September 9th, 2019

Cartoon Chris

An appreciation: "The Simpsons"'s "The Raven"

The Simpsons started airing in 1987 as series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show, one of two programs Fox Television debuted with. The first half-hour episode of The Simpsons, the Christmas episode "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire," aired in December 1989, coming up on 30 years ago. Its first season aired winter and spring 1990; it's been a fact of TV ever since, and is the longest-running animated prime time show ever, beating out The Flintstones and its run of 166 episodes (as of this post, there have been 662 Simpsons episodes).

High-school me immediately loved the show. I now realize how much of a privilege it was to get to watch it in college, with like-minded smartasses, during that unparalleled 1990s run of seasons. The Simpsons was so good, for so long.

And it evolved. Nothing on TV lasts that long without evolving, of course, and the show in its early seasons quickly became both weirder and more epic. That was a big influence of Conan O'Brien, who wrote and produced the show right before he got hired to host NBC's Late Night: his "Marge vs. the Monorail" was a) funny as hell and b) one of the stories to open up the world of The Simpsons. It can be a musical! It can have famous guest stars in on the joke! It can have impossible projects being built in Springfield like an escalator to nowhere!

But before, back in its second season of 1990-1991, The Simpsons did a segment that was intentionally light on gags and was much more an exercise in mood: the last segment of the original "Treehouse of Horror" episode, its own adaptation of "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe.

The poem was adapted into a Simpsons-friendly script by the late, great Sam Simon, previously a producer of the show Taxi; frequent Simpsons director David Silverman directed it; James Earl Jones narrated. The segment was a gamble; show creator Matt Groening worried that it might be genuinely bad, or that it might be really, really pretentious. But many critics at the time singled out "The Raven" for praise, and man and damn, it still works like gangbusters. The Homer reading (Forgotten Lore — Vol. II; heh) in the sketch and the Bird-Bart who torments him were versions of both characters the show hadn't done before, but fit both the segment and the overall show so well. That's a hell of a vocal performance by Dan Castellaneta; and Bart (then, as now, Nancy Cartwright) gets to still be a smartass even as a bird. And the music behind it all was the first episodic score Alf Clausen wrote for the show, beginning a 27-year run as The Simpsons's primary, mostly sole composer.

The above clip ends before the segment's end; Bart is dubious and not scared of the Poe poem, and while Lisa (Yeardley Smith) matter-of-factly admits that "maybe people were easier to scare" back when Poe wrote it, Homer, who'd been outside the treehouse listening, is spooked the hell out.

All this also reminds me: it's also a privilege that I get to hear Edgar Allan Poe's work in the language it was written for, with that dreamy-turned-nightmarish imagery and that regular, regular cadence and rhyme scheme. It's music to my ears.