Behind the Laughter
"Behind the Laughter" is the twenty-second and final episode of The Simpsons eleventh season. It first aired in the United States on the Fox network on May 21, 2000. In the episode, which is a parody of the VH1 series Behind the Music, the Simpson family are portrayed as actors on a sitcom, and their dramatic inner turmoil and struggles are detailed. Told in a narrative format, the episode tells a fictional story of how The Simpsons began.
The episode was directed by Mark Kirkland and written by four writers: Tim Long, George Meyer, Mike Scully and Matt Selman. The plot idea for the episode was pitched by Long, and the writers wrote the episode quickly without a draft. VH1 and the producers of Behind the Music allowed the crew to use the show's visual graphics package, and Jim Forbes, narrator for the show, also came in to record narrations for the episode. In addition, country musician Willie Nelson guest stars as himself.
The episode won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program (For Programming less than One Hour) in 2000, beating the Family Guy episode Road to Rhode Island. In addition, composer Alf Clausen won an Annie Award for "Outstanding Individual Achievement for Music in an Animated Television Production". The episode received critical acclaim, with many reviewers noting it as a highlight of the season and the series itself.
This episode is a parody of Behind the Music, the VH1 biography show, even sharing the same narrator, Jim Forbes. It begins with the Simpson family history and how they got into show business. The first part of the fake documentary follows the family from their weak beginnings to their exceptional prosperity. A television show, a recording contract, a lot of awards, and countless wealth follow Homer's inadequate video "pilot".
However, problems begin to arise as the Simpsons' fame continues. After a funny stunt causes him injury (the cliff plummet from "Bart the Daredevil", after a montage of Homer injury clips), Homer becomes addicted to prescription painkillers, Marge makes some senseless business investments, and Bart goes to rehab after attacking flight attendants, being replaced on the show by Richie Rich. The IRS examines soon after and takes away their house (called "Homertime" as a parody of MC Hammer's house, "Hammertime"). Then, the family gets into a big dispute and splits up at the Iowa State Fair.
Fox is forced to put the show on hiatus, since none of the Simpsons will talk to each other. The members go their independent ways: Homer follows a career in the legitimate theater; Bart replaces Lorenzo Lamas as the star of the syndicated action show Renegade; Marge makes a nightclub act performing Bob Marley's song "I Shot the Sheriff"; and Lisa writes a tell-all book about her experiences and how Homer would slip anti-growth hormones into her cereal, entitled "Where Are My Residuals?". Bringing the family back together seems hopeless until country singer Willie Nelson puts on a phony awards show in order to reconcile the family. They hug and forget past wrongs in a sensitive reunion. Again, they look with hope to the many years of episodes of the Simpsons to come...or not.
The episode ends with an epilogue, in which the narrator states, "...the future looks brighter than ever for this northern Kentucky family." Following the epilogue, the Simpson family is shown in a video editing room, viewing a scene from an upcoming episode, which Homer claims will be in the last season. The scene shows the family talking about winning a trip to Delaware, and was later used as an actual scene in the episode, "Simpsons Tall Tales". The final scene shows a mock teaser for an "upcoming episode" of Behind the Laughter about Huckleberry Hound, in which he reveals that he is gay.
Gay Rosenthal, friend of executive producer Mike Scully, was producing the VH1 series Behind the Music, which was very popular during the episode's production. Tim Long was the one to pitch the idea for the episode. The idea for the episode was a drastic departure for the series to try something so different. It took the writers a long time to conceptualize the show, as they were unsure whether to make Homer a filmmaker or make the characters unaware they were being filmed. Selman recalled that there was no draft for the episode, instead the writers just sat down and "pounded it out." He noted that one of the disadvantages for producing an animated show that takes up to a year in advance to create was that many other comedy shows, most notably Saturday Night Live with their "More cowbell" sketch, had already done Behind the Music parodies. Although the final episode only features one bleeped curse word for Marge (for comedic effect), Meyer recalled the writers spent many weeks just "pitching Marge filth."
The writers had particular fun writing over the top, melodramatic lines "tortured metaphors," many of which were penned by producer David Mirkin. Although not credited, Scully has noted writers Tom Gammill and Max Pross for making significant contributions to the episode. The crew used actual early Simpsons promotional posters in the episode. VH1 and Gay Rosenthal Productions were both "extremely cooperative" regarding the episode, letting the team use the entire graphics package. Larina Adamson drove over to the VH1 headquarters in order to compile most of the video graphics package. Part of the imitating of Behind the Music was using the "corny, stock interstitial footage to amp up the drama of the situation."
Ian Maxtone-Graham directed the voice actors during the recording sessions for the episode. Jim Forbes, narrator for Behind the Music, came in to the studio and did the narrations, which George Meyer called "fantastic". When Scully went to the studio to record Willie Nelson's guest appearance, he was running late and had to wait, as Nelson was recording a duet with B.B. King. Meyer recalled that Nelson said to the producers that he enjoyed The Simpsons, and watched it on his tour bus before he went to perform. Mark Kirkland called the episode one of the "oddest he'd ever worked on." He attended the table reading for the episode with knowledge he was to direct the episode, and was surprised to find that the story was "not a linear story […] it was all chopped up." In the direction aspect, the episode was very challenging, but also easy in the fact that the animation team were not looking for continuity errors as the episode "jumped around so much." The animators and Kirkland watched multiple episodes of Behind the Music in order to get the feel of it, as did the writers.
