Sunday, October 30, 2011

Whoever Heard Of A Simpsons Halloween Special In October?

If the title of today’s blog is giving you déjà vu, then you’re remembering a parodying of either Kang or Kodos (I can never tell them apart) from a Simpsons Halloween special, particularly the opening sequence of the 14th special. In it, they mocked FOX’s decision to broadcast the Halloween specials on the first Sunday in November instead of continuing the logical trend of airing them on the last Sunday in October. This nonsensical scheduling would go on for 10 out of the last 11 years. Tonight, however, The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror returned just in time for All Hollow’s Eve instead of being up to seven days too late.

My original plan was to do a major retrospective of the 22 specials and write a review for each of the 66 shorts. Unfortunately, I got hammered by a severe case of bronchitis, which instead resulted in no entries for the last seven days. Being able to watch all 21 previous episodes of The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror was still pretty sweet, though. With tonight being the 22nd special, I’m holding out hope that a special box set will come out featuring all of them, since 22 episodes is the usual length for one of the seasons. I thought that was what I was looking at when I saw the cover of the set for the fourteenth season, since it features one of the aliens who typically only appear in the Halloween specials.

The Simpsons Halloween special has been an annual tradition ever since the second season in 1990. They’re also always among the highest-rated episodes of each season. The seventh special ranks in seventh place on creator Matt Groening’s top 10 favourite episodes of all time, with the line “We have reached the limit of what rectal probing can teach us” being his favourite line of the entire TV series to date.

Tonight’s episode will follow the recent trend of parodying movies and TV shows. The first one will parody The Diving-Bell And The Butterfly, only instead of through blinking, a paralyzed Homer will communicate through farts. “Dial D For Diddly” is the name of the second short, which will star a homicidal Ned Flanders in a parody of Dexter. The one I’m most looking forward to is the final sequence, which will have Bart and Milhouse reach the homeworld of Kang and Kodos through means that parody the movie Avatar.

While they all certainly sound interesting, the newest Simpsons Halloween special, like the last 10 or so, seems like it won’t be anywhere near as great as some of the more classic episodes, such as the first five. These first five specials featured a few traditions that were quickly removed due to being too difficult on the writing staff.

The very first special started off with Marge warning the audience about how scary the episode would be and was honestly put in there for that exact reason (this was 1990, after all). Marge’s warning was very off-putting for the writers, so they tried mixing things up a bit by having Homer do it in a parody of Alfred Hitchcock for the third special, and using the wraparound of the fourth special that was written by Conan O’Brien. The fourth special also featured this classic scene:

The fifth special returned to having Marge give the original warning, but mostly as a parodying homage to how the warnings were going the way of the dinosaur starting with that episode. The tradition of the opening sequence showing funny tombstone epitaphs also ended with this one, showing us only a single epitaph this time that read “Amusing Tombstones.” The reason for this was because the epitaphs were always names of shows cancelled in the previous broadcasting season intermixed with names of famous dead people. However, many new Simpsons writers had worked on those cancelled shows, so they decided to stop the trend to avoid accidentally insulting their fellow writers working on other episodes.

The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror may have been the fan-given name and even the name officially used behind the scenes to refer to the specials, but ironically, the wraparound in the first special is the only thing that had anything to do with Bart and Lisa’s treehouse, and the title wasn’t even officially used until the 13th special. For the first 12, it was simply called “The Simpsons Halloween Special.”

The wraparounds that tied all the shorts together were only found in the first four episodes. Conan’s was the final one and it was also the only time a separate writer was brought in exclusively for the wraparound. The previous three were written writers who also wrote one of the shorts for the corresponding episodes.

Another change in writing also occurred right after the fourth and 13th specials. Up until the fourth, each short was written by two different writers, and a single writer for each short up to the 13th. As of the 14th episode, this changed to so that one writer was responsible for all three stories.

The very first special had a different director for each short, as well, but as of the second, they switched to using only one. There were exceptions for the 17th and 20th specials, though, which each had two directors. Tonight’s episode was written by Joel H. Cohen and directed by Bob Anderson.

One tradition that has never changed since the second Simpsons Halloween special was the use of “Scary Names.” That’s because it was inspired by “Horror Tales,” a comic from EC Comics (one of several companies that would later become DC Comics) in the 1940s and 1950s. That publisher, pre-assimilation, was also responsible for Tales From The Crypt and MAD Magazine. Anyway, producer Al Jean noted that issues of Horror Tales used scary names, too, so this lead to the opening and closing credits containing funky font schemes and names like “Bat Groening” and “James Hell Brooks.” And you know how a ton of closing credits use tunes that differ from the main closing theme? The first time this happened was with the very first Halloween episode.

Hopefully, tonight won’t be the last Simpsons Halloween special, but this is certainly a possibility as the show risks not being renewed for a 24th season. Due to lowered ratings, it was announced earlier this month that the producers only want to continue provided certain budget cuts are accepted by the cast and crew. The biggest cut being demanded is that the voice actors all take a 45% pay deduction. After 23 years of working on a show, that might be what makes them finally call it quits. Several episodes have been collected among the season sets, and there has also been this compilation DVD that comprises episodes V, VI, VII and XII.

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