Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: The fifth Simpsons‘ “Treehouse of Horror” was intentionally extra violent because of complaints over the series’ use of violence.
This past Sunday saw the airing of the remarkably twenty-seventh edition of The Simpsons‘ “Treehouse of Horror” Halloween special (it was actually not officially called “Treehouse of Horror” until the fifth installment. Originally it was officially called “The Simpsons Halloween Special”).
These Halloween specials have become as much of an institution as the Simpsons themselves. Since they are “out of continuity,” anything can happen to the Simpsons in the episodes, including rather violent deaths. When they first began doing these specials, because they were a lot more violent than a typical episode of the series, the specials contained warnings at the beginning of the episode that the show might not be appropriate for younger viewers. This was dropped after the first few specials. It is a bit amusing in retrospect, since the earliest specials are particularly tame not only compared to more recent Simpsons Halloween specials, but compared to television in general twenty-five years later. However, one of the earliest (and most acclaimed) Treehouse of Horrors was intentionally even more violent due to an odd source – the United States Congress! Read on to see how Congress led to the creation of “Treehouse of Horror V”
A great deal of the humor in the early days of The Simpsons, and even to this day, is a response to the over-involvement of outside sources in the arts. Meddling networks have often been parodied by the show over the years, a testament to the unique arrangement that The Simpsons has with the Fox Network. Fox itself has been ridiculed numerous times on the show.
A particularly juicy source of satire is people who complain about the Simpsons. President George H.W. Bush made a relatively mild negative comment about the show and they wrote a whole episode making fun of him (leading to a controversial “apology” from First Lady Barbara Bush). Justin Timberlake complained about the dialogue they gave him when he guest-starred on the show and, well, it did not go well for him.
One surprising area where the show got a lot of criticism early on was over the violence on the show, specifically in the “show within a show” series Itchy and Scratchy, a parody of Tom and Jerry that is the most popular cartoon series for Bart and Lisa on the show. Itchy and Scratchy show a cat and a mouse who go back and forth trying to kill each other, with the mouse consistently succeeding in killing the cat in increasingly horrific ways. As noted, the whole thing is a parody of how kids react to cartoon violence. Kids love watching the Coyote explode or fall from a cliff while trying to capture the Roadrunner – so what if the violence that occurred to the Coyote was made more realistic and kids STILL laughed? That’s the basic hook behind Itchy and Scratchy. However, parent groups had a problem with the show a lot, and tried to get Fox to step in and remove the show from The Simpsons in 1994. Even a few members of the United States Congress made some statements against the violence on the show.
David Mirkin was the showrunner of The Simpsons at the time, having just finished his first season on the show in the show’s fifth season (1993-94). He was beginning his second (and last) season on the show in the fall of 1994 and the complaints about the violence on the show resulted in him sort of digging in his heels a bit and doing his form of a protest. People want them to get rid of Itchy and Scratchy? In the show’s fourth episode of season six, he then did an entire episode devoted to Itch and Sratchy, “Itchy and Scratchy Land,” one of the all-time classic episodes of the series (it’s a parody of the film Westworld).
People think that the show is too violent? Mirkin then decided to fill the fifth “Treehouse of Horror” episode that year with as much blood and guts as he could. The episode opens with the last warning they did on the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, with Marge telling the audience that Congress doesn’t think anyone should watch this episode.
The first story is a parody of the Shining (called “The Shinning”), with Homer in the Jack Torrence role. This first story begins the recurring joke throughout the episode where Groundskeeper Willie gets killed with an axe in the back in each of the three stories in the episode.
The second story (“Time and Punishment”) is a parody of the idea of the “butterfly effect,” where any small change in the past could have great impact on the future. Homer keeps making minor changes in the past that have dramatic impacts on the present. Eventually, he goes nuts and just starts slaughtering everything he comes into contact with in the past.
Finally, in “Nightmare Cafeteria,” the teachers at Springfield Elementary School begin to kill and eat the students. It’s all very bloody.
In the final sequence, just to rub the whole “blood and guts” theme into the ground, the Simpsons all turn their skin inside out and begin singing and dancing with their literal blood and guts seeping out.
It’s all a very public warning not to ever tell David Mirkin what to do.
The legend is…
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