Little jokes with big stories

Jaime Weinman on the lasting appeal of Troy McClure

This is a recently circulated “supercut” of Troy McClure on The Simpsons listing the movies, TV shows, and other videos from which we might remember him. (It does not, however, include the movies that other characters refer to or watch, like Suddenly, Last Supper and Good-Time Slim, Uncle Doobie, and the Great Frisco Freak-Out. But it does collect some of the late Phil Hartman’s great moments, and examples of a particular type of joke that classic Simpsons did amazingly well. I’ll talk more about this after the video.

Most of Troy’s film titles are intended to be funny purely in themselves, as silly titles. But a lot of them work on another level by actually suggesting – in only those few words – the circumstances in which they might have been produced, or the era they’re probably from, or just how washed-up an actor would have to be to involve himself in such a project. The titles suggest a whole other story that we’re not seeing.

For example, “Christmas Ape” and “Christmas Ape Goes to Summer Camp.” That second title incorporates the suggestion of how it was made: a studio makes a stupid Christmas movie, wants to bring out a sequel in the summer, and tries to come up with the lamest possible way to take this seasonal character and put him in a different setting. Add to that the question of “What role would Troy have played in a movie about a Christmas ape?” and we have an additional layer to the story. The TV series “Buck Henderson: Union Buster” is another one I really like. The title is all we ever hear, yet it has all kinds of connotations – it must have been from a certain era (the late ’60s or early ’70s), it had a right-wing slant to it, it featured Troy as a guy with a Manly name beating up enemies of the establishment. The title alone reverberates with parody of many pop-culture ideas and conventions, but they don’t have to be elaborated on; it just makes the line funnier the more you know what kind of entertainment it’s probably parodying.

I don’t want to over-analyze these silly titles, so I’ll stop there (except, doesn’t “The Decapitation of Larry Leadfoot” seem to make the whole plot of the nonexistent safety film flash before your eyes?). But it is a type of joke that made the best Simpsons episodes so rich: many jokes are funny on their own, but also funny if you think about them some more, and try to think about what must have happened to lead up to that joke. It’s a bit like the type of joke where a character suggests a whole other life that we don’t see on the screen, or some kind of weird habit that is only vaguely alluded to. Except with these jokes, what is being alluded to is not just a wacky life offscreen, but a whole bunch of historical and cultural associations that went into the creation of the joke. You could reconstruct whole eras of cheesy U.S. popular culture just from the implied making-of stories that go with Troy’s movie titles.