Compare & Contrast: Mocking 80s Fatherhood

Saturdays of Thunder5

“‘Cosby’s First Law of Intergenerational Perversity: No matter what you tell your child to do, he will always do the opposite.’  Huh?” – Homer Simpson
“Don’t you get it, you gotta use reverse psychology.” – Homer’s Brain
“That sounds too complicated.” – Homer Simpson
“Okay, don’t use reverse psychology.” – Homer’s Brain
“Alright, I will!” – Homer Simpson

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how you couldn’t really understand where Season 1 was coming from without some grasp of 1980s American television, particularly the enormous number of cookie cutter family sitcoms.  The Simpsons, especially in Season 1, reveled in directly attacking those shows.  It was written by exceptionally talented guys who had worked in television and finally had a vehicle that allowed them to fire away with every joke they could muster at its expense. 

The shows The Simpsons was aimed at have all been off the air for twenty years or more at this point, so it’s no surprise that they’ve faded from the cultural scene.  Most of them were extremely forgettable in the first place, and even the ones that were big hits are now almost impossible to find on television.  The Cosby Show, a two hundred episode behemoth that was the #1 show in America for five straight years, is now only rerun on a spin off of BET that’s available in less than a quarter of US households.

This image is the one I created for the post I linked at the top:

80s Sitcoms

On the left is, of course, The Cosby Show; the right image is Family Ties, another enormously popular 80s family sitcom that, with the exception of Michael J. Fox, has fallen almost completely down the memory hole.  (Like The Cosby Show, these days it is only rerun on an obscure down guide channel, a Discovery Channel spinoff for kids called “The Hub” that is half owned by toy company Hasbro.)  The center image is of a show that was never as big as the other two, and is remembered these days mostly for producing Kirk Cameron, who’s since kept a toehold on fame by being very keen on Jebus (and bananas, no judgment, Kirk!).

Growing Pains was clearly the prime inspiration behind Zombie Simpsons’ agonizingly glacial “Thicker Than Water” filler segments in “Homer the Father”.  The show revolved around the dad, played by Alan Thicke (get it?), a psychiatrist who worked from home and spent most of the episodes dispensing oft ignored advice to his children.  Like most family sitcoms, the show featured low grade hijinks and usually came with a lesson at the end wherein it was revealed that, as usual, dad had been right all along.  I don’t know if he invented the term, but when Alan Ball (of True Blood and Six Feet Under fame) was writing on the equally reprehensible Cybill, he and the other writers called this the “moment of shit”.  I read once that they would start with that and then work backwards; that’s how predictable these shows were. 

Sweater Dad & Repentant Child

The 80s were a horrible time on television I prefer not to relive. 

Making fun of these kinds of shows really isn’t that difficult, they are rigidly formulaic and terrible, but Zombie Simpsons still managed to fall flat on its face.  In an episode that was already running way short of twenty minutes, they put a laughtrack infused simulacrum of Growing Pains on screen for more than a minute and a half.  (I’m not counting any of the behind the scenes stuff either, just the actual show itself and its jokeless theme song opening.)  In case that didn’t bludgeon the audience quite hard enough with what they were doing, they put Homer in a sweater for the entire middle of the episode. 

Right from the get go, The Simpsons was always more subtle when pulling these shows apart at the seams and and ridiculing them into obsolescence.  In Season 1 you have episodes like “The Telltale Head” and “Moaning Lisa” that openly subvert the usual television morality, in no small part by showing both Homer and Marge as being just as capable of petty, shortsighted foolishness as their kids.  In the same vein, Season 2 has “Bart the Daredevil”, “Bart Gets an F”, and “Homer vs. Lisa and the Eighth Commandment”.  But the most precise comparison here is Season 3’s “Saturdays of Thunder”. 

