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.


Andy said...

Great post!

Habitual Q. Rake said...

I'm sure we all have our own idiosyncratic relationships to The Simpsons, and our own theories about why and when it started sucking. For my part, I'd trace it to when the writers' room began to be composed of people who had grown up post-Simpsons. These writers had never experienced a comedy world without referentiality, where the sanctity of the sitcom family status-quo was taken seriously. Nonetheless, they tasked themselves with reproducing a format that glorifies this kind of conservative ideal.

With this shift, the show went from being the vanguard of televised representations of a sitcom family to being a show that occasionally reacted to wider social trends but then returned to a comfortable norm. You can tell just from watching that the nuclear family is not something the writers actually have any faith in, so the increasing work to maintain it in the show comes across as contempt for the viewers.

Anyway, I watch Family Guy now instead. I'm not proud.

William B said...

Not to be a nerd or anything, but they were possums, not raccoons. Another thing I love about the joke is that it's the "big one" that's called Bitey. First off, that his distinguishing characteristic is his size is fantastic -- of course Homer would place special value on the possum's size and so pay most attention to the biggest one. Also, since Homer says "the big one," he seems to think it's obvious that his family would notice which of the possums is "big" and which are small -- that they share the same worldview as him. Part of the key is that to Homer, the fact that the possum has bitten him has already become completely incidental -- the main characteristic it has is its size, and the characteristic which is actually more relevant and more worthy of concern -- that it's dangerous and will bite Homer or whoever -- has already slipped from Homer's mind as anything but a quirk that led to its being named. (I also love the fact that one of the possums is big enough compared to the other possums that there is a clear, unambiguous "big one" -- and that this one is the dangerous one who attacked Homer, and yielded no concern.) Compare: "I call that one Bitey"; "I call the bigger one Bitey." Doesn't work nearly as well.

I grew up with The Simpsons -- I actually literally cannot remember a time when I wasn't watching it. I was, it's worth noting, three when "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" aired, and I think the episode I have the earliest clear memory of is "Flaming Moe." I'm not sure at what point it began to occur to me that the show wasn't perfect anymore; once Fox started showing the episodes in syndication, I found the first season a bit obvious and the differences in the voice work distracting, but otherwise the show was entertaining and satisfying for years -- and any jokes that weren't funny to me were ones I assumed, usually correctly as it turns out, were simply outside my knowledge range and would make sense to me when I'm older.

Still, I am certain that by high school I was disaffected. That only puts me at about 1999 for sure; but do think that I had started to lose interest in the show in the years before then. These days, I have trouble taking the show as anything but a gag machine after season six, but fortunately it's a fantastic gag machine up until, well, the end of season seven or season eight.

Chris Stangl said...

William — First things first, they totally are possums. I should've left in a detail where I wrongly "correct" Linda about the raccoons — that would make it one in a string of details where I can't be bothered with precision but act like a blowhard know-it-all anyway. So thanks; I re-worded the story so I'm still wrong but not perpetrating bad information across the 'net. Also that is a good extended breakdown of why that joke is funny.

HQR/WB — Well, as to when The Simpsons actually sucks... it's not something I can pinpoint, even after all this time. I don't think William's guessestimate of circa-S7 is far off at all. The show is showing cracks around S7, weak by S9, and Flat Out Sucks by S11.

By the midpoint, the show is written to formula, recapitulating work that has already been done. I'm not just talking story material, but style and form — there is no further giant leap of invention like the shift from eccentric sitcom to absurdist satire. The symptoms are clear, but as to why... I can't disagree that some staff writers are too green. Unfunny show runners with no story sense. Simple but difficult to solve: lack of crazed, original comic minds. Generally, one can blame the incoming staff for being so lame, or blame the outgoing staff for leaving. I choose... BOTH.

Jordan said...

Simpsons season 7 is probably my favorite season. Either that or season 8. I think it's crazy wrong to call the show just a "gag machine" in seasons 7 and 8, which had some of the most observational and human episodes, mainly due to showrunners Oakley and Weinstein who insisted the humor come from life, characters' personalities, and actual real experiences from the writing room (Milhouse Divided, Hurricane Neddy, Date With Density, etc, etc, etc..) I feel like many of the show's characters were not truly and fully developed until these episodes (and all the more funny, i.e. not sentimental or anything.)

I find the humor in their episodes, especially the ones they are credited head writers on, to be what resonates best with me. Example: Seymour Skinner's Bad Ass Song (from season 5, but an Oakley/Weinstein one) or what have you, with the way everybody reacts to Santa's Little Helper in the school, is just so observational and true to life and hilarious (Willie dying for the dog to notice him through the window and being thrilled when it does.)

That trend continued when they became showrunners. Season 7 is just really special to me.

I'd say the earlier Mirkin era (seasons 5 and 6) is more gag-based than season 7.