Stark Raving Dad
"Stark Raving Dad" is the first episode of the third season of American animated television series The Simpsons. It first aired on the Fox network in the United States on September 19, 1991. In the episode, main character Homer Simpson is mistaken for a "free-thinking anarchist" and sent to a mental institution, where he shares a room with a large white man named Leon Kompowsky who pretends to be American pop star Michael Jackson. Meanwhile, because he normally forgets her birthday, Bart promises his sister Lisa that he will get her the best present ever.
Al Jean and Mike Reiss wrote the episode while Rich Moore served as director. Michael Jackson guest-starred in the episode as the speaking voice of Leon Kompowsky. For contractual reasons, he was credited as John Jay Smith in the closing credits, and his role in the episode was not officially confirmed until later. Jackson was a fan of the show and called creator Matt Groening one night offering to do a guest spot. Jackson pitched several story ideas for the episode and wrote the song "Happy Birthday Lisa" that is featured in the plot. He also stipulated that he would provide Kompowsky's speaking voice, but his singing voice would be performed by a sound-alike (Kipp Lennon) because he wanted to play a joke on his brothers. The episode contains references to many aspects of Jackson's career, with Kompowsky singing portions of the songs "Billie Jean" and "Ben".
"Stark Raving Dad" received generally positive reviews from critics, particularly for the writing and Jackson's performance. A sequel to the episode was later written, in which Kompowsky was to be voiced by Prince rather than Jackson, but it was never produced. During the January 30, 1992, rerun of the episode, a short alternate opening aired before the credits; the opening was in response to a speech made by President George Bush three days earlier, in which he said Americans needed to be "a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons".
Lisa wakes her brother Bart to remind him that her birthday is nearing, and that he neglects or forgets it every year. Bart promises to get her a present this year. Meanwhile, their father, Homer, discovers that all of his white shirts have turned pink because Bart put his red hat in with the laundry. Homer has no choice but to wear a pink shirt to work and as a result, his co-workers poke fun at him. His boss, Mr. Burns, suspects him of being a "free-thinking anarchist". Homer is sent home with a 20-question psychiatric quiz that he has to fill in so that Dr. Marvin Monroe can assess his sanity. Homer is too lazy to finish the quiz on his own and lets Bart fill it in. When Dr. Monroe sees the results, he determines that Homer is insane. Homer is sent to a mental institution, and is put in a cell with a large white man who seems to believe he is Michael Jackson (referred to as "the small black guy"), and who introduces himself as such. Apparently, somehow never having heard of Michael Jackson, Homer believes him.
Homer's wife, Marge, comes to the institution and is able to convince his doctors that he is not insane. Homer bids farewell to Michael, who reveals that he is only in the mental institution voluntarily. Homer therefore decides to let him stay in the family home. He calls and tells Bart that he is bringing Michael to stay for a few days. Against Homer's wishes, Bart tells his friend Milhouse and soon all of Springfield turns up outside of the Simpson family's home to see Michael. The level of excitement is deflated when Homer introduces Michael and they realize he is an impostor. The townspeople become angry at Bart and leave. At the same time, Lisa comes out of the house and is upset with Bart because he has yet again failed to acknowledge her birthday, because of his excitement over Michael Jackson's arrival.
After overhearing Lisa write in a letter that she is disowning Bart as a brother, the faux Michael convinces Bart to let him help. Together they write and perform a song for Lisa's birthday called "Happy Birthday Lisa". Lisa is thrilled and hugs her brother, saying that he has given her the best present ever. Seconds later, Michael reveals that his real name is Leon Kompowsky, and he is a bricklayer from Paterson, New Jersey. He explains that he had been very angry for most of his life, but found some peace in pretending to be Jackson because talking in Jackson's voice made everyone around him happy. Kompowsky bids farewell to the Simpsons and walks off down the road, singing Lisa's birthday song to himself (this time in his normal voice).
"Stark Raving Dad" was written specifically for Michael Jackson, a fan of the show, who had called Groening one night and offered to do a guest spot. The offer was accepted and a script was written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss, based on an idea pitched by James L. Brooks. Creator Matt Groening and co-executive producer Sam Simon also contributed significantly to the writing of the episode. In an early version of the script, Homer decided to take his alcoholic friend Barney Gumble in for rehab, but while there Homer began acting crazily so the doctors assumed he was the one to be committed. It was later changed to Homer being hospitalized for wearing a pink shirt, an idea pitched by Brooks. Michael Jackson pitched several story ideas for the episode, such as Bart telling everyone in town that Michael Jackson was coming to his house. He also requested that there be a scene in which he and Bart wrote a song together and asked that a joke about Prince be changed to one about Elvis Presley.