“Saturdays of Thunder” is one of those masterpieces of television that manages to be sweet and have a happy ending without ever dropping its cynical, borderline nihilistic mentality.  (“Martin!  Martin!  I’ll curse that name ’til the day I die!”)  More to the point, unlike “Homer the Father”, it manages plenty of 80s sitcom gags without turning them into the focus of its own episode.  I don’t even need to explain this, I can farm this out SNPP’s twenty year old Usenet comments:

>> Cosby references

David Hyatt {dh2}: One brilliant reference was the taking of the baby carriage wheels to make the go cart racers with. This is a blatant reference to a stand-up routine by Bill Cosby, in which all the kids in his neighborhood build go-carts from baby carriage wheels and ride them down Dead Man’s Hill. So in that one episode, you had “Bill Cosby saved the Simpsons”, “Fatherhood”, Dr. Hibbert, and a take-off of one of Cosby’s own old standup routines. [Don’t forget the quasi-Cosby sweater Homer tried to wear. –rjc]

That, boys and girls, is sublime parody.  And how about that sweater?  Homer wears it in one scene and the show trusts the audience to get the gag.  It doesn’t need to be beaten into the ground by showing it over and over and over again; and it certainly doesn’t need to fill large chunks of the episode with straight ahead rehashes of shows that weren’t any good in the first place. 

(Incidentally, while searching for some of these old shows I came upon this recent A.V. Club piece about 80s sitcoms.  It’s less harsh on them than I am, but it’s also pretty thorough at describing what teevee was like when these shows dominated comedy.) 

9 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Mocking 80s Fatherhood”

  1. 1 studentee
    25 January 2011 at 7:52 pm

    great post, and that video with kirk cameron is sublime

  2. 2 Shane
    25 January 2011 at 8:11 pm

    It is pretty amazing how much the show subverted conventions while not even trying to hammer in the point. One of my favourite examples is The Otto Show. The nature of the entire plot is traditionally one where the lovable outsider triumphs over his/her problems by becoming good at why they were trying to do and showing up the people who doubted them, but being The Simpsons, it doesn’t follow that. Instead Otto doesn’t get his licence by improving himself at all, he gets it by repeatedly insulting Homer. And its glorious.

  3. 3 Danger
    25 January 2011 at 10:10 pm

    “…a Discovery Channel spinoff for kids called “The Hub” that is half owned by toy company Hasbro.”

    I like to call it the Hasbro and Discovery Quick Energy Chocobot Network.

    • 4 Patrick
      25 January 2011 at 10:25 pm

      That network is barely legal as it is ;)

    • 5 Charlie Sweatpants
      26 January 2011 at 12:05 am

      You’re not even far off. Spend a minute or two scrolling around their schedule:


      It’s littered with franchises Hasbro does the toys for, from “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” to “My Little Pony” and “Strawberry Shortcake”. The entire network is basically one big toy commercial.

  4. 25 January 2011 at 11:44 pm

    A great example of making fun of the 80s sitcom family from season one is “There’s No Disgrace Like Home.”

  5. 7 Andreas
    26 January 2011 at 5:28 am

    I don’t have anything to add about the skewering of ’80s sitcoms, but I will say this: inspired by this post, I just rewatched “Saturdays of Thunder,” and you’re totally right about the “borderline nihilistic mentality.” The end of the second act – “…for one brief shining moment, I had a son.” – is so deeply, unapologetically depressing that it’s surprising they got away with it.

    Especially because it’s followed by the brief physical comedy of the racer collapsing under Homer’s weight, and him numbly muttering, “Ow.” The joke isn’t laugh-inducing; it’s actually salt in the emotional wound that the scene has just ripped open. In short… wow, that’s audacious.

  6. 8 Ryan
    26 January 2011 at 7:56 am

    Why does this episode have a 5/5 majority on nohomers? I swear, the writers are right to take that website with a grain of salt.

  7. 9 Stan
    27 January 2011 at 12:43 am

    Their Itchy & Scratchy cartoons, probably in scope of replicating “funny” violence from Family Guy and stuff, keep getting sicker. The one at the end induces some kind of torture never before seen in horror movies or something. And of course, it’s everything but funny.

    As for the whole episode, it’s one of them “mediocre zombie”, which is like a little bit under the “plain shitty” category. It starts off by getting punched in the butt since there is no evident plotline since the beginning, goes on to derive into a parenting episode, and ends up, once again, with not making a point at all, other than the one that 80s sitcoms once existed and are sometimes hilarious. Neither does Homer learn any lesson of why parenting should not be induced by TV, nor does Bart learn why Homer is a good father.

    That all goes on to prove once again that the last shreds of originality plotline-wise were lost by this show about seven seasons ago, or so.

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