorable joke from "Marge vs. the Monorail" looks simple but is pretty elegant. As you surely recall, newly minted monorail conductor Homer is giving a tour of his workplace, introduces a family of possums which has nested in the control panel, and coos "I call the big one 'Bitey'!" So besides the hilarious way Dan Castellaneta imbues the dialogue with fatherly pride and fondness, the gag works because we infer that the ill-tempered possum has, uh, bitten him. This is funnier than if, say, we had seen it bite him and he announced "You shall be known as 'Bitey'," because we have to do some of the work. The name is funny for being so blunt and on the nose, and a cutesy diminutive of a violent action. It is also a character-based joke, because we fill in the gap that not only was Homer bitten, but he didn't take measures to evict the possums, and instead developed a one-sided affection for them — i.e. he is blithe about safety, lax in his work duties, misinterprets the behavior of others and is, generally, an idiot. I'm sure you get all that, but the point is that Mr. Popper's Penguins stole that joke and then told it wrong.

So Linda and I gripe about this for a little while, until I say something like "You realize, of course, we're bitching about how a Jim Carrey penguin movie stole a twenty-year-old joke." And I know I'm exaggerating — just a little bit, but exaggerating — but this turns into a disagreement about just how old "Marge vs. the Monorail" actually is. Because surely it can't be that long ago! Maybe ten years, max. We're in the car, so can't look at the Internet, because we don't have iPhones for religious reasons such as they cost too much. I'm proud that I am nerd enough to have explained that the episode would have aired in 1992 or '93, but also not-nerd enough that I misremembered the possums as raccoons and the show as a season three episode (it was actually season four, duh. Or "d'oh," or whatever).

Another thing is, we'd talked about this episode and where it falls in the show's run at length before, during discussions on the important subject of When The Simpsons Started Sucking. I usually use "Monorail" as a rough but fairly distinct dividing line between the first and second phases of the show. It is around then that The Simpsons transitions from a sitcom about middle-class family life and childhood, grounded in something resembling reality with a focus on humor rising from flawed, sympathetic characters in exaggerated but relatable situations and room for pathos and sweetness (like I said, "sitcom"), to a faster-paced, gag-based satire with ambitious, convoluted plots, expanded story focus on secondary and tertiary characters and a shift to absurdist humor, intertextuality and ever-increasing deconstructive "comedy for comedy writers." There are other transformations and phases later (where the "sucking" comes in), but the point is, last time we talked about the monorail episode there was similar talk of: oh my God, it didn't air that long ago — must be six years, max. And also: oh my God, has The Simpsons sucked for that long? But it was that long, and dude, that Bitey joke is old enough to buy cigarettes.

Further research, of course, always bears out the worst. Robert Lawson died May 27, 1957. Elliott Smith died October 21, 2003. "Marge vs. the Monorail", episode twelve, season four, first aired January 14, 1993. Eighteen years ago. Mr. Popper's Penguins opens July 17, 2011. I don't know when movie posters started being so godawful, but I know that in the end those penguins made me feel very, very old.