The episode refers to the long-running joke of Springfield's unknown and unidentifiable location. The original version of Forbes' line at the end, "The future looks brighter than ever for this Northern Kentucky family," was changed multiple times. Scully said the writers did not want to "pin it down for the fans," and with knowledge that the episode would rerun twice, had Forbes record several alternate locations, which were indeed seen on Fox reruns. Each of the alternate locations, including the unused "small island of Lanai," can be found as an easter egg on the eleventh season DVD set.
The episode contains many references and allusions to Behind the Music, and one line the staff thought was humorous was pulled straight from the actual series.
- During Comic Book Guy's interview, a statue of the Giant from The Iron Giant can be seen, as a nod to former Simpsons producer Brad Bird, who left to direct the film.
- The song "Simpsons Christmas Boogie" is based on "Takin' Care of Christmas" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
- The teenage fans of Bart Simpson screaming to the song "Twist and Shout" is a Beatles reference.
- Bart and his parachute pants are allusions to M.C. Hammer, which was inspired by the Behind the Music episode based on his life that the staff watched during production.
- Bart, while getting pampered by assistants, agrees to take a role in Teen Wolf 3, in a reference that has since been seen as dated by executive producer Mike Scully.
- Richie Rich can be seen in the episode, replacing Bart after a prison sentence; the animators colored his suit green to avoid copyright infringement.
- When The Simpsons are put in hiatus, the fictional Fox replaces it with "Peepin' It Real", footage from the dressing room of Ann Taylor, which Scully noted the retailer was "not happy about."
- The episode is also excessively self-referential. A series of T-shirts are shown sporting a number of Bart Simpson catchphrases: "You bet your sweet bippy, man." "Life begins at conception, man." These are parodies of both officially licensed and bootleg Simpsons-themed T-shirts in the early days of the series, usually revolving around Bart.
- The famous scene of Homer plummeting off the jagged cliffs after trying to jump Springfield Gorge on Bart's skateboard from the season two episode "Bart the Daredevil" is shown, however, newly reanimated of Homer plummeting off the jagged cliffs. "Behind the Laughter" shows us the "unfunny aftermath" of Homer going through physical rehabilitation and becoming addicted to pain pills.
- The episode states the series turned to "gimmicky premises and nonsensical plots" as ratings dipped, and uses a clip from the season nine episode "The Principal and the Pauper" to get that point across: a highly controversial episode that many fans and critics panned.
The episode was ranked as the fourth best The Simpsons episode by askmen.com. In 2012, Johnny Dee of The Guardian listed the episode as one of his five favorite episodes in the history of The Simpsons, noting The Simpsons is "good at self-parody". The Simpsons writing staff voted this in their list of Top 15 Simpsons episode becoming the newest episode in the list. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly regarding the renewal of the show in season 23, showrunner Al Jean discusses what episodes that have previously aired might serve well as a series finale. He regards "Behind the Laughter" and "Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind" as the strongest candidates, and further elaborates: "I don’t think we’re a serialized show and I don’t think we’re going to have a Lost finale where we reveal some truth about the world that nobody ever suspected. Whenever we do a last episode, we just hope that it would be sweet, true to the characters, funny, and give you a nice feeling for where the Simpsons would be headed."
- "Behind the Laughter". The Simpsons.com. Archived from the original on 19 July 2011. Retrieved 2011-08-06.
- Scully, Mike (2008). Commentary for "Behind the Laughter", in The Simpsons: The Eleventh Season [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
- Long, Tim (2008). Commentary for "Behind the Laughter", in The Simpsons: The Eleventh Season [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
- Kirkland, Mark (2008). Commentary for "Behind the Laughter", in The Simpsons: The Eleventh Season [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
- Meyer, George (2008). Commentary for "Behind the Laughter", in The Simpsons: The Eleventh Season [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
- Selman, Matt (2008). Commentary for "Behind the Laughter", in The Simpsons: The Eleventh Season [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
- Maxtone-Graham, Ian (2008). Commentary for "Behind the Laughter", in The Simpsons: The Eleventh Season [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
- Canning, Robert (August 18, 2008). "The Simpsons Flashback: "Behind the Laughter" Review". IGN. Retrieved April 22, 2011.
- Dee, Johnny (2012-01-13). "The Simpsons at 500: what are your favourite episodes?". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-01-14.
- "15 Writer Favorites". USA Today. February 6, 2003.
- Snierson, Dan (October 8, 2011). "'Simpsons' exec producer Al Jean on renewal: 'This isn't an end but a beginning' -- Exclusive". EW. Retrieved October 10, 2011.
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- "Behind the Laughter" at The Simpsons.com
- "Behind the Laughter" episode capsule at The Simpsons Archive
- "Behind the Laughter" at the Internet Movie Database