According to Jean, Jackson would not commit to the episode until after a read-through of the script was done. The read was held at Jackson's manager Sandy Gallin's house, and Dan Castellaneta (who provides the voice for Homer) was 30 minutes late. Jean recalls that "no one said a word, we just sat there waiting". Following the read, Jackson stipulated his conditions: he would record his speaking parts but not receive credit, and his singing voice would be performed by a sound-alike. Leon Kompowsky's singing parts were performed by Kipp Lennon, because Jackson wanted to play a joke on his brothers and fool them into thinking the impersonator was him. Lennon recorded his lines at the same time as Jackson, who found the impersonations humorous. Jackson showed up for the recording session alone and did not use the special trailer that was set up for him. According to Jean, Jackson did record versions of the singing parts, and while there have been rumors that those parts were the ones used in the final episode, The Simpsons music editor Chris Ledesma has stated the Lennon versions were used. Kompowsky's normal speaking voice, which is heard at the end of the episode, was recorded by cast member Hank Azaria. The episode originally was supposed to end with Kompowsky singing a portion of "Man in the Mirror" in his Michael Jackson voice as he walked down the road, but it was changed to him singing the beginning of "Happy Birthday Lisa".
"Stark Raving Dad" was the final episode in the season two production run, but aired as the premiere of season three, over a year after it was completed. Michael Jackson was credited with pseudonym John Jay Smith in the closing credits. At the time, the producers of the show were legally prevented from confirming that Jackson guest starred, although many media sources assumed it was really him. Similarly, in season two, actor Dustin Hoffman had guest starred in the episode "Lisa's Substitute" under the name "Sam Etic". After "Stark Raving Dad", the producers decided that if a celebrity wished to guest star on the show, they had to be willing to be credited under their real name.
Jackson was a fan of Bart, and in addition to doing a guest spot on the show, he wanted to give Bart a number one single. He therefore co-wrote the song "Do the Bartman", which was released as a single around the same time that the episode was produced. Jackson could not take credit for his work on the song due to contractual reasons. Jackson also wrote the song "Happy Birthday Lisa", which was later included in the album Songs in the Key of Springfield. A version of the song was reportedly scheduled to be included on a bonus disk in the October 2001 special edition of Jackson's 1991 album Dangerous. However, the bonus disk was eventually dropped from the release. Jackson died on June 25, 2009, and the Fox network re-aired the episode on July 5 as a tribute to him. The producers had intended to air the episode on June 28, 2009, three days after Jackson's death, but could not resolve issues with syndication rights in time. The music video for "Do the Bartman" was aired on that date instead. The producers screened the episode first, and the only change made, which was unrelated to Jackson, was the blurring of a phone number.
The January 30, 1992 rerun of the episode featured a brief alternate opening, which was written in response to a comment made by the President of the United States, George Bush, three days earlier. The show had previously had a "feud" with the President's wife Barbara Bush when, in the October 1, 1990 edition of People, she called The Simpsons "the dumbest thing [she] had ever seen". The writers decided to respond by privately sending a polite letter to Bush in which they posed as Marge Simpson. Bush immediately sent a reply in which she apologized. Later, on January 27, 1992, George Bush made a speech during his re-election campaign which included the statement "we are going to keep on trying to strengthen the American family, to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons."
The writers decided that they wanted to respond quickly like Barbara Bush had to them. However, each episode of The Simpsons takes more than six months to produce, so it is difficult for the show to comment on current events. The writers therefore decided to add a brief response to the next broadcast of The Simpsons, which was a rerun of "Stark Raving Dad" on January 30. Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart, was quickly called in so she could record a line.
The broadcast included a new tongue-in-cheek opening. The scene begins in the Simpsons' living room where the family is watching Bush's speech. When Bush says "to make American families a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons", Bart replies, "Hey, we're just like the Waltons. We're praying for an end to the Depression, too." This opening can be found on the season four DVD boxset.
A year after the episode aired, the writers decided to make a sequel where Leon Kompowsky returns, this time acting like the musician Prince. The script was written by freelance writers and polished by Conan O'Brien. According to Reiss, the plot of the episode saw Kompowsky/Prince manage to get everyone in the town to "loosen up, become more flamboyant and become more sexually open".
The script was sent to Prince who agreed to voice the character and sent back a page of notes about what he would be wearing in various scenes. The writers were confused when the notes did not correspond to the script and they discovered that Prince was referring to a script that had been written by someone else. Prince disliked the Simpsons writers' script and demanded the other one be made into an episode, but the writers refused. The episode eventually fell through and never made it past written form. It became one of the few completed scripts never to be produced.
Like all episodes of The Simpsons, "Stark Raving Dad" features a variety of references to popular culture. As Bart fills out the 20-question psychiatry quiz, Homer watches America's Funniest Home Videos where the three nominated clips are all violent. Many of the scenes in the mental institution are references to the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Several of the characters at the institution are based on those in the film, such as Chief. Floyd from the film Rain Man also appears at the mental home. When Marge calls the institution, a muzak version of "Crazy", sung by Patsy Cline, can be heard over the phone. In the shot of the crowd that awaits Michael Jackson's arrival outside of the Simpson family's home, a man is holding a "John 3:16" sign in reference to Rollen Stewart, who was famous for holding a similar sign at sporting events.
Many aspects of Jackson's career are referenced in the episode. Kompowsky mentions several things which made Jackson famous, including Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, "Beat It", and "Thriller". He also sings portions of the songs "Billie Jean" and "Ben" and performs the moonwalk. When Homer starts mumbling in his sleep, Kompowsky tells his stuffed animal: "Bubbles, it's going to be a long night." Bubbles is the name of Jackson's chimpanzee. Kompowsky also says he was upset when "his" 1979 album Off the Wall only received one Grammy Award nomination; the writers had read that the real Jackson was genuinely upset.
In its original airing on the Fox network, "Stark Raving Dad" acquired a 13.9 Nielsen rating and 23 percent share of the audience. It was viewed in approximately 12.8 million homes, finishing the week ranked 33rd. The episode finished second in its time slot behind the season premiere of The Cosby Show, which ranked eighth for the week with an 19.7 rating and 31 percent share. The Simpsons was the second highest rated show on Fox the week it aired, behind Married... with Children.
The episode has been generally well received, being praised by many critics for its writing. In a 2009 review for Slate, Josh Levin wrote that "The greatness of 'Stark Raving Dad' has a lot more to do with The Simpsons' writing staff than with Jackson's voice-over talents. The show's scripters came up with a plot device far more ingenious than simply dropping the singer into Springfield." Monica Collins of the Boston Herald also enjoyed the episode. On the day it first aired, she wrote that "This episode is vintage Simpsons, crammed with divinely vulgar visual oddities. And Michael Jackson, of course, is just so weird anyway that he fits right in." Mark Lorando of The Times-Picayune commented that "throwaway lines on The Simpsons are funnier than the big punchlines on most so-called comedy series; [this episode] has layers of humor, satirical touches that enrich the story lines," singling out jokes like the America's Funniest Home Video parody. "The laughs are literally non-stop, and Jackson's unmistakable vocal presence [...] adds a thousand watts of star power." In 2011, Television Blend's Eric Eisenberg named "Stark Raving Dad" the best episode of the entire series. He praised it for being heartful and stated that what "prevents the episode from seeming artificial or manipulative is that the writing in the episode earns the earnest moments", and further elaborates that while "strong emotions might be the hallmark of 'Stark Raving Dad,' it would be a sincere mistake to ignore how funny it is." He concluded that the episode "is perfectly constructed, is filled with both deep belly laughs and tears, and is simply the greatest episode of The Simpsons"
In a DVD audio commentary, writer Mike Reiss said he felt that Michael Jackson is "not a terrific actor [...] but he did fine. He was really nice, he was a great sport." In 2006, Jackson was named the fifth-best Simpsons guest star by IGN. Tom Ganjamie of Best Week Ever called Jackson's guest appearance the "cleverest [...] ever on The Simpsons". Writing for IGN, Robert Canning said in a 2009 review that "Stark Raving Dad" is a "solid, funny and touching episode" and described Jackson's performance as "heartfelt yet self-parodying". In a 2011 article, Andrew Martin of Prefix Mag named Michael Jackson his second favorite musical guest on The Simpsons out of a list of ten.
In 2003, DVD Movie Guide's Colin Jacobson commented that the episode was a good start to season three, but it "gets sappy on more than a few occasions, and it lacks the acerbic bite of the series' best shows. Nonetheless, it tosses out some good laughs, and the guest appearance by Jackson—under a pseudonym—works well; Michael shows an ability to mock himself that still surprises me." In a 2004 review for Digitally Obsessed, Nate Meyers wrote that "there are many funny gags in this episode, especially in the first act when Homer gets a tour of the [mental] hospital. Some clever references are made to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but the second half of the episode is not especially funny. The jokes seem forced and there is too much of an effort to sentimentalize the relationship between Bart and Lisa, causing the show to lose its narrative drive." In 2007, Ben Rayner of the Toronto Star listed "Stark Raving Dad" as one of the three worst episodes of The Simpsons.
In a 2009 article for TV Squad, Mike Moody said the episode's "sweetest moment" is at the end when Kompowsky and Bart perform the birthday song for Lisa. Likewise, writer Al Jean listed that scene as one of his five favorite moments from The Simpsons in 2003. The reaction to the song "Happy Birthday Lisa" was mixed. Ben Rayner called it a "crap tune", and Chris Selley of Maclean's magazine wrote that "Stark Raving Dad" is "an unbearably sappy episode, and that birthday song for Lisa is just... bad." Dave Walker of The Times-Picayune, however, listed the episode as one of Jackson's "many memorable TV moments" and called the song "unforgettable".
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- "Stark Raving Dad" at The Simpsons.com
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